Review: Oh, Lucy!

Atsuko Hirayanagi explores familiar screwball archetypes in her debut feature, and while most have been well presented by other Japanese directors, they’ve never attempted them in a cross-cultural setting. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is an uptight, lonely single woman working a deadend OL job in Tokyo and living in a frightfully messy apartment. She seems this close to self-annihilating breakdown when her saucy niece (Shioli Kutsuna) talks her into signing up for English lessons with her teacher, an earnest American named John (Josh Hartnett). With a pedagogic style that uses hugs and wigs to fortify the role play endemic to Japanese language learning, John wins Setsuko over, and she becomes enamored of not only her new persona, Lucy, but John himself. When he suddenly leaves Japan with her niece in tow, she is eager to join her annoyed sister (Kaho Minami) on the California journey to find them. There, the movie opens up in startling ways and you appreciate not only Hirayanagi’s astute understanding of American differences, but also Terashima’s empathy with an inherently unlikable character. (95 min.)
In Japanese and English.
Now playing, Euro Space, Shibuya (03-3461-0211) May 17, 6:50 p.m. Euro Space screening will have English subtitles, Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846). Photo (c) Oh Lucy LLC

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Media Mix, April 22, 2018

Kihei Maekawa

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about how and why the Finance Ministry protects its own in the face of scandal. Because the FM is considered the most powerful bureaucratic organ in the government, it has a kind of symbiotic relationship with the country’s best universities. Of the 52 men who have headed the ministry since the end of World War II, 48 are graduates of the Univ. of Tokyo law department. Naturally, this elite status results in predictable loyalties and attitudes, which were exemplified in the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Junichi Fukuda last week. (And which will be the subject of next week’s Media Mix.)

But sometimes these attitudes are informed by something else. During discussions of the two school-related scandals now dogging the Abe administration, several commentators have compared the fates of tax agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa and former education ministry chief Kihei Maekawa. The education ministry is pretty low on the bureaucratic totem pole. Nevertheless, the media was surprised when last year Maekawa confirmed the existence of documents in his ministry that suggested the prime minister had pressured the government to approve a veterinary school operated by one of his friends. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise because Maekawa had already been forced to quit to take responsibility for an “amakudari” scandal involving a ministry official who secured a post-retirement position at Waseda Univ. He no longer had anything to lose by revealing Abe’s involvement in the veterinary school approval, but as several commentators have pointed out, Maekawa had even less to lose because he’s from a wealthy family and didn’t really the need the job in the first place. Since leaving the ministry he’s worked more intently on issues that interest him, lecturing at schools about improving public education.

The commentators brought up Maekawa’s situation in contrast to that of Sagawa, previously a top FM official who may have lied to the Diet last year when he repeatedly testified that ministry documents related to the Moritomo elementary school scandal didn’t exist any more. Later, Sagawa was promoted to the head of the tax agency, which is considered one of the most powerful positions in government, and the media speculated that it was a reward for stonewalling the Moritomo investigation, which has since been resurrected with a vengeance. The difference between Sagawa and Maekawa is illustrative, some pundits have said. Sagawa is from a poor family and had to work really hard to get where he is. He will do anything to protect that position because he has nothing to fall back on, while Maekawa really didn’t need the education ministry job. He only took it because he actually cares about education. Sometimes the term “elite bureaucrat” has a complicated meaning.

