Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mr. News

So there is this guy called Mr. News. His job here is basically to take the big topics in the news and put into 1-2 hour episodes in front of various Japanese entertainers called geinojin (the scourge that they are of TV) hoping that people may actually watch something they should probably watch in the first place. Some episodes are better than others.

Anyways, the episode on China is on right now. While there has been some moments of insight, most of it is find questionable things China does and we, the geinojin, scowl. laugh, looked surprised as foreboding music plays in the background.

I'm all for pointing out the things that are unsavory that China does, or that any country does, but in an atmosphere that is "lets all come together and use serious problems of another country as a perverse, collective entertainment" I lose the ability to take it seriously. And that is the point I think. There are big problems, but taking them seriously is a drag - let's make a TV show about the news instead of watching real news, so after the show is over its like the end of an episode of my favorite drama not part of the world out there.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Sputnik Moment - I'm Back

5 months later. I have been in Japan for about 4 months, I will be for at least 8 more, hopefully 20 more. Anyways.

So I am sitting in my apartment and pick up a book left around (not mine, I won't get into why a library of books just happen to be in my apartment) entitled: The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children by Merry White, who was of, at least at the time this book was published, Harvard.

I am just into the introduction when I read: "And, when Japanese children test higher in math and science than any others in the world, the battleground of competition seems to be shifting to schools. The subject of internal criticism and movements for reform for much of the post-Sputnik era, education in the West now seems to face a new "Sputnik": the Japanese child, as goad, goal, and measure of success." (p.2).

I find this pretty funny in regards to the new PISA 2010 results being called by many people, including Chester E. Finn Jr in the Wall Street Journal (btw that name is so white) in his Dec. 8th article "A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Education".

I see Japanese students everyday, they are no Sputniks. I'm sure the one's in Shanghai are no different. They are just students in a society that values education. I just find it kind of problematic that students are used in such a nationalistic analogy, even if schooling has obvious nationalist aspects, as the Space Race.

I for one am all for more funding for schools and better education back in the homeland - too bad it takes some nationalist fear for people to see the value in educating themselves. It may be worth putting in the time, effort, expertise - all of which I lack for a blog post - to see where high achieving students such as those in Shanghai end up going on to for post-secondary education and later employment (because you know companies don't cross borders and the US is like, not a destination for Chinese students).

I'm alive btw.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


World Cup has been going so I have been watching too much of that. Also, getting my Japanese level back up to near JLPT 2 where it should be. Quick rundown of things clogging the blog pipeline: Chinese currency, Daremo Shiranai still coming, more Cadiz goodies, and some other assorted things. Hopefully around July most of this will be up.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Proudest Small Town in Amercia Part I

The following is the beginning of a series of posts about my recent adventure in rural Ohio visiting relatives. There will be at least three more of these kind of posts with more pictures included!

The Arrival

Cadiz sits in Harrison County in the southeast part of Ohio near Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The area is rural, rolling, and rusting. I know little about the area, but what I do know probably trumps what the vast majority of people know about this small, aging coal town whose largest claim to fame is as the birthplace of Clark Gable.

Cadiz is the hometown of my mother and my grandfather. From their recollections the only reason Cadiz ever existed was because of coal and it was in between some other places that mattered. Today there are still miners, but no coal – the miners commute to where there is coal. Things also move faster so that which exists between places of some import are more prevalent and closer in time. Cadiz just is and that is all there is to it.

It may seem I am giving Cadiz a bad rap, but I am not…entirely. It is the type of place that is important in history, important to my childhood, and like many things that just are you cannot hold it against it. It is strangely scenic, and not just in the beautiful decay aesthetic. It is rural, it has farms, it has green fields broken by patches of trees, it has rolling hills and old ponds with graying wooden piers. It has a different culture, a culture which I only know from my mother, her father, and my step-grandmother. The last person from Cadiz that I met outside of the circle of my family was when I must have been in 8th or 9th grade – a decade ago. It truly is worlds apart from a Chicago, a New York City, a Los Angeles let alone a major foreign city. It may have more in common (the good and the bad) with a tiny, dying town somewhere else across the globe.


I am visiting Cadiz for the first time in a long time. It will be the last time I visit for another undetermined amount of time because I am leaving for Japan in August and will be there for at least a year, more likely two. It is time to visit the Mikesell(s, plural is pending on further deliberation), my mom’s side of the family.

My mother and I fly into the airport in Pittsburgh. With bags in hand we ride down an escalator and a poster overhead proudly proclaims – “Yesterday’s airport of the future”. Times must be tough if you have to advertise the fact you were once upon a time on the cusp of modernity. But recently just gave up.

We walk outside and I look to the right to see a figure that I guess is Leeanna, my step-grandmother, so I hesitantly walk her way. At first I am unsure, they must have got a new car and gotten rid of the boat of a Lincoln. Soon my doubt washes away as Leeanna becomes visibly excited waving at me, clad in a bright pink top and white pants that match her teased, short hair. Greetings are exchanged.

