Media Mix, April 2, 2017

Yasunori Kagoike

Here is this week’s Media Mix, which is about the unofficial “Nippon Sugoi!” campaign. “Nippon Sugoi!” is usually translated as “Great Japan!”, though I think “Amazing Japan!” is closer to the vernacular meaning, since “sugoi!” is so commonly used as an exclamation of pleasant surprise. As I wrote the column over the last week, a few other English language writers covered the same or similar topics, especially with regard to sudden media attention to the concept of sontaku, which is explained near the end of the article. Because of Kagoike’s use of the word the Japanese press practically fell over themselves trying to explain its significance, and I thought it was interesting while watching the feed of Kagoike’s FCCJ news conference that several reporters didn’t seem to grasp what he was suggesting about the huge discount he received for the land he bought. So Tetsuo Jimbo’s comments were useful in that regard, but a lot of commentators have made the point that sontaku isn’t unique to Japan, that underlings all over the world constantly try to second guess their superiors in order to curry favor with them. And while that’s true, I think the Japanese version is special in that it’s been systematized, especially by the bureaucracy, as Gohara points out in his blog post. The most obvious form of this systematization, however, is self-restraint on the part of the media themselves. Much has been made in recent years of how the press has muffled itself so as not to incur the wrath of the powers-that-be, who it is assumed will retaliate for any perceived reportorial slight by withholding access. They do this without any actual threat being held over their heads, and thus the act of self-restraint, at first reflexive, becomes part of the business model.

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April 2017 movies

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

Captain Fantastic
Road trips vivify the great American indie movie, and while Matt Ross’s feature is light as a travelogue, it successfully shows the U.S. in all its ambivalence. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife are raising their six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and while visiting her parents to treat her depression she kills herself. Ben packs the brood into a refurbished school bus and heads to New Mexico for the funeral, to which his father-in-law (Frank Langella) has not invited them. Along the way we learn what kind of person Ben is—not just a radical leftist, but an intelligent man with a chip on his shoulder that he attempts to hoist onto his oldest son (George McKay), who wants a “normal” life. The kids know more about Plato and the Bill of Rights than anyone else their age, but these gifts are presented as blunt objects to pound the bourgeoisie, and while there’s an honest appeal to Mortensen’s performance, the character and the situations don’t add up to anything believable or affecting. (photo: Captain Fantastic Productions LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 19, 2017

Mako Oshidori

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the press’s inability—or unwillingness—to question the government’s rush to repopulate the evacuation zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility. Of the examples I gave of media who have questioned this move, Mako Oshidori’s peculiar means of going about her task relates to the larger picture of media complacency in Japan, and it’s interesting that so much subtext was evident on the NTV documentary. NTV, it should be noted, is part of the Yomiuri media juggernaut, one of Japan’s more conservative entities, but “NNN Document” has always had a reputation for independence, mainly because each episode is produced by a different independent production company. NTV, I presume, just buys them without changing them too much. Since they tend to be broadcast either in the middle of the night on the main terrestrial channels, or on NTV’s satellite station, they don’t receive as much attention as NTV’s regular news.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how openly Mako was able to talk about the mainstream media. Her attitude, which informs her knockabout comedy style, is casual to a fault, so she’s just talking off the top of her head when she describes a director for TV Asahi (now dead, apparently) coming to her and confessing that his news show purposely did not air footage of people fleeing Tokyo after the Fukushima meltdown despite the fact that they had sent camera crews to main train stations and airports to film such movements. He told her that this sort of neglect was a “cross the Japanese media would have to bear forever,” which sounds a bit melodramatic but nevertheless emphasizes the notion that reporters and editors knew what was required of them as journalists. Mako also pointed out that whenever she attended press conferences with members of the government or Tepco, she could easily tell which reporters were following the wishes of the authorities and which ones weren’t, but that such distinctions were lost on TV or in the newspapers. She realized that so many reporters would habitually ask unimportant or redundant questions so that they could curry favor with the powers-that-be and thus could always have access to them. Mako knew that by continually asking tough questions she would annoy those powers-that-be and probably make herself persona non grata. And that’s basically what happened, but since she was so persistent she gained something through the sheer quantity of her reporting. Whatever else the NTV documentary about the Oshidoris revealed, these insights into how the mainstream media really work were invaluable.

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Lou Reed/Yo La Tengo, Oct. 2000

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy. Continue reading

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February 2017 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last month.

