Fantasy island: Collaborative multimedia project in Nagasaki seeks to augment the natural world

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

A young girl’s voice rings through the forest, drawing me further into the darkness. “Koko ni kite,” the voice calls again in a whisper from the right, using a Japanese phrase that means “come this way.”

The voice fades into the shadows and then returns a moment later from the left, shifting my attention to what appears to be an aquarium suspended between two large trees. It is uncanny in its realism and, like all good tricks of the eye, evades any obvious explanation.

I continue onward, descending a set of steps and reaching a rocky coast where a cliff is transformed into a huge exercise in projection mapping. And then it is into a maze of bamboo, where I’m prompted to take a flashlight from a basket. I flick it on, but it does little to cut through the red, murky gloom. I am momentarily lost in a maze of trees until the torchlight — not visible but ultraviolet — hits a sign, revealing an arrow pointing to the left. “Follow the path” reads the message displayed below.

I am halfway around Island Lumina, a collaborative multimedia project between the Montreal-based creative agency Moment Factory and Japanese leisure outfit Kato Pleasure Group (KPG). It is preview night on the island, and I am accompanied by an army of reporters carrying tripods, TV cameras and clipboards with detailed shot lists. More than 30 media organizations are represented but all are united by the grins plastered across their faces.

Visitors enter Moment Factory
Visitors enter Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

Location, location, location

Reaching out as a spit into Nagasaki Bay, Iojima island — home to Island Lumina — is a little over 1 square kilometer in size. Until 2011, it was only accessible by ferry from the city of Nagasaki, a voyage that was, and still is, prone to cancellations when typhoon winds wreak havoc on northern Kyushu. These days, a bridge connects the island to the mainland, and it is accessible year round; only the most ferocious of storms stop visitors from having access to the island.

Iojima is home to several fishing ports above which houses rise in concentric rings up the island’s steep slopes, ramshackle but charming. Much of the island’s remaining population is aging and, like many rural townships across the country, Iojima is suffering from a declining population. The island’s history, like that of the more famous Gunkanjima — also in Nagasaki Prefecture — is tied to coal mining; Iojima flourished until the 1970s, when the island’s mine was shut down.

In 1987, the island’s first “sports resort” opened in an attempt to attract tourists to the area. Although ownership has passed through several hands since opening, it has proven to be a boon to the region, with 150,000 visitors per annum. When the resort came up for sale requiring investment to repair aging facilities, it was bought by KPG and renamed i+Land Nagasaki.

Iojima island, Nagasaki Prefecture
Iojima island, Nagasaki Prefecture | OSCAR BOYD

“We were managing the resort on behalf of Nagasaki City for the past 12 or 13 years. We had a good relationship with them and we felt the power of the nature as well as the power of the land,” KPG General Manager Hiroaki Kato says, explaining the reasons behind the group’s decision to acquire the property.

Building on the resort’s current success, KPG hopes to double visitor numbers within the year and, with hotels across the country, including two huge developments in Okinawa, the company is not wanting for experience.

However, Iojima’s reputation is built on Kyushu’s warm summers and fresh seafood, presenting KPG with an immediate challenge: how to attract visitors in the other nine months of the year, when the ocean is chillier, typhoons are inbound and whiling days away on a beach isn’t as relaxing as you’d think.

KPG’s first move was to drill for hot water to create an onsen (hot spring) on the island, and integrate it into the i+Land Nagasaki resort complex. But on Kyushu, which markets itself as “the onsen island,” having an onsen attached to a hotel is not so much an attraction as a right. So, in the summer of 2016, seeking to create something extraordinary enough to draw crowds throughout the year, KPG reached out to Moment Factory in North America — and Island Lumina was born.

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

Something’s in the air

Jonathan St-Onge is Moment Factory’s general manager of Lumina. He has been working on the project in Nagasaki with KPG for the best part of two years.

“The relationship has been an easy one,” St-Onge says. “After the initial introduction, our team visited Iojima to see the site KPG had in mind. From there, we began to work together on the project, creating what you see today.”

That relationship developed across oceans and continents, with both companies visiting each other’s work sites on a regular basis.

