Review: Son of Saul

『サウルの息子』メインA winner at Cannes and favored contender for the best foreign language film Oscar this year, Laszlo Nemes’s debut feature is both formally audacious and thematically provocative, so much so on both counts that it’s difficult to absorb all the implications while sitting through the movie. Movies about the death camps start from a position of high tension, and making good on that tension is central to the value of the film. Nemes gears up our anxiety by throwing us directly into the horror. His protagonist, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), is a Hungarian Jew assigned to be a Sonderkommando, an inmate who essentially carries out the labor at the Nazi death camps, in this case Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul moves new arrivals into the gas chambers, clears out the bodies afterwards, and separates clothing and other valuables. Perhaps understanding that showing these atrocities would be overwhelming, Nemes chooses to keep his camera close to Saul, so that the horrors mostly occur on the periphery of the frame, but there is still the voices and other sounds—of barked orders, panicked victims, and various mechanical noises, all of which are sufficiently overwhelming in their suggestiveness. After fifteen minutes you want the projectionist to call a time out so you can collect your wits. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Jan. 10, 2016

plt1512170005-p1Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the recent Supreme Court decision on separate names and its potential effect on the legalization of same-sex marriages. In the column I pointed out that the majority of the judges on the court ruled that requiring married couples to have the same name did not violate the Constitution, but I did not say that the three female judges all held the minority opinion. I also didn’t mention that constitutional scholar Sota Kimura repeatedly mentioned in his commentaries on the case that he found the media’s focus on this aspect condescending toward those three judges. Reporters and other commentators repeatedly said that the three judges decided that the same name law was unconstitutional “because they were women.” While it’s true that the bessei (separate names) issue has mainly been framed as a women’s issue, reducing the three judges’ decision to a matter of gender loyalty shortchanges their capabilities as jurists and implies a personal agenda. This sort of prejudice is part of the reason why bessei has never been discussed for what it is, which is a right, not an obligation or an intrusion. Conservative elements that want to preserve the Civil Code mandate on same names for family units as defined by the koseki (family register) have always maintained the upper hand by making it seem as if the supporters of separate names would somehow make them mandatory, and the media has never challenged these conservative elements on this misunderstanding. The question should be framed, “Do you think married people should have the right to use separate names?”, but invariably surveys frame it as, “Do you think married couples should use separate names?”, which makes it sound like an obligation. The three female judges see the matter as a civil right, and making it seem as if they are pushing their own interests misrepresents their intentions. Continue reading

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Best albums of 2015

homepage_large.5ba6f1c6In a word, this was a great year for hip-hop, as evidenced by the worldwide acclaim for To Pimp a Butterfly, a record I listened to a lot, and the only reason it didn’t land on this list was probably because in the last few months so many other albums pushed it out of my consciousness. That doesn’t detract from its value, but it does make it less of a presence in my world, which is what these lists are all about. It’s impossible to be objective about music, though it’s nice if you have the time to be able to try to be objective, but of all the albums on this list only the Future joint didn’t immediately grab me the first time I listened. In contrast, there were a few country albums I liked right off the bat–Alan Jackson, Maddie & Tae, Ashley Monroe, Jason Isbell–but they didn’t sustain themselves for as long as it took to make it to the end of the year, which isn’t to suggest I’ll never listen to them again. I didn’t really like the Kacey Musgraves album much when I first heard it and I still think the themes are too conventional, but her craft eventually got to me, just not enough to make me forget Brian Henneman’s. And, yes, I did splurge for the Dylan opus, but not the 18-CD version. What do you take me for? Continue reading

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Best movies of 2015

FURY ROADI don’t know if I saw fewer movies this year than last or more, and I don’t feel like counting to find out. For sure, there were a few I wanted to see that I didn’t, like Phoenix, which made quite a few critics’ lists, but as for Hollywood and bigger budget entertainments, I found that if I did miss press screenings I could usually count on them being shown at my local multiplex, which is ten minutes from my house by bicycle. They have late shows for only ¥1,300, and Thursday is “Men’s Day.” Tomorrow, I’ll turn 60, which means…well, no need to get anal about it. It’s been so long since I’ve regularly seen movies in a theater rather than in a screening room that the occasions when I do have become special. What’s weird is that whenever I go to the multiplex, I’m usually the only person in the theater, which makes me wonder how they can possibly stay in business. Of the movies on the following list, only one was watched in a movie theater. I almost included Mad Max: Fury Road, another movie I saw in a theater, but since I never wrote about it I hadn’t really considered why I enjoyed it. In a sense, its appeal was centered on how resistant it was to analysis. I get the stuff about female power and George Miller’s talent for comic violence, but those points seem tangential to the movie’s effect, which is purely visceral. It would be like saying, I loved the movie because I got to see it on a huge screen with kickass sound in a theater I had to myself. It has nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with “the movies.”

