Media Mix, Sept. 15, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about an Environmental Ministry scheme to cull cats on Amami Oshima in order to gain UNESCO certification of the island as a natural World Heritage Site. As explained in the column, the ministry has essentially created its own designation for the stray cats it wants to cull, saying they are feral cats that prey on various species unique to Amami Oshima. However, critics say that there is no need for a cull since the population of indigenous rabbits, for instance, is actually increasing. A related point that was not mentioned in the column is the status of stray cats on Amami Oshima. According to one blog post I read about the issue, many homes on the island keep cats as pets but allow them to roam outside for the purpose of pest control; in this case, the pests are not rodents but rather snakes, which are numerous on the island. Many are poisonous. The cats do not catch and eat the snakes, but the snakes like rodents and often go into homes in order to hunt them. If the home has a cat that hangs around it will naturally scare away mice, which means snakes will have less of a reason to enter the house.

What this suggests is that many of the cats that may be considered strays are, in fact, house cats that are allowed to roam outside. And since animal welfare groups have a problem with the ministry’s vague distinction between strays (which are protected by the law) and feral cats, it’s altogether possible that roaming pets are also being scooped up in the cull, though, as far as I know no cat owner on the island has yet reported their pet missing as a result. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

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Review: A Private War

The person played by Rosamund Pike in this harrowing biopic is supposed to be American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in 2012 covering the civil war in Syria. However, early on there’s a sense that Matthew Heineman’s film intends to be the last word on battle-hardened journalists and the woman Pike plays could really be any battle-hardened journalist. With her alcoholism, inability to keep loved ones close, and obsession with being as close to danger as possible, she doesn’t even have to be a woman; which is to say, A Private War never really makes a case for Colvin’s storied cynicism and self-destructiveness because it’s all presented as a generic given.

This aspect comes into clear perspective whenever Colvin’s editor at the London Times, Sean (Tom Hollander), strolls into view. A pure greed hound, Sean doesn’t need to do much to prod Colvin back into situations where she stands a good chance of being killed, though much of his “charm” is in the way he couches his proddings in compliments and ego-stroking, exploiting her need to get at “the truth” with assurances that no one else can do what she does. This is pure cliche. Surely, the kind of give-and-take that a reporter of Colvin’s caliber had with her superiors was more nuanced and fraught than this. Here, it comes across as bullying and coercion, but with an intellectual gloss. That Colvin falls for it seems suspect, but, then again, the film protrays her as being driven only by ambition.

The only real conflict involved is between Colvin the poet (she struggles over her style mightily—Hemingway is referenced at least once) and Colvin the documentarian. It is lives that she covers, not policies or ideas. Much is made of how close she gets to the victims and perpetrators of war. To her, armed conflict is the biggest human interest story you can report. Eventually, of course, this intensity is the cause of her demise, her doggedness interpreted as a kind of death wish, which is a romantic construct in and of itself. After losing her eye during a skirmish with Tamil Tiger guerillas, she has to readjust her field activity for the loss in depth perception, and you can see the difficulty she’s having in the way Pike tilts her head in an attempt to assess situations into which she’s about to throw herself, regardless of the consequences. From the very first frame, A Private War presents a person who was born to die.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

A Private War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 APW Film LLC

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Daniel Johnston 1961-2019

I did a telephone interview with Daniel Johnston for the Japan Times in 2003 to publicize his first-ever Japan concerts. The interview is still online and you can read it here.

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Review: Free Solo

Though Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar-winning documentary is ostensibly about world-famous rock climber Alex Honnold, it’s really about how we define heroes nowadays, especially in the context of movies. Honnold in many ways embodies the classic traits of the cinematic hero: reticent, private, obsessed with detail (at one point in the movie it’s suggested he has Asperger’s), indifferent to his effect on others. But as a post-millennial public figure, his most interesting trait is that he performs his heroics without much exposure. After all, he climbs sheer mountain faces away from the nervous gaze of the general public, which is where Vasarhelyi and Chin come in. In their own heroic ambition they decided to film Honnold scaling El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, one of the most forbidding climbs in the world, with multiple cameras operated by trained climbers who would record the feat up close and personally.

