Adam Schlesinger

I was stunned this morning when I read that the Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger had died due to complications from COVID-19. I have written about the group and Schlesinger’s music a number of times over the past two decades. Here are three related pieces from the Japan Times and a blog post. Apologies for the self-plagiarizing, but sometimes when you hit on a nice idea you just want to keep on using it.

Interview with Adam Schlesinger

Review of Ivy’s “Guestroom”

Review of Fountains of Wayne’s “Welcome Interstate Managers”

Review of a 2012 FOW show in Tokyo

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Media Mix, March 29, 2020

Shiori Yamao

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s campaign to squelch any media stories that conflict with its own narrative about the coronavirus crisis. Since we first started working on this column several weeks ago, the situation has been even more fluid than we expected, and, not surprisingly, some of what we talked about may seem already dated. The Diet has, of course, passed the legislation that gives the prime minister power to declare a state of emergency to address the virus. He already had that power, but because it had been granted by a government that was not headed by the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe wanted newer, fresher powers, including those to control the media, so that it would look like something he came up with himself. The opposition parties, many of whose members used to belong to that previous government, grudgingly voted for the bill because they didn’t want to look as if they were uncooperative with measures to fight the spread of the virus, but one opposition lawmaker, Shiori Yamao, openly criticized the bill, saying its time limit for a declaration of emergency was too long and that it did not require Diet approval, so she voted against it. That move has made her something of an outlier even within the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and there was speculation that she might leave the party and join another opposition force. Yamao has always been an iconoclast, even when she was mired in scandal, but her isolation from her peers due to her views is troubling.

In a sense, her situation mirrors that of those media entities who seem to be pushing back at the government PR campaign. Strangely enough, it’s been TV this time that has been the most resistant to government control. As the crisis becomes more serious, there is a kind of paradox that has left many journalists confused as to how they should report it. Abe now has the right to declare the kind of wide-sweeping powers that haven’t existed since World War II. The residue of that regime still lingers in people’s consciousness, even if they weren’t born yet, which is one of the reasons why the government has been hesitant to declare a lockdown even though many experts have called for one. During the debate over the emergency bill, it was TV that paid close attention to the preservation of individual rights, with TBS’s “News 23” leading the charge. The newspapers, despite Yoshiko Sakurai’s complaint, described in the first paragraph of the column, mostly held back. Now, everyone seems unsure of what to do, including the government. Though Tokyoites, for example, haven’t been heeding Governor Koike’s “request” to self-isolate and avoid crowds as much as they should, there remains a strong hesitation to invoke emergency powers, but now that the Olympics is postponed it isn’t clear if that hesitation is due to nervousness over the state of the economy or to the aforementioned queasiness of being seen as returning to authoritarian tactics. It could, of course, be a combination of both or something entirely different, but with the media in self-imposed caution mode, it’s difficult to know.

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Review: El Pepe – A Supreme Life

There’s something wonderfully encouraging about Emir Kusturica’s filmic fascination with Latin America. The Serbian director’s reputation as a polymath who makes a decent if not outstanding living as a filmmaker, writer, and musician is enhanced enormously by his tendency to work well outside his wheelhouse on subjects that simply fascinate him. His documentary on the soccer god Maradona was so personal that he titled it Maradona by Kusturica, and while that personal angle sometimes made the narrative impenetrable, it held up as a kind of primer for how to watch South American football, which is like no other pastime in the world. The cigar-chomping director brings this same element of indescribable love for his subject to his portrait of Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the former president of Uruguay who is now comfortably retired on a farm he runs with his forever partner Lucia Topolansky. Now in his 80s, Mujica has lost none of his left-wing fervor (since Topolansky was, at least at the time of the shooting, Uruguay’s vice president, he still has skin in the game) nor his biting, clear-headed intelligence, and though most of the movie involves Kusturica in conversation with him, it’s basically a monologue, because once Pepe starts a story you don’t want him to stop.

And what a story! As with many South American leftist politicians, Mujica started out as a guerilla, fighting against the Uruguayan dictatorship that dominated the country through most of the 20th century. He spent 12 years in prison and then was miraculously elected to the presidency in 2010. Internationally, Mujica was known more for his “neo-stoic” lifestyle than his politics or policies, and Kusturica was no exception, since his metier as a filmmaker has been chronicling the earthy lives of his fellow Serbs, especially those at the bottom of the economic pyramic. As any good journalist would, Kusturica is careful to show that this lifestyle may not be as ascetic as the tabloids would have you believe, but compared to most presidents in Latin America, or in the world, for that matter, it’s practically monkish. What’s refreshing about Mujica is that he doesn’t live this way to set an example. He just prefers it, since living with less removes an entire set of useless obligations from his shoulders, and the movie makes a grand case that it is also the secret to the longevity of both his life and his lucidity.

