October 2017 albums

Here are the albums I reviewed for the October issue of EL magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.

The Nordic Mellow
-Siv Jakobsen (P-Vine)
-Anna of the North (Different/Hostess)
When we think of Scandinavian pop, Sweden first comes to mind, mainly because of ABBA, but also because of indie artists characterized by The Cardigans chamber Top 40 and Robyn’s dance music. If you say Norway, music fans will probably think of death metal, so Norwegian singer-songwriter Siv Jakobsen naming her second record The Nordic Mellow seems to have a special meaning. It is not, in fact, mellow, though Jakobsen’s voice has a hushed quality to it. A lot of the songs are bombastic. “Shallow Digger,” the pick to click, places the singer in the midst of some crashing drums and seriously strummed guitar. It’s a sort of environmental song, an angry environmental song to be precise. She’s mad at everyone, including herself, for not taking care of the world. We are all just too selfish, but she sounds as if she doesn’t think there’s anything we can do about it. In interviews Jakobsen has said The Nordic Mellow was written out of frustration after her debut EP set some sort of streaming record in her home country. The frustration, however, has less to do with other people than with her own difficulties in communicating with other people. She seems to be able to do that better in songs, which are more measured in their attitudes and assessments. As the album develops it eases in and out of extreme emotions—desperation giving way to resignation and then back to desperation—and while the instrumentation, supplied by her and her producer Matt Ingram (who has also produced Laura Marling, another singer-songwriter with a wide emotional range), is spare, it matches in dynamic power what Jakobsen seems to be going through in her lyrics. Which is what she is going through in life. Anna Lotterud, who is careful to make everyone aware that she’s from a Nordic country with her stage name, Anna of the North, is also from Norway, but her music is more conventionally accessible than Jakobsen’s, more Swedish, you might say. Her debut, Lovers, is a collection of songs she’s released in various forms over the past two years, and their electropop provenance has made it easy for people like the Chainsmokers to remix them for various purposes. And it’s definitely worth mentioning that she appears twice on Tyler, the Creator’s new album. Also worth mentioning is that, technically, Anna of the North is a duo, the other half being Australian Brady Daniell-Smith, who doesn’t sing but mostly shapes the songs into radio-ready 3-minute slices. As meditations on love and loss, the songs aren’t as heavy as Jakobsen’s. They’re airier, prettier, more likely to slip through your fingers if you don’t hold them tight enough. They’re also danceable if you’re so inclined. What Lotterud and Jakobsen do have in common is the lack of something that tends to be associated with the North: coldness. These are two of the warmest records of the year. When it’s dark and bitter outside, that makes sense. Continue reading

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October 2017 movies

Due to a truckload of work and other commitments I wasn’t able to upload the reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine when the issue was released, so here they are, late by more than a month.

Alien: Covenant
Story-wise, the latest installment in the Alien saga is superior to its predecessor, the thematically ambitious but frustratingly open-ended Prometheus. That said, it will be difficult for the viewer to appreciate Covenant without remembering Prometheus. A colonizing spaceship is damaged by a solar flare and some of the surviving crew decide to check out a signal coming from a nearby planet. There they discover what’s left of the Prometheus, namely its android assistant David (Michael Fassbender), who we soon learn has been experimenting with the organism that played such a central role in the previous film. No prizes for guessing what the results of those experiments are, but suffice to say that David’s own motives are hidden for most of the film, during which he spars with an updated model of himself, Walter (Fassbender, too), whose programming makes him more beholden to humans than David is. Once the horror set pieces kick in, however, the movie becomes predictable and less compelling. These are the aliens you know and love, and by now their m.o. is like second nature to most moviegoers. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film) Continue reading

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The 30th Tokyo International Film Festival

I once again worked for the Tokyo International Film Festival, covering events for their website. Here are the (unattributed) articles I wrote for the festival. Thanks to Karen Severns for the great editing work.