My grandfather recently had surgery on his eyes. Leeanna says they put lenses in his eyes. I am no expert on this process so I am not exactly sure the nuance of what happened, but the point is he is wearing giant sunglasses enveloping his normal glasses to keep out the harsh rays of the sun. I am sure everyone has seen these before, but it was nonetheless jarring to see these on my grandfather. 

As we drive away from Pittsburgh to eastern Ohio, Leeanna mentions there is a Japanese restaurant near Cadiz. I can hardly wait. Leeanna asks me about food like lo mein and kimchi (which, to my surprise, not only exists out here, but she says she enjoys) and asks me if lo mein is Japanese or there is something like it in Japan. I tread lightly. Leeanna then asks me what ‘Fujiyama’, the name of our dinner destination means in Japanese. This is a tricky question, but I guess it is Mt. Fuji (Fujisan...). So we are going to Fujiyama.

Fujiyama is a Japanese steak house. The idea of the Japanese steak house or hibachi grill is pretty much an American invention. Not to say Japanese people do not eat beef cooked over a hot plate or open flame, but is not steak, and it is not a steak house, rather a yakiniku or teppanyaki place. Hibachi is a Japanese word but is not used as a cooking word. A hibachi is a brazier where coals are kept for heating purposes. Hibachi in the US is nonetheless similar to teppanyaki in that you are cooking meat and other foods (or okonomiyaki) on a hot griddle. This whole genre of dining started in Japan to serve, ironically, Western style food. The theatrical style of cooking the food did start in Japan, but was more popular with foreigners than Japanese people and migrated to the US.

We walk into the restaurant, which was once a Hardees, and besides the differing signage looks the part. The waitress, who has dirty blonde hair with fading pink highlights, has to be in or just out of high school. “Do you want to sit on the hibachi side,” she asks. “Um, hibachi side is okay,” I tell her. That was beyond stupid of me. Personally I do not like the hibachi deal much at all, but I am also with my middle-aged mother, step-grandmother and 88 year old grandfather who still calls Japanese ‘Japs’, so I should be trying to keep things tame. The last situation I should be putting us in is a theatrical dining experience at a Japanese restaurant of questionable repute. I blame Leeanna.

The chef is at the table next to us and gives us a preview of what we are in for with the party of people who came in before us. He starts by igniting a fire ball on the grill. We can feel the heat from across the room. Remember how my grandfather has to wear those glasses because being in the sunlight is a tad bit too intense for him. I begin sweating slightly with anxiety. The anticipation builds further as he tosses food out to the other patrons coaxing them to catch it mid-air. Adding to my growing uneasiness is the liberal spraying of water and saké. I am not sure how we will all come out of this unscathed mentally and physically. What if my grandfather passes right before my eyes amidst dining?

Drink orders. Thank god there is some sort of alcohol list. My mom points out they have the usual Japanese beer assortment; I take a Yuengling. The chef wheels his cart of tricks out and recalls our orders to us. His English is not that great so I do my best to tell the rest of my party what he is saying (note: the server is not Japanese which is by no means odd to me, but mind-boggling to Leeanna).

 It starts exactly like the last time, my grandfather’s eyes light up in front of a fireball rising above the skillet a foot from our faces. I am about ready to die. I laugh nervously. He dances around with an egg before breaking it and beginning to cook it on the hibachi. Everything will be ok I tell myself until the chef begins coaxing us to catch pieces of egg that have been cooking on the skillet. I begin to wonder if the young, Asian chef thinks this as some sort of retribution for dealing with middle-America patrons in a dying town in West Virginia by tossing hot, runny egg in their general direction. One thing is for sure, he seems to not recognize that an 88 year old man who can hardly read the menu has no desire to “play with his food”. Intervention is the only option before my grandfather who is in the process of “tolerating it” from having runny egg thrown at him by some “Chinaman”.

I will sacrifice myself for my family. I make it apparent to the chef that I am his target, this is a showdown. All food and liquids that travel through the air will be directed at me. Hot egg flies above my head onto the floor (offending my grandfather’s Great Depression sensibilities), hits me in the eye and run down my cheek like a hot tear, and finally lands in my mouth. This must be some sadistic game. My mother is emboldened and after a few misses, one grazing through her hair, she is successful.

After a volley of water by some strange squeezey-toy of a little Asian boy with his pants down, and some cooking in between, out comes the saké. The saké is in a clear container that you would use to squirt different sauces. A cunning weapon. By this time any shame has gone out the window and the more I give in to my captor-gourmand the faster it will all be over. I close my eyes and open my mouth wide as he begins the spray of saké close and moves farther away. Saké makes it into my mouth, cheap, cheap saké. It also makes it in my nose, runs down my cheeks, and basically all over the rest of my face. The sexual innuendo is just off the charts. The session of culinary S&M draws to a close and my partner rolls his cart away to the kitchen.

I ordered the shrimp. It sucked. The food wasn’t even good.

