August 2017 movies

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

Anthropoid
Sean Ellis streamlines the facts and fortifies the action for his film about the 1941 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, but unlike similar projects these efforts don’t undermine the story’s historical relevance. Jan (Jamie Dornan) and Josef (Cillian Murphy), a Czech and a Slovak, respectively, are charged with the killing by their superiors in London, and immediately the terror imposed by Heydrich is apparent. Murder is the only response to a murderous regime, but the two assassins differ in temperament to a degree that would seem to jeopardize their mission. Josef is relatively level-headed, even brutal, while Jan can barely steady his gun hand to defend his own life, and Ellis uses this dynamic to ratchet up the tension as the two try to complete their mission and then find a way to get out alive. Though the love interests initially feel forced, they bring home the enormous costs for these two men, which they end up paying during the siege of a church harboring Resistance fighters that seems to go on forever. In English and German. (photo: Project Anth LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, June 25, 2017

Isoko Mochizuki

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about access journalism in Japan. In the column I try to make the case that most mainstream reporting in Japan is about gaining and maintaining access to people in power, which necessitates a cautious approach to what is actually reported, since any information that compromises that access is discouraged. At the end of the piece I mention the Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, the exception that proves the rule. Mochizuki is a dogged interviewer, and her line of inquiry at a recent cabinet news conference assured that she wouldn’t be invited back to that particular venue again. The point was that she isn’t a member of the cabinet press club, so she had nothing to lose by pissing off Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, which just goes to show that the rest of the press club (or, at least, those who are called upon to ask questions there) falls into line when it comes to the government’s wishes.

Of course, real journalsim means being a relentless asker of questions, regardless of how much it annoys the interlocutor. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mochizuki has suddenly become a star, at least within the media sphere. (A lot of Japanese reporters tweeted photos of her when she unexpectedly showed up at former vice education minister Kihei Maekawa’s news conference on June 23) She’s been interviewed and profiled by various publications and websites since her cabinet news conference “performance” for essentially doing the job she’s supposed to do. By rights, that performance shouldn’t have been extraordinary, but everyone is treating her like some kind of superhero. As mentioned in the column, Mochizuki has been working for Tokyo Shimbun since 2000, mainly as a reporter-at-large, her main beats being the prosecutors office and crime. She’s also written a very well-regarded book on arms exports and did an expose in 2004 of improper political donations made by the Japan Dentists Association. What this wide range of interests shows is that Mochizuki doesn’t get stuck in one area where she could form associations that might compromise her investigations. Her professional attitude proves that the normal mass media protocol of assigning journalists to fixed venues, such as this press club or that one, makes for bad journalism. Beyond that, Mochizuki’s performance also showed how much ground a reporter can cover when she does her homework. She had obviously studied the Kake scandal in detail and her questions to Suga were sincere attempts to fill in the holes in her understanding. They were not the rote queries that most press club reporters pose. They had genuine purpose.

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Media Mix, June 11, 2017

Tsuneyasu Takeda

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the press’s take on the female imperial succession issue. As pointed out in the column, there are people involved in the discussion who think one solution to the problem of not enough imperial family members to carry out “tasks” is to reinstate branches that were dropped after World War II. These forces don’t address the notion that the work of the imperial family is basically a postwar invention; that when the emperor was a god he didn’t bother going out into the world for purposes of diplomacy, offering solace to his subjects, etc. Nevertheless, these forces are indubitably conservative. Who else would countenance, in the 21st century, the idea that people within the same extended family should intermarry? Because that’s what it comes down to. These forces want to have their mochi and eat it too: more imperial “civil servants” and a pure blood line.

One of the more vocal advocates of this position literally has skin in the game. Tsuneyasu Takeda is a great-great grandchild of Emperor Meiji and, interestingly enough, a constitutional scholar. He has also managed to spin these twin circumstances into a lucrative side career as a pundit and TV personality. Takeda’s family, which, apropos this week’s column, was descended from the wife of Emperor Meiji, meaning the female line of the prewar imperial family, (note, however, that Emperor Taisho, who succeeded Meiji, was the issue of a concubine) was one of those branches banned by GHQ in 1947, so if in the very unlikely chance that these branches are reinstated in order to boost imperial heirs, he would be back in the palace, so to speak, something he has implied he would like very much. But in a real sense, he’s already there. He wouldn’t be in the public eye if he were merely a constitutional scholar. It’s his connection with the old imperial family that has made him a star. He’s an important member of the Japan Olympic Committee because his father was an important member of the Japan Olympic Committee owing to his lineage. The overriding consideration for public exposure in Japan remains blood, whether the family is/was royalty in fact or in metaphor (show business, sports, politics). This also means that Takeda’s opinions about the imperial succession issue have more weight, and he’s said that the only reason the public cares about the abdication law is because they like the emperor as a person. If he were a real emperor, meaning someone who didn’t have a public profile but simply lingered behind the scenes in a purely ceremonial capacity, the people’s opinion wouldn’t matter, because there wouldn’t be any. And this is the real challenge of any “symbolic emperor” from now on: He has to follow the current emperor’s precedent of being a likable character. Regardless of what conservative groups like Nippon Kaigi want–and they would like nothing better than to revise the Constitution to revert the emperor’s status to what it was before the war–Japan is now saddled with a people’s emperor, someone who is good at gaming the media and projecting an image of a nice guy. Just in that regard, Takeda himself would be disqualified, because for all his fame as someone whose ancestors were in the imperial family, he comes off as something of a jerk on TV–smug, clueless, defensive. What self-respecting female member of the imperial family would want to marry him?

