Media Mix, May 26, 2019

Poster for “Michikusa”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the ethical problems surrounding the relatively risk-free prenatal blood test that the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has just approved for expanded use. Though the ethical considerations are mainly concerned with the high abortion rate for positive genetic abnormality results, the basic meaning of the column is whether Japanese society has yet to be fully accepting of people with disabilities, be they physical, mental, or intellectual. The column mentions the documentary Michikusa, which is about mentally disabled people leading relatively solitary lives, a situation that is not only very rare in Japan, but very rare in other countries. The main reason for the success of the program explored in the film is that the subjects of the program are not expected to be “useful” or “productive,” terms that seem simple enough but which are really loaded with added values. Because the disabled are considered “unproductive,” they are also considered burdens on society, and thus may attract resentment from so-called abled persons. This is certainly true of the sentiment behind the Eugenics Law outlined in the beginning of the column, as well as many of the comments received by Dr. Tadashi Matsunaga when he was writing a column about pediatric medicine for the Yomiuri Shimbun.

During an interview with the Asahi Shimbun in April, the director of the film, Masahiro Shishido, described the inspiration for the documentary and the theory behind the title, which translates directly as “path grass.” The mentally disabled persons in the film walk around, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with helpers, for no particular reason, he says. This, in fact, is often the nature of walking, a time when the individual is only asked to contemplate their surroundings. There is no need to do anything useful. Humans, he says, tend to be obsessed with “the purpose of life,” and fail to appreciate life as it is. The mentally disabled are no different in this regard: They can walk and think their own thoughts, whatever they may be. If people were aware of this facet of existence, they wouldn’t be so concerned with disabled persons’ value to society, because they should only have value to themselves. This is the “hurdle of independence” that many disabled people face. Those who are physically disabled, or have mild intellectual disabilities can actually function more or less the same as so-called abled people. It’s just that society still doesn’t see their inherent value as human beiings. “Everyone should have the option to live outside [of facilities],” Shishido says of disabled persons, “where life is unpredictable.” There is no reason to be surprised or dismayed when you see a disabled person living on their own.

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Review: Ex Libris, The New York Public Library

At one point at the beginning of Frederick Wiseman’s monumental documentary about the New York Public Library, someone basically calls it a holy place for secular people. That’s a fair description of any library, but New York’s is special in that it not only provides the largest research resource collection of almost any institution in the world, it actively involves its users in the life of the city’s vast culture. Entering the huge, beautiful main branch at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, with its famous marble lions and elegant wood paneling, is like entering the city’s soul—the good ecumenical soul that should be at the heart of every great city’s endeavor.

But Wiseman does something more. He reveals the institution to be not only a holding center for information, but a social space that brings people together for the common task of self-enrichment. He’s careful to point out how vital the various smaller neighborhood branches are to the lives of local residents, for whom very few things are free the way the library is. On a larger scale he shows free public interviews with such cultural stars as Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Ta-Nahesi Coates. He also presents fairly long lectures on things like the Marxist view of real estate and the role of slavery in Western Civilization. He shows people doing research into cancer diagnoses and the provenance of the Border Patrol. Andy Warhol, it’s revealed, got a lot of his ideas from the NYPL. It’s tempting to wonder what Wiseman, in fact, left out, because he’s famous, especially in his longer, later works, for giving more than ample time to certain anecdotes and discussions that he appreciates simply because he likes them. And the fact is, his taste is impeccable.

He also delves into the library’s funding and politics, and the viewer, of course, wants it all to be approved. There’s one uncomfortable scene of a fund-raiser for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where we realize that most of the money is coming from rich white folks. Perhaps that can’t be helped, but Wiseman’s good sense compels us to understand that the library is seen by both sides of the political divide as worthy of support and attention. If you’ve ever lived in New York and left it, Ex Libris will crystallize exactly what you miss most about the city. It’s a unique and wonderful thing, and Wiseman’s film a fine testament to it.

Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall (03-3262-5252)

Ex Libris home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Ex Libris Films LLC

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Review: American Animals

Though it doesn’t really amount to much in the end, director Bart Layton’s decision to claim up front that his heist movie is a bona fide “true story”—as opposed to a movie “inspired” by one—is a fairly bold step, and compels him to add inserts wherein the actual people involved in the caper provide details, albeit from inside prison, thus letting us know rather soon how the heist turns out. It’s not really much of a spoiler, because despite unerring confidence in their criminal skills, the two masterminds behind the robbery, art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his less savvy pal Warren (Evan Peters), who’s the beneficiary of a sports scholarship, don’t really give the impression that they know what they’re really getting into.