The title refers to the fact that Honnold climbed the edifice without ropes or bolts, just the special shoes on his feet, a pouch full of chalk dust, and some water. The drama and suspense is built into the film, since even Honnold admits he could drop at any time, and that would be the end of it—El Capitan is 975 meters high. Consequently, much of the film is about how the directors will deal with this eventuality, even when they don’t talk about it openly. They are just as much players in this drama as Honnold is. Though the 32-year-old adventurer was going to climb solo anyway, had he fallen, it would simply have amounted to a bulletin on the evening news. With a full film crew in tow and a fairly hefty budget involved, everyone would have become complicit, in one way or another, in the tragedy.

In that regard, much of the movie feels almost perfunctory, though obviously necessary. Honnold’s background as the son of middle class privilege and his current relationship with a woman who is totally there for him if understandably freaked out by his determination (which is, granted, relatively subdued) are presented; as well as a rundown of other free solo climbers who have died in the act, some of them inexplicably, though it’s only inexplicable in that there were no cameras around to record exactly what went wrong. All these elements combine to make a visual adventure that’s compelling for all the expected reasons but less inspiring than they should be. It’s not Honnold’s fault that he can’t be the hero the directors want him to be, but in the end, so much was put in place to make sure the climb and the filming of it would be a success that all the mystery is drained out of it—not just the mystery of how it will turn out, but of what really makes a guy like Honnold tick and why average people like us like to watch potential train wrecks. The feeling you get watching Free Solo is that no train wreck could be possible with this much preparation. The hero of the movie is the modern sense of professionalism, which is really no hero at all.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Free Solo home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 NGC Networks US

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Review: Ash Is Purest White

Though it’s tempting to call his latest film a return to form, Jia Zhangke’s output since his last critically acknowledged masterpiece, Still Life (2006), mainly shows an artist grappling with his place in his own world, meaning China. For the most part, Jia’s features operated on the edge of China’s cultural mainstream, hailed by international movie lovers and mostly tolerated by his compatriots who have more control over the industry he works in. The fact that they looked down on his socioeconomically critical stories was not necessarily expressed through action, though for years his countrymen could only see his films on bootlegged DVDs. That changed with A Touch of Sin (2013), a movie that maintained the critical stance but couched it in more populist terms, which the authorities could tolerate because the criticism seemed aimed at society in general rather than policy. Nobody was fooled, but it’s obvious the authorities wanted to claim Jia as their own given his international acclaim and, for that matter, his love for his country. For what it’s worth, Touch was a pretty great movie, but not for the reasons his previous films were great. Always a fan of old gangster films, Jia proved he could handle genre fare, but when he tried to apply this skill to his next movie, Mountains May Depart, with its dystopian plot, the results were confused and, probably due to the fact that he was partly working in a foreign language, thematically incomprehensible.

Ash Is Purest White isn’t half as good as Platform or Unknown Pleasures, but it uses that gimlet-eyed study of social Darwinism to background a genre film of extraordinary originality. Basically a romantic melodrama focusing on the 17-year relationship between the regional mob boss Bin Bin (Fan Liao) and his “moll,” the fiery Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), the movie charts the evolution of Chinese hinterland economics since the dawn of the millennium, and in that sense it’s a kind of sequel to Unknown Pleasures (there’s even an early scene that, reportedly, is an outtake from that movie). This couple adheres to a criminal code that is quickly being supplanted by outlaw capitalism, which is not the same thing, as embodied in a redevelopment project that is reshaping their community. The early scenes are reminiscent of Hong Kong actioners but with more self-regard and wit in the depiction of violence. Inevitably, Qiao Qiao takes the rap for her boyfriend in a gun crime and gets put away in prison for a number of years, true to her man and her code, but when she gets out she realizes that the code was always bunk and Bin Bin was never as strong as she figured. In fact, it takes her a while to track him down and on the way she proves her mettle as an independent agent, holding her own both physically (she does a number on another woman who dares cheat her out of some money) and mentally. If Bin Bin is half the man he was before the change, Qiao Qiao is twice the man, and a better measure of what it takes to survive in modern China.

In that regard, Zhao Tao comes into her own as one of the best actors of our time. She’s been Jia’s muse (and partner) since he started, and the slow accumulation of experience in the world and acting ideas has made her both fiercely instinctive and highly adaptable to type. Thanks to her, Ash is Purest White becomes more dramatically intriguing as it shows us what Chinese capitalism has wrought over the last decade and a half. She makes it all so personal.

