Monday, 5 May 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 1: Foreign talent / NHK

Note: It's already May 2014 and I didn't have much time to update my blog. Apologies for that. In fact I had to quit one of my jobs, so now is the best time to finally post about the most important thing I am pursuing in Japan: a proper job.

I will not report about my endeavours in a chronological order this time but sum them up instead. So here you go:

Trying to find work as a registered "foreign talent" / model

Upon arriving in Japan I already had a couple of meetings arranged with several people. Some of them being referred to me by Verena or others. One of the first things I did was to take a trip to a foreign talent/model agency to get myself registered. You never know, I thought. Having read the book Tokyo Diaries, I must admit I had some hopes of landing a decent job with that type of work.

My visit to FreeWave was a short but enjoyable one. I had my pictures and measurements taken and was officially registered as a foreign talent in their database. Even though I didn't have a lot of acting experience apart from the extra job when I was 13 and my general "sales skills", I hoped for some small extra role in the future. A day of work as an extra is said to be a good source of income, making around 10.000 - 20.000 Yen.

Yay, I know....but I was fresh from the boat...
Usually the agency would send a mail with a short (very short) description of the job and the possible days and I had to reply to them if I'm available for the castings and shootings. Mostly there was a picture selection before the actual casting, so if you made it past that stage, good riddance. In the beginning I said yes to everything I could get, curious and excited about that unusual kind of work. My very first casting however wasn't via the agency but via a job ad I saw on craigslist. The guy seemed legit and friendly, so I thought why not go there and give it a try.

That very first casting of mine was quite strange, but somewhat fun. The director, three business people and 4 or 5 guys with beards gathered in a small basement room. Yeah, the beards were part of the requirements, probably because scruffy looking Gaijin would use the product. After signing a disclaimer and non-disclosure agreement. We were given strange and heavy looking goggles that would remind you of Google glasses if they weren't so bulky and ridiculously heavy. They covered both eyes and looked more like night-vision googles. They were supposed to play movies and stuff. The idea of the ad was to do every-day tasks but being so taken by the things on the "screen" that you'd forgot about it, like vacuuming the room and slamming the vacuumer against the wall all the time. Or brushing your teeth while watching a football match, with all the emotions and hilarity.

Some guys were doing pretty well on the teeth brushing thing, but I wasn't so much. Not much of a sports watcher. Also, the product was so annoyingly heavy and uncomfortable, I already doubted it would ever sell well. Needless to say that I didn't convice them with my performance.

Funny thing was that the business guys obviously responsible for this idea didn't really have a clue how it would look like or what they actually wanted. They just watched and commented on what they saw. So the better you'd improvise and the more they'd like that, the higher your chances of getting the job I guess.

Another casting I went to was quite a big one. The original description said it was for Toyota and that they were planning a big campaign with a Steve Jobs looking kind of guy. I wondered why they let me go to the casting with my looks, but I didn't question it. It was really a big one. There were probably over 30 people already waiting and more coming in throughout the day just to have their 3min of casting time in front of the camera. Almost everyone had their agent with them, even me. Yes, being a registered model means you have your agent supporting you during the casting, even entering the room with you and standing by your side. Quite convenient if you ask me.

This casting was more like a class reunion. Half of the people knew each other from other castings or jobs in the past. There were professional actors, professional extras and professional nut jobs too. I remember this one guy clearly who kept talking the whole time, mostly to himself in various English accents, making random statements about stuff and trying to talk to everyone within his reach. He was the craziest character I have seen in a long time and I was feeling uncomfortable simply being in the same room with him. But he and some others had something that I didn't have. Confidence and uniqueness. They clearly stick out of the crowd.

While I was waiting for my turn to talk about stuff in front of the camera I talked to a more humble and friendly fellow who told me that he's doing this for years now, mostly for the fun and the experience of meeting new people everyday. He came well prepared, wearing a lab coat and asking specifically about the required role (the details changed during my 1.5 hours of waiting). He just finished doing a shoot on the Bali bombing in 2002 where he was playing an investigator. A couple of months later I even saw him on TV in that very show, the world is small indeed.

My casting took around 1 minute only. I had to do two sales talk about a new phone, first to my colleagues in a technical way and then more a motivational sales talk. It was just like back in Germany when I had to explain stuff about a new server technology, so I was actually not even bad at it. I was running out of bullshit to say though and because I was a bit nervous, I talked quite fast. In the end I was ok with the results and left in a good mood, knowing fully well though that I will never get this job.

Other, more famous actors in the waiting crowd complained about the casting and the long waiting periods in fact. Apparantly this was the second casting already and everyone was unhappy about how it was carried out before and now. A strange group of people in a strange marketing machine I thought.

My next and last casting a couple of weeks later pissed me off quite a bit. It was just another casting for some TV ad and it happened to be in Roppongi, close to my work in the German restaurant (more about that later). I asked to leave work earlier to take part in the casting and received some heat for it, but they let me go nevertheless. I was a bit late and couldn't find the address right away so I hoped into a cab even though my money was tight.

I arrived on time and was allowed into the camera room rather quickly. Here is what happened then (for the record, the job description said "guy around 30, able to play the piano or at least pretend to play the piano", nothing more)

I did my self-introduction, trying to look cool and motivated. Then the director asked me:

"Can you sing?"

First thought: "Wut? Why do they ask this?"

"Uhm, yeah, I think I can sing. At least at Karaoke and with some alcohol involved. But I'm not a real singer. Sorry, I don't think I can sing right on cue here and now." I replied.

"Can you dance?"

First thought: "WTF? What kind of casting is this? I thought I'm here to pretend-play piano?!"

