Media Mix, Dec. 4, 2021

Ishin no Kai leader Ichiro Matsui

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Ishin no Kai’s (the Japan Innovation Party) attempt to regulate the distribution to Diet members of funds that cover expenses for mail, correspondence, and transportation, familiarly called buntsuhi. At the time the column was written and edited it wasn’t clear what the proposed bill would look like, but the main idea would be to replace a lump monthly allowance of ¥1 million, which is paid regardless of how many days a lawmaker works in a month, with a daily allowance that only covers days worked. Also, receipts would have to accompany a report of how the money was spent, which is not required now. The media found the whole matter suspicious because in the past some members of Ishin, which is based in Osaka but wants to become one of the main national opposition parties, used the buntsuhi to line their own pockets by “donating” leftover funds to their political support groups, a practice that at least one expert says is illegal. This is the so-called “boomerang” effect the media talked about, namely that the party’s complaint about the wastefulness of how buntsuhi is administered came back to hit them after their own use of the money was scrutinized. To me, the practice didn’t indicate rank hypocrisy as much as it showed how the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. At the local level, Ishin’s reputation has been built on fiscal reform, and they pounced on the buntsuhi issue as an easy means of spreading their cost-cutting gospel nationwide. They just neglected to look in their own house first.

Last week, the party announced it was submitting its bill to revise the rules for buntsuhi, but on Friday, apparently, the revision hit a wall. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party also had its own revision in mind and apparently the two parties didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to proceed, so it’s stalled for the time being. It’s important to note that while Ishin is technically an opposition party, its conservative philosophy is closer to that of the LDP than it is to other opposition parties, and that the transfer of leftover buntsuhi funds to political support groups is not limited to some Ishin members. It’s obvious from media reports that some LDP members do it as well. It’s just that they didn’t talk previously about doing away with the system, so there was less of a boomerang effect. Having the two parties oversee a revision of the allowance allocation may strike some people as an example of the foxes appointing themselves the guardians of the henhouse, but, again, that’s too simplistic. They obviously think the system needs to be overhauled, and it does. But other opposition parties don’t seem to have a problem accounting for how they spend their buntsuhi. As mentioned in the column, the Japan Communist Party makes a point of posting on their home page how their members spend it and how much they return to the treasury. They are, in essence, already following the protocols that Ishin was going to propose in its revision. Why they and the LDP can’t come to an agreement about a revision deserves more attention. 

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Media Mix, Nov. 27, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the suicide of an Asahi Shimbun reporter and what it says about the state of journalism right now, especially with regards to daily newspapers. I, of course, write this column for a daily newspaper and have had to contend with the issues discussed in the piece on an ongoing basis, but since I’m a freelancer my particular difficulties are different from those of staff writers, whose problems with management has a direct effect on what news is reported and how it’s reported. Coincidentally, Shukan Bunshun, the only media I know of that covered the Asahi reporter’s death, last week ran another story about local news. Apparently, a fair portion of the English language writers who work for Kyodo, the biggest news service in Japan, have been quitting lately, thus putting the company in a severe situation since its reach beyond Japan depends greatly on translations of its Japanese content as well as original English language reporting. The people who are leaving, it seems, are young and foreign educated, and though the article doesn’t go into enough detail it sounds like a typical example of power harassment, meaning the reporters in question are being regularly scolded, but not necessarily for incompetence. It seems to have more to do with the stories they submit and how they cover them. I’m not sure if these reporters think they can easily find work owing to their bilingual skills, but, in any case, they obviously don’t believe it’s worth their while to work for people who don’t appreciate their value. How much of this friction is due to the usual age-oriented, hierarchical hazing you tend to find in Japanese organizations I can’t tell, but even if that is the case, young workers shouldn’t have to put up with it. 

