Best Movies 2021

For the second year in a row I have decided to forego a ten best list, since I didn’t see nearly enough of the movies released in Japan in 2021 to make any sort of authoritative judgment on which were the best. Though most of the local distributors have gotten back up to speed with press screenings despite the stubornness of the pandemic, I have apparently been dropped from several lists and though I tried to see as many films as I could after they opened in theaters, I don’t live in Tokyo and the number and type of movies available to me where I live is limited. I have become more used to watching movies online, including quite a few screeners from distributors and publicists who have caught on to the idea that they can get more media attention that way, and while I don’t think my opinions about the movies I see online are any different for having watched them online, the net impact of watching them on a smaller screen and in an environment where distractions are inevitable is certainly different. I might, for example, have concluded that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog was the best movie of the year had I seen it on a big screen, but like most people I watched it on Netflix while my partner and the cats continually passed through my fields of vision and (more significantly) hearing. 

Minamata

I also missed both of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s movies, which won lots of awards overseas. One of them, Drive My Car, may very well pick up an Oscar. As I’ve said here before, except for those by a handful of directors, I haven’t had much interest in Japanese movies made after 1990, and I wasn’t greatly impressed by the only Hamaguchi movie I’ve seen so far, Asako I & II, so I didn’t seek the two new ones out. I’m sorry I didn’t, though I’m sure they’ll be available for streaming relatively soon. That said, probably the best movie I saw that was released this year was Japanese, but it was a documentary: Kazuo Hara’s Minamata Mandala, another deep dive into a controversial public health issue that the authorities have tried their best to ignore. At more than six hours, it was even longer than Hara’s last movie, which was about citizens’ lawsuits against the government for asbestos-related illnesses, and I think it’s better since Hara was able to pull together all the disparate arguments that surround Minamata disease into a cohesive statement about the real social effects of industrial pollution and the attendant negligence. Coincidentally or not, it was released in Japan only two months after Minamata, the American feature film with Johnny Depp playing W. Eugene Smith, the photographer who brought the Japanese environmental crisis to the world in the 1970s, and while it was far from a perfect movie, it did a fair job of highlighting the conflict between the affected public and a large corporate entity that relies on the government to protect its interests, even when those interests lead to illness and death. In that regard I would recommend anyone interested in public health issues to see both, though I know that’s asking a lot considering the length and complexity of the former film and the fact that you will have to put up with Johnny Depp playing a drunk in the latter. 

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Media watch: Citizens groups seek truth about 1923 post-quake killings

Memorial to Korean victims in Sumida Ward, Tokyo

September 1, 2023, will mark the 100th year anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which struck Tokyo and surrounding areas, killing more than 140,000 people. In the days that followed, an additional number of Korean residents of the affected areas were murdered by vigilante mobs, soldiers, and police after rumors spread that Koreans had poisoned wells, set fires, and looted businesses and homes in the confusion caused by the quake. At the time, of course, Korea was a colony of Japan and the Japanese authorities were fearful of the Korean independence movement, and there is a great deal of testimony on record saying that the police and other public entities spread these rumors and furtively encouraged the killings.

On January 1, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that citizens groups from South Korea and Japan have jointly created a petition to demand that the post-quake massacre, which they call an act of “genocide,” be investigated thoroughly by the government of South Korea. According to one of the citizens groups, there is clear evidence that Japan’s interior ministry at the time conveyed the anti-Korean rumors to local governments throughout Japan. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was in essence the government of the Korean peninsula in exile at the time and thus supportive of the resistance movement, reported that 6,621 Korean residents of Japan had been killed by military police and vigilante groups, though some reports have estimated the number killed was as high as 10,000. The Japanese government has always maintained that the number killed was only 231. 

One of the Japanese citizens groups, Hosenka, has been trying to excavate the remains of Koreans killed during the massacre since 1982. The group also began holding annual memorial services for the victims. Now, however, a representative says that many Japanese public officials, including prominent politicians, have increasingly made “revisionist statements” that suggest there was never a concerted effort to kill Koreans after the quake. The purpose of the petition is to get to the bottom of the matter in an official manner once and for all before the 100th anniversary takes place. The groups are essentially looking for the Japanese government to make a formal apology, which they think would go far to heal the frayed relations between Japan and South Korea brought about by disputes over shared history. Such a reckoning, they say, is vital for the good of eastern Asia as well as a means of avoiding hate crimes in the future, which are on the rise. 