“Sparring” press conference

“Aqerat” press conference

“Namme” press conference

“The Home” press conference

“Our Blue Moment” stage appearance

“Mr. Long” stage appearance

“Crater” press conference

“Sveta” press conference

“The Looming Storm” press conference

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Media Mix, Oct. 29, 2017

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about progress in organ transplants in Japan. Generally speaking, I don’t think the media is the real reason behind the lack of public knowledge about transplants and organ donation, but by and large what tends to be reported is those instances that have a more dramatic appeal, especially when parents are desperately soliciting cash donations to send an ill child overseas to have a transplant. According to an article that appeared in Nikkei Style last February, since the revision of the transplant law in 2010, there have only been 12 cases of organ transplants for children under 15–nine of them heart transplants–and yet during that time there were also cases of parents raising money to send their children to the U.S. for organs. Since 2010, 23 Japanese children have received heart transplants in the U.S. The reason parents still have to do this is because of a paucity of donations. In 2016, 100 children in Japan were waiting for organs. The health ministry has apparently taken this issue to heart, and is now shifting the priority for donations and transplants from older adults to younger children.

It must be pointed out that the cost is vastly different. In once instance, according to Nikkei, parents raised ¥300 million to have their 1-year-old girl receive a new heart in the U.S. With national insurance in Japan, the cost of a transplant here is only a fraction of that amount, and survival rates are higher than almost any other country in the world. Another problem is that confirming brain death for a child seems to be trickier. Nikkei estimates that there are at least 70 cases of child brain death in Japanese hospitals every year, but less than ten result in donated organs either because the hospital is uneasy about asking the parent to donate, or that parents, thinking that allowing donation is akin to killing their child, refuse when they are asked. Of course, the question doctors, and the media, really should ask of parents is: “If your child needed an organ to survive, wouldn’t you be grateful for a donor?” It’s a painful question, but a valid one.

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BIFF 2017

Here is my Japan Times story about this year’s Busan International Film Festival. As is always the case, space restrictions prevented me from writing all I wanted to write about the festival and the movies I saw, though, for the most part, I think the piece conveys the tone of the event. A few things I might add is that the political situation that has threatened to derail BIFF for the past several years is perhaps getting out of hand. The Iranian director, Bahman Ghobadi, who was a member of the New Currents jury, put the matter into perspective when he said during the jury press conference that while he is concerned about the possible quashing of free speech on the part of the mayor and other government officials, he can’t quite bring himself to despair when he sees the wide variety of viewpoints on display. After all, he can’t make the movies he wants to make in his native country, and gave in interesting example: When he shows people drinking beverages he may be asked by the censors to include dialogue that points out that these people are not drinking alcohol. Those are niggling little restrictions, but they indicate larger, more forceful restrictions on themes and intentions. “Your problems in Korea are small” in comparison, he said.

When I had breakfast on Saturday morning with Shin Suwon, the director of the opening film, “Glass Garden,” we talked a little about this but it didn’t really seem like a big deal to her, either, even though she is a member of the Korean Directors Federation, which is, technically, still boycotting the festival. As an independent filmmaker, she is more concerned with how such political considerations affect funding. As I said in the piece, the administration of deposed president Park Geun-hye had blacklisted lots of artists it didn’t like from receiving government funds for their work. Such funding is extremely important to filmmakers, like Shin, who aren’t connected to large entertainment companies, but she told me that she’s never had trouble getting money due to the political content of her work, only for, as she put it, the “non-commercial” nature of her movies, something that all independent filmmakers in South Korea have to deal with. The fact is, as vital as Korea’s film industry is, and as innovative and imaginative as its independent directors are, indie films still have a very tough time financially in the domestic market. They have trouble getting financing and then after they’re made have trouble getting distributed. Even the superstar independents, like Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo, are distributed sparingly. Their reputation is huge, but they are mainly appreciated at foreign film festivals and in Korean art houses for maybe two or three weeks a year at most. Though certainly the alleged government crackdown hurt them, in a way it’s probably difficult for them to tell how much it’s hurt them, since it’s a tough life in the first place. The fact that they can even make such consistently high quality films under such circumstances is a miracle.

Consequently, I was disappointed that I didn’t see more Korean independent films. I usually see at least four movies a day, but this time I didn’t because of other commitments. In any event, this is what I did see. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Oct. 8, 2017

Kiko Mizuhara

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about Twitter’s seeming reluctance to address messages that contain hate speech. An issue discussed briefly on the Democracy Times program mentioned in the column but one that I didn’t touch on is sexist language. Kayoko Ikeda showed one tweet that read, “We don’t need women who won’t bear children,” which sounds suspiciously like something that was once spouted by a certain former governor of Tokyo. The tweet opens up a whole new realm of the hate speech topic but it’s one that tends to get treated as a sideshow, namely, misogyny. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see that the kind of people who denigrate Koreans and Chinese out of hand also resent women who don’t remain within the contours of what they believe is “properly Japanese.” The right wing “netto-uyo” are predominantly men who definitely see women as having a fixed place in society.

