Creativity in the Wilderness

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2001

The Inter-Cross Creative Center is in Sapporo -- in the middle of nowhere, some Tokyo-ites would say. For the free-spirited inhabitants of ICC, that's the best place to be.

by Sam Joseph

"MY NAME IS KODAMA," a slight bespectacled youth introduced himself. "And I used to be a tour conductor, and I just love holidays."

Toshiya Kubo
Toshiya Kubo outside his project, the ICC

I was sitting surrounded by an explosion of plastic Playmobile toys. I began to wonder if perhaps I hadn't accidentally wandered onto the set of Scooby-Doo. I took a long drink of whatever it was they were serving me. It was cool and came in a tall, ceramic, conical mug. It was something like what you would get if you scanned ice tea into a computer and then digitally enhanced it. I tried to get a grip on myself. First off, I was in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. It had all seemed perfectly plausible and down to earth when I had met Toshiya Kubo in a coffee house in Shibuya. "Come to Sapporo and see what we are doing with our groups of young creators at ICC," he had said. Kubo turned out to be the chief coordinator of the ICC project, or Inter-Cross Creative Center. In Shibuya I had found him in the company of one Mr. Muratsubaki of the High-Tech Industry Promotion Section at Sapporo's Economic Affairs Bureau. They had intrigued me with their talk of a government-backed scheme to try and get creative groups and individual creators involved in the business process, helping them turn their basic ideas into real business proposals. "The key," they had told me, was "to get the creators accepted by large corporations using the ICC corporate face, while at the same time educating the creators about the business world and helping them to maintain copyright over their creations."

Sixteen creative groups (read small startups) had been selected from 34 entrants; their business models included graphic design, art event planning, film, wireless, photography, Web marketing, Web design, computer graphics, an online music label, Web TV/radio, and pure unadulterated (if electronically tweaked) music. The 16 groups were going to get cheap rent, 2-Mbps Internet access lines, hardware support, business intelligence, and legal advice. In an attempt to ground myself, I had gone to its Web site for more information. It declared: "This is a 'hybrid' facility connecting business people of diverse professions with two links -- design and information technology (IT)." This was something Tokyo was lacking -- a framework to bridge the gap between creative types and business people. It wasn't long before I was on a plane to Hokkaido.

I tried to keep my mission in focus as the Playmobile toys swam dizzyingly before me and I clutched my conical iced beverage. "We don't see ourselves as a traditional business," Kodama had explained when I asked him what his group did. "We are system-focused. Try to consider other companies, Puff Corporation, and their interaction with the end user as a sort of holistic triangle."

Kodama was talking to me about a Web/graphic design company called Puff Corporation, of which he is the "producer." Puff Corporation is one of many groups of creators that I met in a string of interviews with the people who inhabit the Sapporo Inter-Cross Creative Center. Meeting the various ICC creators, I was struck by how our communication either flowed or didn't. Some people sat down with me for an interview and we just happily chatted away until I realized I was late to meet the next group. At other times, the group and I would spend a good 20 minutes just trying to establish a kind of basic vocabulary, before both parties settled into the assumption that the other party was either completely mad or speaking some strange dialect. All of the interviews were conducted in Japanese, and as a non-native speaker there were certainly times when a creator would wax lyrical and I would be left in the dust; but sometimes whether communication succeeded or not was more a function of finding the same wavelength. As a trend, the older creator types were generally more outspoken; perhaps having had greater experience with gaijin-flavored Japanese. That said, almost without exception the ICC creators were enthusiastic communicators who filled page after page in my notepad with their thoughts and ideas, as we shall see in the rest of the article.

Riccio's Yoshi Tsukahara

Yoshi Tsukahara (or Tsuka-chan, as he is affectionately known -- few Westerners are made privy to the rules that decide who and what shall receive the accolade of being called something-chan), is running his own independent record label from ICC. Involved in live electronic performance of various sorts for over 20 years, he set up Riccio (or "Hedgehog" in English -- apparently the hedgehog's spines are suggestive of rock music) just over a year ago. The label was originally run from Tsukahara's living room, but ICC gave him space for a small music workshop (crammed with computers, Midi equipment, and more stringed instruments than I knew existed -- some of which are unique, built by Tsukahara). He told me that space is the most important thing ICC has offered him, but noted that the consistent, fast Internet access is also very valuable. Having worked from home for a year, Tsukahara understands the importance of separating living and working space.