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Albums April 2018

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

Both Sides of the Sky
-Jimi Hendrix (Legacy/Sony)
Stone Cold Soul: The Complete Capitol Recordings
-Jackie DeShannon (MSI)
Jimi Hendrix’s legacy as a musician transcends his specific skills as a guitarist and singer. He was forward-thinking without necessarily trying to make something new. His approach to the blues, to contemporary rock, to folk, even to pop was reverent of whatever source material he covered, but in the spirit of the time he endeavored to make it his own, and because he was so prolific the high points were geniunely progressive. Nobody sounded like that at the time and no one would build on that sound for years to come. Since then the Experience Hendrix enterprise has released scads of studio ephemera and concert tapes, and while there is little in this mountain of material that adds significantly to the man’s legend, nothing detracts from it either. This latest collection has been hailed as perhaps the first integrated “album” released since the Rainbow Bridge recordings, mainly because some of the tracks were intended for an album that was jettisoned. But just as the idea that the genius of his official ouevre can be partly credited to what was left out, Both Sides of the Sky should be judged by the fact that it was abandoned. For the most part, the blues cuts—a funky “Mannish Boy,” a jumping “Things I Used to Do” with Johnny Winter—stand up surprisingly well, while the two Stephen Stills collaborations, including one of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” seem to feature Hendrix hardly at all. There’s a Lonnie Youngblood vocal that feels like a curiosity and a few cuts that are obviously edits of things that were never finished. The best thing here, a song that shows Hendrix stretching stylistically, is “Stepping Stone,” and the notes say it was destined to be a single but withdrawn at the last minute. Otherwise, the album sounds like an artifact of its time, which isn’t a bad thing, but it ain’t the future. A new collection by Jackie DeShannon, originally recorded around 1970-71, is also very much a product of its time. DeShannon, who wrote some of the best pop songs of the 60s, was scooped up by Capitol Records in 1970 and sent to Memphis, where she recorded with Chips Moman (Elvis, Dusty Springfield). The idea was for Jackie to reconnect with her Southern roots and it’s obvious Capitol was looking for something as authentic as what The Band was giving them at the time, but for some reason they never released the recordings. Instead they hauled her back to Los Angeles and had her cut R&B versions of Dylan, Van Morrison, Hoyt Axton, and some of her own songs. The album didn’t sell so they let her go. Now everything she recorded for Capitol has been released as Stone Cold Soul, and while it doesn’t rewrite the book on her career, it does make the case that Jackie was a better soul artist than people thought. It’s not the future, but it’s really good. Continue reading

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Media Mix, April 8, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a feud between the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Adachi Ward over the latter’s implementation of a sex education course in one of its public junior high schools. As mentioned in the article, Adachi is one of Tokyo’s poorer wards in the sense that it has the highest percentage of students receiving public assistance of some kind. And since it’s generally acknowledged that teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty, the school in question felt it was important to teach children as early as possible about intercourse and childbirth, not to mention contraception. Tokyo objected for the usual small-minded reasons, saying that such knowledge would encourage sexual activity, though, based on the kind of reactions that appeared in the media, objections to Adachi Ward’s program sounded mostly visceral–squeamishness at the prospect that children would be learning about sex at all.

The Adachi board of education’s reasoning goes deeper than simply trying to stall the cycle of poverty. In an article that appeared last year in the Mainichi Shimbun, the director of an organization of midwives who advise teens about sex pointed out that when girls become pregnant they usually already have “other problems,” such as domestic abuse, and thus pregnancy is a good indicator to schools of these other problems, which are usually associated with low income households. However, in most cases, schools prefer that the pregnant teen disappear, and so they encourage the girl to drop out. In the same article, a school nurse from Mie Prefecture despairs about the negligent attitude toward sex in public schools, saying that knowledge about contraception and having children is a human right in today’s society. If the purpose of public schools is to prepare young people for their futures as members of society, then sex education is integral to their development. What that means is that children should understand what they’re getting into when then have sexual relations, but if they do become pregnant then the school has an obligation to help them graduate with as little trouble as possible. If it’s proper for a school to make up for material want in the student’s home life by providing meals or other resources, then it’s also proper for the school to address students’ sexual activities, including pregnancy. In that regard, sex education is both a practical and a moral issue.

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Movies April 2018

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend (a little later than normal due to a printing error).

