June 2014 movies

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

GHB_6852 20130121.CR2The Grand Budapest Hotel
It’s telling of Wes Anderson’s curious ouevre that his best films are set in an idealized past that feels like a physical place, as if the present were too changeable to get a fix on. Of course, the past is changeable, too, open to shifting interpretations, but Anderson likes the idea that what really happened can’t be changed, and though his films are fictions he treats them with such unerring sureness of purpose that they feel less like memories and more like fossils. Judging by the way he circles around his main plot in The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s obvious he misses the idea of the “old Europe,” which idealized civilized behavior. In a gambit that feels like a brilliant joke, he moves backwards from the present through not one, not two, but three layers of flashback to the titular institution, a fine hotel in the mountains of the made-up country of Zubrowka lorded over by the proud, effeminate concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who beds his elderly female customers (and probably a few of the male ones) as a show of hospitality that keeps them coming back for more, so to speak. Gustave’s management style is meticulous but fair, and he treats his new “lobby boy,” Zero (Tony Revolori), with respect rather than condescension because Zero must pass on the values of service that the hotel stands for. We already know from the second layer of flashback that Zero will grow up to be Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel in its shabbier 1960s incarnation, and it is Mr. Moustafa’s warm narration that sets the tone of this remarkable tale, loosely based on the writings of Stefan Zweig but nevertheless wholly Andersonian in execution and feeling. On the eve of World War II, Zubrowka is under pressure from authoritarian forces that contradict the old European sensibility M. Gustave represents. The concierge is forced to act on his impulses after a crime occurs in his little empire that affects the fortunes of his most illustrious customer (Tilda Swinton). He becomes embroiled not only in the customer’s noble, in-fighting family, but in the intrigues that will soon plunge the region into war, and he dives into these adventures with all the facility and determination of a fop James Bond. The machinations get complicated, and if Anderson seems to make them that way just to utilize as many of his friends as possible (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum) he doesn’t shortchange the viewer. You follow as breathlessly as M. Gustave as he skis down the side of an Austrian Alp in pursuit of an art thief. The Grand Budapest Hotel has everything you want from a movie. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox) Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 18, 2014

211513503571Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the press reaction to a research group’s finding that a good many local governments may actually vanish by mid-century due to loss of population, specifically young females. The government has been talking about the low birthrate issue for at least two decades and hasn’t really done anything, but it’s perfectly right to wonder what they could possibly do about it anyway that wouldn’t interfere in some way with people’s lives. The choice to not have a child is, for better or worse, a common hallmark of developed countries. Before marriage became more open and birth control more available, having a child wasn’t thought to involve a “choice.” It was what happened to any woman who got married and to quite a few who didn’t.

When the cabinet-affiliated panel said that it needed to come up with a target birthrate before it could make recommendations, media eyebrows rose in unison because the comment smacked of social engineering. It was a year ago that the government’s plan to distribute handbooks to young women that would provide them with information about pregnancy was blasted by women’s groups as being narrow-minded and discriminatory, since the measure implied that the low birthrate was the fault of the nation’s females and thus they had to “solve” it. The proposal was quickly withdrawn. Similarly, after the panel made its remarks about targets, trade minister Akira Amari told reporters in what Asahi Shimbun described as carefully chosen words that the government is not forcing people to have children. He clarified that it is the government’s role to create an environment in which people would want to have children, though even that last phrase is perhaps putting words into his mouth. What he really said was something along the lines of an environment that would allow people to “demonstrate their will.”

This sort of tippy-toeing through the matter only goes to show that the government doesn’t really understand human nature. Though it’s obvious that people allowed to exercise their free will with regards to procreation will likely have fewer children on the whole, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to have any at all. In fact, most people want to get married and have children, with two being the optimum number, according to one government study. And since the government has said that the optimum number for maintaining the present population level is 2.07, then all the government has to do is make it possible for people to feel they can have children; i.e., that they can afford it.

But first these people have to get married, and that’s a bigger obstacle than it sounds, as proven by statistics that show both men and women are marrying at later ages. The problem with the marriage model in Japan is that for many years it was an engineered arrangement, as shown by the statistic that 95 percent of boomers are married, and most met their spouses at work. In those days, men got permanent employment at a company that also hired women as clerical help but mainly to provide spouses for those men, because those men couldn’t be expected to find mates on their own outside of work, to which they were expected to dedicate their lives. That employment model has become obsolete, but men still have difficulty finding mates outside of work, and now the government has finally come around to the idea of women working full-time in order to help support the economy. It doesn’t matter if, as so many media outlets claim, women would rather be full-time housewives. Men’s salaries and benefits no longer support that kind of family structure. So if the government really thinks it has an obligation to do something that will increase the birthrate, first it has to abandon its rigid concept of courtship and marriage.