Thus ends the first chapter of my Cadiz, Ohio adventure. We left Fujiyama satisfied (?), stronger and wiser people. I do not have a real pithy comment to add to the end of this, maybe the other anecdotes will, but what can I say about a massive collision of culture and generations in such an absurd setting that does not speak for itself.   

Oh yeah, this was the only part. Oh well. (12/11/2010)     

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


My 2010 book list update. EDIT: Updated July 28.

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
East Asian Multilateralism - Francis Fukuyama and Kent E. Calder
Speed Tribes - Karl Greenfeld Taro
Discourses of the Vanishing - Marylin Ivy
Gold Rush - Yu Miri
Pacific Alliance - Kent E. Calder
Yakuza - David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro
Sexual Violence and the Law in Japan - Catherine Burns
Hiroshima - John Hersey  
International Relations of Asia - Shambaugh & Yahuda eds.

In Progress:
Korea's Place in the Sun - Bruce Cumings
I am a Cat - Natsume Soseki
中国行きのスロウ・ボート 村上春樹 Slow Boat to China - Haruki Murakami (Short Story Collection)
Goal is to finish all of these before leaving for Japan!

Straight Il'n

So in case you have not noticed, things are getting real on the Korean peninsula. There has been military and rhetorical escalation accompanied by suspension of official and economic relations between North and South Korea, which is disconcerting. Anyways, I have been reading around and trying to make sense of the situation. I think it would be easy for me to say who knows, and that may be a conclusion I come to anyway, but I figure I should at least write something out to brainstorm how this will play-out for Northeast Asia and the U.S.

An interesting development so far has been the call by other nations, namely South Korea, Japan and the United States, for China to respond to the actions of North Korea[1]. It is fairly common for 6-party nations to point to China as the North Korea deal breaker. Therefore, it is not surprising the call is being made, but it will be interesting to see how China responds. If China swings to North Korea and gets out of step with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, it could signal a chilling of relations between all countries involved. I will try to give a rundown of the event itself, reactions by relevant parties, and the impact of their reactions.

The sinking of the 天安/Cheonan

On March 26th the South Korean patrol boat Cheonan (the characters in the title was taken from a Japanese news source, if the Korean to Japanese is correct then the ships name would be translated into English as ‘Heavenly Peace’ or something in that regard[2]) was sunk around the North/South Korean maritime border[3]. After investigation and deliberation by South Korea (and an international team of inspectors) it was only recently determined to be an external explosion caused by a North Korean torpedo[4]. There have been 46 reported casualties in the sinking of the Cheonan. North Korea has denied any involvement but evidence is fairly convincing otherwise.

Back in late March/early April when I first heard of this, I was not particularly fazed or alarmed because incidents of this nature are not an uncommon occurrence. A history of similar clashes between North and South Korea is detailed in a Christian Science Monitor article here: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0416/Sinking-South-Korea-s-ship-wouldn-t-be-North-Korea-s-first-provocative-act . North Korea also has a history of nefarious behavior with other neighbor countries like Japan. Point being North Korea is no stranger to acting provocatively, but the reactions coming from usual suspect countries has been quite stern.     


The reaction by South Korea running up to the findings of the recent investigation has been commendably measured. South Korea was quick to, well, be prudent. After multilateral consensus about the causes of the attack South Korea has bolstered its military vigilance and spending, stopping trade and commerce between the two, and an increase of radio/loudspeaker propaganda traffic over the DMZ border. [5]

North Korea has responded to South Korean threats by ending formal relations with South Korea and exiting the non-aggression pact[6]. The fate of the Kaesong economic zone is also up in the air, changing as I write this[7].

The response by the Japanese government is sternly behind South Korea. Japan has begun discussion on ramping up sanctions[8], suspending financial activity between Japan and North Korea, increasing the vigilance of the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force)[9], and calling for action at the UN.

The United States has so far condemned North Korea and asked China to act responsibly to the situation (more specifically US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while touring Asian countries). The United States and Japan have also begun talks in regards to the future of North Korea on regional security[10].

China has called for nations involved to act calmly and act only to maintain peaceful relations on the peninsula[11].

Fallout and Impacts

I doubt conflict will be the ultimate conclusion of the recent turn of events. It is simply in no one’s interest for conflict to occur. There remains interesting implications for how neighboring countries in East Asia and the United States view each other afterwards.

If China continues to play soft with North Korea it will not add legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. It is constantly harped on in news sources and from experts that North Korean stability is important to China because of their concern of a possible flood of refugees from North Korea. This is often indicative of China’s motivation for how they handle escapees of North Korea currently. While stability is important for more than just China, the status quo of stability is not favorable to the long term security of northeast Asia. In kind, China’s refusal to provide impetus for reform in North Korea is viewed by the 6-party nations as irresponsible. If China acts in a way unfavorable to South Korea, Japan, and the United States it will only support the idea that although China’s economic and military power has increased dramatically its ability to act as a responsible political entity in the Asian community is questionable. Alternatives fall onto the Japan-US alliance in the Pacific and in general leads to a greater faith in these countries from South Korea. The call for China to be responsible comes not only from the US, but also South Korea as seen in a Chosun Ilbo editorial[12].

