Media Mix, April 6, 2014

post_4527_20140402The photo and caption my editor chose for this week’s Media Mix touched on an aspect of the consumption tax hike I didn’t mention in the column itself, mainly because there wasn’t enough room and seemed sort of incidental, but, then again, there are so many incidentals to the tax hike story that they constitute a full-blown issue unto themselves. Though the government is trying to be thorough about making businesses add the tax increase directly on to prices so as to make it clear that everyone is supposed to pay it equally, businesses will find ways of using the structure of the law to their advantage. So while McDonald’s is obliged to fork over the increase in full to the tax bureau, they spread it out in such a way that some customers may think they’re getting a bargain. Apparently, vending machine companies are doing the same thing, according to a report I saw last week on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station.” These companies have to pay 3 percent more in consumption tax for every item they sell in a given machine, which theoretically means they add the proper amount to each price, but vending machines don’t make change in any denominations less than ¥10, so the companies are spreading the tax around the items in a machine in such a way that the tax is figured for sales from the entire machine, meaning some prices will be increased while other may be decreased, but in any case all items won’t equally bear the tax hike.

Though these considerations can hardly be called loopholes, the system does have enough of them to make trouble for tax collectors. After filing this week’s column I saw two reports, one on NHK’s website and another in the Asahi about a small exporter who was caught by the tax bureau for cheating on his consumption tax reporting. This Tokyo company, called Crescendo International, sells fishing rods and reels overseas, which means it doesn’t have to collect consumption taxes from buyers and pass it on to the government. However, it does have to pay consumption taxes to its domestic suppliers, which means the government refunds those taxes later. This, of course, is one of the stickier parts of the system and one the media rarely talks about. In the context of the bullying of small suppliers that I talked about in the column, it results in a huge windfall for a lot of exporters. For instance, Toyota doesn’t have to charge consumption taxes on all the cars it sells overseas, but it does have to pay consumption taxes to its many suppliers. In negotiations, though, the bigger company often pressures the supplier to absorb the consumption tax if it wants to keep the bigger company’s business. But the government doesn’t know that, and the bigger company, though it isn’t actually paying the consumption tax, can still legally report that it did and then get a refund, which amounts to being free money. From all appearances, Crescendo actually made a living from this scam because it never recorded a profit since it was established less than ten years ago. However, it received ¥22 million in consumption tax refunds from the government in 2011 and 2012. The company bought supplies amounting to ¥55 million, but reported that it paid ¥400 million for the equipment, including applicable consumption taxes. Since all of these items were then presumably sold in the US and Australia, Crescendo wasn’t compelled to pass on the consumption tax they paid, so it qualified for a refund. It’s an easy fraud, since the required documentation is simmple–an application form you download from the Internet and easily forged invoices. Crescendo supplied both to its allegedly innocent accountant, who then made the proper submissions. The refund comes back four weeks later. According to Asahi, the company was receiving between ¥500,000 aned ¥1.5 million a month in refunds, and when the company was caught the owner admitted it was all a big scam and that he never thought about making a profit since it was easier to play the tax system. About 138,000 companies apply for refunds every year, and in the last five the tax office says it’s collected ¥10 billion in wrongful refunds and attached penalties from companies that abused the system. Considering how easy it is to pull off, that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg.

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April 2014 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on March 25.

Atlas_12GatefoldSan Cisco - San Cisco - JK写Atlas
-Real Estate (Domino/Hostess)
San Cisco
(RCA/Sony)
The promises made by independent rock labels since the 80s have shifted subtly but continuously. In the beginning the pledge was obvious: honesty and clarity of intent, or whatever it was you couldn’t expect from major labels. Punk’s candor eventually loosened its grip, and though indie rock as a genre means less than it used to, it still stands for something, and Real Estate, a guitar band from New Jersey, represents that “something” as faithfully as any other artist at the moment. Open-hearted but emotionally cautious, the group’s sound is bright, relaxing, finely structured, and simple without being reductionist. The crisp, late summer mood of “Had to Hear” from their newest album is welcoming even without the lyrics, which describes the “landscape” where singer Martin Courtney “comes from.” Given that it’s New Jersey you might think he’s being chauvinistic, or deluded, but a sense of place always accompanies music that’s warm on the ears, and with thosee major-7th chords, Mat Mondanile’s shimmering leads, and the steady, relaxed tempos, the first response is to search the vicinity for a grassy backyard and a chaise lounge. Much of the credit should go to producer Tom Schick who does away with the reverb that made past Real Estate albums sound cold and mannered. The band seems to be in closer proximity on songs like “Crime” and “Navigator,” and the melancholy that was always present in their music is more affecting. Call it the certainty of uncertainty, the conviction that life holds surprises, not all of them pleasant ones. If Real Estate were punks, they’d rail against the darkness, but they’re not. They’d just as soon sit back and see what happens. San Cisco, a quartet from Australia, is making their debut on Sony, so the indie credo wouldn’t seem to apply, but that’s only because Sony owns RCA, which has a deal with Fat Possum. And there’s something similarly cautious about their garage pop, even if San Cisco’s musical m.o. is much livelier than Real Estate’s. Chalk it up to youth, since SC is barely out of high school, even if their outlook is spryer and more sophisticated than most bands their age. Since almost every new white indie outfit right now sounds like either Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys, you’ll be combing your memory for the sources of their hooks, but they come tumbling out in such profusion you won’t have time. Every member, even the drummer, apparently, doubles on keyboards, so there’s more to play with here than Real Estate’s stately configuration, an element that can push the artifice too far, as on the opener “Beach,” which has a canned quality to it. And while Jordi Davieson may sing about “common misconceptions” and “failed missions” he’s got the sort of mellifluous tenor that betrays confidence in all his abilities. It’s the promise of further accomplishments, the kind that major labels expect and, in fact, depend on. Continue reading