The citizens groups are now setting up videos on YouTube for publicity purposes. So far, no mainstream Japanese media outlets have picked up the story. 

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Best albums 2021

Over the past month I’ve read many reviews saying that 2021 was an especially great year for music. Given how much longer it took me to compile the following list, I would tend to agree, but we each approach our entertainment needs in different ways, and the ongoing pandemic, which I daresay didn’t expect to still be happening two years on, has definitely affected those needs. I only attended one offline concert this year, and it happened to be a festival, but a festival dominated by local acts and DJs from overseas, and as a result it felt constrained, as if the effort to make sure it went ahead at any cost destroyed the sort of freewheeling vibe that festivals are famous for. I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

But, then again, I’m not the ideal audience for that kind of music, and so I found my needs this year to be more primal, less mediated by any feeling that I should search out skills and an original imagination. On my initial short list there were four punk albums, only one of which was discarded when I finally arrived at my final 18. It wasn’t so much a substitute for the headbanging pleasures I chiefly derived from live performances, but more of an acknowledgement that forced isolation had made my head an uncomfortable place in which to dwell. The visceral charge that good, dedicated punk rock can deliver made me forget myself, pulling me through some bad stretches of doubt and despair over my work, which has mostly vanished—or, at least, the paid kind has. Of course, eventually you have to return to this life, but I wasn’t turning to music to escape life. If anything, the purpose was to reaffirm that I still had my health and am relatively secure financially, which may sound like odd conclusions to arrive at from listening to people play songs. The point was to provide a jolt of meaning to an existence that had become even more sedentary than usual.

Looking over my list now, I realize that the meaning I sought was more purely musical than in past years. My top pick is in a language I don’t understand, and so the drama presented was purely felt on my part. I notice that the list is particularly light on hip-hop, which I’ve always approached intellectually, despite some DJs who really know how to whip up a storm. Yes, it was a good year for music, because I opened up more to pleasure for the sake of pleasure. 

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Media watch: Yomiuri Shimbun to become PR organ for Osaka?

Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka head office

On December 22, an item appeared on the Osaka Prefectural government’s official home page. It was an announcement for a contract signing ceremony that would take place after lunch on December 27 in the third floor conference room of the prefectural building. The ceremony would start with an introduction of the participants and then move on to a brief explanation of the terms of the agreement and some words from the two men who would sign/conclude the document. Afterwards, there would be a short Q&A session with the available press and a photo session. The whole thing would be over in 20 minutes. 

Such announcements are common and usually attract little notice, but this one was different. One of the men who is signing what the Osaka government is calling a “comprehensive cooperation agreement” is Osaka governor Hirofumi Yoshimura, and the other is Gaku Shibata, the president of the Osaka head office of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. The general purpose of the agreement, according to the home page, is to “activate regional services for residents of Osaka prefecture.” In order to accomplish this, the two parties will “work together” on a series of endeavors, including education and training of prefectural personnel; dissemination of information; promotion of safety and a sense of well-being; services regarding children and general welfare; regional stimulus measures; industrial development and employment; matters related to health and the environment; and others. A more detailed explanation of the agreement would be provided in a press release distributed after the ceremony. 

No major media outlets remarked on the announcement on the day that it appeared. However, various individual media players reacted with considerable alarm afterwards. On the December 24 edition of the web program Videonews.com, freelance journalist Tetsuo Jimbo called the news “shocking.” What does it mean, he asked, that Osaka Prefecture and Yomiuri Shimbun would be “working together”? “Does this mean Yomiuri is going to announce that it is no longer a newsgathering company?” His interlocutor, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, said, “That’s what it sounds like.”

