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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Media Mix, Aug. 24, 2014

Watanabe_knbHere’s this week’s Media Mix about Hirofumi Watanabe, the convicted extortionist who has enjoyed an unusually high degree of exposure thanks to Tsukuru magazine. Though the nature of that exposure has been problematic, it’s also been interesting in the way it reveals Watanabe’s interests and impulses. He’s been reactionary in the most elemental sense in that he has had a public outlet in which he can react to everything written or said about him in other media, either through Tsukuru or editor Hiroyuki Shinoda’s blog. Apparently, you can now even purchase an ebook containing Watanabe’s thoughts, all of which are focused on his situation, which always seems to be changing. As mentioned in the column, he changed his story several times after his arrest, each time shaping his image to something he felt was either more compatible to what he thought would attract readers or just more provocative. At first, his admission that he harbored “homosexual tendencies” sounded like the latter, but in a way it fits with his overall tale. He says that his mother and others always derided his appearance, and as some media have pointed out the comic he targeted, “Kuroko no Basuke,” fits into the “boys love” genre of manga, meaning comics that depict beautiful young men who sometimes manifest homoerotic tendencies. He hasn’t challenged this analysis, as far as I know, but he continues to refine his story in other ways, almost by whim. It’s a luxury few people can afford, if, in fact, it’s something to be desired. But if you think about the business of celebrity, where image manipulation is an ongoing and often difficult chore, Watanabe is in an almost charmed place. Whether or not this image is a “true” one we can’t know, but then, does it really matter?

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August 2014 albums

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

howtodresswell14matthewdavidWhat Is This Heart?
-How To Dress Well (Weird World/Hostess)
In My World
-Matthewdavid (Brainfeeder/Beat)
Though Tom Krell’s evolution as an established in-his-own-head R&B singer-songwriter has taken years, it’s difficult to listen to his latest album and not wonder what he thinks of Frank Ocean. No matter how you look at the genre, Ocean owns this peculiar and peculiarly popular new take on soulful romantic effusion, and even if you hand Krell props for his vocal skills you can’t get Ocean’s voice out of your head as you listen to him. If there’s a distinction that becomes apparent with repeated listenings it’s the way Rodaidh McDonald’s production adds a fuller musical clarity to Krell’s songs, something most conventional R&B, even Ocean’s, doesn’t deliver this consistently. The stuttering rhythms and throbbing undertow of “What You Wanted” adds shape to Krell’s typically melody-free verses. And if What Is This Heart? doesn’t stick in the gut as tenaciously as Channel Orange does, it asserts itself more readily as an album in that its appeal becomes more apparent with each subsequent song. By the time you get to “Precious Love,” a delicate and utterly lovely pop song that lingers tortuously on the edge of falsetto ecstasy, you’ll likely have forgotten all of Krell’s more obvious influences. If Ocean had done this song he would have used more genuine instruments, but Krell is obviously selling this collection on his singing, not his production or even his songwriting, and, pardon the stereotyping, but he sounds mighty fine for a white guy. If this doesn’t boost him into the big time nothing will. Matthew David McQueen, on the other hand, while equally obsessed with the slower-metered funk of Prince as it applies to contemporary sex-you-up singers, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the mainstream. If anything, he means to subvert it with his glitchy beats and slightly sarcastic drawl. His fulsome psychedelic touches make him a more original record-maker than How To Dress Well, though, by the same token, a less appealing one. The title cut of his new album would be a perfect match for original-era Stylistics if it weren’t so jagged and hyper, and elsewhere, as on the slightly near eastern “Artforms,” he dabbles in more caucasian-sounding pop that actually benefits from his spacy ministrations, so if he’s gonna mess with the funk, he should at least leave in what makes the style danceable. The freaky touches demand attention that could be better purposed toward enjoyment, which may sound like philistinism, but the forms he’s altering were developed to bring pleasure, so any revisions should at least take that into consideration. Otherwise, they’re just art projects. In an earlier era, In My World would have been called a “drug album,” a description that would have sold its rewards to the kind of people who could appreciate them best. It’s not at all certain that people who like R&B, even the hipster contingent, will get much entertainment value out of this. Continue reading

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August 2014 movies

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

Austerity is often a comfort to the psychologically oppressed, a means of focusing on something simple so as to push away whatever sadness and frustration the greater complexities of life give rise to. For Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novice in a rural Polish convent who is about to take her vows, austerity is all she knows, since, as an orphan, she has lived her whole life under the stern but understanding gaze of the Catholic church. Dedicating her life to God is not a choice, it’s the next step in a natural progression based on where she’s from. But then the mother superior tells her that before she commits, she should meet her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda whom Anna knows nothing about. For the first time in her life, the girl leaves the convent and travels to the city. When she arrives at her relative’s apartment, her aunt is entertaining a gentleman guest—or she was entertaining him. He puts on his clothes and leaves. Director Pawel Pawlikowski, working in his native Poland for the first time after several features made in England, is cagey with the time period, and it isn’t until Wanda (Agata Kulesza) explains the circumstances of Anna’s birth and that her real name is Ida, that we understand it has been about fifteen years since the end of the war, that Poland is deeply into its socialist phase. Wanda, it turns out, is a judge, a highly influential one. Her drinking and profligate behavior bespeak not privilege, but a profound bitterness. What she tells Anna/Ida is a shock: she was born to Jewish parents, her mother was Wanda’s sister, and they were killed near the end of the war after being hidden by people who worked on their farm. The particulars of the parents’ death aren’t revealed right away and Wanda suggests Ida revisit their hometown together to try and find their graves. Ida is a road trip during which Wanda drinks too much, is arrested, and then released when the police find out who she is; during which Ida meets and is charmed by an itinerant jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik), and learns the horrible truth of her parents’ death. The fact that this truth has more of an effect on Wanda than on Ida is one of the story’s most excruciating elements, and as with the curiously non-natural visual style—black-and-white stock, an old-fashioned frame ratio, characters exiled to the margins—the narrative is more suggestive than expository. But eventually you get the idea because when Pawlikowski wants you to know something, he tells you in no uncertain terms. Austerity can also be deceptive. In the case of this extraordinary film, it contains multitudes of meaning. In Polish. (photo: Phoenix Film Investments and Opus Film) Continue reading

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Media Mix, July 27, 2014

itune-17-june-708x265Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the arrest of artist Rokudenashiko. For the column I spoke to American filmmaker Anna Margarita Albelo, who was in Tokyo to screen her movie, Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?, at the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

What is the point of the vagina costume?

I wanted to talk about the fear of the vagina, the fear of powerful women, and the fear women have of their own sexuality. The character in the film is wearing the vagina costume in the beginning and has been doing so for a while, and it’s eclipsing her. The main character is a filmmaker and at the start of the movie she’s at the bottom of the barrel. The only way she can make money is by screening her movie in art galleries and dancing around in her vagina. She hasn’t addressed her problems, but she equates a lot of them to her love life and sexuality and the way it’s perceived. Continue reading

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