We chatted about where Riccio was headed, and the conversation lingered on Internet radio and global collaboration possibilities. "Wouldn't it be cool to be able to collaborate virtually with people wherever they were based?" enthused the musician, adding, "Although having other ICC people around is very important as a springboard to collaboration." I asked him how Sapporo compared with Tokyo, and he started telling me things I would hear many times during my interviews. "Sapporo has more of a community feel than Tokyo. Tokyo is too big, you don't really know anybody, and it's difficult to get in contact with the people you need for particular projects," he said. "Sapporo's more closely-knit community means that it's easier to get in touch with somebody you know who has the right set of skills."

The Puff characters, courtesy of Puff Corporation
Puff Corporation
Puff Corporation, clockwise from left: Tamate Midori, Junjiro Kodama, Takayuki Koyama, Hajime Iwadate, and Sonoko Iwadate

Starting in July 2000 as Puff 5, the lively Web/graphic design group Puff Corporation (Junjiro Kodama, Takayuki Koyama, Midori Tamate, Hajime Iwadate, and Sonoko Iwadate) had one of the more striking offices in ICC. Their foyer was filled with glass cabinets, which were in turn filled with Playmobile toys. (You know -- the fire engines, the speed boats, and the construction crews, in all their plastic two-and-a-half-inch glory.) Crowding the Playmobile toys were graphics of the Puff Corporation members, each designed to be reminiscent of a staff member and having the sort of feel you usually get with a free gift from Burger King (though with much more style). In case you think I'm being derogatory, this appears to be the kind of image they are trying to project: "Collect all of The Puff Playset," "The Puff Dolls & Awesome Accessories," read the motifs running across the flyers they gave me during the interview. Remember, this is Japan, and cute sells. The designs on their Web site definitely have a kind of "cartoony" toy feel, but the images are professional and well-designed.

Why ICC? I asked. "It's a good place because there are lots of different people and companies around, and that's even more valuable than the cheap rent," said Kodama. He went on to tell me that he had driven to all the cities in Japan, allowing him to determine that Sapporo is the best. Illustrator Sonoko Iwadate suggested, "Sapporo is a new city [with only a shallow 100 years of history], which makes it easier to start things. Sometimes there's a lack of infrastructure to build those things on, but that can sometimes create more freedom." What does the future hold? "Having fun and sharing our style with everyone," bubbled Tamate. There was general agreement that the opportunity to make their own toys and figures would be "way cool."

The Tri-face team
The Tri-face team, from top: Hitoshi Nakano, Aika Horie, Maho Arakida, and Wataru Hayakawa

I met Tri-face in their well-lit ground-floor office with a side room full of film-editing equipment. Most of the ICC creators brought their equipment and computers with them, but they've also scavenged odd pieces from things lying around in the building. One piece of salvage adorning the desk of Tri-face's graphic designer was a small, cubic television in one corner that played a succession of classic looney-toon animations -- they served as a kind of subliminal input for the interview.

Tri-face consists of three creators, each with their own specialty: film-making (Wataru Hayakawa), graphic design (Hitoshi Nakano), and writing (Maho Arakida). It's not so much a company as a group of freelance creators; they got together when film director Hayakawa heard about ICC and decided to get some Hokkaido graduates he knew to form a mixed freelance team. Hayakawa had been freelancing for about three years before starting at ICC, having found that working for any one particular company just didn't suit his style. He explained, "Sapporo is short on history, and that means short on taboos; you can get away with more here."