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June 2017 albums

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

In-ter a-li-a
-At the Drive In (Rise/Hostess)
Slowdive
(Dead Oceans/Hostess)
It probably says more about At the Drive In’s place in post-millennial music that no one really compares them to the follow-up band the two main members—vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—dissolved in 2013. Of course, Mars Volta was a progressive rock band whereas ATDI was closer to punk, but they had much more in common than people gave them credit for, in particular a manic, deliberate energy that felt unique. Thirteen years after their last album, ADTI might appear to be taking up exactly where they left off, but only if you ignore Mars Volta, which, for all their operatic excess, really were progressive. In-ter a-li-a isn’t. It revives the gymnastic excitement of the group’s peerless interactivity but sounds even more dated than 90s pop punk: That train left the station for the last time. It’s also very much Bixler-Zavala’s album whereas their masterpiece, Relationship of Command, was a thoroughly group effort. The lyrics, which reference up-to-the-minute issues such as the Korean standoff and that Oklahoma police officer who raped all those women, are meant to mean something and as such are more distracting than enlightening, because whatever talents Bixler-Zavala has demonstrated as a performer he’s famous for his incoherence. It’s what made ADTI exciting in their day. For sure, the guitars still sound like God is tuning them, and the funky undercurrents pulse like crazy, but there’s a feeling of playing it safe, as if this is what’s expected of them and they’re now older, wiser, and more receptive to what their fans want. Which is sort of a shame, because I was finally getting to like what Mars Volta was trying to do. The British shoegaze band, Slowdive, has taken even longer to follow up their last album—22 years—and their self-titled return to recording actually sounds as if they’ve been spending all that time wondering how to approach it. Like In-ter a-li-a, Slowdive sounds methodical, calculated, but for a band that is mostly about textures and dynamic subtleties that’s the way it should be. Shoegaze is by definition not very spontaneous. It’s thoughtful. It’s also pop by any other name, and I would like to think that, unlike Kevin Shields, who also spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with a successor to Loveless, the members of Slowdive spent their long summer vacation working on tunes, because that’s what immediately grabs you, not the textures or the dynamics. The guitar work, especially on the single, “Star Roving,” is riff rock at its most potent in 2017, meaning music made by adults who knew what they liked when they were younger and are still able to recall those feelings and translate them into affecting music. What’s surprising is that they’ve been able to keep the polish without losing the personality. At the Drive In would have benefited from such restraint, though it’s so contrary to their form. Continue reading

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June 2017 movies

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

Afterimage
Andrzej Wajda’s final movie is a fitting study of an artist under pressure, a role Wajda himself has played throughout his career, often in a self-conscious way. The subject is Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda), a Polish avant garde painter who lost an arm and a leg in WWI and was trained in the Soviet Union. By the end of WWII he is a respected artist whose work is admired by the cognoscenti and whose theories are worshipped by his students at the School of Visual Arts in Lodz. But in the postwar chill, as Stalin’s grip on Eastern Europe becomes tighter, the authorities no longer have any use for abstract art, and demand only Social Realism. Strzeminski refuses to recant his theories or his methods, and as a result loses his job and his access to supplies. He died starving and homeless. Though this sort of tragedy is right up Wajda’s alley, there’s not a lot of dramatic balance to the story. The peripheral characters adhere to types that do little to engage our sympathies, either for Strzeminski or his plight, as dire as it is. In Polish. (photo: Akson Studio Sp. z.o.o, Telewijza Polska S.A. EC1-Lodz Miasto Kultury, Narodowy Intyutut Audiowizualny, Festiwal Filmowy Camerimage Fundacja Tumult) Continue reading

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“From the Journals of Jean Seberg” and “Jean Seberg: American Actress,” Nov. 1999

I recently realized that almost all of the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s 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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Media Mix, April 23, 2017

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the documentary, Nihon to Saisei, on the feasability of renewable energy in Japan. As I said in the column, the movie is a polemic, strongly in favor of renewables, that does not make a big deal out of the dangers associated with nuclear power. Instead, the filmmakers make their case that renewables are more practical and economical than either nuclear or thermal power using fossil fuels. The main obstacle is the will to make renewables work on a large scale, something the major regional utilities and their allies in the government and business are against. The examples the movie presents for success with renewables overseas all involve local governments, because renewables work best on the local level. The major power companies in Japan are invested in centralized power sources, since that gives them ultimate control over production and transmission. Once that control is dispersed, they no longer have a reason to exist, which is why, according to the film, they are so stingy about allowing new power companies use of their power lines.

But another way that the utilities, and major companies in general, retain their hold on the economic narrative is by pushing new technologies that are presented as being vanguard. By rights, renewables should be presented as cutting edge, but nuclear fission has been the “future power source” for so long it’s become a cliche, even as most countries in the world have abandoned it as such. The government and the media, according to the film, maintain a false belief that renewables are never going to be able to satisfy all of Japan’s needs, a story that denies renewables’ status as a vanguard technology. The problem for the utilities is that it isn’t a technology that will make them a lot of money. An apt analogy would be with the maglev train now being built between Tokyo and Nagoya. When it is finished it will shorten the time it takes to travel between the two cities, but considering the enormous cost, is it really worth it? Those who support the maglev point to its status as a future-oriented technology, and while it is impressive in that regard, it isn’t really practical for the use it’s being built for. JR Tokai can never hope to recoup the money it (and the government) will spend on it because not enough people will patronize it for various reasons (the price of tickets compared to conventional bullet trains; the lack of novelty effect, since 80 percent is underground). In another context–say, between Dallas and Houston, which is flat and mostly uninhabited–the maglev could work very well. But in Japan it is being built simply because it is cutting edge, not because it is needed. A similar sort of thinking is behind the government’s rationalization for keeping nuclear power, and the media goes along with it.

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