Aerosmith, Tokyo Dome, March 1998

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Sept. 4, 2016

Hiroshi Kume

Hiroshi Kume

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about Rokusuke Ei and Kyosen Ohashi, both of whom died in July. The column is mainly about their pacifist leanings owing to the fact that they lived through the war, but in terms of their impact as broadcasters, an interview with veteran announcer Hiroshi Kume, also part of that cited Asahi Shimbun tribute series to Ei, was particularly enlightening.

Kume was hired by TBS as an announcer in 1967, and was later assigned to Ei’s radio show, “Doyo Wide,” which was broadcast live every Saturday from 9 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. Kume was a field reporter, providing dispatches from the street. He got on well with Ei, who vouched for him and helped him get jobs within the company as an emcee for various variety shows. His big break was “The Best Ten,” a music program that made him a star. Then, in 1985, after becoming an independent contractor, he started his ground-breaking stint as the host of “News Station” on TV Asahi. Whether you appreciate Kume’s motor-mouthed, opinionated interview style, “News Station” revolutionized Japanese TV news by injecting the personalities of its reporters and news readers into the mix. Kume said he got the idea from “11 PM,” Ohashi’s equally ground-breaking late night talk show that premiered in the 1960s and lasted through the end of the 80s. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 28, 2016

108205_1Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the fate of Japanese zoos. In the piece I didn’t talk very much about the media’s role in the way zoos are presented to and perceived by the public, mainly because we’ve covered that angle several times before, but it’s important to point out that the kind of attitude characterized by people’s open affection for Hanako while denying her terrible situation is reinforced by media stories about how effective animals are in “healing” the troubled souls of humans. It’s also important to point out that this attitude is by no means shared by all Japanese people–a good portion of the individuals who signed the petition to send Hanako back to Thailand were Japanese. The point is that because the media tends to be purposely even-handed in its coverage, whatever realities they uncover with regards to the inherent cruelties of captivity are more than offset by the delight that otherwise unknowing “average people” derive from just observing wild animals in the flesh. The articles we cited in the column all contained hard truths about the substandard conditions at most public zoos (the ones with better conditions are obviously few and far between), but also balancing notes about things that are meant to be heartwarming. The Yahoo story about the small zoo in Komoro, Nagano Prefecture, also mentioned a popular show feature wherein its penguins are lined up along a water slide to feed on mackerel that goes zipping by. Observers laugh and cheer, but objectively speaking the penguins look pretty desperate trying to grab a bite. The article made the show feature out to be an act of ingenuity since it attracted more visitors without adding anything to the zoo’s budget.

This situation has less to do with that stereotyped idea of the Japanese affection for “cuteness” than it does with a reluctance to face up to reality. The people who still want to be entertained by zoos have never had their assumptions challenged by the media and educational institutions. As mentioned in the column, sometimes this has to do with business–for-profit zoos, aquariums, and marine parks have to make a living. But that sort of justification–though unsupportable to many people–doesn’t hold for public zoos. There, the only explanation is that the zoo was conceived as a public good, a recreational venue for everyone. That idea automatically implies that the animals are there for our pleasure, and so while they may be living in situations that are unnatural, even miserable, it’s seen as a worthy sort of sacrifice.

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August 2016 albums

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

avalanchesaphex16Wildflower
-The Avalanches (Universal)
Cheetah EP
-Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
The Avalanches’ first and, until last week, only album has become a legendary recording not so much because of its quality or popularity but because it perfectly encapsulates an era in music that no longer seems relevant. Made up of hundreds of samples that were lovingly assembled into “tracks” that could pass as distinct songs but were best appreciated as one long DJ session, Since I Left You was certainly a bear to create, which probably explains why it took the group sixteen years to produce a followup—in addition to finding and editing the tracks they also had to get permission to use them. Some people complain that you can’t rightfully call the Avalanches musicians because they didn’t play any music, which is a fair charge but beside the point, because if you listen and enjoy, it’s simply a direct extension of the Avalanches’ own experience with these song fragments. They just decided to do something creative with that experience. Wildflower has something more, though: numerous guest vocalists who sing above the samples, as well as added orchestrations, thus giving the album an extra layer of originality. Unlike real DJ sets, the Avalanches aren’t overly concerned with the dance floor—there’s little in the way of break beats or tension-and-release. For the most part they’re into summery pop, and while the tempos change from time to time, there’s not much that could be called dramatic. The hip-hop component, though not overwhelming, is more apparent, and the group seems to have placed special emphasis on contrasting indie pop with rap. As collage music goes it isn’t as adventurous as Since I Left You simply because it’s impossible to be that adventurous when everyone can do this sort of thing without spending a lot of money. So half the enjoyment of Wildflower is in the impression you get: These guys work hard. Richard D. James is one of those DJ/techno artists who tries to make it all seem like not much work; meaning if you like what he does you chalk it up to talent. But having spent more than a decade away from the Aphex Twin moniker and its attendant art-dance music, he seems to have retreated to zero. His latest is a long EP that explores beats and melody in a fairly straightforward way without spoiling the danceability of the tracks. In fact, rather than improvise harmonically, he fiddles with the tempos in small ways to vary their swing and propulsive force. As usual, his track titles are completely functional. Several include the word “Cheetah,” which reportedly is a kind of electronic instrument manufactured in the 80s and 90s and we will assume was used in the making of the album. One could almost call the EP a kind of test record for tech freaks, and PR material includes a lot of jargon. We’ll take their word for it, because simplicity like this can be addicting. Continue reading

