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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Media Mix, July 20, 2014

Katsuto Momii

Katsuto Momii

Here is this week’s Media Mix, mainly about Friday magazine’s “scoop” of what went down at NHK following an exclusive live interview with LDP Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on “Closeup Gendai,” but also about the mainstream media’s tepid coverage of the government’s decision to make the Self-Defense Forces available for collective self-defense activities overseas. Though I watched the Suga interview on NHK and, unlike the LDP aide referred to in Friday, thought it was too polite by half, it did at least try to get Suga to address the problematic issues involved. I’m not saying the media has not addressed these issues themselves, only that they haven’t aggressively tried to get the administration to address them when they’ve had the chance, which makes me wonder if there’s more at stake than just “politics.”

But the NHK angle is still worth exploring in detail. A few days ago, after the column was filed, a group of former NHK employees submitted a petition to NHK saying that Chairman Katsuto Momii should step down because of comments he has made that imply NHK should follow the government line. Though I can understand the petitioners’ sentiments, what bothers me about their demand is the idea that Momii can so easily exert his will on an organization like NHK. As I mentioned in the column, NHK’s programming can be diverse in terms of viewpoint. NHK news tries to steer straight down the middle of the road, which can make it seem as if it’s on the side of the government but mostly it just translates as a very narrow take on whatever topic is reported. NHK’s m.o. is overly cautious, which is why its reporters aren’t allowed to talk off the tops of their heads the way experienced TV reporters in other countries are expected to do. But shows like “Closeup Gendai” and many of the broadcaster’s documentaries get pretty deep into their subjects and often challenge the powers that be in their own limited way. I don’t think Momii’s presence at the top will change this situation in any substantial way, but in any case there seems little that former NHK employees can do about it. It’s up to current employees to convey information as truthfully and completely as possible. In 2001, an NHK production team made a special about a mock tribunal of Emperor Showa that found him guilty of war crimes, and when the LDP found out about it it supposedly convinced higher ups in NHK to alter the content so as to soften the tribunal results as they were aired. The organizers of the tribunal, who worked with production team on the program, sued NHK for breach of trust. Certainly the government (Shinzo Abe was involved in the alleged intimidation) and NHK top brass were the cause of the problem in this case, but the production team and their immediate superiors should have resisted them more resolutely. Unless, of course, they agreed with the tenor of the interference, in which case there isn’t much the former NHK employees–and NHK viewers–can do.

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Media Mix, July 13, 2014

Dr. Tomohiko Murakami

Dr. Tomohiko Murakami

Here is this week’s Media Mix, which is about the government’s difficulties in cutting medical expenses. Before anyone starts citing the column as proof that universal health care doesn’t work, keep in mind that, strictly speaking, Japan’s national health insurance system isn’t universal. Yes, everyone has to participate, but everybody has to pay taxes, too, and the insurance system is set up more as a tax, meaning you pay into the system what you can afford to pay. And because people pay in this way, they think they should get as much out of the system as they can, meaning treatment for even the smallest infirmity. That’s why everyone goes to the doctor when they have a sniffle. The government has been trying to discourage this kind of situation, especially among old people who look upon the medical system as some kind of social club, but whenever they game the system to penalize people for using it indiscriminately the media takes the side of the public and says the government is trying to kill people. Doctors couldn’t be happier, because that’s how they make money.

In the column, I also mention that more conscientious doctors believe the health care system as it’s operated in Japan also discourages preventive care, since the focus is on treatment of existing ailments. In a way, this problem manifests itself in the inordinate number of old people who are bedridden. The media, strangely, has never questioned this phenomenon, and act as if it’s normal for people to spend their waking hours prone after they turn 75. Active people in their 80s are celebrated as being superhuman, which is even odder considering that Japan’s longevity rates are the envy of the world. This approach to illness as something that happens out of the blue undermines the efforts of health maintenance professionals who try to convince the public that they will be not only healthier but happier if they take care of themselves.

This media mindset was illustrated in an interesting way in Dr. Tomohiko Murakami’s book, which I mention in the column. Murakami was the head of the city hospital in Yubari, and became infamous in June 2010 when the national press blasted him for refusing an ambulance’s request to bring a man to his hospital. At the time, such stories were being reported all over Japan, the result of cutbacks and other fiscal difficulties, but the media treated them all the same: monolithic medical institutions couldn’t be bothered with treating some people, even when they required emergency help. The reports implied that the Yubari man died of cardiac failure because he wasn’t treated, but as Murakami explains in the book, the man, a suicide, was already dead. The ambulance simply needed a doctor to declare him deceased, but at the time Murakami had his hands full with living patients since he was the only doctor on duty.

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