Media Mix, Oct. 19, 2014

Yuri Takano

Yuri Takano

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the rise of “black baito” and how the mass media decides which companies to out by name. Yuri Takano is cited at the end of the column as a corporate leader who has exposed her company to scrutiny because of her bold profile in the public eye. In a related article in the Asahi Shimbun about the beauty industry, Takano’s name and her companies’ names are mentioned frequently, but other “aesthetic salons” that also use black baito tactics to increase sales are allowed to remain anonymous, likely because most of the employees quoted, also anonymously, still work for the companies, but not all of them.

Takano, in fact, is such as exception to the rule that she rates snarky coverage even beyond the black kigyo issue. The Cyzo article points out that Takano was an early champion of Erika Sawajiri, the glamorous actress who was blackballed some years ago at the height of her initial popularity when her less-than-interested behavior at a press conference pissed off reporters, who, en masse, took her indifference to their questions as a personal insult. (Yes, saying the entire show biz press corps took the slight “personally” may sound hyperbolic, but that’s often the way the Japanese show biz press operates) Shortly thereafter, Takano hired Sawajiri for print ads and commercials for her Takano Beauty Clinic, effectively defying the media, which she could do because she herself was a powerful media figure. Cyzo states that Takano eventually became a “liaison” between the press and Sawajiri, thus smoothing the actress’s return to the limelight. However, at some point the two women had a falling out over, strangely enough, their respective views regarding support for reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku region, and as a result Takano “dumped” Sawajiri unceremoniously. The tabloid press characterized Takano’s actions as being exploitive: She hired the blackballed actress to gain even more notoriety for her brand and then cut her off after she served her purpose. It’s not a particularly convincing–or interesting–theory, but it does highlight Takano’s contentious relationship to the media and why the press views her as a convenient punching bag. In a sense, her work place violations are of little concern to the media. They’ll use any excuse to rag on her.

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Media Mix, Oct. 12, 2014

ido14092505020001-p6Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the new idol group, The Margarines, and how the media conditions adolescent girls’ self-image. My main criticism has less to do with the overt sexual meaning of the group than with the less obvious message of what constitutes value. Sex, of course, is a central attribute of show business. The real issue is agency. When artists incorporate sex into their acts as entertainers it’s important to note whether or not they are in control of that image. The equation with prostitution follows this line of thinking. There are many professional prostitutes in the world who control their business activities, while there are probably more who are basically in thrall to pimps and people who have some sort of hold over them. What’s disturbing about the debt aspect of The Margarines is that indebtedness is an age-old justification for women entering into prostitution. As pointed out in a recent piece by Tokyo Shimbun columnist Minako Saito, until the late 19th century it was legal for Japanese parents to pay off debts by selling their daughters to “entertainment facilities,” a euphemism for brothels, where they were kept in virtual slave conditions unless some patron bought their freedom. Is it a stretch to conflate this historical fact with The Margarines’ business model? Perhaps, but the point is that the members of the group don’t have any personal agency with regard to what they do on stage. They are clearly there to pay off their debts, which means they have to do what they are told, and until they pay off those debts they belong to someone else. Or, at least, that’s the narrative. Though I don’t care for idol groups in general, if their members display a sense of personal involvement and accomplishment in what they are doing then they can own the sexual component that’s implicit (or explicit, as the case may be) in the genre. But most female idol groups don’t. They are going through the motions, and younger girls at home are thinking, “That looks fun,” even before they understand what sex really entails.

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October 2014 albums

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

ariana14プリントMy Everything
-Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal)
-Alexandra Stan (Victor)
A lot of people seem to care that former-kid-star-turned-pop-diva-upstart Ariana Grande is now more popular in Japan than Mariah Carey, and I say good for her. Not that I have anything against Mimi, but the kind of mass appeal pop that both women trade in shouldn’t be monopolized by one manufactured artist for such a long time. And in a real sense, Carey moved on from her Top 40 pop-identified persona a long time ago when she embraced hip-hop wholeheartedly. Grande is going about her evolution much more rapidly. Here she is with only her second album and already she’s jettisoned the idol trappings that made her first few singles teen gold and earned her those Mariah comparisons. An absolute professional in that her chops can’t be discounted the way, say, Britney’s were at the same point in her career, Grande was originally tagged as a ballad singer, but My Everything makes a concerted appeal to the dance market, more exactly a dance market made up of adults. Sure, 90s idol-maker Max Martin is here, but so is Zedd and Cashmere Cat, not to mention guest intrusions from the likes of A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, and Childish Gambino. To say that some of the raps sound incidental and forced doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the tracks they appear on. The guest spots are often redundant. Sean’s gambit on “Best Mistake” only highlights the fact that Grande can do very well without him, and the best songs—the sexy, grooving “Hands On Me” and the trifecta confection (Nicki Minaj & Jessie J) “Bang Bang”—are straight-up vocal showcases whose production complements rather than oversees the performances. What makes the album a pleasure from start to finish is Grande’s confidence in both her skills and her ability to get the party going. Idols rarely convey that without sounding as if they’ve got a gun to their head. Romanian dance diva Alexandra Stan manages to hold her own against the production overkill on her third album, but Eurobeat tends to have different priorities, and as a result Stan’s girlish phrasing has a canned quality thanks to all the processing it’s put through. In terms of bangers, Unlocked is more action-packed than Grande’s album. Romania seems to be a hotbed of dance diva production right now, and Stan, who has already scored a chart hit in the US, represents a sort of new vanguard, but the girlish persona and vocal affectations, while distinctive enough, can’t make up for actual engagement, and there’s a sense here of serving the EDM needs of a market that won’t be denied, which is unfortunate. “Cherry Pop” is the kind of pure confection that made 90s idol pop irresistible, but in that regard the calculation can also backfire. Is “Happy” a half-assed attempt to appeal to the Taylor Swift demographic? Nothing wrong with derivative, but divas gotta stand up for themselves. Continue reading