The caper takes place at the college they’re attending in Kentucky. The fact that it’s called Transylvania University is a good enough joke by itself, though Layton, honoring his pledge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, doesn’t take advantage of it. The school library has a number of valuable first editions, and the pair’s aim is to steal a few and sell them for lots of money on the black market in Europe, though, in fact, money isn’t really the reason they’re doing it, and in the end it probably would have been better if they had been in it for the cash, because they probably would have given up before they got too far.

Certainly the most fictive element of the plan is to use older heist movies for research, which begs the question right off the bat: Couldn’t they tell by watching Kubrick’s The Killing that these kinds of jobs rarely go off well? Eventually, they bring in two other friends (Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson) for assistance, and the attendant complications split the difference between admirably methodical and completely silly. Had they bothered to watch Reservoir Dogs, for instance, they’d have realized that giving themselves color-coded names would only end in infamy. There are also potent comic bits on the use of disguises during a particularly ominous practice run-through. 

All this dodgy presentation adds to the viewer’s sense of doomed anticipation, so by the time the actual heist occurs, we’re pretty much on edge, prepared for the worst, and Layton doesn’t disappoint. But for all the artful direction and careful use of those interviews, there’s something peculiarly lacking in the film, mainly a sense of purpose. Layton has essentially produced an anti-heist film in that the viewer gains no sense of suspense or excitement, but rather a sinking feeling that these fools are going down. Layton’s got guts and good storytelling sense, but he might have chosen a tale that was a little less descriptive of American male stupidity. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015).

American Animals home page in Japanese.

photo (c) AI Film LLC/Channel Four Television Corporation/American Animal Pictures Limited 2018

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Review: Skate Kitchen

Rebellious teens come in all shapes, sizes, and modes of seriousness, and thus are reliably timeless as cinematic characters. The hook for this debut feature by Crystal Moselle is that it’s based on a popular Instagram account and uses the subjects of that account as actors mostly playing themselves, though the plot is contrived and even a bit elaborate. The world depicted is that of female skateboarders in Manhattan, most of whom enjoy very little in the way of family life or educational opportunities. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a dedicated skater living out on Long Island, falls into this milieu after injuring herself while skating and receiving a command from her worried Spanish-speaking mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) that she can no longer partake of the pastime, so in order to avoid her mother’s gaze she takes the train into the city to do her thing.

The title of the film is taken from the Instagram account, but its ironical gender-identified overtones help sell a story that’s pointedly centered on female solidarity. Moselle sets up a clear divide between the group of girl skaters that Camille hangs out with and the boys who often invade their space. At this young age, the girls have learned not to trust the boys too much, even though some of them are dating and even shacking up. Since Camille is for the most part reserved, it takes her some time to open up to this crew, whose New York attitude is played for all its worth. Camille’s skills are unimpeachable, but her lack of ballsy boldness initially means she has to hang back and let her new acquaintances steer her toward self-actualization, which some will interpret as borderline delinquency and others as maturity through the back door, so to speak. In any event, Camille’s new secret life becomes full blown in that she moves in with a new friend, Janay (Dede Lovelace) and her family, making the fateful break from her own.

Intrigued viewers should understand that, while there are drugs and sex involved, this isn’t a Larry Clark movie. In fact, dramatically it tends more toward an after-school soap opera than a gritty urban cautionary tale. Consequently, it’s often difficult to tell what these kids really want, a situation that may have more to do with their undeveloped acting chops than Moselle’s undeveloped narrative skills. Nevertheless, as a depiction of a closed-off culture it works surprisingly well, and the skating sequences are thrillingly executed. Moreover, anyone who wants to know about the spiritual boundaries that separate Long Island from the city will learn a lot from this movie, which gets the mood just right.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-3477-5905).

Skate Kitchen home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Skate Girl Film LLC

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Review: RBG

Having seen Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, I approached this documentary about the life of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg equipped with a certain store of images and facts that I assumed would aid me in understanding the iconic legal hero, and was somewhat taken aback when I left with more questions than when I went in. It’s not often that a dramatic narrative feature tells you more about a subject than a documentary, and the only answer I can come up with is that the filmmakers of RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, are so enamored of their subject they assumed that devotional regard would satisfy anyone who viewed it, including the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who nominated it for an Oscar.

As explained in Basis, the essence of Ginsburg’s stature in history is her role in advancing gender equality in a variety of American institutions, and RBG does a fair job of extending this story, but without the kind of specific examination of trial cases that Basis presented, the viewer is compelled to take the directors’ word for it. That Ginsburg stood up to the monolith of male-dominated jurisprudence is mentioned again and again, but without clear cut examples that prove how she used incisive legal arguments to change the American landscape so that women had an equal chance at succeeding, we’re left with the conclusion that it was simply due to her spiky personality, since it is that aspect of her being that the filmmakers fixate on. For sure, they interview women (and even a few men) who benefited from Ginsburg’s representation and decisions, but they provide little in the way of hard evidence as to the obstacles she helped them overcome.