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May 2014 albums

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

boygeorgekylieThis Is What I Do
-Boy George (Very Me/Sony)
Kiss Me Once
-Kylie Minogue (Parlophone/Warner)
It’s a given that the older a pop star becomes the greater his or her desire to make music of substance, even if that simply means more substantial fluff. Both Boy George and Kylie Minogue have been around long enough to fall into this category, and the descent of that fall may be deeper for them owing to well-publicized personal challenges over the years. George Alan O’Dowd spent the better part of the last two decades not producing music but rather headlines due to his intemperate drug use and even more intemperate (and sometimes very true) public statements. This Is What I Do is one of those warts-and-all summings-up that doubles as a commercial comeback, and if a lot of people buy it as such it’s because they had something emotionally invested in the singer when he was setting soul music on its ear as the leader of Culture Club. As it stands, the voice is rougher but not unrecognizable, and the affection for 80s club styles and, especially, reggae is undiminished. More to the point, George’s uncompromising nature is advanced as the leitmotif, obvious in the song titles alone: “King of Everything,” “Bigger Than War,” “Live Your Life,” “My God.” The redemption theme is covered in gloriosity by a strident born-again approach that both derides fundamental Christians for daring to question his faith and asking the rest of us why we don’t believe in Him in the first place. His anti-war and pro-environmental stands are welcome if a bit simplistic, but that may just be a function of the music, which is bombastic in an unsettling way, as if George had decided to make up for the tight ensemble sound of his old band with the more flamboyant sonics characteristic of 80s Top 40. But there’s only one Elton John. Kylie’s problems were not of her own making—she’s a cancer survivor—but they were equally obsessed over by the media, and her new album splits the difference between the kind of light, effective dance pop that made her name and big-boned declarations of personal growth and worth. For those of us who always appreciated Kylie’s pop smarts without thinking the contrived cuteness was a necessary component, the show of maturity is welcome though contrived in its own way. The exception is Pharrell Williams’ “I Was Gonna Cancel,” a life-affirming song that, since it was written especially for her, takes into consideration her situation and was clearly composed by a fan who wants the best for her. In other words, it’s catchy and to the point, and a better song than “Get Lucky,” for what that’s worth. The dance numbers are more attractive than the ballads, but still rely on the robotic rhythms and processed vocals that have never hurt Kylie’s reputation as a diva. Craft was never her strong point, so why bother asserting talents she never possessed? Surviving has its own special appeal. Continue reading

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May 2014 movies

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

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The only justification for making an entirely new franchise of the Spider-Man saga so soon after the first one ended, besides printing money, is that the Tobey Maguire series wasn’t true to the comic’s plot, which meant a lot to the coterie of kids who grew up with it. Peter Parker was the first angst-ridden superhero because he was a teenager with typical adolescent problems exacerbated by the responsibilities that come with special abilities. The biggest change the first series made was eliding Peter’s first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and going right to his eternal soulmate Mary Jane Watson. So the second installment is the real test, because it tests Peter’s convictions as a superhero against his love for Gwen. However, the screenplay, written by at least four guys, crams so much incident into its two-and-a-half hours that nothing feels consequential, not Peter’s employment as a news photographer (J. Jonah Jameson only figures as a by-line in an email), not his investigation into the reason for his parents’ disappearance, not the ghost of Gwen’s police chief father, not even the feeling of betrayal that causes Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), to turn into the Green Goblin. Even the central standoff between Spidey and Electro (Jamie Foxx) feels as if it’s been shoehorned into the plot as a means of demonstrating how perilous Spider-Man’s public persona is, since Foxx’s character, a nebbish named Max Dillon, is enamored of the web-spinner as only a lonely nerd could be, and when he’s jolted with a huge surge of electricity, thus turning him into a human super conductor, the accompanying sense of power works on his eternally bruised ego, and he imagines Spider-Man as one of his tormentors, even though he once saved his life. But besides the blue glow that Electro gives off, there’s little that’s memorable about him as a super-villain. He’s basically a poor putz who’s going down for all the wrong reasons, whereas Harry, who’s enormously wealthy and powerful to begin with but dying of a genetic disease, is a more monumental bad guy, though Peter still thinks there’s something redeemable beneath the malice. The real subtext of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t teenage angst, but the nature of celebrity, which isn’t a bad theme but it’s been done to death in our age and neither the army of screenwriters nor director Marc Webb has the patience or the time to treat it with any nuance. Webb has his hands full anyway with all the special effects, which are so overbearing you wonder if any of the actors actually had to work in front of a green screen this time. No one and no thing looks natural here. Maybe it’s time for Marvel to get back to actual comic books, which are unnatural by definition. (photo: CTMG) Continue reading