The impact for South Korea is so far quite negative. The uncertainty about the escalation has affected the South Korean stock market adversely and the reunification/peace process has undoubtedly been set back. Naturally if war ends up erupting it is not good for either country, North Korea more than anyone, but South Korea could also be in grave danger (think massive amounts of artillery that is pointed at Seoul). It should be mentioned that elections are looming in South Korea and it will be interesting to see how President Lee Myung-Bak will be affected.

I will group Japan and the United States together because there are some impacts that are unique to these two countries. It appears this event will bolster the U.S.-Japan security relationship because the event shows a material reason for having U.S. presence in Japan when the Futenma issue is still very much alive. Also the U.S. and Japanese response in juxtaposition to China’s extended shrugging-of-shoulders makes the U.S. and Japan more viable partners in the eyes of South Korea in the future. I would not expect this impact to be close to a major shift, China is here to stay, but it does not reflect well when you do not take a harder line against South Korea’s now “number one enemy”[13]. Both the U.S. and Japanese military are going to be on guard, but naturally this will affect the U.S. more than Japan.

It is difficult to gauge what is going on and what will happen in North Korea, especially in the upcoming days. There are some things to think about though. The past year has been an interesting one with North Korea, namely in regards to the poor monetary choices by the North Korean government which made North Koreans wealth even more worthless. Succession is also a fast-approaching possibility. If war actually broke out and China cut North Korea loose it could be the beginning of the end and East Asia would have to brace for a collapse in North Korea. 

Something Like A Conclusion

My main conclusion is this issue is probably more important for how it reflects on relations between East Asian countries rather than an actual military conflict occurring, at least hopefully so. More specifically it could easily be another case of China refusing to act in a responsible manner. While China is correct in hoping for peace to be maintained, the status quo it supports is not very conducive to stopping brinkmanship or long-term stability. In general China’s position to North Korea is based on economic engagement and procuring natural resources. In and of itself this is not a bad thing because of the leverage it provides China. Personally, this aspect of China’s North Korea policy is important to look at when we think of the effectiveness of sanctions. If China does not engage in sanctions then sanctions become counter-productive, but also it highlights why sanctions are not a particularly effective strategy. Imagine if the U.S. had a similar relationship with North Korea and actually used said leverage responsibly. That is an issue of too little too late, so we can only ask China to do what China should do if its legitimate neighbors should trust China.  

Note on sources: I tried to use a variety of sources when looking at this issue and I am sure there are many good ones I missed. I have referenced the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Reuters, Koreas’ JoonAng Daily and Chosun Ilbo, China’s Xinhua news service and Japan’s Yomiuri. 

Most misleading article title I found while doing this entry: "Okada's Japan thrown into chaos by Korea". I thought the reference was to the Foreign Minister Okada...nope it was the soccer coach of the Japanese national soccer team that was defeated by South Korea 2-0... 

[1] http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0525/North-Korea-hostility-toward-the-South-puts-China-in-a-spot
[2] http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/world/news/20100525-OYT1T01220.htm
[3] http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0416/Sinking-South-Korea-s-ship-wouldn-t-be-North-Korea-s-first-provocative-act
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROKS_Cheonan_sinking
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROKS_Cheonan_sinking
[6] http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2920976
[7] http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE64N0F520100526
[8] http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T100525003843.htm
[9] http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/editorial/news/20100524-OYT1T01204.htm?from=nwla
[10] http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE64P0AV20100526?loomia_ow=t0:s0:a49:g43:r2:c0.076271:b34337682:z0
[11] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/26/c_13315411.htm
[12] http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/05/24/2010052401503.html
[13] http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2920971

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

「空気人形」 Air Doll: Where is your plug?

Air Doll is Koreeda’s latest film, based loosely on a manga by Yoshie Goda. The film follows an inflatable sex doll’s Pinocchio-esque transformation to life, only to quickly discover the discontents of being human. The film begins by following middle aged Hideo, Itsuji Itao, home from his humdrum job as a waiter at Big Boy to his bachelor pad complete with constellation lighting and Nozomi (Bae Doona), his inflatable partner in small talk and coitus. Soon a change begins to happen within Nozomi: she receives a heart and life, trust me there is no back story to this gift and honestly any back story would be a distraction in the film. Unbeknownst to Hideo, while he is out Nozomi begins wandering about the town coming into contact with various troubled characters and finally finding a job at the local independent movie store. Cue love interest with coworker Junichi (Arata). Nozomi’s character develops along with her relationship with Junichi. At the same time, the parallel between Nozomi and real people becomes more pronounced.

