December 2017 albums

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

Beautiful Trauma
-P!nk (RCA/Sony)
Meaning of Life
-Kelly Clarkson (Atlantic/Warner)
In our mind there is no better mainstream pop album released in this century than The Truth About Love, which came out in 2012, but it’s not as if P!nk has been in this situation before. Her second album, Missundaztood, released in 2001, was another epoch-making record, and while she only took two years to provide the followup, the thud that the seriously rocking Try This made when it hit the market was notable only because too much was expected of it and P!nk was in the unavoidable process of maturing as an artist. She’s a grown-ass woman now, happily married with a kid and a fulfilling life that she deserves, so if Beautiful Trauma doesn’t quite hit the spot the way Truth did, chalk it up to personal calculation rather than the commercial kind. There’s a seriousness here with regards to both the material and the delivery that indicates a desire to settle into a mode of musical expression she can occupy for life. She still snarls and spits at life’s unfairness, but generally she stays in her head, reliving past dramas that distance has made less immediate, and thus less compelling for the listener. Even the funky fun of “Revenge,” complete with an almost (but not quite) unrecognizable contribution from Eminem, seems excitable only by default. For the most part, she alternates between throat-catching ballads and midtempo diva diversions, and thanks to co-writer Jack Antonoff, the songs are solid and solidly generic. P!nk has earned her sense of peace, and that knowledge is probably the most satisfying aspect of the album. Kelly Clarkson is much farther along in her career than P!nk was in 2001, but her eighth album feels like some sort of breakthrough, and a very entertaining one. Does it mean anything that her last seven were recorded for the same record company P!nk serves and Meaning of Life is her debut for a new one? In any case, she mostly leaves behind the contempo adult style that was her metier (and which P!nk has drifted into) and barrels head first into full-tilt soul and R&B that ratchets up the old school gospel component. Flitting confidently from Motown bounce (“Love So Soft”) to Memphis smolder (“Move You”), she covers her chosen territory like the seasoned pro she is and aims to please rather than to express. And while producer Greg Kurstin can usually be expected to follow the same kind of conventions that Antonoff does, he’s also proven with people like Lana Del Ray and Tegan & Sara that he knows how to make his charges sound distinctive, and the modern touches here never seem trite. For sure, Clarkson doesn’t do anything innovative on Meaning of Life, but she understands how good these songs are and wants to do right by them. Sometimes a certain kind of commercial calculation is exactly what you need to get the juices flowing again. Continue reading

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December 2017 movies

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

The Age of Shadows
Set during the Japanese colonial period of the 1920s, Kim Jee-woon’s double agent thriller wears its political context lightly. Song Kang-ho plays Capt. Lee, a Korean in the employ of the Japanese police who is rising fast within the ranks. His main prey is resistance fighter Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon), who, in the early minutes of the movie, is betrayed by a mole in the underground movement. As it turns out, Kim and Lee were once classmates and are still friends of a sort. As a policeman, Lee prefers to work by stealth and ingenuity, while his hot-headed Japanese partner (Um Tae-goo) works the old-fashioned way, through torture and intimidation. He also doesn’t trust Lee because he’s Korean, and, in fact, the viewer is always wondering if and when the other shoe will drop and Lee turns against his Japanese superiors. The script becomes unnecessarily complicated at times, and the action set pieces, in particular a long, complex section set on a train, are extremely tense and exciting. The ending is one of the more satisfying climaxes of the year. In Korean & Japanese. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Dec. 3, 2017

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Japan’s difficulties in becoming an arms exporter. The gist of the piece is that there is still a certain reluctance to call a spade a spade, and thus arms sales are spun as being something different that what they inherently are, which is selling weapons that will eventually be used for destructive purposes. In most cases, such transactions are expressed as business deals that take advantage of Japan’s storied tech superiority—a claim that doesn’t hold as much water as it used to, especially with all the recent scandals pointing to fraudulent inspection practices that seem to affect all industries in Japan.

One way of pushing this narrative is to deploy the “dual use” explanation. It’s a kind of cliche that many inventions originally developed for military purposes are now part of our everyday lives, enriching them in the process. Japan, however, has flipped this narrative. As journalist Isoko Mochizuki once explained on an edition of Bunka Hoso’s “Golden Radio” program, Japan’s collaborative research programs into military-use technologies often start out as research into commercial technologies. This way, universities and other non-government institutions that carry out research can claim they are not taking part in military developments, though, in the end, the technologies they create will end up in military hardware. A place where this kind of technology was on display was the MAST Asia defense conference held in Yokohama in 2015, where most of the participating Japanese manufacturers promoted the civilian uses of their products. The fact that they were being shown and demonstrated at what was basically an arms conference, however, made it clear who the ultimate buyers were supposed to be. As Mochizuki explained, there were no actual weapons on display, only trasportation and logistical equipment. For example, Fujitsu was pushing its display panels for night-time use, items that were ostensibly developed for commercial sale but had obvious military applications. The MAST conference was a huge success, and there was another one earlier this year held in Chiba.

But the nervousness over any image related to military ties is strong. Yesterday, Asahi Shimbun reported that Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group would not extend credit to any company that manufactured cluster bombs, “regardless of whether the purpose of the credit is related to cluster bomb manufacturing or not,” after reports surfaced earlier this year showing how specific financial firms throughout the world funded such manufacture. It would have been interesting if Asahi or some other media outlet had looked into the conduits between MUFG and weapons makers in more detail, but as far as I can see no one has.