But the movie also has something for hardcore documentary fans, a deep dive into Uruguayan revolutionary history, with plenty of fascinating archival footage and living testimonies from other players, including Mujica’s fellow leftist inmates Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro, who describe the conditions of their solitary confinement. And while Kusturica’s approach veers into hagiography at times, his decision to outline Mujica’s people-first policies without simplifying them makes the scenes showing those people’s love for their leader—then and now—less sentimental than they seem on the surface. Kusturica admits openly that he is a sucker for the kind of charisma that Mujica wields so effortlessly, but he has the smarts to know that there will be skeptics in the audience. Even skeptics will have to admit that the director understands implicitly how the personal is always the political.

In Spanish and English. Opens March 27 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

El Pepe: A Supreme Life home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Capital Intellectual S.A., Rasta International, MOE

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Media Mix, March 22, 2020

Naoto Kan

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the theatrical feature Fukushima 50. Part of the column discusses the portrayal of Naoto Kan, who was prime minister at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster depicted in the movie. Kan comes off badly, and, in real life, the disaster destroyed his party and has made him, in many people’s eyes, representative of the authorities’ ineptitude. Therefore, it’s useful to look at Kan’s legacy, especially with regards to the nuclear power issue. In 1998, when he was the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, he submitted a bill to the Diet that was meant to facilitate recovery after a chain reaction of bank failures. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party passed the bill and as a result a crisis was averted when banks on the verge of collapse were nationalized. By the same token, Kan thinks it’s important for the central government to take over the job of decommissioning nuclear power plants. He has said that nuclear plants are assets for power companies when they are in service, but once decommissioning starts they become liabilities, and if the company doesn’t have enough money to decommission the plant, their debts will exceed their assets. Nuclear power should thus be nationalized so that decommissioning can go ahead smoothly and at a reasonable pace. Apparently, Kan is still trying to enact such a law, which is, of course, difficult since the LDP wants to restart as many nuclear plants as possible. In a recent interview with Tokyo Shimbun, Kan said that if Abe had been prime minister during the Fukushima incident, things might have turned out differently since it was the LDP’s policy to support nuclear power, meaning that it would have supported Tepco’s efforts, which we have since learned were borderline disastrous and might have let to untold destruction if they had had their way. Kan believes that there is no way his bill could pass under the current administration the way his banking crisis bill did under a previous LDP government. It’s obvious that, whatever Kan’s feeling about nuclear power before 2011, he thinks that the country should move away from it now, albeit slowly and methodically.

As legacies go, this one is perhaps more tenacious than Kan’s detractors would like to imagine. If public sentiment is the main reason why the LDP has failed to get nuclear reactors back online despite the obvious environmental problems created by their replacements, fossil fuel-burning power plants, Kan may be the most central figure in creating that sentiment. Lost in the current flurry of news coverage of a very different emergency, the coronavirus pandemic, news stories about the Fukushima disaster have been necessarily muted, but TBS’s invaluable Hodo Tokushu‘s deep dive into the nine-year anniversary of the meltdown, broadcast February 26, included points that deserve greater attention. Perhaps the most revealing one was how much Taiwan learned from the disaster and incorporated into their own energy policy while Japan has essentially maintained the policy it had prior to the disaster. As the cleanup of Fukushima proceeds at a snail’s pace and the government puts efforts into reopening other reactors, Taiwan, whose geology is very similar to Japan’s, has been busy decommissioning nuclear reactors that are 40 years old (Japan is thinking of extending the expiration date of its reactors) while beefing up its safety precautions with more simulation drills. One of the main contentions of Japanese citizens groups who are suing to prevent reactors from going back online in their vicinities is that the government has not implemented effective safety improvements, which it promised to do after the Fukushima disaster. Essentially, the government has relied on the courts to overlook its negligence in the matter of creating evacuation plans and the like. In contrast, Taiwan passed a law saying that all nuclear power stations will be closed by 2025, the first place in Asia to make such a pledge, though power companies are trying to convince the public that it is too dangerous to abandon nuclear power so quickly without sufficient capacity in other energy sectors. Consequently, it is the aim of the government to increase renewable energy capacity from 6 to 20 percent by 2025, and, according to TBS, they seem to be on track to accomplish that. What’s more, 90 percent of the equipment and facilities used for renewables in Taiwan are made in Taiwan, so the changeover is a source of economic stimulus. Japan is still arguing over which is more practical at the moment, fossil fuels or nuclear. Taiwan obviously learned more from the Fukushima disaster than Japan did.

