June 2017 movies

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

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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April 2017 albums

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

-Kehlani (Atlantic/Warner)
-Emel (Partisan/Hostess)
The question posed by Kehlani Parrish is, How could someone so young sound so experienced? Though SweetSexySavage is her major label debut and, as such, considered the point from which we will take her seriously, she’s been around the block a number of times and on each revolution learned something new and valuable. Her reportedly bitter experience on “America’s Got Talent” gave her some idea of how the business works. The subsequent mixtape and indie album gave her a chance to explore her sound on record and learn how to write. Though the new album has its slickness issues and occasionally veers toward the trite side of female-empowered R&B, the voice is amazing. Conversational and musical at the same time, youthful in timbre but mature in tone, Kehlani’s instrument is one of the biggest stories in pop music at the moment, though it wouldn’t mean as much if what came out of her mouth weren’t so penetrating. What made the classic soul singers great was their ability to channel feelings directly, but modern R&B takes that ability and turns it around: it’s the calculation that first strikes you. Kehlani turns it back around. Hooks abound, but the deep appeal of the album is the way it conveys specific emotional situations. “Are you down to be a distraction?” she asks, and then wonders what she might think of the guy years down the road. The production holds back just enough to give her room, and she controls everything—the rhythm of the song, the temperature of the arrangement—just with her singing. Not since Mary J. Blige has a new R&B vocalist seemed so on top of her material. Emel Mathlouthi has been on top of her material for more than a decade, which is essential since she’s from Tunisia, where women aren’t often allowed to be on top of anything. Probably by necessity she’s known as a protest singer, and her songs were banned on the radio until 2010. During the Arab Spring, her work took on new meaning, and she was asked to sing at a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last year. Working with Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson, she finally breaks the international market with Ensen, a canny mix of native tropes and towering beats, but like Kehlani it’s that distinctive voice, soft but insistent, that makes the music so immediately arresting. Her Wikipedia page lists a dozen or so Western influences, from Baez to Zeppelin to Fuck Buttons, and, actually, you can hear them all on this album, which refigures the natural propulsion of North African music for a rock audience. Sigurosson separates the native instruments and stresses their distinctive qualities in contrast to one another, vivifying the drama inherent in the music and the vocals. Though it might lose the tribal element so vital to Middle Eastern music, it works as both pop and polemic. Continue reading

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Media Mix, April 2, 2017

Yasunori Kagoike

Here is this week’s Media Mix, which is about the unofficial “Nippon Sugoi!” campaign. “Nippon Sugoi!” is usually translated as “Great Japan!”, though I think “Amazing Japan!” is closer to the vernacular meaning, since “sugoi!” is so commonly used as an exclamation of pleasant surprise. As I wrote the column over the last week, a few other English language writers covered the same or similar topics, especially with regard to sudden media attention to the concept of sontaku, which is explained near the end of the article. Because of Kagoike’s use of the word the Japanese press practically fell over themselves trying to explain its significance, and I thought it was interesting while watching the feed of Kagoike’s FCCJ news conference that several reporters didn’t seem to grasp what he was suggesting about the huge discount he received for the land he bought. So Tetsuo Jimbo’s comments were useful in that regard, but a lot of commentators have made the point that sontaku isn’t unique to Japan, that underlings all over the world constantly try to second guess their superiors in order to curry favor with them. And while that’s true, I think the Japanese version is special in that it’s been systematized, especially by the bureaucracy, as Gohara points out in his blog post. The most obvious form of this systematization, however, is self-restraint on the part of the media themselves. Much has been made in recent years of how the press has muffled itself so as not to incur the wrath of the powers-that-be, who it is assumed will retaliate for any perceived reportorial slight by withholding access. They do this without any actual threat being held over their heads, and thus the act of self-restraint, at first reflexive, becomes part of the business model.

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April 2017 movies

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

Captain Fantastic
Road trips vivify the great American indie movie, and while Matt Ross’s feature is light as a travelogue, it successfully shows the U.S. in all its ambivalence. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife are raising their six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and while visiting her parents to treat her depression she kills herself. Ben packs the brood into a refurbished school bus and heads to New Mexico for the funeral, to which his father-in-law (Frank Langella) has not invited them. Along the way we learn what kind of person Ben is—not just a radical leftist, but an intelligent man with a chip on his shoulder that he attempts to hoist onto his oldest son (George McKay), who wants a “normal” life. The kids know more about Plato and the Bill of Rights than anyone else their age, but these gifts are presented as blunt objects to pound the bourgeoisie, and while there’s an honest appeal to Mortensen’s performance, the character and the situations don’t add up to anything believable or affecting. (photo: Captain Fantastic Productions LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 19, 2017

Mako Oshidori

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the press’s inability—or unwillingness—to question the government’s rush to repopulate the evacuation zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility. Of the examples I gave of media who have questioned this move, Mako Oshidori’s peculiar means of going about her task relates to the larger picture of media complacency in Japan, and it’s interesting that so much subtext was evident on the NTV documentary. NTV, it should be noted, is part of the Yomiuri media juggernaut, one of Japan’s more conservative entities, but “NNN Document” has always had a reputation for independence, mainly because each episode is produced by a different independent production company. NTV, I presume, just buys them without changing them too much. Since they tend to be broadcast either in the middle of the night on the main terrestrial channels, or on NTV’s satellite station, they don’t receive as much attention as NTV’s regular news.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how openly Mako was able to talk about the mainstream media. Her attitude, which informs her knockabout comedy style, is casual to a fault, so she’s just talking off the top of her head when she describes a director for TV Asahi (now dead, apparently) coming to her and confessing that his news show purposely did not air footage of people fleeing Tokyo after the Fukushima meltdown despite the fact that they had sent camera crews to main train stations and airports to film such movements. He told her that this sort of neglect was a “cross the Japanese media would have to bear forever,” which sounds a bit melodramatic but nevertheless emphasizes the notion that reporters and editors knew what was required of them as journalists. Mako also pointed out that whenever she attended press conferences with members of the government or Tepco, she could easily tell which reporters were following the wishes of the authorities and which ones weren’t, but that such distinctions were lost on TV or in the newspapers. She realized that so many reporters would habitually ask unimportant or redundant questions so that they could curry favor with the powers-that-be and thus could always have access to them. Mako knew that by continually asking tough questions she would annoy those powers-that-be and probably make herself persona non grata. And that’s basically what happened, but since she was so persistent she gained something through the sheer quantity of her reporting. Whatever else the NTV documentary about the Oshidoris revealed, these insights into how the mainstream media really work were invaluable.

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