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October 2014 movies

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

abouttimeAbout Time
High concept gets out-of-hand in this romantic comedy, which tries to make time travel work for its own purposes but ends up in thrall to the mechanics. The ability to move backward in time (but not forward) is hereditary, and when dad (Bill Nighy) explains how it works to his lawyer son, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson), you want to back up yourself to make sure you’ve got things straight. Tim gets the hang of it and understands he can change unfortunate outcomes. Director Richard Curtis incorporates this device into a conventional soulmate romance: Tim meets, marries, and raises a family with American Mary (Rachel McAdams), while utilizing his special ability to savor moments he took for granted the first time. However, some events are beyond meddling, and the tragedies seem less momentous for it, even though they are meant to show Tim that pain is an ineluctable part of living. As in many British movies of this type, the secondary characters are more interesting than the principals, so you wonder if it would have been better without the hocus pocus. (photo: Universal Pictures) Continue reading

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September 2014 albums

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

Alvvays pcd20336littledragonAlvvays
Nabuma Rubberband
-Little Dragon (Because/Warner)
Since pop and, especially, rock don’t exclusively belong to youth any more, the kids have to do something to distinguish their musical sensibilities from that of condescending elders, and over the years the preferred mode of delivery has been a cheaper sound. Some call it lo-fi, but that implies limited resources, and everybody has access to Pro Tools (or whatever the current software is) now. What youth wants to convey is the experience of listening to and playing music under the challenging circumstances of lowered expectations: crappy speakers (or earbuds), the verve of accomplishment set against still developing skills. Alvvays, a group from Toronto via Nova Scotia, embodies this attitude in much the same way that the C86 bands of Britain did when they appropriated early 60s pop as a means of cutting through the sophisticated bullshit offered up by mid-80s synth-pop acts. There’s a directness to their pop that transcends the cloudy sonics. Molly Rankin sports a lazy, care-free vocal style that constrasts with the fuzzy guitar tone in pleasing, humorous ways. Whether she’s undressing a fellow commuter in her mind or insufficiently lamenting the death of a lover there’s real personality: a young person owning up to the limitations of her cohort. The flatness of the musical effect does not make the songs any less catchy or moving; and, in any case, if you turn it up to clubland volumes you get what you need. The longing on “Archie, Marry Me” has less to do with Rankin’s singing than with the soaring lead guitar, which barely breaks out of the surrounding din and feels all the punchier for it. When the band settles down, the production approach simply makes them sound muddy, far away. Youth has a right to be loud, so don’t be shy; which may explain why Yukimi Nagano opens the fourth album by her group Little Dragon with a slow jam. The Swedish indie R&B quartet has had plenty of time to ponder their place in the world and Nabuma Rubberband is what used to be called a “mature work,” meaning thoughtful, insular, oblivious to commercial considerations. The kids in Alvvays might interpret that as being boring, as well, and if Nagano has nothing on Janet Jackson in terms of hooks, she often makes for a much more compelling vocalist. Still, the album reeks of experimentalism: game show interludes, synthesizer freestyles, even the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. In other words, it sounds like the major label debut it tries to be, but without the hits that major labels usually insist on. Nagano’s unique voice has always been the band’s central appeal, but their playful lyricism and left field soul moves gave them an edge over similarly purposed acts from Northern Europe. Nabuma Rubberband is an album made by a band who has been listening to the competition rather than Prince. It’s no fun getting old, but only fogies will blame you for sucking up to your juniors. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 31, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 7.50.43 AM