Although the film presents a lot of current ‘social ills’, if you will, in Japan, the message is not unique to Japan or definitively Japanese. The heart of the dilemma that faces Nozomi and her human counterparts is how the Self relates and comes to terms with the Other. In other words, interpersonal relationships and self-image is the core focus of the film. Koreeda’s use of a doll (for the time being looking over the cultural propensity to use dolls as vehicles for stories) to explore the subject is extremely fitting. The owner projects itself on the doll and the doll simply reflects back onto the owner what the owner wants. The one-sided nature of this relationship begins to lose its relevance to dolls alone as the film progresses characterized by the line repeated throughout the film by Nozomi, “I am an air doll, a substitute for handling sexual desire”. Later in the film it becomes apparent that the first clause can simply be dropped. Nozomi’s character has the ability to make pithy insights, similar to the unabashed statements of a child, but with much darker content and themes. As Nozomi wrestles with the blurry line she walks her transformation becomes complete by the end of the film.

Bae Doona, a Korean actress, really is a great pick for this film. There are moments that feel awkward near the beginning, but I doubt the desired emotion was anything but awkwardness. Her expressions, her reactions to situations, and her troubled naivety work well for walking the line between human and doll. Naturally, the fact she is Korean surrounded by a Japanese cast does play to her ‘off’ behavior, but boiling it down to her simple Japanese and the fact everyone in Japan knows she is Korean is over simplistic. Much like in “Linda Linda Linda” Bae Doona’s limited use of Japanese makes her expressions more meaningful. The other casting is pretty standard with some popular actors and comedians tossed in for the commercial draw. Not to downplay their performances, especially Itsuji Itao’s which is a big jump from manzai , but Bae really shines in comparison.

I have read some critics’ flak for the length of the movie and the cavalcade of ancillary characters. I’d say fifty percent of it is warranted. While the different characters reflect some social misfits, eccentrics, and the generally looked-down-upons that does not mean they offer anything besides another layer of the same thing. Cutting out maid-lover boy, borderline hikkikomori girl, and the local oshaberi elderly lady would probably be sufficient. The others have a greater relevance to the main thread of the story and are also believable, not easily written off as extreme cases. No question in my mind about the last dandelion scene. It borders on typical melodrama that is just not represented anywhere else in the film and should have hit the floor.

The cinematography is quite different from the previous Koreeda film I talked about, Maborosi. Most of the film is done with tracking shots of varying lengths and at times switching directions in one take. The result is a more fluid rather than austere looking film like Maborosi. It fits the attitude of the film nicely following the swings of emotion Nozomi faces with her newfound heart. The portrayal of the city in which the story takes place is also very real, with slightly subdued color palettes. Personally, it was fairly nostalgic and true to my experiences living around Osaka (although the story does not take place in Osaka) – down to the storefronts and political posters in the background. Once again, this part of the film deviates greatly from the more manicured and symbolic shots of Maborosi, but is still fitting for Air Doll.     

After my first viewing the movie stayed with me until the next day. It is a sad movie and the sadness is palpable. Despite being a more commercial movie a lot of the scenes and messages are typical of Koreeda’s earlier films. Although some of the craftsmanship differs, I came away from the film surprised with how well Koreeda carried the theme throughout the film and how it ended.

Next up: Nobody Knows.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Maborosi and Koreeda Hirokazu 幻の光と是枝裕和

When watching films before it seemed to be without order or forethought, just what I was watching at the time, but I have decided to put a little more rhyme to my reason and discipline for an ongoing spurt of movie watching and re-watching. I have decided to do some films of Koreeda Hirokazu/是枝裕和. The first picture I will discuss will be Maborosi  (幻の光). I will try to do Air Doll  (空気人形), Nobody Knows  (誰も知らない), Still Walking  (歩いても、歩いても),  After Life (ワンダフルライフ), and an old blog entry that tied Hana (はなよりのなほ) to a book I happened to be reading at the time. Koreeda makes great films. As far as Asia is concerned, he and Kim Ki-duk are probably my favorite directors who began working in the past couple decades.    
MaborosiMaboroshi no Hikari幻の光 – Illusion’s Light

This film, made in 1995, is Koreeda’s first big release outside of Japan. Despite it being the oldest, it is the one I have only recently viewed. The film begins in Osaka, with a newlywed couple (Ikuo and Yumiko) who have a newborn son (Yuichi). The first arc of the film which builds up the relationship between Ikuo and Yumiko comes to an end upon Ikuo’s apparent suicide. After the passing of a few years, Yumiko is set up with a man, with some Osaka connections, who has also lost his spouse and is left with his young daughter. This is not the arranged marriage-as-prison film you may foresee, the man, Tamio, is far from a disagreeable person. Yumiko and Yuichi move to the Noto Peninsula (about 250 miles northeast of Osaka) where Tamio and his daughter live. The rest of the film follows Yumiko’s acclimatization to her new situation and lingering feelings about Ikuo.

The film unsurprisingly deals with subjects of loss, transition, and to some degree the classical existential dilemma of absurdity in the face of death. The last theme is admittedly arguable, but the random and unexpected manner of Ikuo’s death is a large cause of the angst and trepidation Yumiko wrestles with throughout the film. Yumiko’s inability to stop her grandmother from wandering off home to her death sets up the idea of futility in the face of death for Yumiko and the audience. The other themes of loss and transition are more obvious rather than inferred.