The Osaka government is calling the agreement a “public-private collaboration,” and while Miyadai admitted that often universities and government entities do form working arrangements, usually to study issues, he had never heard of a government entity entering into a partnership with a news media company. Jimbo replied that under normal circumstances the Osaka Prefectural government “should be Yomiuri’s target, not their partner,” and went on to call the pact a “suicidal act” for Yomiuri. What’s even more amazing, he said, was that they were publicizing the agreement, as if it were something to be proud of. Miyadai concurred, suggesting that people who knew anything about the media probably already understood that various news organizations already had informal agreements with local governments but preferred to keep such things under wraps. The fact that no other major news outlet had reacted at all to the announcement so far only went to show that they didn’t find the arrangement questionable. But publicizing it with a ceremony was beyond the pale. Jimbo added that since the ceremony was being held in the prefectural office, only the Osaka Prefecture press club would be invited to cover it, and given that government-affiliated press clubs are stenographers in the first place, none of the reporters will actively question the agreement. Still, the two men wondered if, over the Christmas weekend, any major media outlets would raise a fuss.

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Media Mix, Dec. 25, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is the usual review of themes and persons that I felt stood out in the media during the past year. It’s also the last Media Mix. The Japan Times’ management has decided they no longer want to run the column. As for me, I could go on forever, and I probably will in one form or another, but we’ll see.

Media Mix started in January 1995 with an analysis of Anpanman. It was published biweekly until the spring of 2001, when it became a weekly column. With the exception of a few New Year’s, it has appeared every single week since then without fail. So that adds up to about 1,200 columns comprising more than a million words. My original pitch to the Japan Times was a TV column. I had already been writing reviews of Japanese TV shows for another periodical and when they dropped the column I wondered if JT would be interested in picking it up. Mark Thompson, an editor at JT, suggested I expand the idea to cover Japanese media in general. However, for those first six years when the column came out every two weeks, I still mainly stuck to TV, if not necessarily TV shows. After the turn of the century, however, I relied less on TV as a resource for the column, and not just because I was trying to get a broader sense of how the media addressed particular subjects. Japanese broadcast television hasn’t really evolved much over the past thirty years and I didn’t think there was anything more I could write about it that would be new. More to the point, I grew tired of Japanese TV, and as the internet became the central medium for the distribution of information I concentrated more on news aspects and wrote less about entertainment and celebrities. Another reason for this shift in focus was my increased dependency on input from my partner, Masako Tsubuku, who, for all intents and purposes, is the co-author of Media Mix, especially after it went weekly. She’s responsible for most of the research, but more importantly she helped me frame whatever analysis I applied to a topic from a social standpoint. It goes without saying that the media shapes our perception of the world, and Masako helped me understand, from week to week, how that worked in reality as it affected people. 

In letting go of the JT version of Media Mix, I want to thank my editors over the years—Irma Nunez, Rowan Hooper, Simon Bartz, Daniel Robson, Mio Yamada, Elliott Samuels, Shaun McKenna, Ben Stubbings—as well as the JT fact checkers, Haruka Murayama and Rina Yamazaki. If I’ve forgotten anybody, I apologize. Twenty-seven years is a long time. I’d also like to thank Mark Schreiber, whose help with collecting materials was invaluable; and, of course, Mark Thompson, who, as I already mentioned, came up with the idea of Media Mix and always had my back. We will continue writing about the Japanese media on this blog, at least for the time being, so check in occasionally if you’re interested. Thanks for reading. 

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Review: Kagawa District 1

Director Arata Oshima’s followup to last year’s surprise hit documentary, Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister, is a clear case of striking while the iron is hot. Prime Minister focused on lawmaker Junya Ogawa, a walking cliche of political idealism from Takamatsu city in Kagawa Prefecture. The point of the film was to show how an idealist has little chance of seeing their policies come to fruition in a political climate that automatically relegates such people to irrelevancy as part of the permanent opposition, and while Oshima was fairly successful delineating this theme, in the end what emerged was mostly a profile of Ogawa that painted him as naive and earnest without making much of the quixotic policies he championed, which centered on poverty and sustainability. 