Advertisement for Shukan Bunshun rejected by Asahi Shimbun. The headline says, “Asahi Shimbun’s traitorous DNA.”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s reaction to Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of its comfort women reporting in the 1980s and 90s. Though I point out how right-leaning publications have used the retraction to their own advantage and offer some balancing commentary from left-leaning publications, the main point is that the “pile-on,” as my editor so colorfully put it in the header, may have more to do with economics and competition than it does with ideology. But ideology shouldn’t be discounted. One aspect I didn’t explore fully is the gradual drift over the years away from the center, though some commentators think there was never any drift; that Asahi has always been a staunchly left-of-center newspaper and Sankei a much farther right-of-center one. The point is that overt political positions are now seen as a means of cultivating a broader base for the more conservative media with the re-ascendance of the LDP in the past few years. In Masaru Sato’s Flash article, which I reference in the column, he says that newspaper reporters “unconsciously” write articles that fit their respective bosses’ stance in order to gain approval, regardless of their own predelictions. This isn’t to say they are lying or misleading readers, only that they will likely lean right or left in accordance with their employer’s position. This isn’t always true. The Asahi’s reporting on the collective self-defense issue could be seen as contradicting the paper’s editorial position, which is suspicious of the Abe constitutional end run; while the nominally right-wing Yomiuri and Nikkei have come out strictly against politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine, mainly for pragmatic reasons. What Sato wants to say is that when a publication sees an opening, such as the one offered by the Asahi with its retraction, rivals will rush through it recklessly because of the sensationalist points they can score. It’s been well documented that publications that consistently run negative articles about South Korea seem to sell well, which is why so many print such articles. Does that mean the general public is reactionary by nature? Not necessarily, but it seems to be a universal truth that right-leaning forces tend to be louder in the media in pursuit of their ends than left-leaning forces are. Sensationalism is its own reward.

There is one aspect of the criticism that foreign reporters may find problematic beyond its ideological tenor, and that is the way that criticism uses journalistic integrity as its main justification. All these publications characterize Asahi’s irresponsible reporting as a sin of the highest magnitude since the paper resisted the evidence for so long. In a “normal” media environment such a complaint would have weight, but in Japan it comes across as hyperbole because journalistic conventions aren’t held up to the same specific standards. Even among the articles I cited in the column, whether from the left or the right, almost all the sources are anonymous and there is little proof that assertions were corroborated. The template for reporting in Japan is simply vaguer around the margins, so any complaint by one media about another’s journalistic integrity is automatically less convincing. This is especially true when it comes to tabloids and weeklies, who, as Sato implied (writing for a weekly, it should be noted), come up with their conclusions first and then carry out information-gathering to support those conclusions. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination the think that these same publications willfully bend that information to their own needs. If your purpose is to bring down the Asahi, then, as Malcolm X used to say about a very different sort of conflict, you use any means necessary.

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September 2014 movies

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

Korean crime movies appropriate a cartoonish male brutality that can be tiring, but this thriller by Lee Jung-ho takes advantage of that ugliness to make a truly disturbing point. Factory foreman Sang-hyun (Jeong Jae-yeong) has lost his wife to cancer and now lives alone with his typically contrary teenage daughter. Constantly browbeaten at work by supervisors who are probably browbeaten themselves, he is usually too frazzled to address his daughter’s emotional needs at the end of the day, and one rainy evening, when a work emergency necessitates his staying late, he neglects to pick her up after school. As she walks home she is abducted, raped and killed. Sang-hyun is, of course, devastated, and can’t properly process the questions thrown at him by the gruff, equally put-upon detective, Eok-gwan (Lee Sung-min), who is in charge of the case. So when a teenage boy who had something to do with the crime anonymously texts Sang-hyun the names of the two acquaintances who carried it out, he reacts viscerally. The youth is acting not so much out of conscience but rather payback: He feels slighted by his two so-called friends. Without telling the detective, Sang-hyun goes to confront one of the boys and ends up killing him. It’s one of those scenes that are necessary to push the movie along its predestined path, and Lee is extremely careful not to make it seem gratuitous. Sang-hyun’s violence is desperate, and there’s no escaping the feeling that he means to kill. But the job isn’t complete because the boy’s accomplice is still at large. The title refers to a father’s inability to remain whole through such a tragedy, and Sang-hyun, now a fugitive, acts not out of rage but through a fog of incomprehension at the evil behind his victimhood—and his own irreconcilable emotions. “I can’t live in the same world as someone like you,” he tells the other boy when he finally finds him. It’s less an accusation than a realization of his own uselessness. What gives this theme resonance is Lee’s admirable skills as a thriller director. There is actually very little violence in the film, but what there is flows straight from an emotional core. Sang-hyun’s search takes him to a popular ski resort that has nevertheless been hollowed out by economic troubles. The abandoned restaurants and pensions that he uses as hideouts while the police look for him and he searches for the other boy mirror the emptiness of his soul, but they also offer prime settings for some very suspenseful encounters. Broken isn’t profound, but it has more resonance than most crime thrillers. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.) Continue reading

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