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Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Though I was initially interested in reading Thomas Piketty’s big bestseller about income inequality as a permanently expanding fixture of economic life, I eventually concluded that the book would probably teach me little. Anyone with a decent grounding in social history who follows the news with any kind of regularity already understands most of Piketty’s most salient points: the growth of the middle class, as well as its doom, was predicted by Marx, stockholders eventually eclipsed stakeholders as the drivers of capitalism, late 20th century deregulation meant the end of upward mobility regardless of what the ruling classes told you, the financial industry would dominate all others, and China’s rise was just another victory for the oligarchy. The movie version of Piketty’s tome lays all of these elements out in a convenient timeline spiced up with eye-catching graphics and animation, peppered with tasty sound bites by some of the most charismatic economists presently pontificating, and presented at a crisp pace that will keep you riveted without breaking your brain.

What surprised me more than anything is how much things have not changed in the past three hundred years. The 1 percent, it turns out, has always been around, which I suppose isn’t news, but the thrust of Piketty’s narrative is that they’ve simply changed spots without altering their souls. Also, the cultural bon-bons make the documentary fun without watering down the message—comparing the economic undercurrents in the novels of Austen to those of Balzac, the creation of Christmas as an “industry,” the transformation of the image of Main Street into that of Wall Street. In fact, there is so much stuff to learn about capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries that you wonder if there will be anything left over for the 21st, and though I knew where Piketty was going, it was still something of a shock to see how the end point of our great capitalist experiment was a world that not only didn’t need workers, but didn’t really want them either. The once hopeful idea of “workers as assets” was always a glorious lie, it turns out, even during that brief window of union-led progressivism after World War II, when the working classes thought they’d turned into the middle classes. Production determined the Allies’ victory during the war, and we all thought that would also determine a brighter future for everyone, but the 1 percent had different plans. For sure, except for some interesting trivial details, I learned nothing new from Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but I did find new ways to feel depressed about it all.

In English and French. Opens today in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Capitalism in the Tweny-First Century home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 GFC (Capital) Limited & Upside SAS.

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Review: Mishima, the Last Debate

Almost 50 years after he committed ritual suicide at the self-defense agency headquarters in Tokyo at the age of 45, Yukio Mishima wedges his way back into Japan’s consciousness in the form of a documentary based on “lost footage” of a public debate he had with a left-wing student organization at the Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo in May 1969. In terms of quality and content, the footage is certainly impressive and worthy of scholarly and even general scrutiny, though there’s a certain dated predictability to the exchanges depicted and, later, analyzed. Director Keisuke Toyoshima lines up as many surviving participants in the debate, as well as people with academic skin in the game, in order to show us how momentous this event was, but in the end it feels more like a historical curiosity than a revelatory document.

For sure, it was a momentous time. The radical student organization, Todai Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee), had essentially been defeated by the police and school authorities in its quests, first to stop the Vietnam War and Japan’s security alliance with the U.S., and secondly to assure greater student autonomy within the university structure. Mishima, probably the most acclaimed novelist of his generation, was already well into his poetic nationalist phase, buff from bodybuilding, effortlessly cosmopolitan regardless of parochial pronouncements, and brimming with confidence. He could well afford to take on these punks single-handedly in a school auditorium holding hundreds and accepted their challenge to argue his case for restoring the emperor to the head of the state and reviving militarism. But another reason he took the challenge, according to the various talking heads who appear throughout the movie, is that he sincerely admired these young men (and the vast majority were men; no women appear in the footage chosen and only one is a talking head, fellow novelist and epicurean Jakucho Setouchi), because they had proven they were men of action. In fact, one of their beefs with Mishima was that he showed off his intellectualism, and like Richard Hofstadter’s famous theory about people who identify as being practical-minded, the students wanted to trip him up by proving his intelligence was used for frivolous things. As one student says during the debate, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up.”