Taking the wider view, if this is how news organizations treat new recruits it doesn’t bode well for an industry that’s already in trouble. In the past, Japanese media people were hired straight out of college and not necessarily because of their field of study or expertise. It usually had more to do with the school they attended and the whim of the recruiter. As with all corporate hiring in Japan, the idea was that the rookie would be trained on the job according to the company’s peculiar needs and internal culture, and that included reporters, who often didn’t have any journalistic training before they were brought on board, so for most there was no grounding in what we tend to call journalistic ethics. But now an increasing number of young university students are looking toward a career in journalism, and the unfortunate reporter for the Asahi Shimbun was described as just such an idealist. His particular problems arose when that idealism clashed with the practical economic needs of his editor, but it may have also had something to do with the notion that young college grads are no longer as malleable as the corporate patriarchy expects them to be.

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Review: Minamata Mandala

Kazuo Hara’s latest documentary is six hours and 12 minutes, thus making it almost twice as long as his last epic, Sennan Asbestos Disaster. The two documentaries are similar in subject matter and theme, but I would hardly call them redundant. Both address the grievances of people who have suffered medically for the neglect of the state and attempt to gain redress only to spend many years in an agonizing tug-of-war with the bureaucracy, which is invariably implacable. 

Minamata is, of course, synonymous with structural neglect. Lawsuits to gain some measure of relief for the tens of thousands of people injured by the methylmercury released by the Chisso Corporation in the middle of the 20th century in the seas off Kumamoto Prefecture have been going on for almost 60 years, and are still going on for some people. Minamata has been seared in the mind of the world through the photos of W. Eugene Smith, whose own biopic with Johnny Depp opened earlier this year. As with Sennan, Hara is not so much interested in the original crime, which is pretty cut-and-dry, but rather the process of wearing-down that those in power put in motion in order to make an inconvenient problem go away. And while it doesn’t go away, it may not reach the ears of the general public in a way that will make much difference. Hara’s job is to place the viewer right in the middle of the controversy, and while he doesn’t bother to ask for the other side’s view of the matter, you can tell from the action he does put on film that the other side doesn’t give two shits about what the public might think. To them, silence is golden, since it is the most absolute way of asserting power.

Hara breaks the film, which was was shot over a period of some 20 years, into three parts. The first establishes the science behind the plaintiffs’ claim, which find the government’s various remedies to be self-serving and insufficient. The criteria for providing compensation and medical treatment established in 1977 was based on findings that said Minamata Disease was all about damaged nerves, a decision that excluded many patients who, when tested, presented no nerve damage. Two doctors from Kumamoto, however, theorized quite early on that Minamata Disease was about losing brain function, or, more precisely, it was a disease of “sensory disturbance.” People’s sense of taste and smell were diminished, they lost peripheral vision and some feeling in their extremities, and had trouble communicating, but none of these symptoms presented as damaged nerves because the problem was in the brain and its ability to send the proper signals to the body. It wasn’t until a 2006 Supreme Court case brought by a group of Minamata victims living in the Kansai region that the sensory disturbance  explanation was taken seriously. 

The rest of the film presents how this inconvenient ruling was ignored by both the Environmental Ministry and Kumamoto Prefecture, which stalled in its duty to rectify its certification processes for Minamata victims. It’s a maddening journey, filled with court victories that prove to be empty, either because the authorities appeal them again, drawing out the agony for sick people who are at death’s door, or because they simply interpret the court ruling in a way that allows them not to admit they ever did anything wrong. As with Sennan, the movie’s climax is a showdown in the halls of Kasumigaseki with a bunch of youthful civil servants who know very little about the history of the problem being dispatched to receive the withering anger of people who have nothing left to lose. But this is even more intense, climaxing in a bit of showy violence when one plaintiff rips the notes out of the hand of a bureaucrat to find out if his “apology” is sincere or not. To make matters worse, these people essentially reenact this farce several days later in the Kumamoto Prefecture offices, where the governor says he will get down on his knees and apologize “if you want me to.”