Kagawa District 1 (Kagawa Ikku) still doesn’t explain coherently what Ogawa wants to accomplish as a politician, but the mission of the movie is simpler and less open to reinterpretation. Oshima simply follows Ogawa’s 2021 campaign to win the lower house seat for the titular constituency, something he hasn’t achieved yet. His seat in the Diet has always been secured as a proportional candidate for whichever opposition party he’s belonged to. The constituency has always been won by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party nemesis Takuya Hirai, a dynastic politician whose family owns the region’s most prominent newspaper, as well as other businesses with deep roots in Takamatsu. However, Prime Minister made Ogawa a nationwide star, and the people of Kagawa District 1 noticed. Though Oshima doesn’t say so outright, his new movie, which follows the campaign right up to the election on October 31 and beyond, is basically a study on how much that earlier exposure had transformed Ogawa into a bankable candidate. 

Quite a bit, it would seem, though the only person who makes much of it is Hirai himself. Early in the film, Oshima visits Hirai in his office, and while Hirai is polite he gives of a palpable air of unease and states quite plainly that he’s never seen Prime Minister. For his part, Oshima seems somewhat intimidated (“I’ve never exchanged business cards with a cabinet minister”). Hirai says he doesn’t mind that Oshima is making another documentary about Ogawa during an election campaign, but if it encourages more people to “become interested in politics,” then that can only be a good thing. But while Oshima’s ostensible reason for meeting with Hirai is to grill him about a minor scandal he’s incurred as the head of the newly minted Digital Agency, it’s obvious that he wants to give the incumbent a personal heads up that he will be following him as well as following Ogawa over the coming weeks.

This tension between Oshima and the Hirai camp will become a sub-theme of the movie as Oshima studies Hirai’s influence in the region, which extends beyond the Shikoku Shimbun (which dedicates six pages to Hirai’s appointment as Digital Agency chief) to a larger hold on hearts and minds. One young voter tells Oshima that the locals don’t really like the kind of “rising figure” that Ogawa has always represented, and only trust established players like the LDP. Realizing that Ogawa needs to secure more votes in certain corners of the district, his campaign manager rents an office on Shodo Island, where Ogawa lost big in the last election. 

But even while Hirai finds himself involved in another scandal—a weekly magazine reports he was wined and dined by NTT in the recent past—Ogawa himself is seen to misstep by trying to talk a candidate from the Japan Innovation Party out of running in the election, since JIP is nominally an opposition party and thus could potentially drain votes from Ogawa, even if, ideologically, JIP is closer to the LDP. The news of his meeting with the candidate, a woman who was apparently inserted into the campaign by a different opposition party lawmaker from an adjoining district, scandalizes Oshima’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which scolds him publicly for trying to undermine democratic processes. Ogawa is uncharacteristically defiant and tells off a nationally prominent journalist (who likes Ogawa even if he doesn’t think he’s got the stuff to make an effective lawmaker) who also thought he did the wrong thing. Actually, this sequence highlights a relevant issue that was also central to Prime Minister, which is that Ogawa thinks Japan has too many opposition parties, and that if they really want to supplant the LDP, they have to not so much work together but get rid of the driftwood and centralize their resources.

As the campaign heats up in earnest, Ogawa finds himself attracting larger and larger crowds. Hirai takes out his frustrations on Oshima. During one campaign rally Hirai tells whoever is listening that it’s unfair that Ogawa is the subject of a documentary, which only goes to show how paranoid and out-of-touch Hirai is. Obviously, Oshima’s movie isn’t coming out until well after the election is over, but just Oshima’s presence sets Hirai off. Consequently, whenever Hirai’s security notices Oshima or his crew recording their actions they try to shut them down and threaten to call the police (who do nothing, because Oshima isn’t doing anything illegal). When Oshima shows up at a closed Hirai rally that features Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the official at the door angrily refuses him entrance without providing a reason, even though Oshima is registered as a legitimate member of the press. 

