It’s hard to describe Seiko Ito with one handy label. When I ask my friends to do it, they struggle.
“He’s a TV comedian on a show for kids,” says one. “He’s an award-winning novelist,” says another, before adding — “And he’s one of Japan’s first rappers!”
“I heard he’s really into plants,” one friend tells me. “He visited Disneyland just to research them.”
Eventually, everyone I asked summed Ito up by calling him a maruchi-tarento (“multitalent,” basically a Renaissance man) thanks to his role in disseminating culture over the past 30 years.
The 56-year-old is currently in the process of finalizing details for the 10th Down Town Taito International Comedy Film Festival, for which he is both the founder and producer. When I get the chance to talk with Ito at a community center in Taito Ward ahead of a meeting about the festival, the first thing I ask is: How does he describe what he does?
“It’s difficult because I don’t stick to one genre when I work,” he says. “I write literature, I appear on TV as an MC, I do music … that’s all probably quite common in the West. Take Woody Allen, for example. He writes and directs movies, he’s an author, plays clarinet in a jazz band and makes political comments.”
Ito points out that maruchi-tarento intellectuals were a common sight on Japanese TV a few decades back, citing the late Kyosen Ohashi and Yukio Aoshima as examples. Both were leading showbiz figures who later went into politics.
“I grew up watching them, so to me there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the way I work,” he adds.
Ito is known in the music scene as one of the pioneers of Japanese rap. His 1986 debut album with Tinnie Punx, a collaborative effort titled “Kensetsuteki” (“Constructive”), influenced many modern rap acts from Scha Dara Parr to Kick the Can Crew.
Ito’s first encounter with hip-hop came in the late 1970s, which he wrote about in a 2009 song called “Hippu Hoppu no Shoki Shodo” (“Hip-Hop’s Initial Impulse)” that was released via his rap group Kuchiroro (which is rendered as just three squares). In it, Ito describes hearing the “bouncing beats” of Sugarhill Gang on the Far East Network, the broadcasting service for U.S. military personnel in Asia (now called the American Forces Network), and being “gripped at the heart.”
“I imitated the sounds into gibberish English” and “took some years to turn it into Japanese,” the lyrics say.
“I was rapping from the mid-1980s, but stopped in the early ’90s because I couldn’t improvise,” Ito says. “We didn’t have freestyle (rap) back then, so I could only use words that were fixed and it felt restrained. I also realized I couldn’t communicate with instruments.”
After a few years, however, Ito came up with a form of poetry reading in which he could recite his writings, sometimes political statements, to music played by DJs and bands. He performed some of his work at this year’s No Nukes festival organized by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Last year, Ito joined what he considers “an ideal band.” Dubforce consists mainly of former members of the dub band Mute Beat and includes former Simply Red drummer, Gota Yashiki whom Ito has known for 30 years.
“They are such skilled musicians they can listen to my words, the meaning, and our improvisations make those words come alive,” he says. “I’m always thinking of ways to make my words penetrate people’s hearts, and that overlaps with what I do as a writer.”
Ito has written numerous novels. His first, “No Raifu Kingu” (“No Life King”) was released in 1988, two years after he left the publishing house Kodansha where he worked as a men’s magazine editor. It tells the story of a group of children who wake up one day believing the world is a video game. The novel was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and adapted into a movie directed by Jun Ichikawa in 1989.
Another strong piece of writing came in the form of his 2013 novel “Sozo Rajio” (“Imagination Radio”), which reflects on the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 through a deejay protagonist. The book, which received much critical acclaim, explores the post-disaster relationship between the dead and the living.
