April 2015 movies

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

The karmic nature of Birdman‘s Best Picture Oscar win is inescapable. Ever since his breakout Mexican epic, Amores Perros, brought him to America, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has been making earnest movies with large casts of Hollywood A-listers in bummer roles that have invariably garnered lots of nominations along the way without actually winning anything. His latest curiosity jettisons the existential suffering that made movies like Babel and Biutiful so trying to sit through, and those who have championed Inarritu’s ambitions finally have something to get behind, but in fact Birdman is just as wonky as the earlier films, which were problematic not so much because of their depressive themes, but due to their formalist cliches. Michael Keaton gets what used to be called “the role of a lifetime” as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood actor best known for playing the titular superhero in a series of blockbusters, and now, years later, is trying to redeem himself as a serious artist by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” on Broadway, starring himself. The movie’s time frame takes in the hours prior to the opening, and Inarritu devises a production design that incorporates long, moblie takes that all blend into one. As far as cliches go, the backstage comedy has been done to death, and all of the tropes are here: the technical gaffes, the snooty actor who refuses to take direction (Edward Norton), the last minute changes in strategy, the insufferable critic (Lindsay Duncan) overstepping her boundary. In the midst of all this calculated chaos, Riggan has to deal with a flighty, resentful daughter (Emma Stone), a calm, sensible lover (Andrea Riseborough), and a surprisingly sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan). The mood is constant confusion, but the dialogue is so pointed and precise that no one really comes across as harried as they’re trying to let on. The only character who breaks through in that regard is Naomi Watts, playing an inexperienced actor who sees the play as her big break and is afraid of blowing it. Otherwise, the performances are all showcases in the Inarritu style, especially Stone’s and Norton’s, which isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining, but every dramatic element in the film sticks out like a rusty nail, every gesture designed to deliver more meaning that it has the capacity to contain. Inarritu is incapable of getting through a scene without finding something to make it monumental, and the result is exhaustion without the payback of meaning. Had Birdman simply been a comedy about a washed up Hollywood star trying to put on a serious play that was beyond his capabilities, it might have been funny and poignant, but that’s not enough for Inarritu. He wants epiphanies. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox) Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 22, 2015

Route of current Hokuriku Shinkansen in red

Route of current Hokuriku Shinkansen in red

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the hype over the new Hokuriku Shinkansen. Most of the column discusses the way the project prioritizes travelers going to and from Tokyo at the expense of everyone else who lives along the line, or who may want to use it for purposes other than going to and from Tokyo. Some of the articles I read centered on businesses that were using the new train as an excuse for moving their operations out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area to the Hokuriku region. Almost everyone covered the relocation of two companies, YKK and Yusukin Pharmaceutical. YKK has always had a presence in Toyama, where most of its factories are located, and the company has decided to move more of its administrative functions closer to its production base, saying that Hokuriku is less prone to natural disasters than is Tokyo, where YKK’s headquarters will remain though reduced by some 230 employees. The new shinkansen is presented as making the move possible, since staff can travel quickly between Toyama and Tokyo, but in essence the reason is safety and stability, conditions that more large companies should consider if all their operations are concentrated in Tokyo. If a major earthquake hits the capital, their businesses could be completely wiped out. Yusukin, which mostly makes medicinal ointments, says it is moving to Toyama because the area is “traditionally” Japan’s pharmaceutical capital, so it will be in closer proximity to like-minded companies and suppliers, but a company representative told Tokyo Shimbun, “We thought it wouldn’t hurt to move some of our functions to Toyama…to disperse the risk of disaster.” Nikkiso, which makes dialysis machines, is also going to move its factories from Shizuoka Prefecture to Kanazawa due to concerns about a possible Tokai earthquake. The company’s main office is in Tokyo.

