Best albums 2016

homepage_large-8a0c1ce3If 2015 was the year of Black Lives Matter, then 2016 was the year Black Lives Matters mattered, since the meaning of the movement—recognizing that conditioned racism not only still existed, but continued to have a deadly impact—was borne out in such a public way, particularly with regards to the presidential election. And because music was so central to the message of the Civil Rights era, it was only proper this year that music was also central to conveying the BLM message to a wider audience, including people who professed to have no use for it but otherwise enjoy African-American pop. The preponderance of female R&B on my 2016 list is not simply an acknowledgment of the convergence of pop resolve and political will, but rather a realization of the pleasure I derived from hearing that convergence make sense of my own feelings toward the movement. In the end, lists like this are about things that move me for whatever reason. If I left off one of the year’s key R&B albums—Frank Ocean’s Blonde—despite the fact that I appreciated what he was trying to do, it’s probably because it didn’t incite me to think deeply about what he was trying to do. The music was complex but tentative. The music of the records on my list grabbed me right from the start, and made me want to understand what the singer was trying to express, even when, as in Fantasia’s case, the songs were pretty much in the standard love-me-love-you vein. Revolutions have been sparked by less.  Continue reading

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Media Mix, Jan. 1, 2017

Dentsu executives

Dentsu executives

Happy new year. Here’s this week’s Media Mix, the usual year-end roundup. Due to space issues I didn’t mention one major player this year that deserves all the notoriety it received: Dentsu. I have nothing really to add to the coverage of the advertising giant’s crimes with regard to overworking its employees, but I don’t think enough attention was paid to the general harm it does to the media climate. The suicide of one of its young staff only a year ago gave the mass media an excuse to look at the company’s culture and describe it for what it is: oppressive and demanding. But that myopic view doesn’t take in the totality of Dentsu’s evils, which are mainly manifested in the way it controls a press that relies on advertising to keep it solvent as a profitable enterprise. Interestingly, it was Shukan Economist, a business magazine, that published the only really thorough expose of Dentsu’s malign operations this year, explaining its stranglehold on television and print advertising and the fear it strikes in the hearts of editors, only to negate the whole purport of the article by claiming at the end of the series that much of the insider criticism of the company amounts to urban legend. Dentsu’s imperious handling of the Olympics is notorious overseas but hardly mentioned by the local press. It deserved the infamous Black Kigyo Award it received last week as the year’s worst employer, but Dentsu’s venality goes beyond staff persecution. No single entity is more responsible for the Japanese media’s habit of “omitting” inconvenient facts than Dentsu, simply because any time a potential advertiser is caught up in scandal or criminality, the press report around it, afraid to challenge Dentsu’s primal check on their bottom line.

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Media Mix, Dec. 25, 2016

hoppoHere’s this week’s Media Mix about the recent summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As mentioned in the column, the Japanese media mostly approached the meeting as a show without explaining the reality behind the idea that Russia was somehow going to capitulate on its “occupation” of the four “northern territories” that Japan claims as its own. The only TV station that really came close was NTV, but it was only after the summit and at Abe’s own insistence. He was actually relatively straight about the fact that Russia was not going to budge on the issue and that Japan would have to reassess its approach to the islands. And while NHK did cover details that indicated this, it didn’t actually provide any analysis that would enlighten viewers to the truth of the matter. During the discussion on DemocraTV referred to at the end of the piece, several commentators derisively mentioned NHK reporter/announcer Akiko Iwata, who apparently is always given the Abe beat at the broadcaster since she’s always on hand when NHK interviews the prime minister. The commentators made fun or her obsequious behavior and one even said she “should quit along with Momii,” in reference to the outgoing chairman of NHK who has mostly been an embarrassment during his tenure. However, no one mentioned the string of foreign documentaries that NHK broadcast just before the summit. These programs, from places like Germany and WGBH in Boston, were mainly about Putin’s alleged criminal activities. The decision to run these caustic docs would seem to indicate an attitudinal divide at Japan’s public broadcaster: on the one hand, coverage of the summit was bland enough so that Abe could try to get his way with the Russian leader, while on the other NHK was joining in the Putin-bashing that’s become de rigeuer in the rest of the developed world. Who’s in charge here? Obviously, not Momii any more.

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Best movies 2016

handmaiden_03As everyone has already noted many times, it was a pretty terrible year all around. As far as movies go, it’s difficult to tell if it was any worse or any better than average. Since I didn’t see as many films as I did during my heyday as a critic (1995-2010) I can’t say anything definite in that regard, though I did make a concerted attempt to see the movies that seemed to matter, and probably because of that effort my list isn’t going to surprise anyone. The usual subjects are present and accounted for. However, because the year was so fraught with drama with respect to international and local news, I derived more than my usual level of enjoyment from the Busan International Film Festival in October, which tends to occupy a kind of oasis in my year free from quotidian cares. The 2016 version benefited from a touch more cognitive dissonance, since the festival itself was hit by a partial boycott owing to the city of Busan’s suit against various festival honchos as political retribution for their showing a movie in 2014 that the mayor didn’t like. BIFF was supposed to be a bust this year, but I had a better time than I’d had there in ages, and mainly because of the quality of the films I saw. I especially loved The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lurid sexual melodrama set during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, one of the purest cinema experiences I’ve enjoyed in some time. But several other Korean films at the festival were also among the best of my year, and so should show up on this list 12 months from now since they are scheduled to be released in Japan sometime during that time period. It is something to look forward to, and that’s an important notion to keep in mind during these dark times. Let’s just hope I’m still reviewing movies in December 2017. At this point, I can’t say for sure.

