Review: Fall

High concept cinema, meaning movies premised on a single, simple, vivid idea, is really all about the setup, since the concept itself isn’t going to work unless the viewer is given some reason to care about it. In Scott Mann’s meditation on the dumber aspects of x-treme sports, the concept is two young women stuck at the top of a defunct 600-meter radio tower in the middle of the desert, which is a pretty weird place to be stuck, so Mann’s biggest challenge is getting the two women up there. 

He does it through emotional manipulation, which is sort of a cheat. At the start of the film, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) is almost a year into mourning her boyfriend, who died while the two of them were climbing the sheer rock face of a mountain. Becky’s best friend, Hunter (Virginia Gardner), also a free climber, tries to get Becky out of her funk in a decidedly extreme way, by compelling her to “kick fear in the dick” and scale something a bit more manageable—an abandoned radio tower—the idea being that the exhiliration of accomplishment will make her glad that she’s alive. It will also give them a chance to do something meaningful for her boyfriend, which is to spread his ashes when they get to the top. Becky eventually gives in to this odd idea and the two break into the empty compound where the tower is located and start to climb its ladderlike attachment—without, for some reason, noticing that the whole thing is weathered and rusty. Mann, of course, makes sure the viewer notices by occasionally flashing closeups of bolts coming loose during the ascent. At about the time they reach the top, the whole apparatus crumbles in a shower of metal parts and the two are trapped on a narrow platform where, naturally, the cell phone coverage is zilch. 

The rest of the film shows how the pair struggles to survive without much food or water as they try to figure out a way to contact services on the ground with a fading battery while resisting high winds, vultures, and other affronts to their derring-do. Granted, Mann knows how to induce chills through skin-of-the-teeth acrobatics and shrewd editing—and his talent for narrative misdirection is formidable. I admit I was impressed by how he resolved the whole thing, but not enough to make me believe that anyone with the kind of native skills necessary to rock climb was going to be stupid enough to try this stunt. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Fall home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Fall Movie Productions, Inc.

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Media watch: Prominent pundit linked to husband’s shady business deal

Lully Miura speaking in the Diet in 2020

On Jan. 20, some news outlets reported that Tokyo prosecutors had raided the offices of an investment company that promotes solar power generation. Though the raid by itself was no big deal—prosecutors carry out raids of companies suspected of business malfeasance all the time—it received a fair amount of scrutiny on the internet because the president of the company is married to Lully Miura, a prominent media pundit.

In the initial reports the company president was not identified, but various people on social media were quick to name him—Kiyoshi Miura. As it turns out, Miura’s home was also raided. Kyodo News said that the reason for the raids were that the “president of Tribay Capital” had negotiated with another Tokyo company about the construction of a solar power generation facility in Hyogo Prefecture, but that such plans appear to have fallen through even though the company had already given Tribay ¥1 billion in startup money. 

The day after the raid, Lully Miura issued a message on the home page of her own company, Yamaneko Research Institute, clarifying her position. She said that while “some of the reports were correct” and that her husband’s office was indeed raided, she herself was not involved in the operations of his company, and therefore would not comment on it. However, she went on to say that she will fully cooperate with the investigation and “as a family member” support her husband.

According to the media criticism web magazine Litera, the Tribay raid was not exactly a surprise to some internet news media, which have been following Kiyoshi’s business dealings for a while now. These media had been talking about competing fraud allegations for months, but mainstream media organizations—though they knew of the allegations—had held back until prosecutors had made their move. 

The matter apparently started in 2019, when Tribay convinced a company called Meta Capital (no relation to the Facebook parent company) to invest in its “mega-solar generation facility” in Fukuzaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Tribay told Meta that it had received permission from residents surrounding the proposed site to go ahead with the project and completed all the necessary paperwork to lease the land from its owners. In June of that year, Meta transferred ¥1 billion to a company that was partnering with Tribay on the project. 

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Review: Everything Went Fine

If there’s one theme or idea that runs like a bright thread through Francois Ozon’s films is that it’s often tough to be a member of the educated upper classes in France. Occasionally, he has fun with this theme in a mocking way (8 Women), but for the most part he really does seem to pity the rich because they have to put up with people always interrogating their motives. He crystallizes this approach in Everything Went Fine, which addresses the matter of assisted suicide with a fair amount of seriousness but without trying to avoid the obvious truth that the “problem” isn’t as difficult for these particular people because they have money and resources.

