September 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

assassinThe Assassin
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first attempt at an “action” movie retains the narrative distinctions peculiar to all his features, which means fans of the genre will likely be baffled and disappointed. Though the plot, which is based on an old novel, has conventional storylines and develops its characters accordingly, Hou’s spare use of dialogue and tendency to elide anything that doesn’t serve his aesthetic aims means it doesn’t make as much of an impression as it would in others’ hands. Nevertheless, the film has a rigorous visual integrity that evokes its own story. Shu Qi is Nie Yinniang, raised in ninth century China as an assassin by a nun who uses her to dispatch corrupt officials on behalf of the emperor. When Yinniang fails to complete one particular assignment after seeing the target spend time with his family, the nun realizes she isn’t emotionally mature enough to be a real assassin and sends her to her hometown to kill an official (Chen Chang) to whom she was once betrothed, the purpose being to toughen her resolve and rid her of material sentimentality. Though presented as a kind of test, the mission is complicated by unforeseen developments taking place within the official’s court and which involve his concubine and his wife. Hou doesn’t clarify these developments since they are mostly conveyed through third person, offstage exposition, but the upshot is that Yinniang is compelled to use her skills to both protect her ex-lover from the machinations of his underlings and somehow see her mission through, ends that would seem to be contradictory by definition. What’s striking about the fight scenes isn’t their bloodless grace, but rather how their economy of movement actually adds to the naturalism of the movie as a whole. Death has real meaning, and while Hou spares us gore he drives home the idea that killing is not an easy act, even for the highly skilled. The contrast between the austerity of the action and the sumptuousness of the production design makes it one of Hou’s most beautiful films. If it takes more than one viewing to absorb its dramatic dimension, then all the better, I say. In Mandarin (photo: Spot Films Metropole Organisation Ltd. Central Motion Picture International Corp.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 16, 2015

Into the fire

Into the fire

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about summertime energy needs. As mentioned near the beginning, the summer National High School Baseball Tournament is one long expression of gaman (patience) since it takes place during the hottest time of the year. There’s also a high school baseball tournament in the spring, which I’ve never quite understood–why two?–but in any case the summer contest is much more popular. However, my partner recently read somewhere that the tournament isn’t quite as gaman as it makes itself out to be. Apparently, the dugouts are air conditioned, thus providing some relief to players when they aren’t on the field. She happens to have a friend who works at the tournament on a contract basis and she asked her if this is true. The friend was quite shocked and assumed it was just a rumor devised to denigrate the tournament, but she agreed to ask around and, apparently, it is true, though the organizers and sponsors want to keep it a secret since it would spoil some of the drama that’s so integral to the spectators’ appreciation of the games.

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August 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Ezra Furman / Perpetual Motion People (jake-sya)(HSE-38014)drewfordPerpetual Motion People
-Ezra Furman (Bella Union/Hostess)
The Life and Times of Drewford Alabama
-Drewford Alabama (P-Vine)
Few millennial purveyors of pure rock’n roll go about their mission with as much purpose and instinctual passion as Ezra Furman, a Jewish gender-bender from Chicago. The fact that he plays harmonica along with his guitar is mostly gravy, but it aligns appropriately with his street-level sociopolitical outlook, which he doesn’t indulge as forthrightly here as he has on previous albums. Though his themes mostly revolve around his struggles with mental illness and suicide, he isn’t so inner-directed that he can’t disassociate his feelings from his thoughts and relate them to the larger world, and he often steps out of the persona he assumes for a particular song and comments on the moment, as when he professes to being “sick of this record already.” If fear of ennui qualifies as a psychological disorder, than Furman is ready for serious therapy, but rock therapy is obviously just what the doctor ordered in Furman’s case, and the rest of us benefit as well, since the energy level rarely flags. Per the title, the kinetic power of Furman’s music feels pre-ordained, organic, a natural phenomenon. And while the R&B and folk forms get worked on relentlessly, there’s nothing reverent about the way Furman wields them. In other words, he has no use for the 60s—or the 90s, for that matter. He’s the busker with nothing to lose, the guy on the audition tape who doesn’t give a damn who’s listening but hopes whoever it is can keep up with him. Jamie Morrison used to be in a band, the Noisettes, that was famous for its own peculiar brand of energy, and as a drummer Morrison even moonlighted with the Stereophonics. Neither band qualifies as Americana, but Morrison’s new project, Drewford Alabama, does in a sort of piss-takey way. Still, don’t expect Father John Misty. Reportedly, several years ago Morrison found a notebook filled with hundreds of lyrics written in the middle of the last century by a guy named Drewford Alabama. He claims to have seen the light, but since he fields the singing chores out to friends and acquaintances, the project has an ad hoc vibe to it, as if the spirit of Drewford Alabama were simply hovering above. The songs have a pleasingly dusty ambience but they don’t deliver the piquant wierdness that great folk music does when it’s being made by a true original. Since Morrison says he was inspired by Alabama’s lyrics (he even taught himself the guitar just so that he could sing them), the listener wants to be inspired as well, but there’s often so much going on in the song that whatever it was about the words that drew Morrison to them is buried under a lot of disparate business. And that’s the difference between a force of nature like Furman and a man who “plays” music like Morrison. One doesn’t need inspiration because the music is already there. All others have to search it out. Continue reading