After the jump is my list of the best movies released theatrically in Japan in 2015. Continue reading

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January 2016 albums

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

-Sophie (Numbers/Beat)
-Years & Years (Interscope/Universal)
Pop music continues to evolve despite isolated gripes about how it’s all the same forms only rejiggered from a technological aspect. If you compare what’s different between chart hits that came before the turn of the century and after you do notice a marked change in vocal styles and sonic textures, and both definitely have something to do with technology but only in that new equipment and software make them possible. Someone still had to have the idea to use them to these ends. Sophie, the pop music art project of British producer Samuel Long, substantializes this theory. The title of Long’s first mini-album, a collection of singles already released, refers frankly to one obvious use of pop music, and, reportedly, he’s already sold some of these tracks to companies like McDonald’s, which may or may not support the idea that this is “future” pop music but definitely indicates that it has a place in commerce. What’s typical about Long’s music is its circumscribed qualities. As with most electro-pop nowadays, percussion is merely suggested, and while there are occasionally vocal-led melodies for the most part the pleasure these tracks evoke is abstract. Long purposely makes his textures as electronic-sounding as possible, and even the singing, often delivered via a highly processed female avatar made to sound very juvenile, smacks of artificiality. This remains the old-fashioned view of the future, but even if Sophie sounds extreme as pop it carries with it feelings that are recognizable. What it mainly lacks is the potential for something more. Even the closing track, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” clearly the most memorable pop song on the album, feels constrained by its idea. You know it will never break out of its delineated set of sounds. Who would have thought that the future of pop would be to collapse in on itself? Years & Years, a more conventional post-millennial electro-pop group, trades in the same constricted sonics, which are produced by two guys, Mark Ralph and Two-Inch Punch. The singing, however, is done by actor Olly Alexander, who copies the high melisma of fellow Brits like Sam Smith, a style that owes a lot to Jeff Buckley except that Jeff Buckley would have never allowed his vocals to be tweaked this much. Communion, the trio’s debut album, opens with a slow number, as if to establish Alexander’s seriousness as an artist, and only later offers up dance tracks that nevertheless only go so far as club bangers. This is pop music with a mission to tease your brain, though the melodies lack that visceral appeal we want from pop, and therein may lie the difference. Y&Y understands that the most basic quality of pop is repetition, which is necessary to create earworms, and electro-pop succeeds or fails on the strength of its hooks. Pop music without hooks sounds like a contradiction in terms. Welcome to the new world. Continue reading

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January 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

aboutrayAbout Ray
Gaby Dellal’s bittersweet comedy assumes so many edgy POVs that it feels drained of meaning, with the resulting vacuum filled by a rush of barbed jokes and conventional domestic drama. The titular adolescent (Elle Fanning) is hoping to transition from a girl to a boy but needs both parents’ permission. Her put-upon single mom (Naomi Watts) is hard pressed to locate, much less contact, Ray’s father (Tate Donavan), who is cosily ensconced in the suburbs with a new family, so the kid’s impatience turns into the usual caustic teenage truculence, exacerbated by her and her mother’s material situation. They live with Ray’s grandmoter (Susan Sarandon) and the grandmother’s female lover (Linda Emond) in a stylish Manhattan town house. This purposely challenging clash of social dynamics becomes almost too much, and while the dialogue is often rich and Watts transcends her thankless role as enabler-in-charge with a portrait of desperation that’s much more effective than Fanning’s, the viewer never really empathizes with anyone’s situation because there’s nothing much to identify with. I mean, where do they get their money? (photo: Big Beach LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Dec. 6, 2015

139072220751240364227Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization’s complaint against the government for censuring NHK over some staged content on one of its news shows. In the column I imply that NHK tends to toe the government line anyway, but my editor clarified in the first sentence that NHK is a “national broadcaster,” which slipped by me during the proof-reading phase. NHK is more properly described as a “public” broadcaster, though it’s perfectly understandable if people think it belongs to the government. In fact, a lot of people believe just that.

In fact, this interpretation was reinforced last Thursday at the regular NHK press conference, when the company’s president, Natsuto Momii, addressed reporters’ questions about the censures–both the Liberal Democratic Party’s of NHK, and the BPO’s of the LDP. Momii downplayed the matter, saying it was no big deal. He said that NHK went to the relevant government committee a while ago to deliver a report on the incident and the committee expressed its concern over the staged interview. Momii said NHK accepted the opinion of the LDP, “but that doesn’t mean we received pressure from them.”

As far as the Broadcast Law goes, while Momii didn’t mention it by name, he reiterated that “we always strive for impartiality,” and that when any organization requires an “explanation” of their broadcast practices, NHK is happy to go and talk to them, and not just the LDP. “That doesn’t mean we do what they tell us to do,” he stressed, making sure the reporters understood that while NHK listened to complaints, it followed its own conscience. On the other hand, he declined to comment on the BPO’s opinion.

The BPO’s complaint toward the LDP, however, was meant to expand on concern for all broadcasters, not just NHK, even if NHK was the object of the LDP’s scolding. In a sense, Momii’s waving off the controversy just goes to show that NHK and the LDP have a nice relationship. In other words, they have an understanding, and you can take that to mean whatever you want.

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