“At the start, I visited every other Lumina that Moment Factory has in Canada, to see what might be possible,” Kato says.

Although much of the production and design took place at Moment Factory’s offices in Montreal, the Lumina team conducted regular site visits to Iojima over the course of the project’s 18-month development.

When talking together, there is a visible camaraderie between Kato and St-Onge. By all accounts the corporate relationship has been a smooth one and yet it seems curious that KPG would choose a non-Japanese company with little experience working in Japan over an established domestic alternative such as TeamLab or Naked.

“They’re both doing a good job in Japan and we’ve worked with them before,” Kato says when asked about this. “But I think we’ve become used to their style of show. Moment Factory’s concepts are different, they really emphasize a focus on the public.”

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

Creating a story

From concept to construction, Moment Factory was left mostly to its own devices, but one of the key challenges in developing Island Lumina and working with KPG became developing a story that would appeal to a Japanese audience.

As with its other Lumina projects — this is Moment Factory’s sixth, and first outside of Canada — primary inspiration came from the site itself. Though the team ultimately built a story that combined both their native culture and that of the island, much of the Island Lumina story developed out of firsthand experience of Iojima and Nagasaki, says Gabriel Pontbriand, creative director of Island Lumina.

“We were inspired by the culture, but we did not try to express it exactly,” Pontbriand says. “The balance was found within key elements, such as Iojima’s lighthouse, local legends of dragons, as well as with the unicity of the site.”

Working alongside Yael Braha, multimedia director at Moment Factory, Pontbriand spent a month at the beginning of the creative process conducting research in Nagasaki: visiting museums, meeting historians, and consulting with locals and experts on Japanese culture in both Japan and Montreal.

Visitors to Iojima island follow Yura, a young girl who journeys through a mysterious underwater world seeking a gem stolen by a dragon.
Visitors to Iojima island follow Yura, a young girl who journeys through a mysterious underwater world seeking a gem stolen by a dragon. | OSCAR BOYD

“We needed to make sure we were using the right tools, the right voice, the right wording to connect with a Japanese audience,” Pontbriand says. The importance of this was emphasized by KPG, who advised Moment Factory throughout the creative process.

“The story is the most important thing,” Kato says. “It is what makes this Lumina project stand out. It has a really clear storyline that guides the audience throughout.”

In that regard, Island Lumina is a departure from previous Lumina models, embracing a more explicit, character-driven narrative that plays the dual function of encouraging engagement with the project and providing more explicit direction to a Japanese audience.

To help accomplish this, Pontbriand and his team created the character of Yura, a young girl who journeys through a mysterious underwater world, seeking a gem stolen by a dragon. Returning the gem, the legend says, will restore light to her island.

“We wanted our hero to be an adventurous character, one who perseveres,” Pontbriand says. “We imagined her as a young girl almost from the beginning … and she turned out to be — or what we hope to be — a model for little girls. By the end we see her as a great heroine.”

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

Let there be light

On arriving at the site in 2016, the Lumina team was faced with its first big decision: how best to use the space they had been given to work with. With a large, forested area on Iojima’s northwestern tip as its playground, the team had to choose the best route through the natural environment, one with flora and fauna the members had not encountered in Canada.

“Building a pathway from scratch on a canvas we were not used to required adaptation,” Pontbriand says. “We also had to make sure every element was in accordance with Japanese regulations, for example with the Coast Guard, as our experience extends to the seashore.”

The eventual route, around 1 kilometer in length, takes visitors through the heart of the forest, up and down the island’s mountainous landscape to the coast, where cliffs are used as a natural screen for some of Island Lumina’s most extravagant projections to play out on. All of this in darkness, except for areas along the way that Moment Factory has chosen to illuminate.

In creating a permanent show, the company had to factor in weather conditions year round, as well as the natural growth of vegetation. Keeping the technology behind the project as hidden as possible to create a seamless experience was also a significant factor in Island Lumina’s design.

Installation of the show’s hardware took place over eight weeks, following a longer construction period in which a local team built the course to be used by the public and installed the infrastructure that would support Moment Factory’s hardware. The team was comprised of both Moment Factory employees and local hires under KPG, many of whom will ultimately go on to run the show.