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August 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Lee Do-yun’s feature debut is like a primer in mass-appeal Korean cinema of the moment. It’s got a bit of criminal mischief, some class-conscious social observation, and a lot of betrayal-induced guilt among characters who think of themselves as friends. This latter theme is central to the story, since it involves three men who have been close since a near-fatal adolescent jaunt bonded them for life. Of the three, Hyun-tae (Ji Seong) has ended up the most grounded, married and working as a paramedic. In-cheol (Joo Ji-hoon) is an insurance agent living beyond his means who sometimes resorts to scams to make extra money. And Min-soo (Lee Gwang-soo) is the requisite full-time loser, a lonely drunk living on the margins. After In-cheol talks Min-soo into helping him torch a building for insurance money at the bequest of Hyun-tae’s estranged, debt-ridden mother and the scheme goes south, the friendships unravel, though probably not as fast as they would if such an unlikely incident actually happened. Lee knows how to stage all the cliches but he can’t make them anything other than cliches. In Korean. (photo: Opus Pictures) Continue reading

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Media Mix, July 19, 2015

NHK reporting on identifying minors in criminal cases

NHK reporting on identifying minors in criminal cases

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s proposal to lower the age for criminal trials from 20 to 18, presumably as a sop to the public and the media, which think that brutality among youth is on the increase and should be addressed in a serious manner. In the column I referred to a radio discussion with TV announcer and right wing pundit Jiro Shinbo, who wants tougher sentences for juvenile offenders and thinks the media should be allowed to cover such crimes openly. He somehow believes that Japan is the only country in the world where reporters are banned from identifying minor suspects, which isn’t true but nevertheless brings up the question of why some countries, like the United States, which supposedly forced this rule on Japan during the postwar occupation, allows the media to identify youth offenders and Japan still doesn’t. The reasons seem to have less to do with legal limitations than with popular demand. According to Amnesty International, the U.S. is the only country where minors can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. For the record, America doesn’t sentence children to death, but that’s only because the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors in 2005. In that decision, one justice wrote that juveniles are “categorically less culpable” than adults when it comes to committing crimes, but somehow life imprisonment is still a possibility for them. Consequently, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to prevent the media from reporting openly on youth crime and attendant trials since rehabilitation is obviously not the main purpose, punishment is.

What’s different about the Japanese situation isn’t the sensibility at play—like Americans, Japanese people think the punishment should fit the crime regardless of age. The difference is in the legal framework. The American system doesn’t distinguish between minors and adults when it comes to serious crimes, whereas the Japanese system does. That’s why the government wants to lower the age of majority. Instead of changing the Juvenile Act, which limits reporting, it simply wants to increase the number of people who can be tried as adults. This gambit will probably only satisfy the tabloid media for a little while. Whenever there is a serious crime committed by a person younger than 18, they will feel shut out of the process. They obviously look with envy at the American system, where crime is reported pretty much openly and suspects can be named and, potentially, vilified even before their guilt is established. Call me a “liberal” (Shinbo would), but I think the Japanese system is better. Youth offenders should be given a second chance, even those who have committed murder. However, I also believe that American society, despite a frank outlook that often drifts into rabid Manichaeism when it comes to crime, is better prepared to debate the usefulness of prosecuting minors and perhaps fairer in its treatment of them. In other words, while juveniles aren’t protected from adult-level punishment and exposure, America’s penchant for contentiousness makes it possible for them to receive more equitable judgment overall, at least in the public realm. It isn’t the same in Japan, mainly because the media itself isn’t as mature or self-conscious enough about its responsibility. Here the Juvenile Act is necessary. Otherwise, youthful offenders would just get buried.