Loosely based on a memoir by the late Emmanuele Bernheim, a frequent Ozon collaborator, the movie centers on Sophie Marceau as Bernheim, a preternaturally focused woman in her 50s who is asked by her father, Andre (Andre Dussollier), to help him kill himself after he suffers a debilitating stroke. Naturally, Emmanuele resists his entreaty and seems put off by the fact that Andre only asks her for this assistance and not Emmanuele’s sister, Pascale (Geraldine Pailhas), despite the fact that Pascale, due to her more pliant nature, would probably be more agreeable to the task. But though Andre has sufficient assets and connections, that task is going to be difficult, since France does not allow assisted suicide for someone in Andre’s situation, and Emmanuele would seem better suited emotionally since it means he will have to be transported to Switzerland. Most of the movie is about this struggle to fulfill her father’s wishes, and as such it’s fortified with flashbacks and other detailed exposition about the family history, including Emmanuele’s fraught relationship with Andre. Then there’s Emmanuele’s mother (Charlotte Rampling), a woman with her own infirmities in the forms of depression and Parkinson’s, who it turns out married Andre with full knowledge that he was gay. Ozon uses Andre’s homosexuality to emphasize his penchant for casual cruelty as he prevents his lover from visiting him out of a kind of sick pride. At one point, Pascale even describes Andre as a “monster,” and the flashbacks point to a streak of violence that occasionally emerges in his interactions with hospital staff. Ozon doesn’t avoid the possibility that Andre’s attitude is tied to his privilege—if anything he stresses it.

In the final, and often powerful, third of the film, Emmanuele is forced to come to grips with her feelings about her father as she travels to Switzerland and arranges for his demise. Personally, I could have used more explication of the process involved in assisted suicide, as well as its philosophical underpinnings, as presented by the pertinent institute’s representative, played by the great German actor Hanna Schygulla. In my mind, Ozon doesn’t really do enough with his social-minded content, as if he assumed it isn’t the reason we are watching his movie, but he cares sufficiently to give a clue as to his own feelings about these matters. Still, you have to wonder if those feelings would be any different if his protagonists weren’t so well off. 

In French. Opens Feb. 3 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

Everything Went Fine home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Mandarin Production – FOZ – France 2 Cinema – Playtime Production – Scope Pictures

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Number 1 Shimbun February

Here is our media column for the February issue of the Number 1 Shimbun, which is about the struggle to find an heir to the Shinzo Abe political dynasty.

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Review: The Pink Cloud

Having recently lived through a pandemic—though many of us may assume we are still living through one—I found that the details of this Brazilian debut feature, filmed in 2019 before COVID, make it more interesting than it really is: the incipient boredom, the increasingly prickly feelings toward fellow shut-ins, the unhealthy focus on screens and social media. However, that experience also made the premise less credible, because I couldn’t readily suspend disbelief. The Pink Cloud fits rather snugly into the “dystopian future” genre even if it feels contemporary, and I wondered why these people had to live this way. In a nutshell, pink clouds have materialized worldwide, their source completely unknown and their effect deadly—a mere ten seconds of exposure will kill you. So everyone is told to stay indoors with the windows closed until the clouds dissipate, which they never do. That means everyone has to stay put indefinitely in the place where they initially take shelter.

Even without seeing the movie, you can understand the difficulty writer-director Iuli Gerbase has in maintaining this conceit, and at one point he shows his hand by having a young woman, who is hunkering down without any physical companionship, asks desperately to anyone who will listen why the authorities have not come up with some way for people to move around, like, say, with special masks? It’s a good question, but one that Gerbase doesn’t bother answering because his concerns are more dramatic and ruminative. The protagonists are a young couple, Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendoca), who were simply hooking up for a Tinder date when clouds floated into their lives and they are forced to repair to Giovana’s mother’s empty apartment, which, fortunately for them, is spacious and comfortably appointed. At first, the prospect of being stuck together for a while has a certain sexy appeal, but quickly the two have to contend with their basic philosophical differences, which are manifested in the question of whether either wants to have children. This is perhaps the cleverest of Gerbase’s plot gambits, because it immediately clues the viewer in to what sorts of persons these two are in terms of interactive communication. As it stands, Yago has always wanted kids while Giovana has never wanted them, and, of course, eventually she gets pregnant. During the pregnancy and especially the birth (coached remotely by a very patient female obstetrician) the movie makes good on its promise of giving us some idea of how this unlikely situation would play out under the circumstances depicted, but as the movie progresses Gerbase has to come up with ever fresh ideas to keep us interested, and mostly what he provides is variations on a theme of incompatibility and having the principals think of new ways to cope with it.