Interspersed througout this drama are interludes with various victims of the disease, which offer the requisite human side of the tragedy, but, thanks to Hara’s immersive approach, give us a world beyond the hospitals and care homes. I was particularly moved by a man named Ikoma, who contracted Minamata Disease as a teenager and, despite the widespread prejudice against patients, wed a woman through an arranged marriage. When Hara finds out that the woman is Korean, his investigative antennae go up and he asks the couple and their matchmaker (another Minamata victim—one of the strongest suits of the film is the way it conveys a sense of community among patients) if anti-Korean prejudices had anything to do with the arrangement and the couple says it did not. Hara seems deflated, and, probably the audience is as well, and the mystery endures. Maybe that’s as it should be. As the movie so assiduously points out, some things just can’t be explained so neatly. 

In Japanese. Opens Nov. 27 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Minamata Mandala home page in Japanese

photo (c) Shisso Production

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Media Mix, Nov. 20, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about a suit brought by two people on death row in Japan to do away with the practice of not informing condemned prisoners of their time of execution until only a few hours before it takes place. As pointed out in the column, only two G7 countries, the United States and Japan, still have the death penalty (some media say “only two developed countries…”), though the way executions are carried out is quite different. In the U.S., prisoners on death row usually know when they are scheduled to be put to death weeks or even months prior to the execution taking place, which gives them time to prepare and meet with loved ones—or with their lawyer perhaps to try and get a stay. In Japan, the justice minister simply signs the death warrant and the deed is done almost immediately. The prisoner has no time to prepare and neither does their lawyer, who probably doesn’t find out until it’s too late. Another major difference between the U.S. and Japan is the method of execution. In the U.S. it’s done through lethal injection, which is considered the most humane way of killing someone, though, according to the Harper’s article I cite in the column, there is a great deal of argument over just how painless it is. Apparently, one man actually survived a lethal injection and said afterwards that it felt as if the inside of his body was on fire. In Japan, hanging is the method; specifically the trap-door method which is meant to snap the neck so as to bring about instant death. Needless to say, there is no argument in Japan about whether this is the most humane way of killing someone since nobody talks about the death penalty, except to say that it should be an option for the worst kinds of crimes. Once a conviction and a sentence are confirmed, the discussion ends. The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, though no one, as far as I know, has carried out a survey asking how capital punishment should be carried out. The public trusts the state to make sure people convicted of heinous crimes are put to death, but they also expect the government to relieve them of the burden of having to think about it, which may be another reason why condemned prisoners don’t know when they’re going to die until, as I said in the column, the executioner actually comes knocking.

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Review: Little Girl

One of the stubborn myths attached to LGBTQ persons is the belief that their sexuality or gender identity is the result of social exposure. The subject of Sebastien Lifshitz’s documentary, Little Girl, is 8-year-old Sasha, who was assigned male at birth. However, according to her mother, Sasha already identified as female before she was three, a revelation that certainly challenges the social imprint myth. It is not Lifshitz’s aim to make any kind of analysis of what constitutes transexuality. In fact, his film has no voiceover narration or into-the-camera interviews with experts. It is observational in the clearest sense. We see Sasha and her parents interacting with one another and others in the most everyday ways, and while Sasha is very aware of her status as a transexual child, she never makes much of it. It’s other people who do.

Mainly it’s the people at her school, who have always identified her as a boy since that is what the paperwork says. Sasha lives in a small city in France and her school seems to have some association with conservative Christianity. Sasha’s parents have fully accepted her as a girl and want the school to acknowledge it, but they won’t. Lifshitz doesn’t have much access to the school officials in charge of this decision, so it’s mostly through third-person explanations that we find out, and while Sasha’s mother and father characterize the school’s attitude as hostile, Sasha rarely betrays any disappointment on screen. In fact, to say she’s well-adjusted might be an understatement. She knows why Lifshitz is there and is attentive to both his needs and her own self-image. In a sense, the movie isn’t so much about Sasha as it is a movie being made by Sasha with the help of the director. She performs, in a sense, but because she is still a child the performance is artless. 