“Botanikaru Raifu” (“Botanical Life”) won Ito the 1999 Kodansha Essay Award, and describes the life of a “belandā“: a term Ito made up to refer to city-dwelling gardeners who grow potted plants on their apartment balconies. The book includes Ito’s musings on society and life in general as he watches his plants grow. After reading it, the idea of Ito heading to Disneyland to study the vegetation there suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Ito’s most recent nonfiction work is a lengthy piece on the group Doctors Without Borders. When the international NGO contacted him for an interview about a donation he’d made, he ended up interviewing them and, on finding he knew little about the organization, asked if he could visit the volunteers to write about their daily lives. He traveled to Haiti, Uganda, the Philippines and Greece, posting his accounts to Yahoo Japan.
“I was moved, meeting people who genuinely wanted to help those in need and hearing about their careers,” he says. “If others can be moved as I was through my writing, I couldn’t be happier as a writer.”
Ito’s experiences visiting the people involved with Doctors Without Borders will be turned into a book that is set to be released in November.
Given the breadth of his career, a conversation with Ito can head in almost any direction. He doesn’t shy away from stating his opinions on culture, society or politics.
I ask him if he were in charge of the opening ceremony at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, what would he do? His response is quick and to the point: “I don’t like the idea of the Tokyo Olympics,” he says. Holding the games in Tokyo during the hottest time of the year is “disrespectful to the world.”
“And what about the continuing situation in Fukushima? And the ridiculous amount of money that goes into it? These are the actions of a country heading toward destruction. I don’t want to be in Tokyo when it happens if I can help it.”
Such outspokenness seems rare in Japan’s entertainment industry these days.
“Celebrity without responsibility,” he says, as I note the rhyme. “But it wasn’t like this when I was young. TV personalities were much more outspoken, politically.
“I know some people want to say it’s a ‘Japanese thing,’ but it’s not,” he says. “If you look at the Edo Period (1603-1868), satire in kabuki and ukiyo-e were commonplace, and artists were being handcuffed all the time. It’s not a Japanese tradition to quietly obey those in power, but people are currently made to believe that it is.”
While he’s comfortable voicing opinions on politics, Ito says he has no plans on running for office himself.
“I ‘do culture.’ I think I can have much more influence (on society) because I’m outside the world of politics,” he says.
Ito may be skipping the Olympics, but the Tokyoite born and bred in the capital’s shitamachi (downtown) district has an unwavering love for his own community. Hence his role as Taito Ward’s tourism ambassador and his involvement in the film festival.
The event started out as a project to boost the local area. Ito, who had a stint as a comedian during his Waseda University days, used his connections to put together the four days of screenings and events in the areas of Ueno and Asakusa. He decides the year’s guests, visual images for promotion, seating arrangements and, of course, how to welcome the audience with “shitamachi hospitality.”
“There’s an artist/performer side of me as well as an editor side,” he says. “This festival is more of the editor side of me at work.”
With talk of the festival, his mind seems to return to the impending meeting and it’s time to wrap up the conversation. There’s a lot on Ito’s schedule and I end things by asking if he gets stressed out.
“No. Because I try not to do jobs I don’t enjoy,” he says. “It’s the result of stubbornly keeping to my way of doing things for more than 30 years.”
The 10th Down Town Taito International Comedy Film Festival runs from Sept. 15 to 18 at various venues in Taito Ward, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.shitacome.jp/2017/e.
The Down Town Taito International Comedy Film Festival is a lengthy title for an event that relies on snappy punch lines — that’s maybe why the locals just refer to it as “Shita Come,” a portmanteau of “shitamachi” (downtown) and “comedy.”
Looking at the lineup, one surprise inclusion is the breakthrough horror film “Get Out,” directed by U.S. comedian Jordan Peele. Its presence, and that of numerous musical performances, is likely due to event producer Seiko Ito’s keen sense of current pop culture.
Shita Come still mostly focuses on laughs of all types, however. Opening film “blank13” is a dry look at a son’s discovery of his father’s secret life, and the documentary “We Love Television?” (which sees its world premiere at the festival) is a look at the career of respected comedian Kinichi Hagimoto.
The main attraction, though, is the short-film competition for up-and-coming filmmakers. Director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano got his start in shitamachi; perhaps Shita Come can discover the “Beat” of the next generation.