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April 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on March 25.

actofkillingThe Act of Killing
Certainly the most unusual documentary to hit theaters in recent memory, Joshua Oppenheimer’s cinematic interrogation of the mass slaughter of suspected communists following the 1965 military coup in Indonesia presents a moral agenda that never stays fixed. Confronting perpetrators of those horrors who remain unrepentant to this day, Oppenheimer offers them the chance to reenact the killings, and they happily agree. Some results are hallucinatory, like a bizarre musical number staged outside a fish-shaped restaurant, but most are informed by the cheap Hollywood gangster movies the principals took in at night while they were raping, amputating, burning, and killing during the day. For what it’s worth, the recreations do provide a window into methodologies and psychologies that more graphic means would render unwatchable, but it’s the attitudes that appall. These men remain dark heroes in Indonesia, and even when word gets out of the movie they’re making nothing breaks their self-possession…until the end, when one of the old gangsters finally realizes what he’s done. His breakdown is moving and fitting enough, but it can hardly compensate. (photo: Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS and Novaya Zemlya LTD) Continue reading

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The art of satisfaction

stones_6/23-5hWe had already gone through security before finding out we were at the wrong gate. The representative of AEG Live, which was managing the Rolling Stones’ tour through Asia, had told me to go to the VIP booth at Gate 25, but there was none. Another couple was waiting just outside the barrier, trying to get in touch with the same rep and not having any luck. The young security guard was helpful. He took down our names, called someone on his cell phone, and then personally accompanied us to the VIP entrance, which was all the way on the other side of Tokyo Dome and nowhere near Gate 25. I tried to imagine a security guard in the U.S. doing the same thing, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve lived there the thought didn’t coalesce into something positive.

Being the Asia correspondent for Pollstar, the California-based concert industry magazine, I was invited by AEG to attend one of the Stones’ Dome shows. Though it sounds like a big title, most of my work for the magazine consists of combing the web for stories that might be interesting to Pollstar subscribers, translating press releases, and reporting who’s coming to Asia and when. There’s almost no journalism involved, and I definitely don’t take full advantage of whatever perks the position might offer, but I’d never seen the Stones before and with the understanding that it would be my last chance I eagerly accepted the invitation. Though I have never been a big Stones fan they were so integral to my music-listening life in adolescence that there was never a need to seek them out. Their music was just always there, and as with the Beatles I knew their entire catalogue up to a certain temporal point. I also never felt a piercing desire to “see” them in concert, which has always been impossible anyway considering that their superstardom preceded the aforesaid music-listening life. And while I can appreciate the band’s longevity, which I credit to a rare combination of phenomenally good genetic material on Keith Richards’ part and superhuman self-discipline on Mick Jagger’s, the idea of seeing men their age plow through the kind of salacious material that has always been the band’s hallmark filled me with a  twinge of repugnance. But in any case, they’re still older than me, and there aren’t too many rock bands I want to see that could actually make me feel younger just by looking at them. Continue reading

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March 2014 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Feb. 25.