The other themes tend to have motifs tied to light. Light is used a lot by Koreeda in a variety of ways, often in combination with tunnels, doors, windows, and tatami shots. Moreover there are a few types of light: bright showers of light, dull yellow and at times blue light, and chiaroscuro-esque lighting. The bright showers of light are rare and usually isolate and focus on an object otherwise kept in darkness or dim light. Dull yellow and blue light, especially pale blue light reflecting off the ocean at the Noto Peninsula, tends to highlight burdensome moments, or moments of reflection on loss. These two different types of light evoke different feelings but towards a similar purpose. Lastly chiaroscuro, which is emphasized by the almost persistent use of dark clothes, as if to be in mourning, gives characters a ghostly, featureless presence on camera.

The effect of the lighting and objects that denote transition gives Yumiko especially a transient, depressed air. In contrast, Yumiko’s son and new daughter seem to acclimate easily to the change in their lives. The scene which is an obvious turning point is when the children are playing in the surrounding area a common motif shows up – the dark tunnel, illuminated at the end. The major difference is the light at the end of the tunnel is verdant and spring-like. Yumiko is unable to make a similar transition, and her new husband does not show any similar trepidation ostensibly until later. This is how the tension in the film is carried out. Yumiko sits or tucks away her loss, she hides it like the bell she hides from Tamio later, and the film follows her through it. The other quotidian adults and quick to adapt children serve as useful counterpoints.

Besides lighting, the tatami-level shots in the film add to Yumiko’s meditative, ghostly qualities. Personally, in Ozu’s films tatami-level shots have always represented what goes unsaid in conversation. Often the viewer is inspired with a sense of loss as they have to piece in the unsaid. Although not an Ozu film, it has a similar effect for me. Especially when the tatami shots are coupled with yellow light and black clothing the feeling is amplified. The best example being Yumiko sitting at the main table alone, wearing the usual black garb, with an intense yellow light, and holding the bell she had given Ikuo before his death. The scene evokes a stoic, austere figure – soon to finally break down.

The end of the film has Yumiko following a funeral procession until finally, around dusk, she is standing alone on a rocky shore jutting into the ocean, soon after Tamio arrives. If there is any resolution to the film’s dilemma it is simply everyone has inexplicable moments. Despite Ikuo and Yumiko having a relationship where little seems to be going wrong, with both characters leading happy if modest lives, something happened. What happened is inconclusive, which seems once again characteristic of the inferred theme I discuss earlier.     

The film is a visual film. There is a lot of thought put into the shots and the mood they create, and it shows. That being said, it is purposefully slow in some regards, but it works. If you dislike films like that, work on it is all I can say. The music, composed by Chen Ming Chang, is also well suited to the film.

Next entry will be on Air Doll.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Quick Movies of the Week

A quick look at some movies I watched this week:

Dodes'ka-den - Kurosawa's first color film. I could not finish it and I think it is the first time I have not been able to finish a Kurosawa movie. The use of color is kind of nice to look at, but not enough to overlook all the other problems. The story is a vignette of different characters living in a slum with a variety of problems. The character and story development is not very good and it just feels like a jumble. 2/5

Stray Dog - Hey it was pretty good. 3.5/5

Honey and Clover(film) - A nice break. 3/5

A Story of Floating Weeds - Really enjoyable. I have not watched many silent films, let alone silent Ozu films. The story is about an traveling theater troupe stopping a town where the troupe leader has a mistress and a 20-21 year old son (who is unaware that said troupe leader is his father). Anyways, young love, jealousy of current mistress etc. follows. I think Ozu's style of filming (often called tatami-level) fits silent films very well. 4.5/5

Fear and Trembling - This is actually a reviewing. This is a French film about a Belgian woman born in Japan but spends a good part of her adolescent life in Belgium where her parents are from. She returns to Japan to work as a translator, but instead her job often appears to be discovering how to navigate the Japanese business culture the hard way. There are some problematic and overly-dramatic moments but overall its a good watch. 4/5

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I'll see your Brecht, and raise you a Jidaigeki!

I just finished reading Discourses of Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, and Japan while on the train coming back from J-A Society Chicago. In general I liked the book, but I would say it would have been nice if the passages of clear analysis were not interrupted by jargon of dubious necessity. Perhaps the jargon is justified given the books audience and genre, but I can't criticize the author Marylin Ivy perhaps as much as I would like for using it. I will maintain that if she is able to describe more than half the book in a straightforward way it may be a fruitful exercise to try the whole book without pulling out a bag of Freud, Jung, Derrida, Foucault, Brecht, and others.

Anyways. The last section of the book (sans epilogue) is on taishu engeki (I assume the kanji for it is 大衆演劇), or 'popular theater'/'mass theater'. Don't be confused though, taishu engeki is not particularly popular or mass, it is basically cheap, participatory dance/theater reminiscent (and for some troupes still) of itinerant performance troupes. There may be a different term for it as of late but I am no expert, thus I read the book.