According to one business consultant interviewed by the newspaper, there are two types of companies that are using the shinkansen as a reason for moving at least some of their operations out of the capital: those worried about catastrophe, and companies that originated in the Hokuriku region, moved to the Tokyo area after the war during the great economic growth period, and now think it’s time to move back. In terms of the kind of decentralization that the government wants to facilitate, these are halfway measures: the companies who are moving are only moving part of their functions, and are doing so because the new shinkansen makes it possible. As a strategy for reviving regional capitals, it is probably more sustainable than focusing on tourism, though, as one expert pointed out, there are also disadvantages for local businesses. Now that the shinkansen makes it possible to get to and from the capital in a little over two hours, business trips from Tokyo can be undertaken as day excursions, meaning business travelers can go and return within the day, obviating the need for overnight accommodations and attendant expenses. That happened a long time ago in Nagoya when the Nozomi super express opened, and also happened in Morioka after the Tohoku Shinkansen arrived. Hotels and inns in the center of both cities lost customers and many went out of business. And Gucci, the economist referenced in the column, mentioned another effect of express train service on local businesses. Higer income people in these regional cities can now get to Tokyo quickly, and will do a lot more shopping in the capital than they do in their home towns since Tokyo is so easy to access.

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Media Mix, March 8, 2015

Hirokazu Nakaima

Hirokazu Nakaima

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the difference between the Tokyo media and the Okinawan media when it comes to reporting the Henoko base issue. As pointed out by the people who discussed the matter on DemocraTV, the mainland press approaches the matter with a set of assumptions that are patronizing, and which are best represented by a remark that was made by former Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima in December 2013 when the central government approved a larger than expected stimulus package for the prefecture, presumably in exchange for Nakaima’s abandoning his opposition to construction of the new base, which he soon did. At the time, a clearly elated Nakaima said, “I think we will have a good New Year’s Day,” as if speaking for all Okinawans.

That line was often quoted during the election campaign last fall by Nakaima’s opponent, who cited it as proof of the governor’s disregard for his constituents, since it implied that all Okinawans cared about was money, and for sure, the mainland media used the quote often over the past year or so to reinforce its own belief that Okinawans are too dependent on the central government to be in a position to refuse anything the U.S. military asks for. Takeshi Onaga’s clear victory over Nakaima in the election was as strong a rebuke of this belief as anything, and one Onaga supporter reversed the meme by saying to a reporter that the election itself was a great “New Year’s gift” for Okinawa, though, as with all such pronouncements, nobody in Tokyo seemed to be paying attention.

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March 2015 albums

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

-Ne-Yo (Motown/Universal)
Black Messiah
-D’Angelo and the Vanguard (RCA/Sony)
The title of Ne-Yo’s sixth album is a dodge. In the “Intro” he explains that the subject matter is “fictional” but derived from “experiences” sent to him by “real people.” These are “true stories” he made up, and a lot of them have to do with sex, presented in a vernacular that’s more graphic than anything the dapper R&B star was previously associated with. The overall impression is one of an artist testing the waters, trying to figure out if the carefully groomed image that helped him achieve superstardom needs to be restyled for a more cynical market. But if the tailored suits and gallant attitude seemed special in a world where R. Kelly and T-Pain were just as popular, the real reason people loved Ne-Yo was his songs, which were gems of craft. For all its sexual reticence, The Year of the Gentleman remains one of the most pleasurable records of the last 20 years, and as Non-Fiction proves, he’s still a consummate album-maker. There’s a wholeness to the production that compels the listener to the next cut. The lyrics are another story. Despite the shade of play-acting, Ne-Yo’s classic concerns are in tact: the need to find true love outside the trappings of celebrity, understanding that the party is about companionship. When he threatens physical violence in “Story Time” you wince, not because violence is repulsive, though it is, but because Ne-Yo doesn’t sound as if he understands that. And whereas in the past ballads and uptempo songs fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, here they sound clumsily juxtaposed, as if they’d been written as antidotes to each other. Ne-Yo still has the chops, but being himself is better than trying to act like someone else. It’s been so long since we last heard from D’Angelo that we may have forgotten who he sounds like, and what’s so startling about his first album in 14 years is that it has no precedent. Though it sounds more like Voodoo than anything else, Black Messiah stands alone as a freak of nature. This is groove music reimagined for a generation that didn’t experience the development of funk firsthand. Though all the classic elements of soul music are here, D’Angelo borrows an attenuated song sense from bebop, letting the melodies percolate out of the rhythmic interplay. The song lengths will challenge those whose faith in black music is rooted in the classics of the past, but in reality they speak the same truths, which is important since, as the artist himself has said, the reason it took so long to produce it is that he had something to say about the state of his people. It’s an album about community, about the worth not only of black lives, but the connections between them. Consequently, the music’s sinuous forward momentum conveys continuity with the future. You dance in one place, but you march ever onward. Continue reading

