June 2016 movies

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

UNTITLED JOHN WELLS PROJECT Adam asks Helene to taste his latest dish.Burnt
Bradley Cooper is good at playing assholes, and Adam Jones, the borderline sociopathic chef he portrays in Burnt, takes the cake. An American from the wrong side of the tracks who made his way to France as a teen and quickly rose in the world of haute cuisine with the help of a superstar mentor, he struggles with addiction when not getting everyone who has ever appreciated him pissed off. After cleaning up in New Orleans, Jones arrives in London to start his own restaurant and assembles a group of ne’er-do-wells as his kitchen staff, including a sous chef named Helen (Sienne Miller) who understandably doesn’t trust him. Director John Wells transits between food porn and scenes of Jones melting down and treating his staff like shit. Beyond the offensive stereotypes, this narrative development doesn’t work dramatically because it’s at the service of food that most of us aren’t interested in. It certainly isn’t worth getting emotional over. Although there is obviously an audience for this kind of thing, I would like to think it’s a very small one. (photo: The Weinstein Company LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 29, 2016

A fairly tame example of shunga

A fairly tame example of shunga

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the obscenity trial of the artist Rokudenashiko, which ended earlier this month in a guilty verdict that she will appeal. As discussed in the piece, much of the trial was taken up with debate on the “artistic value” of the artist’s work and whether or not it was more accurately described as being pornography. The absurdity of this line of reasoning lies in the work itself, which was data that could only be seen or otherwise “appreciated” if it was input into a 3D printer and realized in material form as a mold. From all reports, except for the artist herself, only the prosecution ever did this, meaning that the charge of “distribution of pornography” doesn’t hold water since no one actualized the data into something that could possibly stimulate sexual excitement. Consequently, if the prosecution were to convince the judges that the data were obscene, it had to prove that the prosecution itself was aroused by the final product, because no one else had “experienced” it in that form. The judges themselves eventually ruled that the vagina kayak, the reason for the 3D data, was not obscene because of its stylized nature, so the data’s pornographic qualities were either completely theoretical or subject only to the prosecution’s queasy gaze. Continue reading

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May 2016 albums

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

macklemoreNoiseland LP 5MM spine JacketThis Unruly Mess I’ve Made
-Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Warner)
Man About Town
-Mayer Hawthorne (Victor)
Reportedly, when Macklemore won the best hip-hop album Grammy in 2014, he felt guilty since he’s a white guy plying an African-American art form, and other, presumably more deserving, albums by black rappers were overlooked. Two years on he releases an album that awkwardly addresses this conundrum, and some people will wonder why he bothered. Eminem, after all, never felt the need to justify his fame and success, so why does Macklemore? In an age when “White Privilege” is still a problem, perhaps he thinks he has to address these matters forthrightly in song. In any case, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made covers a number of social issues, including addiction and body image, and it all sounds obligatory rather than inspired. Producer Ryan Lewis backgrounds Macklemore’s sermon-like raps with a lot of instruments and voices, which is why some people refer to his music as “gospel rap,” and to that extent he’s fashioned a unique sound that may or may not qualify as hip-hop but retains the catchy breeziness of good 80s radio pop. He earns more than enough props with “Downtown” by featuring rap godfathers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz, who nevertheless manage to show up Macklemore’s somewhat lackluster lyrics even though all they do is chant in unison. Of course, the point is that Macklemore knows his history, but more variety in this vein would be welcome. As it stands, he’s versatile enough to be called a real entertainer, but he might do better with a word collaborator. For sure, when he tries to explain himself, as on the aforementioned “Privilege,” he digs a hole that even Lewis’s scruffy beats can’t pull him out of. It’s good to see Macklemore working out these matters for himself, but an internationally released album may not be the best place to do it. Mayer Hawthorne is another nerdy white guy who has staked his career on black music, and his acceptance by the general music-loving public has nothing to do with paying dues to the source, except in the sense that he pays dues by getting everyone’s booty shaking. As a solo act he’s done as much to revive old school urban soul music as Leon Bridges, and as a member of Tuxedo made white disco safe for hipsters. On his fourth album he leavens the R&B with 70s soft rock and a bit of Steely Dan jazz. Though not as tasty as his 2011 joint, How Do You Do?, the grooves are more resilient and the singing less self-conscious. Since Hawthorne’s lyrics are generic in the romantic make-out mode, there’s not a whole lot of depth to the record, but he applies his melodic gifts liberally to slower cuts like “Cosmic Love” and “Breakfast in Bed,” making them more than just enjoyable pastiche. In this light, it’s difficult not to think that Macklemore wouldn’t have to worry about privilege if he just had more talent. Continue reading