"Uhm, yes I can dance. In a club. With music. But not without it and not right now if you want me to do that." I replied, becoming obviously annoyed with these questions.

"So..." (long pause...the director became annoyed with me as well I guess) "What can you do really well?"

"Uuhhmm...(long pause)...Iaido for example. That's one my most important hobbies.....(director wasn't happy with that reply)...and eating. I think I'm quite good at eating." I said with a winning smile.

The director chuckled a little and said he's good at that too. Then he said thank you and I was finally freed from answering more stupid questions.

I talked to my agent right after that embarassing encounter and told her that this was a complete waste of my time. Everyone's time actually. If they are looking for people to dance and sing on cue, they are clearly not hiring me for that job. I also send a mail to the agency, making very clear what I am not interested in doing and since then, not many mails showed up in my inbox. Fair enough.

All the above mentioned happened near the end of 2013 and since then I haven't pursued this "career", simply because I felt it was a waste of time and money. Going to the casting costs money, waiting at the casting costs time and then having to act like a fool for something you wouldn't want to do anyways is another waste of time and effort. If you have seen how foreigners are depicted in Japanese TV ads, you know what I mean.

But in 2014 there was another moment when I almost reconsidered my choice. A scout from another agency came to my language school and was looking for western people to extra in a big baseball movie shoot. It was set in the 1920s, which was quite intriguing, not to mention the 14.000 Yen payment per day. But when the admittedly cute agent explained the details, I felt almost insulted by the offer. Of course she tried to sell it as a fun and awesome thing, but I begged to differ.

The shooting took place a bit outside of Tokyo, about a 2h drive. So their plan was to pick up all the people from Shibuya at 11pm, then drive to the location, unpack and assign the people, do their make-up and clothes and then wait until 8am to begin the actual shooting. Then you'd have an 8h day of shooting, which as an extra basically means 3h of doing something and maybe 5h of waiting altogether. Then everyone hopped on the bus again and was dropped off at Shibuya around 8pm. Since this was an all weekend shoot, you could do this from Friday night till Sunday night, having only 3h between drop-off and pick-up time. And no, it was not possible to stay at the shooting location.
For me the calculation was simple: being away for almost 20h per day in comparison to the 14.000 Yen payment was so ridiculously low, it was not even funny.

Of course, if you don't mind the waiting and being away for so long, this is probably a fun thing to do. In fact, some people I know did it and really enjoyed meeting random people and being part of a movie shoot. I for one, couldn't be bothered. Money talks and in this case it talked bullshit.

So my conclusion on finding work as an extra or model is: if you have the outgoing personality, the looks, the dancing/singing/acting skills and the time to go to the castings, go for it. After a couple of jobs it probably gets even easier. Having the right agency is also very important. I felt mine wasn't really doing a good job (for me). So in summary, this was not my cup of tea.

Random shot, Roppongi business district

The NHK interview

Last but not least, there was the very interesting and very promising looking job interview at NHK. Yes, that's the biggest TV station in Japan and also known for a German program called テレビでドイツ語. Again, this opportunity didn't come through my own research but through connections and friends of friends who I talked to directly. Germans in Japan tend to help each other out, something that I learned to appreciate more and more.

Here is the original description in Japanese and German:

The show is a rather low-budget production but running sucessfully for years already. Almost every Japanese interested in speaking German has already heard about it. Funny coincidence: Max, a German friend back in Berlin and skilled Aikido teacher (Aikodokan dojo) did the same thing back in the 2000s. He gave me some valuable advice. Yet another coincidence: Caro, another German friend currently living in Tokyo was also invited for the interview.

The odds were in my favour I felt and since this job was about presenting myself in a good way by speaking German, I had no doubt I'd perform well. I wrote that in my application even, boasting about my interesting voice and attractive appearance (I had to get their attention, right?). So I was motivated, only slightly nervous and ready for the show.

Some of you may not know that interviews in Japan aren't usually one-to-one. In my case, there were 5 people sitting in front of me. Two of them fluent in German and helping with the translation, one head interviewer (boss?) and two others with random questions. Unfortunately, I couldn't do this interview in Japanese but the translator was so fluent in German, she got everything across perfectly I felt.

I was charming, I made them laugh and enjoy the interview. I gave clever replies, even to the trickiest questions. At first they were asking about my brave statements regarding my voice and appearance. I played it humble and said that I was just writing down the feedback I received from others and that they are free to judge themselves now. A tricky question was: "What would you do if you would be told to do something you don't like to do? Like wearing only swim wear?" That was the Gaijin question. They were afraid I wouldn't follow orders properly. I talked my way out of it, acknowledging their hierachy while also keeping my right to refuse morally intricate behaviour. Maybe mentioning my tattoo wasn't a good idea, but in my mind I though "hey, you wouldn't even want to see me in only swim wear when I have a tattoo, right?". I gave long explanations about what I feel is the big difference between Germans and Japanese but also how similar they are and how this could benefit the working environment. The head interviewer was quite a tough lady and I couldn't really judge her reactions most of the times, but I was sure I won the others, especially the ones who understood German. They were basically smiling the whole time to what I said.

Last part of the interview was to read a short text in German. I did my best reading voice and put an extra bit of emotional pronouncation on top of it. Did the trick, they loved it and I left them in awe, no kidding.

I felt like a million bucks after that interview, almost being sure that this would be my job for the next couple of months.

But well, I didn't get the job, neither did Caro. There were no explanations given and their mail wasn't helpful either. Up to now I don't really know who got the job. But if you see some of the episodes of the last years and the terrible, cringe-worthy acting in it, I fear that they picked the wrong people again ;)

Up next: my first ridiculous job and my first decent part-time job.