There are, in this world, some rather loopy people. Not dangerously loopy. Just pleasantly idiosyncratic folks, whose enthusiasm for something high-tech occupies a little more brain space than the normal person would dedicate to, say, a metal-plated canine robot. Because Japan is the source for so much of this addictive technology, it's not surprising that these fetishists view the country as the mecca of techno-cool. Fittingly, Japan is also the birthplace of the word otaku, an almost untranslatable phrase that describes a person whose fascination with something has reached, well, loopy proportions. Below, meet five American otaku and see how even the sanest of people can be transformed by a simple machine.
In the Groove
Michael Chulada is a real musician, you understand. He has paid his dues all across the American West Coast, jamming on his keyboards at smoky coffeehouses for more than a decade before cutting three albums with his band SadSadFun. Which is why when the 29-year-old Chulada deejays at Mecca, a velvet-draped club in San Francisco, he only uses Technics SL-1200 direct-drive turntables to spin his favorite vinyls. "When I used the Tech 12s, I feel like I'm playing a real musical instrument," he says, his fingers, with blue-varnished nails, keeping time to the lush, melodic Frisco beat. "With other turntables, I'm just using a record player."
When Panasonic's Tech 12 was unveiled two decades ago, it revolutionized the dance-club scene from Tokyo to Toronto. Deejays rejoiced at the smooth, almost buttery, pitch control, which allowed them to match beats and seamlessly shift from one song to another. In today's San Francisco, young dotcommers are deserting the city's once-booming live concert venues for dance clubs where they can groove to trance or house tracks, and the Tech 12 is helping a whole new generation of professional deejays spin to success.
When Chulada bought his $1,000 pair of decks a year-and-a-half ago, they were a musical revelation. "I spent two months learning how to spin on inferior turn-tables," he says, outfitted for maximum hipness in a plum-colored oxford, tight black trousers and two-day stubble. "Then when I tried the Tech 12s, I suddenly felt like a real deejay." Today, the former hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury, where the laid-back Chulada bunks with his brother, teems with hundreds of makeshift Mobys scratching out their living. Some, including Chulada, have made it to the coolest clubs, like Mecca where a weekly knock 'em down drag show packs in gays and straights alike. Others make do by spinning at cheesy chain eateries, where deejays provide little more than background noise. O.K., so it's not always glamorous. But, says Chulada, a sly grin creasing his boyish face: "Unlike the dotcom guys, we still have our jobs."
There's the doctor from the East Coast and the businessman from Fresno. But no one is more of a die-hard fan of die-cast robots than Eric Nakamura, the Los Angeles publisher of Giant Robot magazine. Since he started collecting the solid-metal toys when he was a child back in the 1970s, Nakamura has been hooked by the Japanese gadgets that inspired such latter-day playthings as the Transformers and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. "They are more than just toys, you know," says the 31-year-old, a tad defensively. "They are little pieces of art, little sculptures that inspire me every day."
Even back when he was a kid at Clover Avenue Elementary School in West L.A., Nakamura knew the die-cast robots were more than mere toys. One of only a few Asian kids at his school, he morphed from shy geek to totally tubular dude when he showed up to show-and-tell with his techno-toys. "The other kids were playing with their little G.I. Joes," he recalls. "And then I appear with a robot that could shoot missiles or transform into something else. It blew them away."
Now, Nakamura owns more than 100 of the robots, which he carefully displays in a glass case at his parents' Los Angeles home. When Internet auction fever hit last year, the prices of the rarest robots the $500-range machines intact in original box and Styrofoam quadrupled, so Nakamura took a deep breath and hopped on a plane to Japan to hunt out the best deals. "It was the first time I'd traveled somewhere just to fulfill my toy fetish," he says of his trips down narrow Tokyo alleyways to check out tiny toy-shops. "But Japan is a mecca for robot collectors, so I knew I had to go."
Nakamura is so enamored of the colorful chunks of metal that in 1994 he named his magazine after the mightiest of them all, Giant Robot. The hip 'zine delves into Asian-American culture and spots the latest trends from across the Pacific from wasabi-flavored potato chips to schoolgirl porn. Today's toy robots, says Nakamura dismissively, tend to be cobbled together with cheap plastic. Die-cast robots, on the other hand, are emblematic of the kind of Japanese craftsmanship that transformed the nation's image from shoddy imitator in the 1960s to technological leader just a decade later.
The most avid die-cast robot aficionados have put videos of their collections on the Internet: overblown prose describes each robot in joint-by-joint detail. Nakamura scoffs at videotaping, but he admits to owning a few photos of his favorites. And from time to time, he writes about his robots in his magazine. Not because the readers may care, but because it's his magazine and he can do whatever he wants. That's the power of being the ultimate Giant Robot.
When Kris Morrissey's first tank of gas lasted 1,100 km, she knew she was hooked. "Like many Americans, I want to be environmentally friendly and cost conscious," says the pony-tailed marketing consultant. "As long as it's convenient."
Enter the Toyota Prius, a revolutionary gas-electric hybrid car, which is causing a flurry of excitement in California. The bubble-shaped auto is a favorite among Silicon Valley execs who hanker after the newest technology, retirees who value its great gas mileage and green-minded folks who champion its super-low emissions. Since last August, San Francisco Toyota has received orders for 200 of the $21,000 vehicles, and dozens of customers are on a three-month waiting list.
Morrissey first heard about the Prius from a brother who lived in Japan, where 36,000 of the cars have been sold to a consumer market much more accepting of alternative-fuel cars. "I could have bought a BMW or another luxury car," she says. "But I really wanted that Prius to tour the wine country or load up my mountain bike."