01427 - 0010FLP - The Flaming Lips - Oczy Mlody GATEFOLD COVER - COVER 20arto17Oczy Mlody
-The Flaming Lips (Warner)
Cuidado Madame
-Arto Lindsay (P-Vine)
Though the Flaming Lips are deservedly famous for their visually resplendent live shows, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, regardless of which songs they play—the balloons, the tacky yet extravagant makeup, the stuffed animals. I would call it gimmicky, but it’s such a successful mold that they’ve never been tempted to break it, which is why I’ve always resisted their reputation as avant-pop tricksters. I already thought they were dated by Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. However, their new album, a loosely constructed rock opera about people who sleep for extended periods of time and dream about unicorns, is such a conventional record in terms of what it presumably channels that you wonder if they aren’t trying to pull one over on an audience that takes them for granted. Wayne Coyne still sings in that lazy, high-pitched voice—Neil Young on poppers—but it’s the only musical component that certifies this as a Flaming Lips production. For the most part the instrumentation is built around hard-core electronica, which should immediately indicate we are out of the group’s psychedelic comfort zone. Spacey, yes, but without guitars and a jammy center, the space is only between your ears. Listening to Oczy Mlody on speakers is a thin experience. And while the Lips’ characteristic melodicism is still in evidence, especially in that song about the unicorns, the tunes have less import than the presentation, all echoey muddle and bassy punctuation marks. If the 60-minute recording does anything to carry on the psych tradition it’s in its dedication to the integrity of the album concept. The songs build on one another until the climax, “We a Family,” which is certainly the best cut here. For post-millennial normals who have been conditioned to judge music one track at a time, Oczy Mlody could pose a significant challenge. Arto Lindsay’s association with psychedelia is mostly circumstantial, more a matter of like-mindedness than genre identification. As a leader of New York’s no wave movement in the late 70s he showed an instant affinity for the avant-garde that didn’t dim as he delved deeper into his cultural heritage and explored samba and bossa nova. His first original album in 13 years, released in Japan before anywhere else and titled after a 1970 Brazilian comedy about maids killing their mistresses, contains most of the Arto hallmarks—jazzy playing, fey, lilting vocals, lots of playful sex, and sonic stuff that purposely counters the purely relaxed Latin pop that holds everything together. Rhythmically, the music is more propulsive than that on his last several albums. There’s a funky edge to songs like “Ilha dos prazeres,” despite their off-kilter time signatures and tricky chord structures. The mellowness that Arto is famous for is constantly under attack, as if outside musical forces were determined to get his goat. That space between his ears remains a fascinating and stimulating place. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Feb. 5, 2017

Yukihiro Hasegawa

Yukihiro Hasegawa

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about that infamous Tokyo MXTV program, “News Joshi,” and its Jan. 2 segment slamming the anti-helipad protests in Okinawa. At the end of the piece I mentioned Yukihiro Hasegawa, the emcee of the show who is also a deputy editorial writer at the liberal-leaning Tokyo Shimbun, even though Hasegawa’s own sentiments tend to scan rightward. At the time I wrote the column, several media commentators had complained of Hasegawa’s complicity in the program’s pushing of false information, including two people writing in Tokyo Shimbun itself. (Jiro Yamaguchi’s column didn’t mention Hasegawa by name, but it was obvious who he was talking about.) On Friday, the newspaper itself ran an editorial despairing of Hasegawa’s participation in the broadcast, but as of this morning Hasegawa himself has still not responded to any of the complaints.

It’s hard to understand why a journalist as experienced as Hasegawa would lend his name to something as obviously flawed as “News Joshi,” regardless of his political and ideological preferences, but an article in the online journal Litera–which, by the way, was the first media to go in depth on the “News Joshi” segment–helps shed some light on Hasegawa’s career choices. Apparently, his background is in financial writing, and ten years ago or so he became quite tight with bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance. His main position has always been pro-consumption tax. He wrote a famous article advocating it be set at 25 percent, which made him even more popular in the MoF, which, in turn, made him popular among LDP stalwarts in general. His gig at Tokyo Shimbun, which wasn’t always the beacon of leftist rigor it is now, was always that–a gig, meaning he went in to do his work, mainly putting into written form the opinions of others, and he did it well enough that he was able to keep it as a job. And in Japanese media, as in most Japanese corporate situations, title and position are everything, and Hasegawa has been able to spin that title into other lucrative endeavors, including “News Joshi,” which gives him an opportunity to show off his face and his biting wit on the air. In Litera’s view, “News Joshi” is not a betrayal of his professional principles because he doesn’t really have any. He wants to be famous and will achieve notoriety by any means necessary.

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February 2017 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

A return to the “real romances” that were so central to Hollywood’s primacy in the 40s, Robert Zemeckis’s stylish war movie doesn’t attempt the kind of verisimilitude that Spielberg has been trying to achieve lately. Brad Pitt plays a Canadian soldier named Max who travels undercover to Vichy-controlled Morocco as a Frenchman in order to assassinate a German governor with the help of Resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard). The conceit is that they pose as a well-off French married couple—the main joke being that Max’s Quebecois accent needs work—and, in the process of planning and executing their mission, fall in love. However, later, back in London, with an infant and the war still going on, Max is told his wife may be a double agent, and he works desperately to disprove the suspicion. Though Zemeckis does a fine job of recreating the various settings and pushing his two leads toward each other with credible chemistry, there is a depressing inevitability to the second half of the film, which kills not only the suspense, but the whole romantic atmosphere. (photo: Paramount Pictures) Continue reading

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