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March 2015 movies

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

Few American films of recent memory have set off such a flurry of passionate, crossfire opinions as Clint Eastwood’s account of the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. As with many of Eastwood’s myth-generating movies, this one presents a hero who is uncomfortable with his myth. As played by Bradley Cooper, Kyle is beefy and withdrawn, a man who knows what he’s good for and doesn’t derive much satisfaction from compliments. The problem many people have with the movie is the problem they have with the man, who in real life was said to be much more calculating, a dissembler who puffed up his own worth by deflating others’. We see none of that here, and it’s an important distinction since Kyle’s theater of operations is Iraq, where he spent four tours. Eastwood has us believe that Kyle could not function fully unless he was in the thick of battle, his senses fully engaged. Back in Texas, with his beautiful, very understanding wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), he’s an electrical cord waiting to be plugged in. Eastwood chooses which aspects of Kyle’s personality suits his purposes, and the street battle scenes in Iraq are not only some of the best work he’s ever done, they’re some of the best battle scenes ever shot in Hollywood: tense, observant, emotionally connected. But the capability of the direction is a function of the capability of the soldiers, as well as their dedication. The reasons these men are in Iraq killing civilians, who might otherwise kill them, are never interrogated, and if you thrill at the professionalism you have to buy into the myth that Americans were helping, when everything we’ve learned since 2003 proves that was not the case. It’s a lot to put on a film, especially one that is as dramatically rigorous as this one is. Eastwood doesn’t revel in the violence, though he does honor the skills that made Kyle a “legend,” as his colleagues call him. These decisions not only elevate Kyle to broken hero status, but diminish all those who pass through his gun-site. These Iraqis have no purchase on our sympathies, even as they’re being shot up with bullets, anybody’s bullets. It matters nothing to Eastwood that Kyle was a racist (he said as much in his memoir) and thus had no compunction about killing the other, even when they’re women and children. In the movie’s most famous scene, Kyle coolly shoots a mother and her young son who seem to be carrying a bomb. That Eastwood charges it with as much latent tension as he does attests to his filmmaking instincts; that it comes as a relief Kyle is “right” as far as the kill call goes attests to the viewer’s complicity in the lie of the hero. (photo: Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd., Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Feb. 22, 2015

Yoichi Watanabe

Yoichi Watanabe

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the state of Japanese journalism in light of the death of Kenji Goto. One aspect of the story that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed is the nature of freelance reporting in high risk areas. When the Foreign Ministry confiscated Yuichi Sugimoto’s passport to prevent him from going to Syria and doing his job, it received more critical coverage overseas than in Japan, which could be interpreted as evidence of the very problem we are talking about, that Japanese news organizations don’t take themselves seriously enough in the first place. As it stands, with the exception of Asahi Shimbun, major Japanese news outlets depend a great deal on freelancers and stringers since they usually don’t have correspondents in foreign countries, much less in war zones. If the journalist happens to live in the country from where he or she is reporting, it’s less of a problem, but most war correspondents don’t, so they have to handle their travel and other expenses themselves. According to a discussion I saw recently on DemocraTV, the normal procedure is for a news organization to give a war correspondent a fixed amount of money and the reporter has to make do with it. The amount will be determined by how long the reporter plans to be in country and how many reports the organization expects, but since he isn’t an employee of the company they don’t have to pay expenses or, more to the point, benefits. Even NHK, which has a relatively large news budget, doesn’t keep that many correspondents overseas, and if they have anybody covering conflict zones, they usually do so remotely. Of course, American and European news outlets also use freelancers and stringers, but they do send their own people into the thick of battle, as evidenced by the Brian Williams faux pas. The point is that while Sugimoto despaired of losing his livelihood when the government took away his passport, it’s a precarious livelihood at best. No one becomes a war correspondent to become rich. Goto’s reputation was that of a man who deeply cared about the people he covered, but there’s also a romantic, hard-boiled image that appeals to certain types of people and which draws them to this kind of work.