Besides, she had to consider her companion on these adventures. The windows of the Prius are just the right height for Morrissey's black Lab-mix, Cinders, to hang out her head and enjoy the breeze. And the backseat is ideal for a doggy playpen, with a black quilted seat cover and a bowl on the floor. "We're a modern California family," jokes Morrissey. "Dog, car, career woman."
California is particularly suited to the Prius. Gas prices have skyrocketed from $1.60 a gallon last summer to nearly $2. And the state has some of the toughest vehicle emissions regulations in the nation. Morrissey, full of environmental evangelism, has already persuaded one co-worker and one neighbor in her affluent Mill Valley suburb to go hybrid. "You always hear that the Japanese are better at copying and refining than actually creating an idea," says Morrissey. "But the Prius is an example of true innovation."
Best of all, the Prius dash boasts a large LCD screen that enables drivers to monitor gas consumption and see how much they have recharged the electric battery just by tooling around town. "It was so much fun looking at the screen because I felt like I was playing a computer game," Morrissey says. "But then I ran too many stop signs, so I had to turn it off."
This is not a game to Cesar Aldea Jr. Some, lesser mortals, may climb onto the Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) video-game machine for a little two-step fun. Others, in diet-conscious America, may use the fast-footed game to shed a few kilos. But for Aldea, DDR is about one thing: winning.
DDR swept Japan three years ago, as Tokyo teenagers flocked to video arcades to try their feet on a sensor pad that rated their hottest dance moves against a machine. Now, DDR, dubbed "karaoke for the feet," is electrifying the U.S., and no one is more entranced than Aldea, a 29-year-old data programmer whose alter ego is a cool groover named 8-ball. Aldea has been jamming to DDR for a year now, and he loves how his agile antics draw crowds at San Francisco's Metreon super-entertainment complex. "This is all about performing," he says. "It's about making eye contact with the crowd and feeling their energy spur you on."
Aldea's performances have garnered him three dance awards for freestyle interpretations of the rote game that at first glance seems more suited to copycats than creative artists. In February, Aldea was the first DDR performer around to use a cane during a routine. More than 200 people packed the neon-lit Metreon showroom to watch the bespectacled dancer clamber onto the dance platform and coolly follow the game's flashing foot-pad squares while adding a show-off flair all his own. That swaggering, 180-beat-per-minute performance made him No. 1 in northern Cali-fornia. In previous contests Aldea has wowed judges with trademark moves, like a drunken kung fu impersonation all the while following the requisite dance steps. "I've been to Japan and the Philippines," says Aldea, whose parents are originally from Manila, "and the dancers there focus more on perfect scoring instead of artistry."
Performers at the cavernous Metreon complex, who can wait up to half an hour to pay $2.50 for a turn at the machine, can't help but add a little personal oomph a shoulder jiggle here or a hip swing there. Maybe that's because the DDR is strategically placed next to the space-age bar, so a little beer can help wannabe dancers loosen inhibitions. "You want to make the moves all your own," says Aldea, who also deejays hip-hop gigs. "That's what makes the routine last in people's minds for more than a few minutes." And if you pick up the freestyle title in the process, all the better.
Fionne, a hulking 80-kg irish wolf-hound, is pretty mellow. The gentle giant spends her days sitting on her haunches or occasionally napping on the cool floor of O'Reilly's bar, where she is the most famous canine in North Beach.
Until Gibson arrives. In contrast to Fionne, Gibson is a high-maintenance hound. The undersized pooch prefers to be carried in a blue tote bag, complete with an attached leather case for his favorite ball. When Gibson sets a paw in the buzzing bar, his owner David Calkins hasn't a clue what his pet is going to do. This afternoon Gibson is sulking. While a posse of happily inebriated customers crowd around, he refuses to play ball. "He can be moody," sighs Calkins, petting Gibson's silver-plated head. "But I suppose that's my own fault for spoiling a robot."
Calkins is one of 5,000 Americans who have shelled out $2,750 for a special edition Sony Aibo robot dog, which makes you understand a little better why he ends his e-mails with the tag line: "Silicon shall replace carbon. The revolution will be automated." When he was a kid, Calkins owned a German shepherd, but that was before he discovered computers. Now he works at an Internet firm, dotes on his pet robot and in his spare time serves as president of the Robotics Society of America.
Lest you think Calkins is a complete nerd, he's anything but. He fully realizes that Gibson, with his perky antenna-like tail and endearingly clunky legs, can be a chick magnet. If that doesn't impress, Calkins will sweep back his bleach-blond hair and rattle off the weekend's coolest parties in northern California. Still, Calkins isn't just content teaching his techno-pooch frat-boy tricks like kicking a ball or rolling over. He's into exploring Gibson's inner qualities: Calkins has backward-engineered his pet, methodically investigating his dog's software to see exactly what makes him sneeze or wag his tail.
While Aibo is a hit in Japan among companionship-starved salarywomen, it sells best to techie guys in the U.S. That doesn't surprise Calkins. "Most normal Americans are still afraid of machines," he says. "But the Japanese are far more comfortable letting robots into their homes." For her part, Fionne seems pretty relaxed about the hyperkinetic puppy scuttling about her turf even when Gibson begins flashing his angry red eyes. While Calkins whips a remote control out of his trench coat and frantically fingers the buttons, trying to appease his irate robot, Fionne yawns, stretches out and settles down for a nap.