A more in-depth discussion of this area of hate speech recently took place on another web program, No Hate TV, which is hosted by Koichi Yasuda and Yasumichi Noma, two nominally left-wing firebrands whose breezy activism is refreshing to say the least. During this discussion they mainly talked about the right wing’s recent targeting of popular fashion model Kiko Mizuhara, who is best known for a series of commercials for Suntory, in which she sips a glass of beer. Right wingers have called on the liquor maker to drop her from the ads because she is “fake Japanese.” Apparently, Mizuhara’s father is American and her mother is a Korean who grew up in Japan but is not naturalized. To their credit, Suntory has not responded to the trolling and the commercials have not been pulled or altered in any way. However, Noma thinks the right wing trolls are more incensed by Mizuhara’s gender than by her multi-cultural background. “She’s actually quite liberal,” he says, and there’s nothing that enrages right wing Japanese hotheads as much as a liberal female. In addition, she’s easy to “bash” because as a teenager she was something of a “yankee” (semi-delinquent), and appeared in the Korean edition of Harpers Bazaar modeling some Japanese designer clothing. “What they really hated,” says Noma, “was one photo showing her with shoes on and lying on tatami.” That shot was solid evidence that Mizuhara “is not Japanese,” the trolls said. But what gives Mizuhara even more street cred in Noma’s and Yasuda’s eyes is that she has also angered Chinese and South Korean net trolls. Some weeks ago she “liked” an Instagram post by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, in which the artist gives the finger to Tianmen Square. (Eventually, she retracted the “like” and apologized but that didn’t placate her Chinese critics.) And she also dated, albeit briefly, G Dragon, the leader of K-pop’s biggest boy band, Big Bang, thus pissing off Korean nationalist trolls.

“It’s as if there is a federation of eastern Asian netto-uyo,” joked Noma.

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Media Mix, Sept. 24, 2017

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about junior high schools that received protesting postcards because of a history textbook they chose to use. The media that covered this story stated that the book published by Manabisha is the only one written for junior high schools that mentions the comfort women issue. Sankei Shimbun, in the article cited, says that about 5,700 copies of the textbook are now being “used” throughout Japan, and someone in the textbook publishing industry estimates that this number represents a 0.5 percent share, which, apparently, is a relatively high number for a textbook from a “new company” like Manabisha. In the Mainichi article, one official of a school that uses the Manabisha text said they chose it not so much because of the content but rather the style: His school felt it was easier to read and thus easier to understand for junior high school students. The reason seems to be Manabisha’s writers. Almost all the people who contributed to the textbook are current or former history teachers, not professional historians or researchers. As one Nada Junior High School teacher put it, the writing is in a narrative style, like a story, and the explanations are full of detail. The idea is not just to impart facts and dates, but to stimulate thought and discussion, and while none of the media that covered the Manabisha story elaborated on this point, what it means to me is that the topics will be discussed more in class. It is perhaps this aspect of the issue that most troubles the steadfastly conservative Sankei Shimbun, which seems almost admiring of Manabisha for its conscientious approach to scholarly edification. The Manabisha passages about the comfort women do not explain what they actually did–i.e., sexually service Japanese soldiers–so if the students are as sufficiently stimulated by the text as some teachers and, apparently, Sankei think they will be, then it naturally follows that the students will demand more information about the subject from their teachers.

This is the subtext that undergirds Sankei’s disapproving tone, and the article goes on to say that Manabisha would not tell the newspaper anything about the “network of writers” who produced the text, saying it was a matter of privacy, but apparently Sankei learned that “among these writers” there were former teachers who belong to a group called the Rekishi Kyoiku Kyogikai (History Education Council), which at one time issued a statement condemning the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Manabisha says the purpose of the text is to promote curiosity in students, while Sankei implies that it’s to subvert them somehow.

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