LORDE-JK_Birdy_J copyPure Heroine
-Lorde (Virgin/Universal)
Fire Within
-Birdy (Atlantic/Warner)
As is often the case when a Japanese record company holds back on releasing an album by a foreign artist that is already a hit overseas, Universal opted to put out Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, with a shot of the New Zealand sensation on the cover rather than the bespoke monochrome design of the original, which was obviously chosen to herald the launch of a major singer-songwriter whose work was more important than her looks. The Japanese aren’t so much trusting more to appearances as they are taking advantage of their own prerogatives, but in any case Ella Yelich O’Connor was only 16 when she recorded the record and 17 when she won a Grammy for the hit single “Royals,” aspects of her story that Universal International surely wants to stress. Lorde’s sudden fame has been compared to the calculating stardom of Lana Del Rey, but musically the two are more different than they are alike. If anything, Del Rey is the more original sounding, but if Lorde seems to channel the Adele/Amy Winehouse drawl vocally and Sara Bareilles’ poetic angst thematically, her collaboration with producer-writer Joel Little borrows heavily from contempo R&B, which should put her over with a wider cross section of music lovers, including those in her own age group, which is the key. Though I find her tendency to slam syllables together unappealing, the meandering means she utilizes to find her way to the heart of a hooky chorus is impressive and mysterious, her most obvious talent and one that Little exploits to full advantage with his luxurious vocal overdubs and minimal electronic back tracks. Much has been made of Lorde’s theatrical lyrics, which follow a straight stylistic line back to Laura Nyro and are wittier than a lot of people have given her credit for. If this is the future of world pop, I’m all for it, though I hope Lorde eventually acknowledges that pop can be enjoyable for reasons that aren’t noble, either. Brit Jasmine van der Bogaerde, better known as Birdy, is a year older than Lorde, and Fire Within is her second album, though her first of all-original material. Leaning more toward rock in the British tradition and a poet of more flowery substance, Birdy would seem to attract a narrower fan base, one who appreciates her emotive powers and will overlook her annoying vocal mannerisms. Birdy’s songs tend to swell and recede on full arrangements, including strings and fulsome percussion, where Lorde’s build melodically, and the difference is vital in that Fire Within isn’t going to yield any hit singles, yet it could point to a more sustained career among eternally romantic unhip adolescent girls, of which there is never a shortage. Lorde will be expected to remain pretty and a star, while Birdy will get by with being evocative, and that, in the long run, is a more realistic ambition. Continue reading

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March 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Feb. 25.

AIL_RF_09535.NEFAll Is Lost
Literally a down-to-earth version of Gravity, this seafaring thriller, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a singularly intense movie experience. Our nameless hero, played by Robert Redford, seems to be circumnavigating the globe by himself in a sailboat, and trouble looms right away when an errant cargo container smashes into his hull, leaving a large hole that quickly fills with water. For the rest of the movie it’s one thing after another, as our hero silently confronts each life-threatening problem and attempts to solve it with whatever resources are at hand, as well as his own ingenuity, which isn’t always enough. Though the container started it all, not only wrecking the integrity of the vessel but causing loss and damage to valuable equipment, such as the radio, it soon becomes clear that the elements are conspiring against our hero with storms and other natural indignities, but he perseveres, somehow confounding the nihilism of the title. After all, there is nothing to do but persevere. For an existential horror film, All Is Lost is refreshingly free of gratuitous despair. (photo: All Is Lost LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Feb. 16, 2014

japanese-beethoven-mamoru-samuragochi-not-deaf-but-used-to-beHere’s this week’s Media Mix about the Samuragochi scandal. In the past week all the media that covered the fraud composer have issued apologies, including NHK, which made a fawning documentary about him. As I said in the column people like a good story, but media outlets are expected to be a little more discerning, a bit more skeptical about such things; and while that doesn’t necessitate an apology in this case, you wonder how many people thought the story was phony in the first place. Apparently, Makoto Yamagata at Aera had his suspicions, according to an article he wrote for the magazine last week. He describes how he met with Samuragochi to write a feature about him and all the weird little demands the composer made. During the interview Samuragochi explained how he communed with the spirit of Beethoven at the latter’s grave in Vienna, and how the music he wrote for victims of the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami “came pouring down from heaven” when he visited the area. Yamagata admitted to being suspicious about his hearing problems since Samuragochi often started answering his questions even before the sign translator finished interpreting. But one of the main aspects of the composer that prompted the reporter to abandon the article was his “inordinate concern about money.”

In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to write such an article, and you wonder if, as a reporter, Yamagata didn’t think about changing the original piece into an expose if he was really that suspicious. The thing is, there apparently were people in the music business who wondered about Samuragochi openly. According to the article in Bunshun I cited in the column, Takeo Noguchi, a musician, wrote an article for the monthly Shincho 45 a while ago questioning whether or not Samuragochi really wrote the pieces he claimed he wrote, and then practically eviscerated his body of work, calling some works faux-Bach or faux-Mahler. Even if he had written the pieces, they weren’t any more worthy of a serious music lover’s attention than some composition project by a college student. Or, at least, that’s the impression the article gave. Frauds like this are not uncommon, and certainly aren’t limited to Japan; but usually they are exposed by journalists. Here, they didn’t come to light until one of the principals involved spilled the beans because he just couldn’t stand the guilt any more. It might have helped if some serious journalists had had training in music, but, again in hindsight, you would think reporters are naturally cynical enough to think that Samurgochi’s story was just too good to be true.

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