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Media Mix, April 27, 2014

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Minori Kitahara (Asahi Shimbun)

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about writer and entrepreneur Minori Kitahara’s book about patriotic wives. One aspect of Kitahara’s exploration of the phenomenon that I didn’t mention in the column was her sense of identification with these women; not identification with their views, but with their methods. In the 90s, when Kitahara became interested in women’s issues she “looked for friends who actively participated in the women’s movement.” She and her comrades would pass out condoms in Aoyama or stage events about women’s sexuality. “I really wanted to change society,” she writes, and when she attended some of the rallies and discussions put on by these patriotic wife groups she realized they “weren’t that different [than we were] in outward appearance or socioeconomic circumstances.” Moreover, her motivation in being an activist was the belief that her opinions were not unusual, that they represented common sense which the general public would understand if only they were made aware of them. And that’s the same attitude these patriotic wives hold about their own opinions. At the same time, while Kitahara’s groups included many married women and full-time homemakers, they tended to exclude women who they thought didn’t fully share their viewpoints, so in a sense they were just as parochial as the patriotic wives. What Kitahara seems to be getting at here is that the concept of gender solidarity that makes her wonder how these patriotic wives could not believe the Korean comfort women may not really extend further than sensibility. At one point she talks to a pair of women at a Hana-dokei rally, mistaking them for being liberals because of the way they dressed (backpacks). It turned out they were supporters of Hana-dokei. “Are the people you’re with Korean?” one of them asks Kitahara. “Because that’s the way they look.” Though she might have been offended by this remark, she sympathizes with them when they express anger that the “media doesn’t take this group seriously,” because she felt the same way when she was active in the women’s movement. So one of the reasons they seem so strident is that they’re frustrated at the thought that society thinks they’re marginal when they think of themselves as normal. She can understand, and concludes it may have more to do with the fact that they’re women and not so much their reactionary rhetoric.

Nevertheless, while she thinks that their approach to women’s issues may be more mainstream than her own, she feels deeply that it isn’t coherent, and their resentment of Korean comfort women is directly informed by their insecurity as wives. Though they may not say it, they believe their husbands are capable of straying; but, in accordance with the cliche, it’s the fault of devious women, because they think it’s men’s nature to stray. If they agree with Toru Hashimoto that the comfort women system was necessary for military morale, they also hate the system for being necessary in the first place. It’s like that other cliche about the “other woman” whom the wife blames more than the husband who cheated. Where Kitahara and these patriot wives part company on the question of women’s sensibility is the question of who has agency in the sexual transaction. Kitahara still thinks men have the upper hand, at least socially speaking, while these patriot wives believe women do, which is why they don’t believe the comfort women are victims, much less “sex slaves,” a phrase they find repulsive.

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Media Mix, April 6, 2014

post_4527_20140402The photo and caption my editor chose for this week’s Media Mix touched on an aspect of the consumption tax hike I didn’t mention in the column itself, mainly because there wasn’t enough room and seemed sort of incidental, but, then again, there are so many incidentals to the tax hike story that they constitute a full-blown issue unto themselves. Though the government is trying to be thorough about making businesses add the tax increase directly on to prices so as to make it clear that everyone is supposed to pay it equally, businesses will find ways of using the structure of the law to their advantage. So while McDonald’s is obliged to fork over the increase in full to the tax bureau, they spread it out in such a way that some customers may think they’re getting a bargain. Apparently, vending machine companies are doing the same thing, according to a report I saw last week on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station.” These companies have to pay 3 percent more in consumption tax for every item they sell in a given machine, which theoretically means they add the proper amount to each price, but vending machines don’t make change in any denominations less than ¥10, so the companies are spreading the tax around the items in a machine in such a way that the tax is figured for sales from the entire machine, meaning some prices will be increased while other may be decreased, but in any case all items won’t equally bear the tax hike.