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Ash Is Purest White home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Xstream Pictures (Beijing) – MK Productions – ARTE France

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Review: Us

Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so on point about its sociopolitical subtext that many critics gave it a pass on its plotting, which, especially toward the end, became stiff and formulaic. It’s clear that Peele has a talent for horror forms, but it’s also clear that these skills have mainly been acquired through osmosis, which makes sense for someone who was making his first horror movie. But what everyone, including myself, took away from the groundbreaking feature was the way Peele incorporated the everyday discomfort that black people feel in a world ruled by white people into a conventional horror story by inflating that discomfort into pure terror. Given how skillfully and convincingly he accomplished this feat, the screenplay’s pitfalls seemed less blatant. In fact, it won Peele an Oscar.

These pitfalls are more noticeable in his followup, Us, which is actually scarier than Get Out while making less sense. Encouraged by the success of his previous film, Peele has become even bolder with his subtext, expanding the sociopolitical criticism to embrace the experience of being an American in general, and not just a black one (though, in the context presented, being black comes across as scarier by definition).

The genre is that of the “family beseiged by unknown supernatural forces,” and the movie opens with a flashback of a little girl wandering through a California amusement park during a storm and taking refuge in a hall of mirrors where she encounters a terrifying double. The girl, whose name is Adelaide, grows up, gets a job, marries, and has two kids, and the beginning of the movie proper has her (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family visiting the same coastal area during a vacation, during which the feelings of dread she felt so long ago in the amusement park are reawakened and given flesh. The family, ensconced for the night in a weekend house Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), is borrowing from his employer, is that night terrorized by a family dressed in identical red outfits and which looks exactly like them but moves in zombie-like fashion with blank, wide-eyed expressions. During this sequence, Peele ramps up the jump scares and expertly keeps the viewer’s attention distracted by details—bloody raw meat, the glint of a kitchen knife, a noose hanging from an elevated ceiling, Adelaide’s son’s “Jaws” T-shirt—that take on a cumulative meaning aside from their individual signification of death and violence.

The class distinctions that eventually come to define the difference between Adelaide’s family and these doppelgangers are potent until Peele feels obligated to explain them, and the movie collapses under the weight of an intricate origin tale that makes only thematic sense. The problem with horror movies—and it was the problem with Get Out, too—is that the justification for all the carnage has to be clear and simple enough so as not to be a distraction itself, and Us‘s clever but ultimately unwieldy social critique plot is just too silly to take seriously in the context of a horror story. Though it may sound like a waste of talent, it would be interesting to see Peele tackle a straightforward horror movie without the weighted subtext.

Opens Sept. 6 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Us home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Universal Pictures

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Media Mix, Sept. 1, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the recent interest in road rage incidents. The topic aligns with my own pet peeve about Japanese drivers and their feeling of entitlement when it comes to carless people with whom they share roads. I know this is a problem in every country of the world (just be thankful Japan is strict about guns), but in other countries the police at least put up a show of maintaining the right-of-way safety hierarchy, with pedestrians at the top and drivers at the bottom. As a person whose bicycle is their primary form of transportation, I can’t count the many times I’ve been honked or yelled at for simply sharing a road with a car whose operator obviously thought I should be on the sidewalk rather than taking up valuable space that would otherwise be better utilized by an over-sized SUV. But even as a pedestrian, I’ve become acclimated to an environment in which drivers don’t even follow normal rules. As mentioned in the column, police are finally starting to crack down on drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians at marked pedestrian crossings. Though there is a law that says you must stop for pedestrians, I suppose I can get my head around the concept that because they are not required to stop at ped crossings when there are no pedestrians they may not automatically stop when they see pedestrians out of the corner of their eye. However, this dispensation is immediately dismissed when it comes to intersections where there are stop signs. Every driver must come to a complete halt at a stop sign, but Japanese drivers tend to respond to them as if they were yield signs: At best, they slow down to check if the coast is clear and then continue on their way. And the police do nothing unless they’re conducting one of their periodical end-of-term ticketing campaigns. When someone does stop at a stop sign, often the person behind them honks their horn in impatience. The problem, as pointed out in the Asahi article cited in the column, is that pedestrians have come to accept the idea that cars have more rights than they do. Children in Nagano Prefecture, which boasts the safest drivers in Japan, are encouraged to bow to cars that stop at pedestrian crossings, meaning children should thank drivers for obeying the law. At one particularly troublesome corner in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, drivers not only zip through pedestrian crossings, they beep their horn at any pedestrians who happen to be in their path. It’s one of the reasons we sold our car. We don’t want to belong to that club any more.

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