But the biggest indicator of Oshima’s influence is that there are a lot of national reporters covering a race in this small corner of Shikoku, meaning that it may be the only campaign outside of Tokyo that offers some drama and excitement. And, of course, Ogawa wins in an appropriately emotional manner: the underdog has overcome, though it’s clear from the beginning of the movie that Ogawa was never an underdog thanks to Oshima. Hirai’s scandals really didn’t have anything to do with it, nor did a bit of Hirai campaign finance sleight-of-hand that Oshima uncovers regarding “party tickets” that may be illegal. As the anonymous youth said earlier, such things don’t really bother the people of Takamatsu, but they are suckers for celebrity and were flattered that the national press was taking notice. And it was all because of Ogawa, albeit through Oshima.

In an epilogue, Ogawa loses his bid for his party’s leadership role at the end of November, almost a month before the new documentary is to be released. It really is up-to-the-minute, which may be why it feels a bit flabby. At more than two-and-a-half-hours, Kagawa District 1 contains a great deal that’s redundant, and the movie as a whole will likely interest even fewer people than Prime Minister did since it so clinically follows a single election campaign. But as far as that goes, it’s a superior film to Prime Minister if only because Oshima, a dynastic filmmaker himself (for what it’s worth, his father was the most contentious major filmmaker in Japanese cinema), more clearly knows what he wants and, most significantly, how to get it.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Cine Libre Ikebukuro (03-3590-2126), Polepole Higashi Nakano (03-3371-0088).

Kagawa District 1 home page in Japanese

photo (c) Netzgen

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Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Lee Jung-jae has recently achieved worldwide fame for his lead role in Squid Game, but he’s been a reliably popular leading man in South Korea for many years, and is certainly one of the more versatile actors in Korean cinema. His turn here as a flamboyantly coutured, impossibly sadistic Zainichi Korean hitman is one of his purplest, and those who only know him as the relatively mild mannered Gi-hun are certainly in for a shock when he first enters Deliver Us From Evil and promptly suspends a rival gangster from the ceiling by his feet and then guts him from pelvis to sternum. They don’t call him Ray the Butcher for nothing.

Lee, however, is perfectly matched by fellow middle aged superstar Hwang Jung-min, who plays a more reflective hitman, In-nam, a former pseudo-government agent who escaped the wrath of the bad guys whose compatriots he tortured and killed years ago and hid out in Japan, where he hired himself out to underworld types. He’s given one last job by his nominal boss before taking a hefty severance package that he plans to retire on in Panama, but the guy he offs, a woman killer named Kore-eda, happens to be Ray’s estranged “brother,” and thus Ray has pledged to hunt In-nam down and kill him in the most disgusting way. However, In-nam, prior to his leaving for Panama, learns that his ex-girlfriend, Young-ju (Choi Hee-seo), has been murdered in Thailand where she was living for years with a daughter, who has been kidnapped by traffickers. Realizing that the girl is probably his daughter as well, In-nam high tails it to Bangkok, with Ray in hot pursuit.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on in Deliver Us From Evil, but that’s a strong point for director Hong Won-chan, who wrote the scripts for the classic actioners The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. Deliver is not quite up to the high standard those two movies set, but it’s easy to follow the various twists and turns, which actually make sense within the world he’s trying to depict, though I wonder how much Thai people appreciate him making their country out to be this lawless. Still, it’s the details that make the script, and the movie as a whole, continuously interesting. For reasons that aren’t difficult to figure out, there seems to be a lot of Korean expats in Bangkok, and most of them are either carrying out elaborate scams or escaping the conventional social strictures of their native country. One of these is Yoo-yi (Park Jeong-min), a transsexual woman saving money for her operation who acts as In-nam’s guide through the Thai underworld. Though there’s a certain measure of exploitation in the presentation of the character, Yoo-yi perfectly fits in with Wong’s outlandish purposes. The director also effortlessly slips in a bit of social commentary without interfering with the relentlessly bloody action prerogatives: the daughter, as it were, was kidnapped because Japan and Korea do not allow organ donations from children, so the black market for children’s organs from those two nationalities in Southeast Asia is very lucrative. 

For the most part, Deliver is yet another expertly staged, finely choreographed Korean gangster film that privileges the kind of super macho code of honor that should be a grind and a bore by now but from which filmmakers as resourceful as Wong can still spin compelling yarns. You pretty much know what’s going to happen in the end, and you won’t be disappointed, but Wong takes you on a really wild ride to get there.