What kept me intrigued was, of all things, the production design, with its constantly fluctuating pink tint, reminding you that the cloud was ever present outside the large picture windows. If anything, Gerbase knows how to make monotony threatening in a pictorial way without resorting to disconcerting extremes, but in the end he couldn’t satisfactorily answer the movie’s central question: How do boring people get through a crisis like this without killing each other? 

In Portuguese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551). 

The Pink Cloud home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Prana Filmes

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Review: Mr. Moonlight

If, like me, you come to this Japanese documentary about the Beatles’ historic 1966 concerts at Budokan in the hopes of seeing the rare footage of the shows taken by the police for security reasons but sanctioned for more than 50 years due to privacy concerns, you’ll probably be disappointed. Though it does talk about the footage and the years-long successful lawsuit to make it public, what ends up on screen is pretty minimal, which either means there is still some kind of prohibition in place (the producers didn’t get—or didn’t attempt to get—the rights to any Beatles songs, either) or there was never much to the footage in the first place. Instead, the documentary uses the excuse of the public release of the footage to talk about the Beatles’ relationship to Japan and how the concerts came about. And while all that is interesting, the movie treats it in such a parochial fashion that its appeal to non-Japanese people who weren’t actually alive at the time would seem to be strictly academic.

Which isn’t to say the folks being interviewed don’t have a great time talking about it. Even the non-Japanese interviewees, such as John Lennon’s sister and the Beatles’ British fan club president, all speak about Japan enthusiastically as this mysterious place that the boys were fascinated with and wanted to visit desperately, and such background does bring a certain tension to the narrative as deployed by the filmmakers and extrapolated by those involved, most centrally the staff of Toshiba-EMI, the Japan record company that distributed the Parlophone label. Everyone interviewed seems to want to take at least some credit for making the Beatles stars in Japan. More than the intrigues behind the huge effort to get the group to come here—most of which had to do with business matters—these insiders talk about the cultural mood at the time, and how when Japanese people thought of foreign pop music it was the U.S., since it was only ten years following the end of the occupation and America still had a tight hold on the Japanese imagination. The editor of Music Life magazine recalls how shocked people were when they first heard the Beatles and realized they were British. It didn’t make any sense. Most of the detailed intelligence about the phenomenon is explained by musician-producer Takashi Matsumoto, who talks about the methods used for promoting the Beatles in Japan and how, eventually, record executives used the popularity of the group to groom and promote local acts like Tulip, a band I never associated with Beatlemania but apparently that’s how they were sold. In addition, the filmmakers talk to fans who were so rabid they couldn’t wait for the Beatles to come to Asia, so they went to England—by hitchhiking from Moscow! Then there are the surviving people who worked on the Beatles concerts in Japan, including hotel housekeepers, who have anecdotes about Jane Asher and George Harrison’s cigarette butts and John Lennon’s “happi coat,” not to mention a dozen or so celebrities whose lives were changed by the experience of either seeing or meeting them, like emcee Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, vocalist-guitarist Yuzo Kayama, and local rockabilly artist Micky Curtis. Tamiyo Okuda, of course, drops in to mention how “serious” they were as musicians, a hardly startling observation, but Okuda is probably the closest thing J-pop now has to a Beatle manque, at least in terms of songwriting. 

The fact that the concerts themselves are not depicted in any meaningful fashion leaves the movie with a hole it can’t possibly fill. All that’s provided is the set lists. Even the Japanese opening acts get short shrift. At one point, Matsumoto emphasizes how important the concerts were to the cultural life of Japan at the time, and he provides lots of experiential evidence to back up his assertion except the one thing that would have made it cinematic: scenes of the shows that everyone says were earth-shattering. 

In Japanese and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Mr. Moonlight home page in Japanese

photo (c) Mr. Moonlight Seisaku Iinkai

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Review: The Banshees of Inisherin

As with Parasite, the overwhelming critical success of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s third feature film is remarkable for its unlikelihood of even being noticed by a general international viewership. In Parasite‘s case, this unlikelihood was a function of its provenance. It was a Korean film about very Korean matters, and yet went on to win both the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar. The Banshees of Inisherin is much less arcane in that regard, since it has two recognizable Irish stars in the leads and McDonagh’s last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, earned Academy Awards as well. But the whole narrative premise of the new film—a spat, or, more formally, a Spat, between two former friends that’s both rueful and gruesome—makes it an outlier, at least on paper, especially since the movie is almost all talk and no action. And while I admit to falling for its comic charms, I found two aspects of the presentation difficult to overcome. One, the story takes place in 1923, and while the production design does a fair job of making it look like what you would imagine an underpopulated island off the coast of Ireland would look like in 1923, the dialogue and the fundamental situation itself feels of the moment. The absurdist turn of the conversations smack of an older Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, but the diction has a post-millennial ring that kept sticking in my ear. Secondly, the Spat is between two men, Padraic (Colin Ferrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), whose apparent age difference goes unremarked for the whole film. When these same two actors starred in McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges, playing gangsters laying low in Belgium, the age difference was part of the central joke. Here, it just hangs over the proceedings like a strange odor. How did these two become friends in the first place?