Tri-face doesn't have a particular project or activity that they are pushing forward. The creators are all working on their own individual projects, and they share the space for companionship and support. They are all friends and hope to be able to help each other out with their individual projects. "ICC is great. We have no complaints," said Nakano. "You can use the place freely, coming in and out when you want, and the networking possibilities are fantastic."

Kazuhiro Ishida of Kegani Films

The walls of the Kegani Films office were stippled with a soundproof coating isolating them from the two adjacent offices. There was a light haze of cigarette smoke that would in time turn the computer monitors yellow, but Kazuhiro Ishida didn't seem to notice as he sat down to talk to me, his bloodshot eyes telling of long nights spent in front of video-editing equipment, smoking through packets of twenty in attempts to stay focused, or just to satisfy that primal nicotine craving. Unlike some of the other ICC groups, Kegani Films has a slightly more mature feel to it, having started three years prior to renting offices with ICC. There are three employees -- Ishida, Mami Ishida, and Yoshitoku Ikawa. One of the Ishidas showed me a compilation of Kegani's CM work, including a montage of commercials for JR Hokkaido and some work for lifestyle magazines, all bread-and-butter, pay-the-rent kind of stuff. The camera work was tight and the editing was smooth, and Ishida talked me through further examples where Kegani Films had provided the location management for places in Hokkaido and Tokyo, also showing me some clips of a 1-hour film they had made for the Media-Hunting 2000 competition.

Ishida had originally heard about ICC on an Internet mailing list. Before entering ICC, he had spent a good deal of time making contacts in Tokyo, making friends with different people, but it had become clear that establishing a base in Tokyo was prohibitively expensive. ICC provides exactly the right sort of base to grow this company, and Ishida says he would like to expand Kegani Films' repertoire to broadcasts over the Internet and particularly mobile phones. "Kegani Films doesn't have the expertise for these kind of projects," he said. "But that's where the other ICC groups come in. We have an excellent chance here to meet and collaborate with other media groups that have a different skill set. We could meet these companies independently of ICC, but there's nothing like having 15 other groups of specialists just down the hall."

Project Cad, from left: Katsuya Ishida, Sei Omori, and Wataru Kamai.

Before joining ICC, Project CAD (PCAD) had been working together on different projects for around two years, generally meeting in each other's houses, ex-plained the red-haired Katsuya Ishida (yet another Ishida-surnamed individual to confuse me). The black rims of his glasses were highlighted in orange, and the amber effect was emphasized by the red walls and lights wrapped in red crepe paper. PCAD's office felt very much like the group of three (Ishida, Wataru Kamai, and Sei Omori) had simply taken the fittings of their bedrooms and moved them wholesale into a ground-floor office at ICC. This was probably because they had: The computer gear, plants, and lighting equipment all came from home. The three main creators of PCAD share a long, thin room with a long, thin desk, and sit in a row from window to door. Ishida, Kamai, and Omori are all graduates of the Muroran architectural design school who have been wanting to put a company together for as long as they can remember. They read about ICC in a newspaper and moved to Sapporo en masse. Unlike some of the other groups in ICC, PCAD has yet to explore ICC's internal collaborative possibilities. "We just haven't had time to talk to the other people and find out what they are doing," Ishida told me. PCAD organized ICC's opening party and has a number of ongoing collaborative projects with groups outside ICC. They are one of the busier groups, so perhaps it's not surprising that they haven't had much time to speak to other ICC members.

The PCAD staff sums up their work as relating to space design. They see architecture in the broadest sense as referring to the design of any kind of space, be it two- or three-dimensional: sound, lighting, images, architectural design -- all the components that go together to make up the experience of a space. And this extends to thinking about the effects of society, what building materials are being used, and the environmental effects, et cetera. Kamai showed me one of their latest works, called "Reflections," created in collaboration with a dance group. It's a video piece of a solitary dancer moving against a huge background projection of mixed video images. The room and the dancer were clothed in white, and the film projection created a surrealistic black and white tapestry over the dancer's movements and the unevenly spaced wall paneling, all set to the beat of a mainly percussive soundtrack. This was PCAD's broad sense of the term "architecture": space, movement, projection, light effects, color, rhythm, really all aspects of a space -- and these guys are just starting off. They talk about architecture being a kind of programming, and about the importance of looking at things over multiple time scales. I can't wait to see what three years of ICC incubation will produce.