In Korean, English, Japanese and Thai. Opens Dec. 24 in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369- 2831).

Deliver Us From Evil home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 CJ ENM Corporation, Hive Media Corp.

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Media watch: Was the Utoro arson incident in August a hate crime?

Utoro district

The Utoro district of Uji city in Kyoto Prefecture holds a great deal of historical significance for Zainichi Koreans, meaning permanent residents of Japan with Korean background. During World War II, the area was home to workers who had been brought over from Korea, then a colony of Japan, to build an airfield. They lived in a ramshackle workers’ dormitory, and after Japan surrendered in 1945 and construction of the airfield was suspended, many stayed on in the area and made their homes there, despite the fact that they eventually lost their Japanese citizenship and became foreign nationals. In 1989, the owners of the land in Utoro where these Zainichi Koreans lived filed a suit to have them evicted, and in 2000, after several appeals, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the land owners. However, by 2011 some of the residents had raised enough money, both within Japan and in South Korea, to buy part of the land in Utoro. In 2017, the local government opened a public housing complex on the land, with a second complex slated to open in 2023. Many of the tenants are descendants of the original mobilized Korean workers.

According to a June 28 article in the Asahi Shimbun (which was published in English July 12), Utoro is home to about 90 Zainichi Koreans comprising 50 households. The article was mainly about a memorial hall that the residents were building to honor those who had moved to the area from Korea and made it a community. The hall, which cost ¥200 million to build, would be a three-story steel frame building comprising 450 square meters of floor area. The workers’ dormitory was torn down, but one section measuring 25 square meters has been preserved as part of the exhibit for the memorial hall, which is set to open next year. 

Unfortunately, the Utoro Heiwa Kinenkan will have fewer exhibits than originally planned. On August 30, a fire originating in a vacant house in Utoro spread to five other buildings, including a storehouse where many of the exhibits for the memorial hall were being kept. On December 6, a man was arrested for purposely starting the fire. He was identified by Uji police as 22-year-old Shogo Arimoto, unemployed. As it happens, Arimoto had been arrested in October for setting fire to the Nagoya office of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan). 

According to Kyoto Shimbun, a local anti-discrimination citizens group held a press conference on December 15 at a Kyoto prefectural building where they released a statement saying that the Utoro arson case should be investigated as a hate crime, since there is evidence that the suspect started the fire out of malice toward Zainichi Koreans. Though many mainstream media outlets have covered the Utoro arson case, none have suggested it might be a hate crime, probably because the term has no legal purchase in Japan. Kyoto Shimbun defined hate crime as crime motivated by prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, or disability.

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Media Mix, Dec. 18, 2021

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Sapporo Olympics

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Sapporo’s bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. As pointed out in the column, the Japanese press doesn’t sense a lot of enthusiasm for the bid among Sapporo residents and thinks it may have something to do with latent feelings about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Moreover, the Olympics has become less of a big deal as far as the average global citizen is concerned over the past decade or so. It’s difficult to gauge how much enthusiasm will return once the pandemic has faded, and in that regard the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics will be not only a huge challenge but a kind of indicator as to the future of the Games. A week or so ago, the main issue was the diplomatic boycott that many countries had announced in response to China’s poor human rights record. Japan’s joining this boycott has been relatively tentative: no cabinet members, including the prime minister, will attend, but there’s been no formal announcement yet to clarify why they aren’t going. In the past week, however, the point has become almost moot, since the swift spread of the omicron variant has caused so many countries to tighten their borders. It seems fairly certain the Games will happen in February but attendance will likely be quite limited.

