Super Mario Bros. 30th Anniversary Festival

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Here in Japan there have been various promotions all year celebrating this, the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. We’ve had special promotions at Tower Records, exclusive merchandise for sale at various Otaku stores, and of course the release of Super Mario Maker for the Nintendo Wii U. But things hit a crescendo this past Sunday, the actual anniversary date, with Nintendo’s official Super Mario Brothers Anniversary Celebration Festival, held at Duo Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo.

With a crowd of mostly Nintendo obsessed fanboys (many a 3DS in the audience and lots of Mario-related cosplay abound), the show kicked off with a fast-paced and energetic chiptune DJ set. Mixing in game music with heavy electronic remixes of songs such as Earth Wind and Fire’s “September” and Cheryl Lynn’s “To Be Real,” it was a great way to get the energy going, and even had some of the more introverted otaku (who I assume don’t go to many gigs) on their feet and feeling the 8-bit groove. After that the show’s MCs, comedians Yatsui Ichiro and Imadachi Susumu of the comedy group Erekicomic took the stage, decked out in Mario and Luigi cosplay garb.

It is at this point I feel that I must issue a disclaimer and explain that I know very little Japanese. I know about enough to order food, go to the doctor, explain to people that I don’t know much Japanese, and insult people who stare at me and my boyfriend (important skill sets). So, I apologize that my comments will be light on what was discussed during the non-musical segments of the night’s festivities. Any explanations/translations of anything said by anyone on stage come from my boyfriend. So if they’re wrong, blame him, not me.

Whatever the MCs were saying, the audience seemed to be enjoying it, as plenty of laughter came from the crowd whenever the two were on stage. They then proceeded to announce that the “real” Mario was able to make it and that he would be joining them.

There was a cake. We all sang “Happy Birthday.” It was quite cute.  If silly.

Then the music began. Up first was Clachip, a bizarre Victorian chiptune hybrid act that featured live accordion and violin mixed together with electronic music performed via a strange iPhone DJ setup by a man dressed like a Downton Abbey extra. An odd combination, but one that worked out. Mario music sounds good on accordion apparently. And their manic take on the music from Dr. Mario was some dope shit.

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Up next was Professor Sakamoto, a bizarre chiptune musician known for rocking a wacky getup that includes a motorcycle helmet with a Famicom attached to it. He started off his set by hyping up the fact that he was able to get his Super Mario Bros. cartridge signed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and Koji Kondo. This elicited hushed “sugois” (awesome) throughout the audience as he took to his keyboard and performed stunningly accurate covers of various tunes from the Mario series. He apparently mapped each note from each song he performed to his keyboard, which is pretty intense. After that, he performed one original composition, a beautiful and ambient creation that was one part game music and one part Tangerine Dream.  Good stuff.

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As he was about to leave the stage, he was interrupted by Koji Kondo, the legendary game music composer who has created much of the music in the Mario series. As Sakamoto stood in awe, Kondo asked if he could use the keyboard to perform a composition he created for Super Mario Maker. Of course, Sakamoto agreed and the audience was then treated to a quiet, beautiful and all-too-brief performance by Kondo. The song was fantastic, and just made me want my US copy of the game to get here even sooner.

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Kondo stayed on stage after his performance, and while Sakamoto gushed that he’ll never be able to play that keyboard again, the MCs returned to announce the arrival of two more special guests, Super Mario Bros. creators Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka.

Crowd. Goes. Wild.

As it’s announced that cameras are now allowed, legions of smartphones and 3DSs rise above the heads of the audience, while Miyamoto and company seem humbled and happy. The trio then talked with the MCs for about 20+ minutes and I suddenly became incredibly sad that my Japanese was so bad.

A language-barrier busting highlight did come about halfway through though, when a Wii U was brought on stage and Miyamoto was presented with a Super Mario Maker stage that one of the presenters created especially for him to play. Miyamoto seemed to take great joy in discovering what others were doing with his creations, and afterward Tezuka joined in the fun to offer tips in ways for him to improve his level and make it more intuitive.

Things did get strange afterward though, when a fortune teller came to the stage to deliver Mario’s horoscope, informing the beloved plumber that while he was destined for more great things and plenty of adventure, it didn’t look like love was in his cards. However, Miyamoto was very quick to point out that the horoscope was null and void as the fortune teller assumed Mario’s full name was “Super Mario,” while any otaku worth their weight in Famicom carts will tell you that his name, is in fact, Mario Mario.

After posing for pictures and chatting some more, the Nintendo Gods left the stage to allow for the music to continue. Miyamoto and Tekuza were a tough act to follow, but human beatbox Reatmo was able to win the crowd over almost immediately with his incredible and awe-inspiring vocal acrobatics. By incorporating some digital effects and live looping into his performance, he was able to craft complete, and strikingly complex, covers of classic Mario tunes. It was like if Rahzel was hooked up to a Famicom. Crazy stuff that had the audience rapt in attention throughout.

Finally, chiptune act YMCK took the stage and performed a fun set that combined some of their original tunes with liberal usage of samples from the Mario library. Excellent stuff, although at times they were far too chatty between songs. And that’s not just me not understanding what the hell they were saying, as the night wore on I did start to see more and more Japanese people in attendance check their watch and let out a sigh as the group continued to go on and on without actually playing any music. This was doubly annoying at the end of the night, as the MCs and the rest of the bands returned to stage and basically spent 10 minutes begging Kondo for a job. It was funny the first time, but by this point the festival was nearly upon its third hour, it was time to go home. I guess some excessive fanboying was to be expected though. These were artists who owe most of their careers to the music of Mario Bros., and they’re fans just like the rest of us.

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My only real complaint about the night was that it felt too minor. Mario is a cultural icon, a pop culture milestone equivalent to Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Imagine having a celebration for them in a dingy nightclub in next to a neighborhood of hourly rate hotels, which is where the Duo Exchange is located.

This should have been a massive event, one big enough for Budokan, or at least a decent-sized venue in a nice neighborhood. And the guests should have been of a much higher caliber. Yes, YMCK, Clachip and the various other groups in attendance were fine, but they’re minor artists at best. Where was YMO (or at least Hosono, he’s a big game music fan)? Why not a live orchestra performing highlights from the Mario series? How come no Western artists who could showcase Mario’s global influence or appeal were included?

It was a great event, and the smallness of it certainly gave it an aura of intimacy that a larger venue would not have had. I had fun and it will be a night I remember for the rest of my life, I just wish it was even bigger.

Someone throw a super mushroom at Nintendo’s celebration efforts. Let’s make the next party mega-sized.

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