For KPG, the hope is Island Lumina will provide an economic uptick that will help reverse the decline of Iojima and provide local employment. By 2021, i+Land Nagasaki aims to increase its staff on the island by 25 percent and Island Lumina is a significant part of those plans.

“(Island Lumina’s) daily operations will be managed by KPG and we have trained their staff here to do that.” St-Onge says. “We have a team in Japan that is trained to support the project with larger problems. And if there’s anything major, our Montreal office will be able to support, but mostly it will be down to locals.”

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

Moment Factory Tokyo

Moment Factory’s Japan operation is run by Marc-Andre Baril, managing director of Moment Factory Tokyo. Established in May 2017 to facilitate the company’s operations in Japan, the office currently employs a growing team of six full-time staff.

In the office, an entire wall is devoted to a projector rigged up to motion tracking hardware to create an interactive screen used to show off the company’s technology. As Baril breezes through the interface, using subtle gestures to navigate from one screen to the next, it all feels very “Minority Report.”

The first screen he demonstrates allows users to manipulate a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” The next displays a visual representation of the code that exists behind some of Moment Factory’s interactive elements: Color-coded, algorithmically driven arrows show the interplay between the automatons and the user’s movements. Another screen shows a pair of puppeteer hands, strings outstretched to the silhouette of the user’s body, an effect that was used as part of the stage show for stadium-filling English rock outfit Muse.

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

One of the main reasons for opening the Tokyo office was Island Lumina’s planned permanence, which necessitates a team that can liaise with KPG on Iojima and the Montreal office if necessary. “We were looking at where to open an office in Asia for a while,” Baril says. “Through our collaborations with Sony Music and KPG, it quickly made sense to open in Tokyo. I guess the city was calling us.”

The office’s primary function, however, is to facilitate Moment Factory’s expansion into Japan. Besides Island Lumina, Moment Factory’s Tokyo Office has worked on a display at Yokohama’s Hakkejima Sea Paradise aquarium and with Sony Music to create a “multisensory foodie fantasy” called Tabegami Sama. More recently, the team has played a role in supporting the company’s concert team, providing video content for J-pop artist Namie Amuro’s recent, and final, stadium tour.

The Tokyo office also has a number of larger projects in the pipeline and the long-term hope is that the it will become a hub for Moment Factory’s growing operations in Asia.

“Most of our projects are under wraps still,” Baril says. “But I can tell you we’re in talks with pretty much every major theme park in Asia at the moment.”

Visitors take part in Moment Factory
Visitors take part in Moment Factory’s multimedia experience on Iojima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MOMENT FACTORY

A push for permanence

For a company that is used to putting on large-scale events, it seems an obvious step to strive for involvement with the two major sporting events that Japan will host in the coming years: the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

In that regard, Moment Factory seems to be in prime placement, having recently won the Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival for its Foresta Lumina, the first of the Lumina series, located in Coaticook, Quebec. The festival is organized by Japan’s Agency of Cultural Affairs and the prize was sponsored by the the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

“There’s obviously a lot of potential and discussion (around the Olympics),” Baril says. “We always hope to do big events — for example, working with Madonna for the 2012 Superbowl halftime show — but they’re not the only reason we get up in the morning.”

To compliment its offering, over the next few years Moment Factory hopes to establish more permanent projects like Island Lumina — both in Japan and abroad — that have the chance to grow and develop beyond the scope of one or two evenings worth of entertainment.

“We can have hundreds of thousands of people a year come to these destinations,” Baril says, “and use their experiences to shape and improve the entertainment.”

In setting up permanent projects, Baril also hopes to see the growth of an ecosystem and economy around each project, and create new reasons to attract visitors to localities.

“Discovering new regions because of the projects we’re doing is amazing,” Baril says. “Before, I didn’t know anything of Nagasaki; now, our entire company knows about it. If we can help build up a region through our projects, then it’s positive not just for us, but for the local people. This creates waves of positive repercussions.”

Island Lumina opened on April 1. For more information, visit www.islandlumina.jp.