Though these considerations can hardly be called loopholes, the system does have enough of them to make trouble for tax collectors. After filing this week’s column I saw two reports, one on NHK’s website and another in the Asahi about a small exporter who was caught by the tax bureau for cheating on his consumption tax reporting. This Tokyo company, called Crescendo International, sells fishing rods and reels overseas, which means it doesn’t have to collect consumption taxes from buyers and pass it on to the government. However, it does have to pay consumption taxes to its domestic suppliers, which means the government refunds those taxes later. This, of course, is one of the stickier parts of the system and one the media rarely talks about. In the context of the bullying of small suppliers that I talked about in the column, it results in a huge windfall for a lot of exporters. For instance, Toyota doesn’t have to charge consumption taxes on all the cars it sells overseas, but it does have to pay consumption taxes to its many suppliers. In negotiations, though, the bigger company often pressures the supplier to absorb the consumption tax if it wants to keep the bigger company’s business. But the government doesn’t know that, and the bigger company, though it isn’t actually paying the consumption tax, can still legally report that it did and then get a refund, which amounts to being free money. From all appearances, Crescendo actually made a living from this scam because it never recorded a profit since it was established less than ten years ago. However, it received ¥22 million in consumption tax refunds from the government in 2011 and 2012. The company bought supplies amounting to ¥55 million, but reported that it paid ¥400 million for the equipment, including applicable consumption taxes. Since all of these items were then presumably sold in the US and Australia, Crescendo wasn’t compelled to pass on the consumption tax they paid, so it qualified for a refund. It’s an easy fraud, since the required documentation is simmple–an application form you download from the Internet and easily forged invoices. Crescendo supplied both to its allegedly innocent accountant, who then made the proper submissions. The refund comes back four weeks later. According to Asahi, the company was receiving between ¥500,000 aned ¥1.5 million a month in refunds, and when the company was caught the owner admitted it was all a big scam and that he never thought about making a profit since it was easier to play the tax system. About 138,000 companies apply for refunds every year, and in the last five the tax office says it’s collected ¥10 billion in wrongful refunds and attached penalties from companies that abused the system. Considering how easy it is to pull off, that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg.

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April 2014 albums

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

Atlas_12GatefoldSan Cisco - San Cisco - JK写Atlas
-Real Estate (Domino/Hostess)
San Cisco
(RCA/Sony)
The promises made by independent rock labels since the 80s have shifted subtly but continuously. In the beginning the pledge was obvious: honesty and clarity of intent, or whatever it was you couldn’t expect from major labels. Punk’s candor eventually loosened its grip, and though indie rock as a genre means less than it used to, it still stands for something, and Real Estate, a guitar band from New Jersey, represents that “something” as faithfully as any other artist at the moment. Open-hearted but emotionally cautious, the group’s sound is bright, relaxing, finely structured, and simple without being reductionist. The crisp, late summer mood of “Had to Hear” from their newest album is welcoming even without the lyrics, which describes the “landscape” where singer Martin Courtney “comes from.” Given that it’s New Jersey you might think he’s being chauvinistic, or deluded, but a sense of place always accompanies music that’s warm on the ears, and with thosee major-7th chords, Mat Mondanile’s shimmering leads, and the steady, relaxed tempos, the first response is to search the vicinity for a grassy backyard and a chaise lounge. Much of the credit should go to producer Tom Schick who does away with the reverb that made past Real Estate albums sound cold and mannered. The band seems to be in closer proximity on songs like “Crime” and “Navigator,” and the melancholy that was always present in their music is more affecting. Call it the certainty of uncertainty, the conviction that life holds surprises, not all of them pleasant ones. If Real Estate were punks, they’d rail against the darkness, but they’re not. They’d just as soon sit back and see what happens. San Cisco, a quartet from Australia, is making their debut on Sony, so the indie credo wouldn’t seem to apply, but that’s only because Sony owns RCA, which has a deal with Fat Possum. And there’s something similarly cautious about their garage pop, even if San Cisco’s musical m.o. is much livelier than Real Estate’s. Chalk it up to youth, since SC is barely out of high school, even if their outlook is spryer and more sophisticated than most bands their age. Since almost every new white indie outfit right now sounds like either Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys, you’ll be combing your memory for the sources of their hooks, but they come tumbling out in such profusion you won’t have time. Every member, even the drummer, apparently, doubles on keyboards, so there’s more to play with here than Real Estate’s stately configuration, an element that can push the artifice too far, as on the opener “Beach,” which has a canned quality to it. And while Jordi Davieson may sing about “common misconceptions” and “failed missions” he’s got the sort of mellifluous tenor that betrays confidence in all his abilities. It’s the promise of further accomplishments, the kind that major labels expect and, in fact, depend on. Continue reading

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