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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Media Mix, Jan. 29, 2017

138997deHere’s this week’s Media Mix, about the aging population in Japan’s prison system and the media’s role in keeping inmates in jail longer. One aspect of the issue that I didn’t explain in enough detail was what happens to ex-convicts, especially those who actually do get released on parole. As in the U.S. and other developed countries, people who are released on parole are monitored by parole officers to whom they have to report on a regular basis. The difference in other countries is that after a designated period of time, if the former prisoner has fulfilled the conditions of his parole properly, he no longer has to report to an officer and is deemed to have paid his debt to society. In Japan, however, such ex-cons are parolees for life, meaning they are considered to be in violation of parole if they ever do anything wrong and will promptly be returned to jail, probably for the rest of their life if their original sentence was an indefinite one. It’s another reason why so many convicted felons with indefinite sentences end up dying in prison.

The people who support this style of punishment will say that almost all the people sentenced to indefinite incarceration have been convicted of murder and so it should not be easy for them to obtain release. This justification brings us back to the original thesis of the column, which is that Japanese prison is about punishment and revenge, not rehabilitation. Vague by definition, indefinite sentences can be used by prosecutors to lock up criminals for life without their knowing about it, since many, it seems, think they have a chance of being released after a certain period of time, just the way the public does. It is an inherently dishonest form of punishment, because the convicted person doesn’t really know how long he will be in prison. In a way, it’s the same, only worse, for those sentenced to death. If the status is any indication, most death row inmates will die in jail of old age, all the while wondering when that fateful knock on the cell door will come.

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“Adaptation” Aug. 2003

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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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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