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Media Mix, Nov. 19, 2017

Dr. Katsuya Takasu

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the hold that nationally famous plastic surgeon Katsuya Takasu has over the media. The doctor’s comments about Nazis were what brought me to discuss his career, which I’ve followed since the 90s, at least, and though I am not qualified to say for sure, my feeling is that his own attitude toward Nazism is mainly colored by his respect for a certain mentor who admires the medical technology the Germans developed before and during the war. That attitude was then fortified through defensiveness when he received condemnation, a situation that he should have expected. Though his reasoning is flawed and his moral principles compromised, I will accept his explanation to Tokyo Shimbun that he does not support Nazi ideology, and one reason why I say this is because he seems to admire Jewish people, though that admiration has more to do with self-promotion than anything else.

During research for this column my partner stumbled on an article from Weekly Playboy in 2006 that stated Takasu almost single-handedly promoted the practice of circumcision in Japan. In the article, Takasu said that when he studied medicine in Europe he had lots of Jewish friends who were circumcised, and he became fascinated with the procedure, mainly because phimosis (the inability to retract the foreskin) seems to be a common problem in Japan. Takasu decided this could be financially lucrative, and so he offered circumcision at his clinic for a fee of ¥150,000, advertising that women were turned off by foreskin and that foreskin also caused premature ejaculation. However, he hinted in the article that he essentially made these two claims up, since circumcision in Japan was virtually unknown when he started offering it, and so he had to advertise something. So while I’m fairly sure Takasu has no special enmity toward Jewish people, most of his decisions really come down to how well they will benefit his business.

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October 2017 albums

Here are the albums I reviewed for the October issue of EL magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.

The Nordic Mellow
-Siv Jakobsen (P-Vine)
Lovers
-Anna of the North (Different/Hostess)
When we think of Scandinavian pop, Sweden first comes to mind, mainly because of ABBA, but also because of indie artists characterized by The Cardigans chamber Top 40 and Robyn’s dance music. If you say Norway, music fans will probably think of death metal, so Norwegian singer-songwriter Siv Jakobsen naming her second record The Nordic Mellow seems to have a special meaning. It is not, in fact, mellow, though Jakobsen’s voice has a hushed quality to it. A lot of the songs are bombastic. “Shallow Digger,” the pick to click, places the singer in the midst of some crashing drums and seriously strummed guitar. It’s a sort of environmental song, an angry environmental song to be precise. She’s mad at everyone, including herself, for not taking care of the world. We are all just too selfish, but she sounds as if she doesn’t think there’s anything we can do about it. In interviews Jakobsen has said The Nordic Mellow was written out of frustration after her debut EP set some sort of streaming record in her home country. The frustration, however, has less to do with other people than with her own difficulties in communicating with other people. She seems to be able to do that better in songs, which are more measured in their attitudes and assessments. As the album develops it eases in and out of extreme emotions—desperation giving way to resignation and then back to desperation—and while the instrumentation, supplied by her and her producer Matt Ingram (who has also produced Laura Marling, another singer-songwriter with a wide emotional range), is spare, it matches in dynamic power what Jakobsen seems to be going through in her lyrics. Which is what she is going through in life. Anna Lotterud, who is careful to make everyone aware that she’s from a Nordic country with her stage name, Anna of the North, is also from Norway, but her music is more conventionally accessible than Jakobsen’s, more Swedish, you might say. Her debut, Lovers, is a collection of songs she’s released in various forms over the past two years, and their electropop provenance has made it easy for people like the Chainsmokers to remix them for various purposes. And it’s definitely worth mentioning that she appears twice on Tyler, the Creator’s new album. Also worth mentioning is that, technically, Anna of the North is a duo, the other half being Australian Brady Daniell-Smith, who doesn’t sing but mostly shapes the songs into radio-ready 3-minute slices. As meditations on love and loss, the songs aren’t as heavy as Jakobsen’s. They’re airier, prettier, more likely to slip through your fingers if you don’t hold them tight enough. They’re also danceable if you’re so inclined. What Lotterud and Jakobsen do have in common is the lack of something that tends to be associated with the North: coldness. These are two of the warmest records of the year. When it’s dark and bitter outside, that makes sense. Continue reading

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October 2017 movies

Due to a truckload of work and other commitments I wasn’t able to upload the reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine when the issue was released, so here they are, late by more than a month.

Alien: Covenant
Story-wise, the latest installment in the Alien saga is superior to its predecessor, the thematically ambitious but frustratingly open-ended Prometheus. That said, it will be difficult for the viewer to appreciate Covenant without remembering Prometheus. A colonizing spaceship is damaged by a solar flare and some of the surviving crew decide to check out a signal coming from a nearby planet. There they discover what’s left of the Prometheus, namely its android assistant David (Michael Fassbender), who we soon learn has been experimenting with the organism that played such a central role in the previous film. No prizes for guessing what the results of those experiments are, but suffice to say that David’s own motives are hidden for most of the film, during which he spars with an updated model of himself, Walter (Fassbender, too), whose programming makes him more beholden to humans than David is. Once the horror set pieces kick in, however, the movie becomes predictable and less compelling. These are the aliens you know and love, and by now their m.o. is like second nature to most moviegoers. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film) Continue reading

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The 30th Tokyo International Film Festival

I once again worked for the Tokyo International Film Festival, covering events for their website. Here are the (unattributed) articles I wrote for the festival. Thanks to Karen Severns for the great editing work.

“Sparring” press conference

“Aqerat” press conference

“Namme” press conference

“The Home” press conference

“Our Blue Moment” stage appearance

“Mr. Long” stage appearance

“Crater” press conference

“Sveta” press conference

“The Looming Storm” press conference

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