Black Panther
By now it’s difficult to separate the hype surrounding this extraordinary blockbuster from its qualities as a work of art, and while art may not necessarily have been what the filmmakers were after foremost, they certainly endeavored to make this latest entry in the expanding Marvel Comics universe more momentous than other recent superhero movies. But even within the preordained structural conditions that come with Marvel movies, Black Panther stands out, and not just because almost all the characters are black. Director Ryan Coogler has already proven, with Creed, that he can take a popular and beloved predigested film series and make it fresh by rejiggering its focus to appeal to black audiences. What distinguishes Black Panther is its attention not only to the action details all moviegoers demand these days, but to the particulars of the black experience in nuanced and refined ways. The quick, effective opener explains the fictional African country of Wakanda and its development as an advanced nation thanks to the auspicious arrival of a meteor eons ago carrying a vital metal called vibranium. The futuristic city built upon this element is kept mostly shielded from the world, but the tribes that thrive under its dominion continue to practice the ancient traditions, only with more responsibility because of their blessing. Wakanda is a utopia, and Coogler’s genius is in contrasting it with the lot of people of color throughout the world, in particular African-Americans. The requisite conflict, in fact, is precipated by one of Wakanda’s royalty, N’Jobu, exiling himself to California due to his objection to Wakanda’s self-imposed neutrality in the face of his race’s subjugation at the hands of “colonizers.” He is sought out by his brother, T’Chaka, who finds him in Oakland and brands him a traitor, killing him in the process, thus setting the stage for when N’Jobu’s son, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), challenges T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for the throne of Wakanda. By this time, T’Challa is king, and thus assumes the identity of Black Panther, whose super powers are derived from vibranium, some of which is stolen by a white arms merchant (Andy Serkis) being chased by the CIA. This plot development makes for the only really uncomfortable bit in the movie, since T’Challa must work with the American government to get back his metal. It also means the CIA is instrumental in helping Wakanda fight off Killmonger’s scheme to bring Wakanda out of the shadows and on to the world stage as a righteous defender of the oppressed, and it’s hard not to argue with that, especially when it’s couched in Jordan’s street smart dialect. In fact, Killmonger’s mission, even as it runs up against the noble heroics of Black Panther, never feels compromised. You almost wish he’d wipe that stupid grin off the CIA’s face. (photo: Marvel Studios) Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 18, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about train groping, or “chikan.” Though I think it’s apparent from the overall tone of the column, it should be noted that the majority of male commuters do not grope, and, most likely, the men who protest women-only train cars are not gropers either. However, if you watch the YouTube video that’s linked in the first paragraph, which shows what happened on February 16 on the Chiyoda Line, you can sense a very powerful attitude of condescension on the part of the male protesters, who counter the women’s vocal objections to their presence with a very childish response, as if they were elementary school boys teasing girls on a playground. This attitude demonstrates the sort of mindset that Prof. Muta refers to in the Asahi Shimbun interview. These men, believing themselves to be above the issue of chikan, mock women who regain a measure of relief from at least temporarily being spared the possibility of unwanted touching. These men think that while they themselves aren’t chikan, the very existence of women-only cars implies that all men have such a potential, and that offends them personally. But it’s not their feelings that are the issue. Almost every woman I have met in Japan, whether Japanese or not, has told me she has been touched at least once while riding on a crowded train. It’s not a rare occurrence, and while some women have built up a kind of carapace out of cynicism and exhaustion, many have become psychologically damaged by the repeated intrusions. Maki Fukasawa, in the “Golden Radio” report, said that many high school girls refuse to go to school because they have been so traumatized by groping. The protesters may think they are somehow doing the right thing by standing up to discrimination (the male commentators on No Hate TV point out that Dr. Sabetsu, mentioned in the column, is a former left wing agitator who ended up as a kind of libertarian racist), but in truth they are simply perpetuating the male-dominant narrative. Just because a man doesn’t grope, it doesn’t necessarily mean he respects women.

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Media Mix, March 4, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s treatment of mental health issues, which have been in the news lately. The main thrust of the article is that, influenced by government policy, which has always advocated for isolating people diagnosed with “mental disorders,” the press mostly takes a sympathetic but nevertheless shikata ga nai (“it can’t be helped”) attitude. They rarely question government statements that defend past policy as being acceptable at the time, even when organizations like the Japan Bar Association show that such policies were clearly unconstitutional at the time. The Eugenics Protection Law, which allowed medical institutions to sterilize people with disabilities for the express purpose of safeguarding the gene pool, was mirrored in other countries like Germany and Sweden, both of which have apologized for their respective policies and compensated victims. Japan has done neither and doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary. In the Asahi article cited in the column, the writer, Junji Kayukawa, says that 24,991 sterilizations were performed under the law—16,475 of them without patients’ consent—and 58,972 abortions. He mentions several cases that imply some subjects of the law were simply incovenient to their families, who asked doctors to sterilize them. In many of these cases, they simply came from impoverished backgrounds and likely did not receive sufficient education, so they were “diagnosed” as being somehow “mentally deficient.” One of these people, a woman who eventually married, is suing the government. The problem goes beyond the lack of official accountability. The increasing acceptance of prenatal checks through blood tests to discover any “abnormalities” in fetuses that could develop as birth defects has prompted expectant parents to abort fetuses that may have problems. Kayukawa is afraid this practice is simply maintaining the Eugenics Law under a new guise. If the media properly explained the Eugenics Law as an historical fact that society should learn from, then people could understand more fully their rights as human beings. Continue reading

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