That question is basic because of the nature of the Spat: Colm just suddenly decides he wants nothing to do with Padraic any more. Though the two have spent every afternoon since who knows when drinking and chatting at the pub, Colm now declares that he finds Padraic boring and doesn’t want to waste what time he has left in this world on him. Padraic reacts by going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, starting with denial (“Of course you still like me”), but in any case the entire movie is taken up by his efforts to win back Colm’s favor and Colm’s increasing intransigence, which eventually leads to violence, albeit of a decidedly passive-aggressive type. Because the island is small, the whole population somehow gets involved, and McDonagh derives the lion’s share of humor from these observers’ own reactions to the Spat, particularly Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), who, as the most prominent female voice in the film, finds the Spat not only stupid, but not worth her or anyone else’s time. “He’s always been dull,” she says to Colm, after she demands to know why he cut off her brother. 

The wider world enters the movie in the form of distant thunder from the Irish Civil War taking place over there, but any attempts to analogize the Spat with that conflict is a chump’s game, which leaves you with the Spat and a lot of cleverly wrought, but anachronistic, dialogue. In truth, if it weren’t for Ferrell’s unusual performance, I might have given up on Banshees halfway through, and I suppose you could cite the uniqueness of his character as yet another unlikelihood that makes the movie special. There’s nothing that says you can’t find a perplexing movie funny as well. 

Opens Jan. 27 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashin (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Banshees of Inisherin home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 20th Century Studios

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Media watch: Nobody wants to talk about the death penalty

Otohiko Kaga

In November, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yasuhiro Hanashi was compelled to quit his post as justice minister after he made a careless remark at a political gathering. Hanashi said that he felt the job of justice minister was “low-key” and whoever held the position only merited headlines after he put his seal to an order for carrying out the death penalty. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told Hanashi to resign as minister because, as Kyodo News put it, the remark was “seen as making light of his role in authorizing executions of death-row inmates,” and Kishida’s public support rate didn’t need to go any lower. However, to anyone who follows Japan’s policy regarding capital punishment, the very fact that Hanashi mentioned that policy without being prompted was probably enough to invite critical scrutiny from his peers. You’re just not supposed to talk about it. 

One person who did talk about it a lot was Otohiko Kaga, a psychiatrist and prison chaplain who died at the age of 93 last week. Kaga was very active as an anti-capital punishment advocate and worked to change Japanese detention methods, which he claimed violated international human rights standards. He was especially critical of the way the trial of Chizuo Matsumoto, otherwise known as Shoko Asahara, the leader of the death cult Aum Shinrikyo, was conducted, since he believed all the court proceedings were geared to guarantee a death sentence despite Matsumoto’s diminished capacity. 

Coincidentally, just before Kaga died, Asahi Shimbun ran two interviews on its Koron page about Hanashi’s gaffe and its implications. One of the inteviewees was writer Keiko Horikawa, who herself interviewed Kaga many times and has written several books on Japan’s capital punishment system. 

In the interview, Horikawa was asked to comment on Hanashi’s remark, and she said the first people she thought of were the prison employees whose job it is to carry out executions. They are the ones who have to face the reality of the system and thus the people who “carry the burden”—not the bureaucrats and politicians who make the decisions about who dies and when they die. Hanashi, she said, obviously never thought about those people. If he had, he would never have made such an offhanded comment. For that reason alone, he “doesn’t deserve to be a political leader.”

She went on to say that the indifference inherent in Hanashi’s remark reflected the general attitude among the public toward capital punishment. It’s something they accept without really understanding it. In surveys, the public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty for a simple reason: someone who has carried out a heinous crime must pay for that crime in kind, with their life if necessary. Those who are against the death penalty generally start from the belief that no one has the right to take another life, including the state. But as the interviewer pointed out, these two sides end up talking past each other, and nothing comes of it. 

