Car Danchi's Neil Hartmann
Neil Hartmann is an American-born resident of Japan and the main man behind the brilliant Car Danchi freeride films. If you've never seen a CD film, they revolve around sleeping in your vehicle and scoring as much roadside powder as possible. (Car Danchi literally means "car apartment.") Half the shred footage you see out out of Japan comes from crews being guided by the 6-foot-2 Sapporo gaijin and Hartmann is also an accomplished photographer, filmer, editor, blogger, contest MC and DJ. Car Danchi No.5 releases today, so we decided to catch up with Hartmann to talk powder, progression, the relative merits of fame and the importance of speaking your mind.
ESPN.com: Has the success of the Car Danchi series surprised you? Five already!
Neil Hartmann: My original plan was to make no more than three movies in the series. After three, it became apparent here in Japan that the fans were not going to let me stop! Now the momentum seems to be picking up even more and spilling outside the boundaries of this island nation. It certainly continues to amaze me that people like this simple little snowboarding movie.
Explain the concept of "car apartment snowboarding" to someone who has never slept slope-side in a Honda -- or seen one of your movies.
The key to the Car Danchi lifestyle is a complete addiction to riding powder snow and an intimate connection with your vehicle of choice. For us here in Northern Japan it all started about ten years ago as we tried to venture farther away from our homes in search of untracked snow. Too poor to shell out for a hotel every night, we realized that a down sleeping bag and a hot bowl of instant ramen in the morning would do the trick.
What is the ultimate vehicle?
A camper is obviously the luxury option: High ceiling to stand up in and change; a table to seat four or more; extra over-cab bed for guests; maybe even a shower room that becomes board storage. You will pay the price for that comfort when driving on extremely rutted icy roads, though. Campers are notoriously sketchy on winter roads.
Some in our crew have decided that the ultimate Car Danchi is a Toyota Hi-Ace or a Mitsubishi Delica: Full time 4WD, a high roof option, tear out the back seats and add an optional bed/storage unit to create a cozy living and sleep space... Plus, you can blast past a slow 18-wheeler leaving a pretty decent wake!
Do you think many riders in North America can relate to the movies? What steps do you take to help the culture cross-over?
I think there is a huge group of people who can relate to the Car Danchi style of snowboarding. Basically, your average rider -- and I think there are millions of them: the non-park-kid, the non-heli-flying, cat-riding, caviar eating type. A hard working, blue collar, middle class, lower middle class, weekend rider.
The key to the Car Danchi lifestyle is a complete addiction to riding powder snow and an intimate connection with your vehicle of choice.
I think searching for and riding power on fun terrain is an international language that translates very well. A big slash, a smile and a high five pretty much says it all, really, and I think the mystique of the Japanese landscape, terrain, and snow features are what really grabs the attention of the Western viewer. I don't really do anything special in the movies other than subtitle.
Are there any riders in your movies who are known outside of the Japan snow scene? Does it even matter?
This last season Nakai Takaharu, famous for his fifth place finish at the SLC Olympics and his parts in Absinthe films, said he wanted to do a trip with the Danchi. We had a great session in January. He is probably the most internationally famous rider to ever be in the film.
It's hard for Japanese freestylers to break into the "scene" [not to mention] Japanese freeriders. I don't think it is necessary to have household names in the movie since it's more about the overall vibe rather than an individual show of skill. I watch surf movies all the time and have no idea who most of those dudes are, but I still love the films, so I think it is that same kind of feeling.
You touch on the earthquake and nuclear meltdown a bit in CD5. You've become very outspoken on these subjects on your blog since March.
Obviously this year has been not only a meltdown for Japan but I think it has been a big shakedown for everybody here, and especially for my generation. The realization that the second half of my life is going to be spent dealing with this nuclear crap, both as a citizen paying to clean it up and trying to figure a way out of this mess, has combined to be a heavy load, indeed.
Being a public figure and having a media outlet (however small) made me realize that I need to make sure I am active in this and try to keep the younger kids aware of what is going on. Watching the elders who control this land muddle around protecting their own backsides while they continue to live the high life is rather disgusting. With the CD5 title I was able to mix in the No Nukes logo in hopes that people will understand it is okay to voice your opinion and try and make a difference. Japanese people are notoriously reserved when it comes to voicing their opinions and that is something I hope to help change.
Do you see Danchi Dudes in Europe or North America or is it strictly a Hokkaido thing?
Japan just makes the lifestyle easier by being lenient on people camping out at any roadside parking spot, and having amazing hot springs [onsen] practically everywhere you go. A hot bath after a cold day can make a frigid car seem quite inviting. I think we are going to see this culture grow more and more around the world. Times are tough and people are looking for ways to save cash while still having as much fun as possible.
New Zealand is a great example: they have an amazing infrastructure for renting campers and traveling around the island to explore and ride. And what about Tailgate Alaska, the massive camp-out at the top of Thompson Pass? Now that is Car Danchi style!
How'd you pull the Terje cameo? Does snowboarding's sensei dig Japan?
I think Terje has a love/hate relationship with Japan! I know he loves the powder and the food and the lifestyle, but I also know he struggles in dealing with people and company stuff here. Maybe Vikings don't mix well with Samurai! I have worked with Terje through my emceeing at the X-Trail Jam contest. He was integral in the creation of that contest and I was holding the mic when he announced his retirement from that contest with tears in his eyes. That was a tough one to translate...
This season I got wind that he was coming to Japan to ride. I basically pulled every string I have at Burton Japan to get a seat on the trip. I think you might get to see a side of Terje that doesn't get shown much. He is a classic prankster and a naturally-gifted athletic monkey [and] you can't turn the camera off when he is around!
What is a "lifestyle powder movie"?
The bar has been raised in the North American film scene year after year and I knew from the beginning that I had to make sure CD was never compared on that scale. (I have read comments from the haters and they can be hardcore!) The fact is, Car Danchi is basically a lifestyle documentary about some dudes who love snowboarding, hence the subtitle. There are a couple of tricks, but the only corks you'll see pulled are out of wine bottles!
Not that I am anti-trick or anti-progression -- I love watching that stuff, but I have my roots in DJ'ing, both in the clubs and on the radio, and I love a good mix. Snowboarding films today are mostly like listening to a bad mix. There are great songs being played, but the overall flow is often a complete mess. Plus, I think in the effort to please everyone (street/park/extreme) a lot of movies lose their focus and the viewer attention as well. I try to make sure the editing and the music flows seamlessly.
You know how you hate to go to the bathroom while watching a movie at the theater? I feel it should really be the same for a snowboard DVD in your living room.
Finally, explain the notion of "Nekosogi" to us gaijin.
Basically "Nekosogi" translates as "roots and all" or "lock, stock and barrel." Maybe you see a friend riding and slashing every little bank and feature all the way to the last tiny hit before the lift, you could easily yell to him, "Nekosogi!"
The Car Danchi lifestyle itself is a Nekosogi way of life: The best powder, the best terrain, the best food, the best hot springs, all done on the cheap above the law and at our own pace. We leave no bank un-slashed and no pillow un-aired, so lock up your daughters, Car Danchi is coming to town! Nekosoooogiiiiii!
Alright then. Nekosogi it is...