Lifshitz avoids the most pressing question, which is how will Sasha navigate adolescence. Since that question is beyond his purview he is free to concentrate on the here and now, and the film’s presence is often startling. Several scenes take place in rooms with medical professionals who aren’t on hand to fix anything but rather sought by Sasha’s parents, who think they might convince the school of Sasha’s identity. The fact that Sasha herself joins in these often technical conversations proves that she already knows exactly who she is. It’s not precociousness, but rather a distinctly childlike sense of harmony with her situation. To put it another way, she’s quite a character.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670)

Little Girl home page in Japanese

photo (c) Agat Films & CIE – Arte France – Final Cut For real – 2020

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Media Mix, Nov. 13, 2021

Subaru’s new EV, developed in collaboration with Toyota

Here’s this week’s Media Mix (whose headline is different from the print edition’s and slightly misleading), which is about Toyota’s seemingly blase attitude toward electric vehicles. Based on what the press in Japan is reporting, this reluctance is built into the corporate culture and isn’t necessarily a negative reaction to climate activism. After all, Toyota did design the e-Palette people mover, as described in the column; it’s just that they rushed the project and ended up debuting something that didn’t work as it was supposed to. However, last week I found a post on Twitter that indicated Toyota’s aversion to electric vehicles may be more fundamental than I thought. A blog called Electrek, which is about EVs, published a letter from a parent who was alarmed at a pamphlet their daughter received at her Japanese elementary school. The pamphlet was distributed by Toyota and attempted to explain to children how EVs are great but still years away, which isn’t really the truth. The main thrust of their message is that hybrids are already here and do just as good a job in terms of carbon neutrality, which isn’t true either. More importantly, more autoworkers will be able to keep their jobs, which has always been Toyota’s main scare tactic when talking about how the rush to electric is not a good idea. Though the parent says that all Japanese car makers in a sense have been slow to adopt all-electric vehicles, only Toyota is aggressive in its anti-electric propaganda, and the parent finds it highly problematic that they would target children with this message, obviously with the idea of cultivating future customers for its hybrids and gasoline powered cars. As pointed out in the column, this mentality clashes with the government’s pledge to do away with internal combustion engines for passenger cars by the middle of the century, but given that Toyota remains the jewel in the Japanese industrial crown, questions arise as to how serious that pledge is. I tend to think it’s sincere as far as it goes, but they obviously allow themselves room to move, so until the government carries out concrete actions toward the realization of that goal the pledge is subject to doubt. 

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Review: The Man Who Sold His Skin

In the case of this multinational co-production, the usual opening gambit of claiming that the following story is based on true events for once raises arched eyebrows—at least in hindsight. A cursory internet search yields the intelligence that, in fact, a European artist did once tattoo his work on the back of a man and actually “sold” the artwork to a collector in 2008. The transaction in the movie is a bit more politically fraught, and while the story sells itself as a kind of satire, its thematic proximity to current headlines addressing the ever-changing dynamics in the Middle East keeps you constantly on the alert for any untoward humor you might derive from the action. 

The main thing being satirized is the art world, but unlike The Square, another tongue-in-cheek study of the limits of creativity that was nominated for a foreign film Oscar, The Man Who Sold His Skin finds room for empathy among its cynical set pieces. In a way it has to, because the artwork is a Syrian refugee named Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), who has fled his homeland and his fiancee after falling afoul of the government. He not-so-innocently falls into the hands, so to speak, of the Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), who is looking for a “canvas” on which to etch his brilliant conceptual art, a life-size tattoo of the so-called Schengen visa, which allows the holder to travel freely within the European Union, and is thus highly coveted by people trying to escape strife in their native lands. 

The director, Kaouther Ben Hania, has perhaps more fun with this premise than a lot of other filmmakers would ever dare to. Though Sam isn’t treated as a servant or an object by Godefroi, he is obligated to sit half-naked in galleries while patrons ogle his back and make any sort of unfortunate comments they want about his situation while not knowing anything about that situation; which is more complicated than they can imagine. Thanks to the visa on his back, he really can go anywhere in Europe he wants, and thanks to Godefroi, he can live fairly high on the hog (as long as he’s “working”). So while Sam remains a “victim” in the media scheme of things, his material circumstances are those of somebody who has lucked out big time. And for a while, he takes advantage of it to the point where he lords it over the hotel staff and parades around like a peacock when the fancy hits him. When a human rights organization tries to tell him that he’s being exploited at the expense of other refugees, he slams the door in their face.