And in a sense that’s the problem with the film, because too much of the debate is spent talking about the meaning of language rather than the primacy of action, which is the real subject of Mishima’s literature. The centerpiece confrontation is between the author, chain smoking and cracking jokes at the expense of his hosts, and a student named Masahiko Akuta, who, with his baby daughter strapped to his chest, brings the debate down to the ground in ways that are startlingly direct. Akuta does not defer to Mishima, and, in fact, seems impatient with his constant extemporizing, and for a second, at least, you can sense the writer realizing that someone is calling his bluff.

Though it would take a great deal of intellectual gymnastics to claim that one side or the other “won” the debate, there’s another sense that Mishima didn’t feel entirely satisfied with his performance. As several talking heads say in hindsight, he actually “loved” young people, regardless of their political position, because he knew they were not yet ground underfoot by Japanese conventions. He may have worshipped the idea of the emperor, but he seemed to resent the man himself, which was exactly the point. When the emperor was a god, he could be revered. As a man, he was barely capable of holding a conversation of any interest. Even Mishima’s militaristic turns were more theatrical than political (though he probably hated U.S. bases just as much as the leftists did), and the film gives the impression that his famous suicide more than a year later was carried out to own the libs, if not these particular students. He wasn’t humiliated in the debate by any means, but he knew he had failed to persuade them that his was the path they should be following, not that of left-wing dreamers (Akuta would go on to become an avant garde theater director) or corporate/government factotums, but rather citizens who saw the greatness in their native sensibility, even if Mishima himself had yet to figure out a way to transform that ideal into something that was really great for everybody on anything but a spiritual level. By killing himself so spectacularly, he at least was able to get in the last word.

In Japanese. Opens March 20 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Mishima, the Last Debate home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2020 eiga “Mishima Yukio vs Todai Zenkyoto 50nen me no shinjitsu” seisaku iinkai/(c) Shinchosha

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Review: Columbus

The title city, a leafy Midwestern exurb that is located in Indiana, not Ohio, is an interesting choice for a place where the two main characters find themselves stuck. The town’s main attraction is its full line of modernist architecture, much of it designed by the Finnish master Eero Saarinen, and first-time feature director Kogonada apparently built his whole script around this feature. The fact that it works so well in illustrating the difficulties of two people overcoming their circumstances is a tribute not only to the Korean-American director’s imagination, but to his acute insight into the way we project onto our surroundings.

If you need a genre check, Columbus is a coming-of-age story. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young woman who, despite encouragement from her betters and a sharply honed intelligence, has put off university, mainly because she is afraid of leaving her single mother (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict who may or may not be lapsing. However, her excuse to everyone is that she doesn’t want to leave. As she tells an old high school classmate who has moved on to Los Angeles, “I like it here,” much to the classmate’s arrogant chagrin. And it’s easy to understand at first because Kogonada and his cinematographer, Elisha Christian, are obsessed with the physical beauty of the town as much as Casey is, taking every opportunity, both within and without the parameters of the story, to explore these marvelous buildings.

The ringer is Jin (John Cho), the estranged son of an architecture professor who was slated to give a lecture in Columbus but suffers a stroke that puts him into a coma. Jin flies in from Seoul, where he works as a book translator, and is forced to hang around “until he either dies or recovers,” he tells his father’s long-time assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey), and since the father simply lingers, Jin has to kill time. During an awkward but effectively staged meet-cute, he bums a cigarette off of Casey and a bond is formed. The younger woman had planned to attend the lecture, so she’s surprised to learn that Jin essentially hates architecture, and decides she will turn him on to her hometown’s charms. Puzzled and yet intrigued, Jin gives her a hard time. “Just tell me how you feel about it,” he demands impatiently when Casey launches into her tour guide shtick. To her credit, she’s up to the challenge.

The beauty of the dialogue is that it never shortchanges either the viewer’s or the characters’ intelligence. Casey often has spirited conversations with Gabe (Rory Culkin), her colleague at the local library who is working on a doctorate and is secretly in love with Casey. When Jin starts interrogating Casey’s reasons for having abandoned an opportunity to study architecture on the east coast, he compels her to talk about those feelings in a more practical way, thus revealing her insecurity about her mother, as well as her lack of self-confidence. In the process, Casey compels Jin to question his feelings toward his father and how those feelings have prodded him into a life he doesn’t really feel comfortable with. Both eventually become unstuck, but not in a way you would imagine. As resolutions go, the ones described in Columbus are surprisingly realistic considering how openly hopeful they are designed to be. Just like a great building.

In English and Korean. Opens March 14 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Shibuya (03-5766-0114).

Columbus home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2016 Jin and Casey LLC

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