Sapporo, if it’s approved, wouldn’t be until 2030, which sounds like plenty of time for people to make the adjustment, but as Tokyo 2020 proved, too much heartbreak can happen in the meantime. That’s why the IOC has been pushing up its decisions on future host cities. Hosting isn’t quite as attractive as it used to be, mainly owing to the runaway costs that always seem to attend preparations for the Games. Sapporo has already said it will not build any new facilities for 2030, but instead renovate venues used for the 1972 Winter Olympics. They’ve even put forward a plan to use land owned by the central government for the athletes village. The 30,000 square meter plot is currently being used by the Hokkaido Development Bureau, which plans to move its operations to a different location in the city in 2026. Afterwards, the city’s housing authority would build city-owned rental apartments on the land provided that the bid is successful, since they would build the units as an athletes village that would later be turned into apartments. If the bid is not approved, the housing plan is cancelled.

And there is another infrastructure scheme that’s uncertain. The Hokkaido Shinkansen is eventually supposed to extend to Sapporo, though as it stands it won’t be finished by the time the Olympics takes place. The business magazine President predicted last summer that if the bid goes through, the shinkansen authorities might try to push up the completion date so that it will be ready by the Winter Olympics, which would be difficult since it’s has already been delayed due to difficulties related to tunnel construction. But given that the line, which currently terminates at Hakodate, hasn’t seen much use so far and likely won’t see any more even after it’s extended to Sapporo (flights to Sapporo from Tokyo are much more convenient than the train, especially in the winter), nobody seems to cares. 

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Review: Belushi

Having not read Bob Woodward’s infamous biography of John Belushi nor seen the even more infamous narrative movie adaptation, I approached R.J. Cutler’s fairly conventional documentary about the legendary actor with few prejudices and left it with more questions than I had when I went in. The ostensible reason for Cutler’s new take on Belushi’s life is a collection of recordings of people close to Belushi that were used for a kind of corrective oral biography by his widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, in 2005. The interviews were done not long after Belushi’s death from a drug overdose in 1982, and many of the famous people who do the talking are dead themselves, thus lending the overall production a macabre tone that weighs it down. Generally speaking, Cutler tries to build his narrative around these recordings but since there is so much personal history to fill in he has to stretch what he has with reenactments (some animated) and extensive archival footage. 

Though not a hagiography, the movie clearly tries to make the case that, as as actor (which is how he thought of himself rather than as a comedian), Belushi was both unique for his time and a trailblazer, tracing a professional arc from his early days with Chicago’s Second City comic theater troupe in the early 70s to his seminal role as one of the founders and, according to Cutler, the guiding spirit of Saturday Night Live, and on to his short but very successful movie career. What distinguished Belushi from his boomer peers in the comedy business was his physicality. One of the things that Cutler does right is show how Belushi’s involvement in the counter-culture humor magazine National Lampoon’s extension into non-print media also expanded its base way beyond the college egghead crowd. With his whip-smart comic instincts and willingness to make a complete ass of himself, Belushi broke through the intellectual barriers that had limited the appeal of left-wing humor in the 1960s. Much of the movie is given over to his unofficial lifelong partnership with Dan Aykroyd, a fellow Second City alumnus and half of Belushi’s most remunerative creation, the Blues Brothers. Though equally outrageous, Aykroyd was still more of a cerebral performer, and the combination of the two working with and off of each other basically led to what visual comedy would become in the 1980s.

Cutler does a decent job of laying this out in a comprehensible way, and what’s inevitably frustrating about the movie as a whole is that nothing really sounds new. All the archival material is already available on YouTube, and the interviews, since they were mostly recorded so soon after Belushi’s death at 33, tend to linger on his accomplishments in a morose way.

In other words, there’s little long-distance perspective, which seems like a lost opportunity. The major complaint about the Woodward book is that it focused too closely on Belushi’s drug use, and Cutler’s movie does pretty much the same thing but with a less salacious tone. For once I would have liked to hear from some scholarly talking heads who could have explained Belushi’s work in a wider cultural context. As it is, the doc stresses his contributions to the 70s, when American TV and movies changed significantly, but does little to enrich our appreciation of the man himself or what exactly we lost when he died prematurely. In the end, John Belushi comes across as another creative genius who couldn’t handle stardom, but for those of us who were there when he shone brightest, there was obviously so much more. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645). 

Belushi home page in Japanese

photo (c) Passion Pictures (Films) Limited 2020

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