After the jump is my list of best films released theatrically in Japan in 2016. Continue reading

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December 2016 albums

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

honne_0190295955243eric-benet_1500%e5%b0%8f-copyWarm on a Cold Night
-Honne (Atlantic/Warner)
Eric Benet
Blood Orange deserves all the accolades he’s received for making sexy music safe for electronica, and it should be remarked that it took the world something like half a decade to fully reach that conclusion. Honne, a white British duo, is thus spared the heavy lifting with their debut album, which isn’t half as good but actually gets to where it’s going in half the time. This is the sound of the slow jam taken to its natural end as a construction fully purposed for making out. As locals will immediately note, the duo’s name is Japanese for “true feelings,” and the tracks are nothing if not earnest attempts to find the appropriate musical equivalent for gushing. Though the two members, who go by their first names, James and Andy, cite Al Green and Bill Withers as influences, there’s nothing here that recalls those two pioneers’ funky sides. And while “warm” is the operative adjective, the heat very rarely rises above room temperature. Because everything is electronically derived, including the percussion, the beats don’t always penetrate to the spine. What you’re left with is hooks and vocals that lack distinction as far as soul music goes but do the job with regard to those feelings they’re so intent on conveying. The Izzy Bizu Collaboration, “Someone That Loves You” (sorry, shouldn’t that be “who”?), stands out for its bright sheen, which may simply be a function of the guest’s brighter, more traditional vocal style. The gospel intonations on “It Ain’t Wrong Loving You” also bring the album out of its cave, while the closer, “FHKD,” could pass as a dance track and may point the way to Honne’s future. This sultry stuff is all well and good, but eventually they have to play it live in front of people who may not want to remain seated for a whole set. Eric Benet is one of those so-called nu soul artists who rejiggered the slow jam for the new millennium, and he had a nice run with the concept while it lasted. His latest, for an indie, is self-titled, thus indicating a fresh start, and the first thing you notice is how he seems determined to jettison the “nu” from his soul music. He even brings in a big band, complete with horns, on the seriously funky “Cold Trigger.” And while I’ve never held Benet and Prince in the same thought, the late purple god is the first person I think of when I hear “Insane,” with its hell-bent falsetto. Of course, there are plenty of ballads, which have always been Benet’s calling card, but they convey a more lascivious state of mind than his past lover-man work. In a way, it’s as if Benet, after years of struggling to make sense of a style he had obviously outgrown, returned to the music he liked as a child but had never really explored as an artist, and it fits him like a tailored suit. Continue reading

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December 2016 movies

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

RZ6A8660.JPGA Bigger Splash
The emotional frenzy wrought by Italian director Luca Guadagnino in his first English-language film helps to distract from its weak underlying plot premises. Tilda Swinton is Marianne, a rock star resting up her shot vocal cords on a sun-drenched Mediterranean island with her younger lover Paul (Matthias Schoenarts), who’s also recovering from something self-inflicted. Their idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marianne’s ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), an old school debaucher who brings along his jaded daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), and, in a bid to win back Marianne, proceeds to ruin everyone’s life. Though the film’s notable quirk—Marianne is mute by necessity—is also its default source of humor, it allows Fiennes to run away with the film, mugging shamelessly in an attempt to prove that Harry is still a force of nature. The fact that he’s a monumental jerk in the bargain is telescoped too soon, so when the shock ending implicates him it doesn’t feel as heavy as it should. The externals, including references to actual pop music and a real world subtext of refugees passing through, add nothing, so Fiennes gets the movie all to himself. (photo: Frenesy Film Company) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Nov. 27, 2016

Possible negative legacy: Volunteer uniforms for 2020 Olympics

Possible negative legacy: Volunteer uniforms for 2020 Olympics

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the quixotic movement to cancel the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The downside of the Games that is mainly discussed in the column has to do with the cost and, to a lesser extent, the virulent nationalism that turns so many people off, but there are other reasons given by anti-Olympics advocates to call off the event. On the surface, these other reasons may sound desperate, but in actuality they could really have a negative effect if they happened. One is earthquakes. Japan, not to mention the Asia-Pacific region in general, seems to have entered a long period of increased seismic activity, and the likelihood that a major temblor could hit the Kanto area in the next four years is high. Of course, that likelihood is greatly diminished during the two weeks that the Olympics actually takes place, but if a major quake happened in the year or so leading up to it, it could undermine preparations to the point where the Olympics might have to be moved somewhere else. Another, less mentioned reason is the Emperor’s health. Some reports have said that the Emperor’s desire to abdicate before he dies came about partly as a response to Tokyo winning the right to hold the Olympics in 2020. Those who were living in Japan when Emperor Showa died in 1989 will remember that a six-month period of mourning ensued, during which events of a celebratory nature were cancelled or otherwise frowned upon. The Emperor himself knows that if he died during the months leading up to the Olympics it would cause all sorts of problems for the Games. For sure, they would go on, because the world has too much at stake, but a substantial portion of the Japanese population would say that it is disrespectful and would call for them to be cancelled. However, if his son had already ascended to the throne, his death would not have the same effect. It seems the Abe administration, which would just rather not talk about such things, is willing to take that chance and is working against early abdication. Continue reading

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