So it was a little disconcerting when Yoichi Watanabe, at one time the most famous war photojournalist in Japan, mentioned that he agreed that reporters should stay away from conflict zones in the Middle East right now. It should be noted that Watanabe’s fame has more to do with his “image” as a war reporter than with the actual reporting. Several years ago he was one of the most in-demand talento on network variety shows, mainly for his eccentric speech patterns, but he did talk about his experiences in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, and Darfur. Despite Watanabe’s higher profile, it didn’t spark greater interest in what war correspondents are doing overseas. Once his moment in the variety show sun passed, he presumably went back to his old routine, which is going to conflict zones and filing reports that few people see or remember. Though it’s perfectly understanable that these reporters will avoid certain areas for fear they will end up as Goto did, making public pronouncements about their fellow freelancers would seem to go against their own interests, but in the end the public doesn’t care very much, and probably won’t until Japan has more of a presence in the area. One thing’s for sure, if Japan does start sending troops overseas for whatever reason, these reporters will have more work than they’ll know what to do with.

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February 2015 albums

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

SleaterKinney_NoCities_Jé  largeWu_Al_cover_NoPA_093624932260[1]No Cities to Love
-Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A Better Tomorrow
-Wu-Tang Clan (Warner)
It can’t be said enough that Sleater-Kinney epitomized what was great about indie rock in the 90s better than any other band, namely a belief in the cathartic power of punk but minus the reactionary limitations that punk had been saddled with for 20 years. The trio transcended their chosen style early on without abandoning its fierce immediacy and was still growing creatively when they called it quits in the middle of the last decade. If you hear someone say that their new album sounds as if they never stopped, that’s what they mean, because despite the individual touchstones, which remain the same—Corin Tucker’s knife-like vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s visceral rhythm guitar, Janet Weiss’s improbably melodic drumming—this isn’t like any of their previous records. Though they return to the short song forms of their early days, the writing and arrangements eschew structure for the sake of expressive power, and the overall sound is harsher than it’s ever been. If they deem to do without a standard vocal melody on the title cut, the cross-cutting guitars supply their own tunefulness in juxtaposition, and when Brownstein, who really learned how to sing in the short-lived indie project Wild Flag, joins Tucker as an equal on the chorus of “No Anthems,” you wonder why they never tried harmonies before. Even “Price Tag,” which strikes me as the album’s weakest cut and thus a poor choice to start things off, presents its musical themes in such an unusual way that you know you’re not going to appreciate it until you’ve heard it several more times. The exuberance of the production belies the song titles’ generally negative attitude, or maybe it simply means that the band is heartened by the destruction of things that don’t need to exist any more. Obviously, they once thought that about themselves, and it’s nice to know they only got back together because they had something new to say. Being from Staten Island, where several high-profile racially-charged incidents have occurred in the past year, the ten members of the reunited Wu Tang Clan—including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who is sampled throughout—have plenty of fresh topics to rap about, though some do more of it than others. What was always most thrilling about the group’s approach was the stylistic contrasts and overlaps, especially between Method Man’s heartfelt delivery and Masta Killa’s staccato flow. I wouldn’t mind more Ghostface since in the years since Wu dissolved he’s proven to be the most interesting member, at least lyrically, but the point here is that RZA, after indulging his obsession with Asian pop culture to no compelling end, oversees the proceedings with a reinvigorated musical outlook that keeps things clanging and funky when they aren’t snaking their way into your lower extremities. Dig the marching band motif on the obligatory tag team exercise “We Will Fight.” Nobody does that kind of shit better. Continue reading

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