The movie that popped into my head while reading this chapter was a flick I had seen about a week prior called 'Hana' (Hana yori mo naho 花よりもなほ). This film is by Hirokazu Koreeda, other movies I have seen directed by Koreeda are 「誰も知らない」や「あるいても、あるいても」や「ワンダフルライフ」 Nobody Knows, Still Walking, and After Life, which are all worth watching and I think better than Hana. Nonetheless, Hana was a good watch although it walks a thin line bordering on thematically banal. The film is ostensibly of the reluctant samurai genre like Twilight Samurai or The Hidden Blade and has the obvious giri(duty)/ninjo(human emotion) dilemma. The Samurai protagonist is living in a row house in Edo in order to track down and avenge his father's murderer.

Ahoy! Spoilers ahead!

The twist is that unlike other films, Jidaigeki, etc. ninjo actually comes out on top (although this may be up to interpretation). Not to say in other works ninjo is unimportant, it is vital. Catharsis occurs because of the value of ninjo, especially in the face of a conflict with giri, but giri plays a role similar to fate in Greek plays. You can't run away from giri. In Hana, the protagonist confronts the man he has sworn to kill and instead of drawing swords he asks his father's murderer to send his son to his school. But, the clan must be appeased. The protagonist puts on a play.

The play uses the members of the row house as actors and together they dupe a clan member by enacting a dramatic scene with the freshly dispatched corpse. The play within a play was filled with the normal roles expected of a play and brings the samurai to tears. I probably do not have very good reasons for thinking of this when reading about taishu engaki other than the atmosphere of the play and the idea of a play not ending where the stage stops.

The nice thing about this film is the way it makes fun of Jidaigeki while still being one. This is embodied not only in the play, but the side-plot of the Chushingura, a group of which are living in the row houses. Without going into too much detail, the 10 or so of the 47 samurai are not portrayed as particularly capable.

Random link for the day:
Robots get it, when will we?

China be Trollin'

Pardon my turn of internet forum phrase, but I find it so useful to describe a great deal of real people's decision making processes. If you are not privy to its nuance go ahead and reference the almighty Wikipedia:

I am referencing to a couple things regarding China that have been in the news. The U.S. quadrennial security review, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, and the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee running up against the Nanjing question (namely the death toll, possibly the most absurd thing to be stuck on and thus the most politically useful). Although no one reads this, and I keep it mainly to maintain some writing on occasion, I do not want anyone reading this to think I like going around giving China credit when it isn't warranted, holding double-standards, or just straight-up bashing. I judge some of these decisions the same way I would criticize the U.S. for doing things simply because it has the clout to get away with it.

The title probably refers to the Nanjing issue more so than US-Taiwan-China issues. This casualty issue has been beaten so far into the ground that everyone should just walk away from it and keep it buried. Not to say we should forget that a lot of people died in a terrible way, but because it is a bastardization to reduce the issue to a statistic for political manipulation. I do not think I could ever look into this issue with any real seriousness because the truth is not what people are concerned with. Both the Japanese and Chinese side can take some of the blame in this regard, but when taking into consideration the greater incentive of Chinese scholars (and others) to keep a higher number I have to err to the side of common sense.

The most glaringly questionable statement by Japanese scholars in the English version of the Yomiuri was placing some blame on the Chinese military for higher casualty numbers. Not because the Chinese military itself was somehow engaged in activities exacerbating the killing, but because a "failure by the Chinese military to perform its duty of providing enough protection for civilians". Wait, what? Am I just misreading this statement or is the argument "Maybe we wouldn't have raped so many people if you would have protected citizens better!". Yeah, or maybe the military shouldn't have been raping women and killing civilians in the first place. Just a thought.

I would like to rely on the idealistic dictum of 'don't feed the troll' but that is probably impossible and not really effective. Instead of doing a joint research project on a historical issue where exact fact is perhaps unattainable it would probably be more efficacious to dawn a collective thinking cap in hopes of finding ways to mitigate historically difficult issues in hopes of a more fruitful future.


The quadrennial defense review, while I have not looked into it deeply, does not appear to be saying much new if you take a look into the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). China is probably more upset because they like to think of the USCC as simply an annoying review commission, not really the mainstream thought or accepted stance of the administration (which they are not technically). But, coming from the DOD, China is probably taking this more seriously.

I am not an expert on Chinese military development and transparency, but I do know a few things. Namely development of next generation jet fighters and massive maritime build up. The only 'domestic' purpose of this buildup would be Taiwan. Which is just mixed messaging considering the much more effective ways to improve ties with Taiwan that exist and work. Saying the build-up is for non-domestic purposes is simply not acceptable to the Pacific community. It is only natural the U.S. DOD would say things like this considering they are more conservative in its view of China. It seems to be the job of the CCP and quite frankly a lot of government bodies to take an obvious response and put on an overzealous display of shock and appall. Compound the fact that there is a lot of evidence of cyber and traditional espionage coming from China directed at U.S. defense systems the U.S. DOD is not going to give you high marks.