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July 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Jamie xx / In Colour (jake-sya)(BGJ-10235)yjyIn Colour
-Jamie xx (Young Turks/Hostess)
-Young Juvenile Youth (Beat)
Though Jamie xx’s solo album has been anticipated for almost five years now—ever since he remixed Gil-Scott Heron’s last album We’re New Here into something quite different from the original—the record is still startling, if only because of how dissimilar it is to the work of his group The xx. In some ways this is a good thing. The xx’s second album was much less interesting than its debut, and it’s easy to surmise that Jamie, the producer, was already outgrowing the song-based predilections of his mates by the time Coexist was recorded. Removing the need to write original tunes with conventional meaning—no matter how abstract they tried to make it—obviously freed Jamie to explore what he could only do on his own, i.e., sample sounds and music that meant more to him than any personal verbal expression. Significantly, the casting off of normal structure has made his work more musical. The songs on In Colour still have that melancholy cast that made The xx’s tunes so indelible, but at the service of a wider range of fundamental emotions, which is probably what the album title is all about. Jamie is not going to tell his audience how to feel, but he will insist that there’s more than one feeling to feel here. His use of old doo-wop and ragga rhythms never seems gratuitous, and he’s careful to loop beats and melody snippets for maximum tension-and-release. You can almost hear the intent coming at you. Since this is unabashedly club music, made to be played (and danced to) in the presence of many people, it’s by definition more limiting in style than whatever it was The xx was trying to accomplish, but within those parameters it takes advantage of more resources than The xx ever did. It’s the most democratic dance music imaginable. Producer Jemapur (Toshiaki Ooi) has less pressing concerns in his new project with pop vocalist Yuki Matsuda. He surrounds her breathy, languorous vocals, in both English and Japanese, with the kind of spare beats that highlight those vocals rather than compete with or even complement them. His pop mission statement is more forthright than Jamie xx’s, but Jamie’s songs are closer in effect to what we enjoy about pop—its immediacy, its lack of guile. In interviews, Matsuda implies that there is no longer an “underground” market, and thus her vision of pop music cuts across all lines of taste and style. She obviously sees Young Juvenile Youth’s music as being more of a challenge to local consumers, which is probably why she sings mostly in English. Apparently, it was she who went to Jemapur and not the other way around, and she seems to control the message. That may explain why YJY sounds less like an organic partnership than two people struggling to find common ground, which is fine. Struggle can be entertaining, too. Continue reading

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Media Mix, June 28, 2015

Richard Armitage

Richard Armitage

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the mainstream press reaction to Okinawan Governor Takeshi Onaga’s trip to the United States to explain his opposition to the U.S. Marine base at Henoko. In the piece, I mention that former State Department official Richard Armitage gets a lot of traction in the Japanese press and is often the go-to person on the American side for a quote about the base issue, even if those quotes tend to be selective. Apparently, his quotes are used selectively for other security related issues. During the same discussion on DemocraTV where lawyer Sayo Saruta explained how Washington works, other journalists talked about the security bills that the Liberal Democratic Party are now trying to ram through the Diet. The LDP’s reasoning for passing the bills, which would allow Japan’s Self-defense Forces to participate in collective defense even though the Constitution limits such actions, is that interpretation of the Constitution should adapt to changing times. The only scenario that the LDP side has put forth as an illustration of how the SDF could participate in collective defense is a possible blockade of the Hormuz Straits by Iran. Such a blockade would “threaten Japan” because much of the country’s oil comes through the straits, so Japan should help its allies, presumably the U.S., in preventing such a blockade, probably through mine-sweeping activities. The journalists found this reasoning laughable, since Iran is desperate to sell oil right now and would never blockade the Hormuz Straits, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can’t come up with another example of how Japan could lend a hand because almost every other scenario would sound like war. And the LDP got this scenario from Armitage, who suggested some years ago that Japan could help by carrying out mindsweeping activities in the Hormuz Straits, but he made that statement at the height of the Iranian oil embargo. In other words, Abe’s illustration confounds the reasoning behind the constitutionality of the bills: Times have changed, and there’s little chance of a blockade of the Hormuz Straits. But he can’t find another illustration to justify the bills, which is why the opposition is accusing him of being vague as to what collective defense really means.

But more significantly, the journalists blasted the LDP for conflating the protection of Japan’s economic interests—securing oil—with safeguarding “Japanese lives,” which is the only reason put forth by the new bills for engaging in collective self-defense. As one reporter pointed out, if you accept that reasoning then the government should be condemned for cutting social security and funding for education—two economic decisions that affect citizens negatively—in order to pay for weapon systems demanded by the new security arrangement, at least according to the U.S., which still seems to be calling the tune because they’re the ones who want to sell Japan those weapon systems.

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