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May 2016 movies

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

Civil_War_mainCaptain America: Civil War
No, Cap hasn’t been transported back in time to fight the Rebs. The internecine struggle indicated by the title is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), thus making this latest Marvel blockbuster not only another chapter in the Avengers series, but also an inadvertent (?) Marvel response to the recent Batman versus Superman fiasco. That it isn’t a fiasco itself says more about Marvel Studios’ knowhow as purveyors of cinematic bombast than any distinctions you might want to draw between the two superhero institutions as institutions. Marvel has had more practice and are better at spending money than the DC people, even if the DC people have been in the comics game much longer. In a more essential way, Marvel, while always a bit too casual with the cynicism, bothers to consider the superhero genre as something that actually has an influence on society. The problem with the Superman and Batman movies is that they’re so generic. The civil war in this instance is sparked by something us skeptics have always huffed about in these movies: the incredible collateral damage that comes with saving the world. In the opening recap, we get the greatest hits of the Avengers’ carnage in various world cities, which has brought the wrath of these countries down on their heads and with it an intermediary (William Hurt) to run roughshod on their activities. Rogers, who suspects they’re being set up by one of those evil forces they were formed to fight, doesn’t go for the leash, while Stark, at one time the loose cannon destructo king, takes the bit. They clash, and the other Avengers line up behind one or the other, depending on their political stance. In the meantime, some stray members of the Marvel universe are finally recruited, with Ant Man (Paul Rudd) hanging with Cap and the preternaturally millennial Spider-Man (Tom Holland, in his debut as the character) taking Stark’s stand. Though it’s more coherent and intellectually stimulating than Winter Soldier, there’s still a lot of flab in terms of set pieces whose only purpose seems to be to spread the action amongst as many superheroes as possible, and since there are so many (Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, etc., etc.) it’s a lot of fighting to sit through. Daniel Bruhl plays the heavy, an outlier whose own score to settle with the Avengers actually has some merit, and makes you wonder how much better the movie might have been if his story had been given more attention. Since everybody assumes the Avengers stand for America, it’s nice to see them get their comeuppance for once, but apparently there’s always a limit to such things. (photo: Marvel) Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 1, 2016

IMG_3932Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the new single by the female idol collective HKT48. The column discusses media charges of sexism against the song and its writer-producer, Yasushi Akimoto, but another topic that has come to the fore in the talk about “Einstein yori Dianna Agron” is that old complaint about how idols are not allowed to have love lives because it would dilute their appeal and thus damage the brand. In the Shukan Asahi column I cited in the piece, Minori Kitahara talked about a male acquaintance who is obsessed with girl idols, in particular the AKB48 type. He’s in his 40s and married with a daughter in elementary school. In fact, he agrees that he is probably the typical “fan” of groups like AKB48. Kitahara asked him bluntly if he is sexually attracted to girls who are the same age as his daughter, and he answered that the attraction isn’t easy to explain, but gives an interesting example of how it is manifested. He told her that if an idol he admires writes on her blog that she went to Disneyland, he and others like him will wonder if she went there on a date with a man. He was quick to add that it isn’t as if he wants to go on a date with the idol himself, but he is nevertheless jealous if another man is going with her. The idea of there being a “shadow of a boyfriend” behind an idol disturbs him.

Kitahara explains that this feeling represents a kind of contract, which is why when girl idols are caught out on dates by the tabloid press, they have to apologize to their fans, who may feel betrayed. However, when Akimoto was asked about this aspect of the idol dynamic in the Aera interview, he said something slightly different: “I never said they couldn’t have [romantic] relationships. Once that happens, you can’t stop it. But if you’re playing high school baseball and have a girlfriend, it’s hard to do two things at once.” In other words, just as high school baseball players and other amateur athletes are told by their coaches that lovers will distract them from what’s really important–helping the team win–idols won’t put their all into entertaining their fans if they’re mooning over a boyfriend. Though it sounds like a different justification than the one Kitahara described, it comes down to the same thing: idols aren’t idols unless they ostensibly dedicate their souls to their fans and their fans only.

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Media Mix, April 3, 2016

74936543785d7ac2a36c467c3aa48c4cHere’s this week’s Media Mix about companies that lie to new graduates about job offerings. The column discusses the situation for university graduates, but the problems covered also extend to high school graduates. The 2012 NHK program I cite at length was part of a series about “youth poverty,” which also talked about similar job recruitment practices for young people who didn’t graduate from university. A lot of this stuff has been covered at length in the media with regard to lawsuits that workers have brought against former (or, in same cases, current) employers, the most notable one being that store manager who sued McDonalds for unpaid overtime. Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 20, 2016

wakakusaBHere’s this week’s Media Mix, which concerns that anonymous blog post about the daycare shortage. An interesting footnote about Shiori Yamao that I didn’t learn until after I wrote the piece is that she once played Little Orphan Annie in a local version of the Broadway musical when she was much younger. I’m not sure if the experience gave her any special insight into the problems covered by the column–orphans and at-risk children are less of an issue here than over-burdened parents–but it certainly must have honed her public speaking skills, which are always in evidence whenever she stands up in the Diet.

As pointed out in the last section, the main difficulty to overcome with regard to the daycare shortage is the attendant shortage of human resources, caused mainly by the low pay involved. (As some have pointed out, the reason nursery school teachers get paid so poorly is that it is considered women’s work, but that’s an issue that deserves its own distinct discussion.) Whatever solutions the government comes up with in the short run to give it some traction before this summer’s elections, none of them will make much of a difference if they can’t get more daycare workers on board. And the only solution that I can see to that problem is for the government to make all workers government employees. After all, we’re talking here almost exclusively about public daycare services, which are run bureaucratically. For the most part, public daycare is set up and funded by local governments, who have limited budgets, so if the LDP wants to take a stand for working mothers they have to do something on the national level. There has been some talk about giving subsidies to public daycare centers that will go directly to workers, but they’re only talking about an extra ¥10,000 a month or so. Since public nursery school teachers are civil servants, governments should pay them civil servant wages, which tend to be better than those earned by private sector employees. Local governments are not going to be able to cover this outlay, so it’s up to the central government. Though it would be a huge amount of money, it would solve the problem. The fact that no one on either side of the ideological divide has suggested it probably means it’s a political non-starter, but isn’t that always the situation?

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