Reflecting on the ICC setup, PCAD agreed that the fact that the Sapporo local government is supporting the project is very important, as it gives the institution weight that can be used as a counterbalance to the large companies who would otherwise be able to push the smaller creative groups around. Internally, they say Kubo and the other administrative staff are very even-handed with the different creative groups, and that they appear to be following through with the credo that the groups must do things for themselves. Introductions, advice, and the like will be provided, but actually doing things, starting projects, creating things, and making money is up to the creators themselves.

Thinking about PCAD's future, Kamai talked about trying to bring neo-classical architecture (things like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona) into their Web design and event coordination activities, but their hands are full at the moment. "What would really help is more virtual collaboration," added Ishida. "The Internet provides a lot already, but it could be taken further to create virtual ICCs that would bring together creators from other parts of Japan and the rest of the world." The PCAD trio have never worked outside of Sapporo, so their perspective is somewhat different from some of the more traveled ICC members. They see Hokkaido as being a mixture of diverse elements, a kind of frontier town, where things are cheaper and you've got "nature on tap," so to speak. But having grown up here, they don't see it as being particularly easy to start new things, and they feel that Sapporo is not ready for some of their creative activities. However, comments to the contrary from those with broader experience suggest that Sapporo is actually more receptive to new ideas, and that this group is merely pushing the envelope. They have never experienced the more confining aspects of the rest of Japan, so the boundaries they encounter, though they may be further out, are boundaries all the same.

Kubo, the center's coordinator, joined us toward the end of the interview, and the conversation turned toward ICC's roles with regard to supporting the creators. Contrary to what I had imagined, the groups of creators really get very little in terms of investment from the ICC. We discussed how this was in marked contrast to the style of dot-com incubators, which tend to divvy out cash to the companies they are incubating. There was clearly a line to be trod between providing too much and too little support. Too much, parti-cularly in terms of cash, means less pressure on the developing companies to establish a revenue stream and to focus on their customers; too little, and there is not enough time for more creative projects or exploratory activities. It remains to be seen if ICC has got the mix right, but after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, it seems that less might really be more.

It was 10 p.m. by the time I finished talking to the PCAD team, and I went for oden and yakiniku with Kubo. I told him how being here had radically derailed my assumptions about what the ICC would be like, and he agreed that seeing things in person often made a big difference. We talked late into the night about how ideas were like animals living in some kind of information landscape, about how differences in languages and communication styles kept certain ideas insulated from each other, allowing them to meet in adulthood instead of infancy and to create new things that would never have been seen if everything had been evenly mixed from the beginning. It was getting late and there were more companies to interview in the morning, so we called it a night.

Naoko Kitajima of Ravi
Mitsunori Matsuda of Ravi

The Sapporo early morning sun (OK, late morning) illuminated Ravi's uncluttered offices on the second floor of ICC. The Web hosting and design company Ravi (Naoko Kitajima and Mitsunori Masuda) had white walls and tall, spiky plants that shielded the two work desks from a set of sofas that made up the meeting area. The spiky brown leaves of the office flora contrasted oddly with the variety of replica handguns and the tripod-mounted light machine gun. These fired only plastic pellets, I was informed, but after little sleep and too much caffeine, I sat nervously on the edge of my seat in case the interview deteriorated into exchanges of small arms fire. Ravi started business at the same time as joining ICC, building on freelance work by the founders. I spoke to Kitajima, who had been honing her graphic and Web design skills on a variety of advertising-related projects before she found out about ICC through an Internet search engine. Before moving into ICC she had been working from home and visiting different companies on a project-by-project basis, so getting low-rent office space from ICC was a big bonus. However, like many ICC creators, Kitajima says it's not just cheap office space and Internet connections that are the real benefit to being in ICC. "Small units are much better for creators," she suggested. "And here in ICC we can take clients around to introduce them to other groups of creators, which facilitates new business and collaborative opportunities." I'd already seen Kitajima showing people around on the previous day and introducing them to other ICC groups, so it seemed the networking process was already well underway.