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Media watch: South Korea happily takes over as brands leader

Screen shot of Gucci catalogue

A Jan. 14 article on the Chosun Online website revealed that South Korea has overtaken China as the luxury brand capital of the world in terms of consumption. Citing data compiled by investment bank Morgan Stanley, the news service noted that in 2022 Koreans purchased $16.8 billion worth of so-called luxury brand merchandise, which is the equivalent of about ¥2.15 trillion. That comes out to $325 (¥42,000) per capita, which clearly outstrips the next highest purchasing country, the United States, at $280, and China, the previous leader, at about $50. China’s plunge is pegged to several factors, most notably the change in circumstances brought on by the pandemic and various economic restrictions implemented by the government. 

What’s noteworthy about the Chosun story is the comment that Koreans are buying more luxury goods than ever because they want to “promote their social status as individuals” and “[Korean] society accepts the appeal of showing off one’s wealth” more than societies in other countries. These conclusions were based on a survey of worldwide consumers conducted by McKinsey Consulting about attitudes toward luxury goods. When they asked people whether they had a negative view of the use of luxury brands, those who said “yes” accounted for 38 percent of Chinese respondents, 45 percent of Japanese, but only 22 percent of Koreans. 

In any event, the article goes on to say that most luxury brands have reinforced their sales activities in Korea in a big way and quoted several fashion houses. The Italian label Moncler said that their sales in Korea actually doubled during the pandemic, while the Richemont Group, which owns Cartier, revealed that from 2021 to 2022, Korea was the only market where sales grew by “double digits.” Prada’s overall sales decreased by 7 percent in 2022 simply due to China’s anti-COVID measures, but was almost made up for by an increase in Korean sales. 

This success is mirrored by the recent rapid increase in brand ambassadors who are Korean celebrities. Lisa of the girl group Blackpink now represents Celine, while her bandmates Jennie, Rose, and Jisoo shill for Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, and Dior, respectively. Big Bang star and top music producer G Dragon also fronts for Chanel, while Kai of the group EXO is there for Gucci. Fendi gets double duty from international pop star Jackson Wang, who is a Chinese national but launched his career as a member of the K-pop group GOT7. And while the list of ambassadors seems top heavy with pop stars, quite a few actors have been tapped, as well. 

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Review: The Shadow Play

Ye Lou was once touted as one of the most significant new mainland China directors of the millennium after the overseas success of the atmospheric Suzhou River, a reputation that was further bolstered by his 2006 Tiananmen epic Summer Palace, which was banned by the government. Since then, however, he’s mostly coasted on noirish melodramas that retain his distinctively dreamy tone to tell stories that don’t really require it. His latest is a conventional police mystery built around China’s corruption-fueled real estate market—it takes place between 1989 and 2012. 

For sure, the ambitious opening scene, a long, panoramic moving drone shot of urban decay and demolition in the southern city of Guangzhou, provokes expectations the remaining film never meets. The mystery launches with the mysterious death of a local functionary, Tang (Zhang Songwen), after he tries to quell a riot of apartment block residents who are being forced out of their homes by a redevelopment project. The young police detective, Yang (Jing Boran), can’t decide if Tang fell, jumped, or was pushed from the fifth floor of one of the new buildings, and his suspicions quickly focus on Tang’s wife, the psychologically unstable restaurateur Lin Hui (Song Jia), who he quickly learns is in a romantic relationship with the Taiwan-based real estate mogul Jiang (Qin Hao). As it turns out, Jiang knew Yang’s father, a police detective himself who was forced to retire after a traffic accident left him partially paralyzed. As Yang gets closer to the truth he’s continually set up by unknown forces, thus compelling him to become a fugitive as he continues investigating the relationship between Tang, Jiang, and a fourth wheel, Yun (Michelle Chen), a former bar hostess who became Jiang’s associate in charge of dirty work and whose death in 2006 his father had been investigating when he had his accident. Then there’s Tang’s daughter, Nuo (Sichun Ma), who has secrets of her own.

Though there’s nothing wrong with this story itself, Ye ties it all up in knots with a barrage of elaborate flashbacks and flash-forwards whose only purpose seems to be to make the movie much longer than it needs to be. They also have the effect of highlighting the lack of credible motivations that spur all the strife between the various characters, resulting inevitably in overwrought scenes of violence that seem to have been contractually mandated. The only one of these that made me sit up and nod approvingly was a fight between Yang and a group of gangsters in a moving RV that was so surreal it could have been taking place in zero gravity. Had Ye fashioned the whole movie in this bizarre way, he might have made something even less coherent but at least kinetically interesting. 

In Cantonese and Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku K’s Cinema (03-3352-2471).

The Shadow Play home page in Japanese

photo (c) Dream Factory, Travis Wei

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