Media Mix, Nov. 23, 2014

Rina Sasazaki

Rina Sasazaki

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about that fourth-year university student whose informal employment agreement to be an announcer for Nippon TV was cancelled by the broadcaster when it found out she used to work part-time as a bar hostess. Though the controversy has rightly focused on NTV’s reasons for letting the woman go, it’s strange that no one has mentioned the naitei aspects of the matter. “Naitei” is the word that is used to describe this informal method of recruiting unversity students for companies. As every media has pointed out, Rina Sasazaki was recruited during her third year at Toyo Eiwa University, and was even receiving some training before she told her liaison about the hostess job. Since one condition of the informal agreement is that the applicant not seek similar work elsewhere, Sasazaki’s lawyers, as well as several media, have cried foul because it is now too late for her to secure work as an announcer at another broadcaster. But she doesn’t graduate until next spring, and now that she’s been let go, what’s to stop her from looking somewhere else? What’s stopping her is the naitei custom, which seems to have a time limit, and one that is not quite as “informal” as the name suggests. For years now, the way that companies recruit college students has been criticized, mainly because it obviates the need for students to do anything during their senior year. Though these agreements are informal, almost all the students who receive them go on to work for the companies that offer them, and most are offered before the students enter their last year of study. Since they are guaranteed jobs, there’s little incentive to do more than the bare minimum to graduate, and it seems most students just cruise through that last year. Universities don’t care as long as they get their money, though it also appears that instructors and professors, so as not to make obvious that this sort of slacking is common, give out better grades than the students deserve. The purely cynical among us (or purely practical, depending on your own level of cynicism) will say this hardly matters; that the whole Japanese university system is rigged so that once you are enrolled in an institution of higher learning it is to the benefit of that institution that you remain for the duration, so grades are kind of beside the point. It’s why Japanese college life has the reputation of being one long vacation between the exam hell of high school and the work hell of corporate servitude. In any event, Sasazaki ended up being a victim of the naitei system, though I’m sure in the beginning she thought of herself as its beneficiary. From all reports she planned her ascension to her dream job of joshi-ana carefully and resourcefully — including that stint as a bar hostess — so it’s easy to imagine her disappointment when the system she followed so well betrayed her.

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November 2014 albums

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

aphextwin14Death From Above 1979 - Physical WorldSyro
-Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
The Physical World
-Death From Above 1979 (Last Gang/Victor)
Richard James may be the most emblematic musician in the history of techno. His reputation for innovation has as much to do with his crafty sense of self-image as it does with his technique, whether musical or electronic. Since his 90s heyday as Aphex Twin, he’s resurfaced occasionally, usually under a new moniker, to throw out something completely unexpected and not always comprehensible, a gambit that seemed to have more to do with keeping followers off-balance than anything else. It’s thus surprising that his first collection of actually new material under the AT name in more than a decade-and-a-half sounds very much like his best-loved stuff, only better, because rather than split the difference between bonkers pop parodies and neo-classical stumpers he presents 12 tracks of finely calibrated music that, while not exactly qualifying as songs, have enough structure and melodic sense to appeal directly to the heart. Given that the titles are elaborate techno-inspired nonsense, it’s obvious James didn’t want to give too much of the game away, but when you get down to it this is what techno always promised but rarely delivered. Since James was never much of a club maven, there’s little here that will appeal to the IDM crowd, but its “intelligence” is undeniable. Using equipment that sounds more 90s than 00s, he limits his palette to familiar forms and creates textures through juxtaposition and isolation. It’s an album that is definitely arranged in that all the note placements feel deliberate in relationship to one another. The result is a collection of cuts each of which entertain on their own while coalescing into an integrated whole. And even when the music becomes “difficult” it rarely strains the imagination. As the saying goes, it’s hard to make it all seem so easy. Toronto’s Death From Above 1979 hasn’t taken as long to release their latest album—their previous one, which happened to be their debut, came out in 2004—but since they don’t have the cachet James enjoys it feels like forever. Made up of drummer-vocalist Sebastian Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse F. Keeler, the duo broke up for a number of years before reforming in 2011. The band’s touch point, as heralded by the title of their debut, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, was the uncontrollable id, a theme made aural with a harsh, ear-splitting combination of metal sentiment and industrial noise, but melodic all the same, which is why they were, for a brief period, the hottest live act on the underground circuit. The Physical World doesn’t so much take up where the previous album left off as repeat the formula with a little more humility. There’s a greater effort to be conventionally enjoyable while maintaining the caustic volume levels. The riffs are as muscular as they’ve ever been but the pair don’t resort to as many spontaneous bursts of discomfort as they once did. As with James, maturity has made them more amenable to entertaining. Continue reading

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November 2014 movies

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

By now everyone knows how this film was made. In 2003, Richard Linklater started shooting a core cast of four individuals playing a nuclear family and over the next twelve years built on their story as all grew older in real time. This premise is impressive enough—how could Linklater have known all four actors would stick with the project?—but the logistics are even more astounding when you learn that when he did shoot it was only for a week at a time, because there is something wholly integrated about the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), nuanced and deeply inhabited, even though we only see him in an incidental fashion. And even those incidents tend to be small—getting a haircut, going bowling, hanging out and talking shit. Except for high school graduation and a few deliberately melodramatic scenes, it is an accrual of modest anecdotes, but which convey his personality and development more satisfyingly than so-called major events. At six, Mason’s parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), are already separated, and it’s implied his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), was unintended. Mason Sr. is a free spirited, irresponsible soul who has the luxury of popping into his children’s lives when he wants to, thus placing pressure on Olivia, who is burdened with the bulk of the disciplinary chores. This tension is always present in the various interactions, even when all the principals aren’t around, but it also dissipates over the years in a naturalistic way that indicates how carefully Linklater controlled the storyline. Neither parent is let off the hook. While Mason Sr. is seen as a charming knave and eventually forced to give up his slacker ways when he starts a new family, Olivia makes bad partner choices, two men who are more ostensibly responsible but who also turn out to be alcoholics. If this is mostly background to Mason’s central story, it’s invaluable background, because Mason, as played by the sinuously charismatic Coltrane, internalizes these issues in the way he makes decisions. He turns into an intelligent young man who has the affability of his father without the egocentricities, while also acquiring his mother’s sense of justice (she returns to school and eventually becomes a literature professor) but with a more realistic viewpoint. Drugs, sex, all the usual adolescent trapdoors that kids have to navigate are presented without much editorial input, and despite the title Samantha is afforded a full measure of attention for her own foibles. As she and Mason grow into handsome adults with their own problems, both Olivia and Mason Sr. fill out unflatteringly and become more attuned to the hand life has dealt them. In movies, that sort of quotidian honesty is rarely addressed so movingly—or entertainingly. (photo: boyhood inc./ifc productions i, LLC) Continue reading

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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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