Yusuke Aita
computer graphics
Top: Yusuke Aita of Spark; Bottom: Computer graphics animation screen shot, courtesy of Spark

This being fairly early in the morning of my second day at ICC, not many of the Spark team were about. In fact, ICC is usually pretty quiet before what the British would call afternoon tea, as the creators prefer to work late into the evening (avoiding any morning-related activity if at all possible). I was fortunate in that Spark's Yusuke Aita was there to support my interviewing activities and generally proffer interesting answers to my questions about the computer game/graphic design company. Spark is a mixture of students and graduates (mainly students) who come from different parts of Japan, but all went (or are continuing to go) to Hokkaido University, where they originally met and began collaborating on projects started by Mitsuru Sato, the founder. They followed this up with a series of short computer graphics movies. They really became organized in the summer of 2000 when they started renting a room in order to have meetings, becoming a yugen gaisha earlier this year and, most recently, moving into ICC offices. The company is focused on entertainment products, though they do Web design as well, having created the ICC Web pages ( Aita told me his main computer game influences were Japanese historical simulations and the wildly popular Space Channel 5, a very Japanese game in which groups of mini-skirt--clad spaceline stewardesses have to copy the dances of aliens in order to save the human race (or something like that). Spark is now focusing on trying to develop interactive games; I had caught a few words in a brief conversation the previous night with founder Sato, who told me how network games he was designing learned about their users and became more exciting over time. While I've yet to play any of their games, the graphics look pretty good.

Aita told me things I'd been hearing in part from other creative groups: that Sapporo seemed to have lots of people willing to be involved in new projects, and that ICC in particular had lots of these kinds of people. "We can easily go for coffee with other creators, play around with ideas," Aita pointed out. "The young companies here are not hiding things from each other. People want to have their ideas evaluated rather than concealing them behind a non-disclosure agreement (NDA); there'll be lots of time for NDAs after ICC."

I had lunch with Kubo, and he told me how ICC had come into being. It had started when a group from the Sapporo local government attended Media-Hunting 98, a digital media contest that Kubo had been involved in organizing. The contest was on "character and story concepts for digital arts" and was judged by a variety of famous names in the digital arts industry, such as game designer Peter Molyneux and film director Shinya Tsukamoto. Sapporo city officials spoke to Kubo during the contest and indicated that they were interested in setting up something similar to San Francisco's Media Garage (a number of ware-houes converted into low-rent offices for media companies) in Sapporo, and asked if Kubo would be interested in considering this for his next project. Kubo, wanting to go further than just a cheap rent area, suggested the ICC concept. It took three years, but after everything was worked out and "approved," ICC ended up receiving use of their current building and administrative running costs from the Sapporo local authorities. Kubo says he got the idea of ICC partly from Steve Baker's Tomato project (, although he suggests that ICC is more bottom-up than Tomato's top-down branding approach.

Keisuke Onodera
Keisuke Onodera of Active Film-Makers

Active Film-Makers has nine members but one of the smallest offices in ICC (two desks, lots of computers, and several electric guitars). The group was formed out of the Hokkaido University film club, who started off just showing around the films they had made; gradually more people got involved, until they reached a critical mass that required more space (although their budget is limited even by ICC standards). I met Keisuke Onodera, who started off by showing me a 10-minute short that the group had put together, a sort of Japanese ghost story, the theme of which is becoming familiar to me in Japan. In the film a young woman bumps into a young man while they are both out walking. They start chatting, and it becomes clear that the woman is still grieving from her father's death. The pair walk and talk, and the young man makes a present of some plants he had been carrying; it's only as he says goodbye and fades into the distance that the woman realizes it was in fact her father, who had come back to give her one last gift. Maybe there are stories like this in the West, but I've only ever come across them in Japan, usually as short stories or films. Active Film-Makers' short was a well-crafted display of their abilities, with good use of a small number of visual effects, consistent camera work, and nice scene composition.

