Best Albums 2017

As there was no one record that monopolized my attention this year—nothing I wanted to hear compulsively, like Heartthrob or The Truth About Love in past years—I found myself shuffling through a lot more new music than I usually do, and with a greater sense of curiosity. Consequently, I discovered acutely how far my tastes ranged from week-to-week, even day-to-day. It’s not unusual that an album I really liked at the beginning of the year faded in my estimation toward the end of it, but in 2017 I found this fluctuating attraction to certain songs and artists to be even more extreme, and while at first I put it down to a kind of middle-aged ADD, now I think of it more as a function of the type of emotional involvement with music I used to take for granted when I was young but no longer have the time to indulge. Of course, one of the reasons you glom onto certain artists or albums is that you instinctively steer toward the safe harbor of familiarity, and I’m not just talking about the stuff you liked when you were a college freshman. When making up lists like this, I always trust my impulses first, and I know that doing so can necessarily push away things I might genuinely love if I gave them enough time; though I also think that music, as opposed to movies, is a more impulsive endeavor, for both the creator and the receiver. And if there’s anything that unites the albums that made my top ten it’s their ability to please me in an ever-intensifying way now that I’ve learned them more or less by heart, and in many cases that didn’t happen until December. That said, the new album I probably listened to most intensely this year was Randy Newman’s, and I can’t rightly say why it didn’t make this list. Maybe I just prefer his older, more concise songs to his late-career theatrical approach, but I guess that’s a safe harbor, too, and when I was honest with myself, I had to admit I liked a lot of other stuff much more. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Dec. 31, 2017

Takanohana

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is a roundup of the year. One thing I didn’t mention but which I probably should have is the sumo assault scandal. The reason I didn’t was because I, myself, didn’t think it had any meaning outside the world or sumo, but as the press, in particular the weeklies, the tabloids, and the TV wide shows, kept digging into the story in the last weeks of the year it became obvious that these outlets were simply trying to avoid talking about other things that might have had more bearing on people’s lives, like the threat from North Korea, the various money and influence scandals that continue to dog the Abe administration, and the worldwide movement to address systemic sexual harassment of women, matters I did take up in the column. The press has never liked Takanohana, the former yokozuna and present stable master who is the main target of the coverage, but it’s easy to get the impression that they’re simply dredging up old enmities because 1) they assume it will sell magazines and boost ratings, and 2) it’s easy to do, since they have so much dirt on the guy already. Also, I’ve never had much sympathy for Takanohana because of his predetermined status as a cultural elite owing to his parentage, so he never held much interest for me as a public personality or as an athlete. He’s a convenient media foil and nothing more.

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Best movies 2017

Every year my movie-watching regime becomes more rarefied owing to tighter schedules and diminished monetary inducement. Nowadays, however, I can often make up for the films I miss at press screenings by seeing them later at my local multiplex, on streaming services, or on the satellite channel WOWOW (though by then they’ve usually been out of theaters for a year). In actuality, I can only think of one film I saw in any of those situations that might have ended up on this list: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. I’ve always liked Baumbach, and this one, which I saw on Netflix, was better than most. I think I might have liked it even more if I had seen it in a setting with no cats or other domestic distractions. These are definitely the pitfalls of home viewing for anyone who takes their movies seriously. So are overly comfortable seats. I can definitely attest that I fell asleep during substantial portions of Ghost in the Shell and Despicable Me 3 because I saw them at night-time big press screenings held in movie palaces with those damn throne-like chairs. I can just as confidently say that regardless of where I saw them, I did not doze off during any of the following fifteen films, all of which I wouldn’t mind seeing again, as a matter of fact. As always, these films were all released in Japanese theaters during the 2017 calendar year. Oh yeah, and I loved Twin Peaks the Return, but I would never qualify it as a movie. Continue reading

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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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