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August 2016 movies

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

Vodafone Summer Series, Somerset House, London, Britain - 20 Jul 2007Amy
Since the late Amy Winehouse’s career dovetailed with the social media era, her life was thoroughly documented, even before she became famous. Director Asif Kapadia simply edits and arranges the available material into a coherent narrative, and given that Winehouse’s record company funded the project, he was free to use all the music and concert footage he needed. The result, however, is almost too revealing. Though it does an excellent job of proving what an enormous talent Winehouse was, it revels in her self-destructive tendencies even as it explains how those tendencies were enabled by her father, Mitchell, and her husband, Blake Fielder, both of whom exploited her to their own respective advantages. In that regard, the story is almost banal in its predictability, and not just because we already know how it ends. Even if we didn’t, it was obvious as soon as Winehouse hit the big time that she was totally unprepared for stardom, despite her bracing honesty and uncommon understanding of human nature (or maybe because of it?). Through extensive use of public footage, Kapadia shows how the international media exacerbated her phobias, but he hardly needs to press the point as often and intensely as he does here. In fact, Kapadia’s approach might have reaped something more worthwhile had he given even more time to Winehouse’s closest friends, the ones who tried to save her, than to the biz people who loved her but pretty much stood by and watched her self-destruct. Nick Shymansky, who became her manager when he was only 19 and she still finding her voice as a teen, is one of the few witnesses who resided in both camps, and it’s frustrating when his comments fade in the final reel, because he might have shone a light on the film’s most pressing question: Why couldn’t Winehouse, who knew she was in trouble, save herself? The usual psycho-detective stuff is presented, mostly having to do with daddy issues—Mitchell left the family when Amy was young and didn’t come back until she was famous—and her low self-image, manifested even before she became well-known as anorexia nervosa. The movie doesn’t stint on showing Mitchell and Fielder as the jerks they were, but it isn’t really enough. For sure, the movie is fascinating, and the performance clips prove her amazing breadth as a musician, but compared to the new Janis Joplin biodoc, which relates more with less, it feels like a lost opportunity. (photo: Universal Music Operations Ltd.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, July 31, 2016

kyousitu2Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent moves by the government to make education policy that discourages differences. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party originally came up with the idea to fortify morals education back in 2007, during the first Shinzo Abe administration, after a bullied schoolboy in Otsu committed suicide. The ostensible idea was to teach children the value of a human life, but in a sense the proposed directives are themselves a form of bullying.

The most famous case in this regard was that of Nobuo Doi, the former principal of Mitaka High School in Tokyo. Doi had apparently been a thorn in the side of the education ministry for years. His main violation of protocol was to put directives made by the ministry through the local board of educationn to a vote in the teachers room. The board always told him that he had no right to challenge these directives in any way, but since he was a civil servant they couldn’t fire him. However, 97 percent of public school employees get teaching jobs in the system following retirement, and Doi was blackballed after he left his principal’s position, so he sued the government.

Insistence on neutrality in the form of an enforceable directive is thus a contradiction of the spirit of morals education, part of which is to recognize and accept differences. The example that most of the media used was a teacher who said something in class in relation to the LDP’s controversial security bills that if Japanese SDF personnel are sent to war zones likely some will be killed. That is not an opinion but rather a possible scenario based on observation. However, it was somehow interpreted to be a one-sided reading of the meaning of the law; in other words, a “political” statement. The teacher was reprimanded by the board of education, not the education ministry, because that’s how directives work. You are forced to stay in line through fear.

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Media Mix, July 3, 2016

credit: Robert Gilhooly

credit: Robert Gilhooly

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent press coverage of the death penalty. Though I stress that the mainstream media avoids the question of whether or not Japan’s application of capital punishment amounts to retribution, I should point out that there are some newspapers who are at least going beneath the surface facts of a case and trying to understand what happened, both in terms of the crime and the trial. Tokyo Shimbun’s Daisuke Sato has done some good work in reporting how the public “faces” the death penalty, and recently did an in-depth article on one AP reporter in the U.S. who has covered executions in a very intense fashion. (Unfortunately, Tokyo Shimbun has not chosen to make this article available for free on the web.) Miako Ichikawa and Sakura Funazaki interviewed the man convicted in the Ishinomaki case while on death row for Asahi Shimbun and brought out some pertinent details about the case that weren’t covered generally, such as the fact that the trial lasted 8 days and only 30 minutes were devoted to the defendant’s childhood and “social situation.” There was no testimony from experts on his psychological state. Mainichi Shimbun also interviewed the Ishinomaki killer, who has accepted his fate and expressed remorse, though other media haven’t reported it.

And with regard to the basic idea of the column, that the death penalty is nothing more than revenge, a symposium conducted in Japan by representatives of the European Union on Oct. 10, 2013 addresses this idea directly and eloquently. It’s worth watching.

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