Onodera told me that money was definitely a challenge, as making and editing these films consumed resources they didn't have. "What we really need is some way of getting the money before making a film," said Onodera, "as well as understanding better ways to attract an audience." Active Film-Makers would like to get themselves into a routine of showing films on a monthly basis, and move on to making longer and longer films. Distribution via the Internet and "live" film performances in bars or café are being considered in order to increase their reach. "With the Internet, a virtual movie theater experience becomes a possibility," theorized Onodera. "You could have a kind of chat room where you could hear the sounds other people were making, and you could talk about the film and hear the emotional reactions of the rest of the audience." Sounds great, although one might get worried about drunken audience members spoiling the movie by talking over the soundtrack, but maybe that's all part of the virtual theater experience. Active Film-Makers, like Kegani Films, doesn't have the Internet experience to undertake these kinds of projects at the moment, and that is one of the reasons they are excited about being in the ICC, since it provides such great opportunities to meet other creators who can provide additional skill sets.

Sapporo is a great location for Active Film-Makers because there is easy access to beautiful scenery, and the whole place is just more yariyasui -- easy to get things done -- than somewhere like Tokyo. The group found out about ICC while they were attending the American Short Shorts film festival in 2000. That time they were making a documentary about the film festival and going to see the various films, but this year with Kubo's support and influence they were submitting their own entry to the festival ( in Sapporo.

Studios in the Chieria building

Later in the afternoon I went with Kubo and some other creators to the Chieria building, a building funded by the Sapporo local government to provide facilities for adult learning. We were shown around music studios and a film studio, where we saw how blue backgrounds were used to artificially insert different backgrounds into a movie. It was clear that the Sapporo local government was committed to spending money on media arts and creativity across the board, even if no one was exactly sure what was going to be done with the Chieria building facilities. We saw a smartly made video showing us the place's features, and as I sat at the back of the room working on my laptop, I noted that the large number of business executives who were present seemed to be there largely as courtesy features. (It gave me an idea: Seti@home uses your idling computer to search for alien life, and more recently United Devices is running a project to use your computer's spare cycles to find a cure for cancer ( What we need now is some way to harness all the spare mental cycles of executives sitting in business meetings. You can see it on their faces -- they've gone into screen-saver mode almost immediately: the blank stare, the idle tapping of the pen. Think of all that untapped raw computational power. Now there's a market for some creative types to explore.)

Nobuo Nishimura on a "pianica" and Tetsu Imamoto on bass guitar

Even stranger than my own internal musings was the music "experience" organized by Riccio's Tsukahara on the evening of my last day at ICC. Participating were Tsukahara with a strange electronic stringed instrument, Arakida from Tri-face with her traditional Niko (a stringed instrument with a bow that is held upright perched on the lap), a trumpet player, and a bass player. They also had a selection of other items, musical or otherwise, that were used to create additional noise. Perhaps you've heard of improvised comedy; this was improvised noise, and Tsukahara worked hard to get the audience members involved. His own irrepressible energy suffused the activity, and his special sound effects (running up and down the long corridor making wailing noises, performing short dramas in mock Chinese, opening and closing windows in time to the music, what have you) soon had people laughing and joining in. I found myself rhythmically beating a filing cabinet with a pair of coat hangers. We had two "sound mosaics," and the number of people joining in increased, while Tsukahara's antics became more and more frenetic in his attempts to find new sources of sound, to the point that he began rhythmically strangling people (gently of course) and finally threw himself through a glass coffee table, although whether this last activity was intentional no one was quite sure. The performance had to be paused briefly while the music-obsessed Hokkaido native was treated for various cuts and bruises, but no glass coffee table could come between the creator and his creations. The final period saw Tsukahara focus on his electric stick, bashing out tunes and recording them in real time so they could be played back in a loop for a multiple-layer acoustic effect. It was all summed up by his comment at the end of the evening: "Well, something definitely happened here tonight."

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