The difficulty the viewer may have with this clever idea is that they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and while in the meantime we can enjoy Godefroi’s hilarious self-importance and the total hypocrisy fueling the “transgressive art” market, there’s the sinking feeling that Sam is headed for a fall or even worse. Ben Hania injects a few brilliantly affecting scenes involving terrorist tropes and long-distance romance, but in the end he has to address the elephant in the other room and opts simply to leave the door ajar. 

In English, Arabic and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608). 

The Man Who Sold His Skin home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020-Tanit Films-Cinetelefilms-Twenty Twenty Vision-Kwassa Films-Laika Film & Television-Metafora Productions-Film i Vast-Istiqlal Films-A.R.T.-Voo & Be TV

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Review: City Hall

As Frederick Wiseman enters his 10th decade on the planet, his iconic fly-on-the-wall documentary methodology tends to focus more and more on the minutiae of civic discourse. City Hall, which spends a leisurely autumn hanging around the municipal government offices of Boston, follows his immersive docs on the New York Public Library and a multicultural neighborhood in the NYC borough of Queens as celebrations of politics in the service of improving people’s lives. In essence, they are all optimistic works, which sounds almost transgressive in these days of American divisiveness. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements on display here, but the general purpose of this always compelling four-and-a-half hour film seems to be an attempt at showing how people work toward understanding, especially when it comes to fiscal and economic matters.

The central “character” is Mayor Marty Walsh, a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Democrat who wears his progressivism lightly. (He has since quit the job and joined Joe Biden’s cabinet; thus precipitating the recent mayoral election that brought to power a more rigorous progressive, Michelle Wu.) Walsh shows up in many of the episodes, usually at a lectern spouting anodyne generalities about Boston’s all-important “diversity,” which Wiseman plays up by constantly scanning his audiences and thus providing a survey of the different ethnicities and types that make up Walsh’s constituency. The effect is oddly surreal in that Walsh often seems to be anywhere and everywhere at once, and while what he says rarely makes a stark impression, he never strikes a confrontational tone (except once in a while when he has to refer to then-President Trump, whom he never actually names). One of the reasons for the amiable atmosphere was a lucky happenstance: the Red Sox had just won the World Series and the mood in town was uniformly buoyant. One wonders what the film would have been like if Wiseman had made it during the dog days of summer.

And while the most viscerally interesting sequences show how the machinery of city governance directly affects citizens—traffic central civil servants overseeing thousands of CCTV cameras in an attempt to keep vehicles moving; staff taking phone calls on the city hot line and answering questions about everything from dead pet collection to internet connectivity; a municipal employee administering the vows for an LGBTQ wedding—the best parts of the movie are the ones that document meetings in all their procedural normality. Wiseman and his editors have a unique knack for cutting through the detritus of meetings without sacrificing the feeling of being in one of those rooms in one of those chairs trying to follow everything that’s going on, and the results are not only edifying but enlightening. A particular gem is a long discussion at a community center in the poor neighborhood of Dorchester between local residents and a company that wants to set up a marijuana dispensary in the area. At first, the residents are averse to the project, which they say could bring in white middle class outsiders who will line up outside the dispensary (thus attracting criminal elements) and park wherever they want. But slowly the discussion becomes more pointed: these residents, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, resent the seemingly experimental nature of the dispensary. The company behind the dispensary, which was founded by a group of Asians, are prepared for these reservations and try to assure the residents that they know that the Black and other minority communities suffered most from the War on Drugs, and that one of their aims is to right the balance now that cannabis is legal. The reason they chose Dorchester is to bring marijuana money to a community that needs it, through employment and a stronger tax base. The meeting is only a preliminary step—in the end, the real bete noire of the confrontation is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which sends no representatives—and it ends with a hopeful reconciliation and a promise to keep the discussion going.