There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value in watching the pint-sized octogenarian working out at the gym and snarking on comedians who deign to portray her on TV. And while she has stated clearly that her marriage to tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg had much to do with not only shaping her life, but shaping her understanding of the law, the large amount of running time devoted to that union has real value. But in the end, it seems like a waste that Cohen and West didn’t respect the enormous effort RBG put into learning about the law by making their own effort to explain how she actively changed that law. I pretty much already understand how she changed American pop culture.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

RBG home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Cable News Network

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Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Gus Van Sant manages to recover from recent poor choices (Sea of Trees, Promised Land) with the help of Joaquin Phoenix and an inspired cast of A-listers in supporting roles. The vehicle is perhaps less impressive than any of its component parts, but the somewhat tired theme of personal redemption is at least given a new lease on life with a totally bonkers take on addiction porn. Basically a biopic of the parapalegic cartoonist John Callahan (Phoenix), who died in 2010 at the age of 59, Don’t Worry trades mainly in black comedy undercut by some rather nasty truths about human nature. Set in the 1970s and 80s, the script moves liberally back-and-forth in time with little regard for narrative coherence, which actually saves the film from having to justify Callahan’s actions or even make sense of them.

Raised in a foster home, Callahan turns into something of an asshole, especially during the 70s when PC culture had yet to make any kind of impression. He’s an alcoholic drawn to other alcoholics, one of whom, a nerdy, needy misanthrope named Dexter (Jack Black, turning his patented bro persona into a force of evil), becomes his nemesis-enabler, and after a particularly drunken night in his company Callahan wraps his VW around a telephone pole, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Not only does this misfortune not curb his excesses, it exacerbates them, and after several years Callahan finally enters rehab only because he’s alienated any nurses assigned to help him and can’t open booze containers on his own.

From here Van Sant mostly works on instinct, interspersing comically charge anecdotes (the one with the skaters is particularly well done, channeling better Van Sant movies like Paranoid Park) with pointedly dramatic bottom-scraping episodes, moments of relative tenderness featuring Callahan’s wife, Annu (Rooney Mara), and interludes with his AA sponsor/mentor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), whose hippie line of counseling turns out to be the perfect foil for Callahan’s particular brand of cynical bullshit. And while Callahan’s sourly crass cartoons figure in the cinematic structures, they don’t stand in for anything that can’t be expressed better through live action and dialogue. As a result, the humor is honest, the pathos penetrating, and the life’s lessons tolerable and sometimes even didactic in a positive way. Equally funny is seeing all these actors in period dress trying to take on the airs of the pre-internet cultural zeitgeist. It’s a kind of inadvertent bonus because you know they did their research by watching old Paul Mazursky films.

Opens May 3 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjukuu Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Don’t Worry home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Amazon Content Services LLC

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Media Mix, April 28, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about clothing that’s appropriate for work and other situations. Though dress codes are certainly not limited to Japan, there seems to be a feeling here, especially in media circles, that it’s only natural for companies and other organizations to demand their employees follow certain protocols with regard to appearance. Schools tend to be the most notorious in their demands, going so far as to order students with natural highlights to dye their hair black so as not to suggest they may be dyeing their hair brown. And in a real sense, the “problem,” if there is one, is that people in positions of authority feel they have a duty to socialize young people under their nominal care. The weird thing, as pointed out in the column, is that eventually such control becomes evidently counter-productive, as in the case of International Christian University trying to persuade its freshmen not to wear “recruit suits” to the school’s welcoming ceremony.

The most interesting example of this kind of shifting standard is tokkofuku, those baggy, elaborately monogrammed, and often colorful getups that were once—and often still are—associated with biker gangs of the juvenile delinquent type. Apparently, over the years, boys, as well as some girls, who are graduating from junior high schools attend their leaving ceremonies attired in tokkofuku, and the authorities are so alarmed that in some areas they’ve banned the clothing, saying that the mere association with potentially antisocial behavior is enough for concern and police involvement. What’s fascinating about this phenomenon is that kids originally took the tokkofuku idea as a means of perverting their mandatory school uniforms, by changing those uniforms in order to make them seem more dangerous and thus more idiosyncratic. Now, those tokkofuku themselves are a kind of uniform, since in many cases the kids who wear them are straight-A students who are simply having fun with their friends. It’s a fashion in and of itself—there are even shops that specialize in selling custom-made tokkofuku just for such occasions. In effect, kids who buy them aren’t antisocial at all. They even embroider their costumes with messages of appreciation to parents and teachers. It’s individualism, but only up to a point.

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