This brings me to Taiwan arms sales. Basically a case of China wanting to have its cake and eat it too (which would be great, but is not great policy). China knows the U.S. stance on Taiwan and a military buildup that is basically aimed at Taiwan is going to have a response in kind. I or someone else can criticize the U.S. for a variety of military buildups, but the PRC doing it is nominal at best. When international positioning and behavior mirrors 15 year old teenagers racking up their post-count it makes me want to face-palm.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Screw Gunships, Bring out the Opium

I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I have to preface by noting I really enjoyed watching this movie. The use of 3-D by James Cameron could really be game changing - it is not a gimmick, but an effective tool. Moreover, the themes are not ridiculous ones, but the approach used in addressing the themes is as in-your-face as the rest of the 3-D action. Not to mention problematically handled, but no one is perfect.

The themes of the movie are interweaving, but still border on escaping Cameron's control. Cameron tries to tackle problems of culture-clash (compound "going native"), racism, technology vs. environment, and other modern perils. Unfortunately, most of these are handled with the kind of alacrity not befitting its running time. Moreover, the themes have been played out in various movies and Avatar does not add much to the conversation. Instead it further abstracts the roots of the metaphor. If you want similar discourse go see Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Fear and Trembling, or Terrence Malick's The New World.

The technology versus environment binary is beyond overplayed. Possibly some people really do need the message that raping the environment is probably not the best way to go about living life. Nonetheless, Avatar appears to make the argument that technology is at odds with the lifestyle of the Navi (our pre-industrial counterparts). Of course there are cases of technology being appropriated by either side, science/technology being used for more innocuous purposes such as research, and the protagonist along with his human comrades take advantage of technology to take their place among the Navi. Still the main line of reasoning is upheld throughout the film and affirmed by the protagonist Jake Sully in one of his video logs commenting on how there is nothing we [humans] can give to Navi as a 'carrot' to lead them away from their home. Immediately I recalled a similar statement by a Qing emperor in rebuke to the British (I think this could have been the Qianlong Emperor, but possibly earlier). The lack of said good (outside silver) was replaced later with opium, thus the title. There are no medicines, no trinkets of ours that have value to them. In the end, even nature has an answer for the technological intermediary for Jake's Avatar.

The contradictions are simply at the expense of plot and action - not signaling a deeper meaning. It is of interest though how Sigourney Weaver's character makes parallels between the functions of Pandora and a network of technology. The metaphor may be a simple contrivance by Cameron, but what it really does is start to break down the dichotomy. I will use technology versus nature for convenience sake, but think of the terms loosely. Technology is mimetic of nature, not the other way around. In the same way that nature can appear destructive, so can technology, but in the end nature is indifferent. The common denominator is humankind. Humans can either use technology in a way that coexists with nature and allows a truly higher standard of living or it can be used to undermine our own habitat.

The issue of standard of living brings into question the Navi's role as pre-modern human analogy. To go back to pre-modern mankind's daily life would probably not be as pleasant as linking in to Pterodactyls and copulating under trees that linked us into a Gaia-like entity. I am not sure it would be Hobbesian either though. Humans developed in order to reach a more fulfilling life, technology, economic development among other things is supposed to be getting us there. It can be successful but I think anyone who believes that modernity is without many discontents and possibly 'forgotten' things is sorely misguided. One message that can be taken from the Navi despite their break with the reality we know is that they are advanced. They are responsive, cognizant, and well-adapted to their environment. They are advanced for their way of life and it calls into question how advanced we really think we are despite the span of human history, a blip on the radar. How evolved is it to bite the hand that feeds? On the other hand, what also can be drawn from the Navi is that reminiscence for the pre-modern (or Marxist agrarian) is to dream of a false, reconstructed ideal.

Cameron is already dealing with some big topics, but then adds on a poorly crafted and contradictory critique of militarism, Lt. Dunbar syndrome, and racism. It is tiresome to go into all of them. Instead, I would like to point out some scenes that were powerful nonetheless, and made me wish the movie was consistent with the message throughout. The dialogue where Jake notes his diminishing ability to determine reality from a dream due to his immersion in Navi culture is pretty consistent with reality - even if taken to an extreme. My personal experience of being immersed in different cultures has been similar. It would not be right to go as far as the difference between dreaming and waking, but rather an intuition into how identity is shaped unconsciously. While one does not fully change, it is a reconciliation of the self that is molded. Another particularly powerful scene to me was the interaction Neytiri and human-Jake Sully. While brief, the scene definitely showed the power to overcome the barriers to the Other. Pardon my ability to make something emotionally powerful, pedantically boring.

I will say Avatar is not a movie to find real answers, even though it ends decisively, but it did provoke me to question, even if the questions were ones I have faced before. It is also a fun, engaging film. It is still unfortunate that James Cameron takes a Navajo myth and makes a crafted, enjoyable film with liberal time, space, and money, but thematically offers little new and much repackaged. A great director challenges the audience in a new, enlightening way and I don't think Avatar stacks up. I still recommend going to see it.