More casual viewers, especially those who have seen Wiseman’s earlier films, may find City Hall too accommodating to the political realities that hold sway in Boston, but that’s Boston, not Wiseman. If it were my decision, I’d require every high school student in America watch the 40-minute Dorchester sequence so they could understand how real civic responsibility works. But the whole movie is heartening in ways that you don’t expect. Maybe the system doesn’t work right now, but it can work, and often beautifully. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

City Hall home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Puritan Films, LLC

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Review: The Donut King

Tales of immigrants making it big in their adopted countries are irresistible, regardless of which side of the political divide you find yourself. Liberals appreciate the idea that new blood invigorates society and thus hold such stories up as examples of how immigration is vital; while conservatives like to point to these individuals as the exceptions that prove the rule, meaning that immigration needs to be tightly controlled. The biography of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy is tailor made for this kind of dichotomy, though his tale is so extraordinary that you’d be hard pressed to find any sort of correlative.

Just the results of Ngoy’s enterprising spirit are enough to justify a documentary like this. He arrived in California in the mid-70s with his family after barely escaping the clutches of the Khmer Rouge; started a donut shop from scratch and in a few years had expanded his business to a dozen or so successful stores; became a millionaire in the process; and, most significantly, generated other Cambodian immigrant entrepreneurs through his mentorship. By the 1990s, 80 percent of the donut shops in California were owned by Cambodian immigrants or their children. Of course, the skeptic might wonder what makes donut shops so special, but when Ngoy started out, the market was controlled by either chains, or local mom-and-pop operations whose ambitions never extended beyond one store. And while Ngoy did come up with ideas that seemed to strike a marketable chord—a wider variety of flavors but focus on the classics, pink boxes instead of white ones—the main source of his success was an attitude that treated both customers and employees with respect and gratitude. It’s almost sickening how many tributes the guy draws during the course of the movie. 

Director Alice Gu knows all the clever tricks that documentarists use nowadays to make their movies less stodgy and more like a collection of internet memes—the animated sequences, the wacky montages, the sound bites squooshed up against one another—but while the flow is effortless and the message comes through loud and clear, the dramatic arc feels a bit truncated, because two-thirds of the way through she drops a bomb by saying that Ngoy ended up bankrupt and, for the most part, disgraced. Uncle Ted, as everyone calls him, had personal problems that he could handle until he couldn’t, and Gu never attempts to explain why they happened, only how. It’s as if she didn’t want to participate in this great man’s humiliation, but it seems like such an integral part of this story, if only for its cautionary aspect, that in the end you may feel short-changed. Instead, she fills the final half hour or so with other feel-good stories of Cambodians who took what they needed from Ngoy’s failed empire (he ended up losing everything, including his family) and carried it further. In many ways, The Donut King may be the most American story of the century, but it’s still incomplete.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

The Donut King home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 TDK Documentary, LLC

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Tokyo International Film Festival 2021

Here are links to the reports I wrote for the website of the 34th TIFF. In passing, I would say it was a better festival than it has been for many years, owing mainly to its change of venue to Hibiya/Ginza and the return of programmer Shozo Ichiyama, who left some years ago to found Filmex, which this year was held in tandem with TIFF. However, while the Competition films covered a broader range of experience, overall the selection sacrificed quality and rigor for representation; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but too many were saddled with an old-fashioned notion of thematic importance. But I really liked Hommage, Californie, and the eventual winner, Vera Dreams of the Sea, all of which were original and dramatically compelling. They were also all about women, though only two were directed by women.

Californie

Vera Dreams of the Sea

When Pomegranates Howl

Arisaka

Asian Lounge: Bahman Ghobadi x Ai Hashimoto

The Dawning of the Day

Third Time Lucky

The Other Tom

The Daughter

The Films of Kinuyo Tanaka

Memoria

World Cinema Conference: The Future of the Film Industry

Hommage

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