Friday, November 30, 2007


(movie review)

This movie came out the first year I was in Japan and I remember seeing previews for it everywhere at the time.

I remember reading a review in one of the English language newspapers that went something along the lines of:
"This is the Japanese film industry's attempt to compete with Hollywood. Unfortunately they've chosen to try and compete with Hollywood by ripping off Hollywood. This film is a blatant rip-off of the Matrix and Terminator movies."

Which is all true (in fact on the DVD commentary the directors even admit their influence from Hollywood movies such as "The Matrix" and "Mission Impossible"). And yet after having endured sappy love stories, pretentious anime, and exploitative films in my quest to break into Japanese cinema, I quite enjoyed sitting down and watching a mindless action flick. Hollywood rip-off or not.

The action sequences are decently well done for a Japanese film. (I know that sounds derogative, but lets face it, foreign films just don't have the money to compete with the special effects or even extensive choreography of Hollywood. Despite all this the film still manages to get in some cool action scenes.)

My main complaint is that they end up being somewhat repetitive. The good-guys have a device from the future that allows them to speed up (like the Flash in the comic books) and they end up using it to get out of just about every tight spot.

There are numerous plot holes in this film, even by the standards of mindless action flicks. And, as this is a story involving time travel, there are also lots of arbitrary time travel rules that are standard with these kind of stories. You just have to forgive a lot of this.

The acting in this film however is really good. The hero does a good job of looking cool (which is all you really want from an action movie hero). The actor playing the villain really gets into his role. One of those characters who does such a good job of acting evil. There's a bit of over-acting, but I always figure the villain is allowed to over-act in movies like this. And especially considering she was only 14, the actress who plays the girl from the future does a fantastic job.

The movie loses a couple points from me for throwing in some sap at the end (complete with the usual violin music accompaniment) . But overall I enjoyed this flick.

Link of the day
Rise in Hate Crimes against Latinos Coincides with Rise in Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ajimu /安心院

(Better Know a City)

Since I started this "Better Know a City" project it has been the source of some conflict between me and Shoko, who views it as a complete waste of time. Especially since I've decided to start close to home and work my way out, thus far I've only been visiting cities I'm already very familiar with (Himeshima Island being the only exception).

...Which brings me to Ajimu. After having lived in the city for 3 years as a JET from 2001-2004, there's no city in Japan I know better. And being an avid hiker, and having lots of time on my hands, I like to think I explored just about every nook and cranny this town has to offer during my time there.

Although I'm famous for my self-referential links on this blog, it would be impossible to link to every post mentioning Ajimu. During the first year I started this blog I was still living in the town, and almost every post was tangentially related to it. Also since I started up the Retrospection project all of my early e-mails from Japan are also about Ajimu.

However If I had to pick some Ajimu highlights from my blogging years, these would be it:

*Description of the night life (such as it is) in Ajimu,
*This monster e-mail I wrote describing everything to my successor Josh. (Josh in turn, rather than writing a new e-mail, forwarded it to his successor Chris when he was finishing. For all I know it's still being passed on from one Ajimu JET to another).
* A recounting of the Ajimu Tour Chris and I went on.

*Pictures of when Brett came to visit Ajimu,
*pictures from a summer outing with Leann and Amy,
...But actually, since I was a bit late to join up with the technology of using photos on this blog, much of the time I simply linked to other people's photos of Ajimu. Like this post which linked to all of Chris's photos.

However, despite having cited Ajimu ad nauseum in this blog, I decided it still needed to be visited officially to be included in my "Better know a city" collection. So, armed with Shoko's digital camera and my own video camera, I set out.

My comrade in arms with me this trip was Chris (otherwise known as Geos Chris) who worked at the local Geos school in Nakatsu. He's not to be confused with Ajimu Chris mentioned above, who was my successor's successor in Ajimu. (Do you ever think to yourself sometimes there are too many people in this world named Chris?) Geos Chris was leaving Japan in a few days, and wanted to go on one last adventure before he said good-bye to the area. I invited him for a day of hiking and sightseeing in Ajimu.

Our first stop was the cliffs of "Sen no Iwa". One of the locals once told me these cliff formations are from pre-historic times when all of the Ajimu basin used to be underwater. There's a hiking path going up between the cliffs and on the top there's a scenic look out platform where one can get a good view of Ajimu.

Next stop: the 5 Story Pagoda. The people of Ajimu are very proud of this Pagoda, although it always used to confuse me because the thing was only built in the 1980s. I mean, here you have a town that's literally thousands of years old, and their big tourist attraction is a Pagoda that's younger than I am.

However after going sight seeing in Kyoto, I can understand it a little better. These big kind of Pagoda's are famous in the Kyoto/Kansai area, but very rare down here in Kyushu.

According to local legend, this Pagoda was built by a local man who left Ajimu and went into the big city to find richness and success. As he got older he began to fear for his soul, and so he payed for this big pagoda and garden to be built back in his home town. (At least that's the story I was given.)

Next stop: Fukino Waterfall. One the way we stopped to look at some of the rice fields. This view of the rice fields cut into the mountains was always one of my favorite overlooks in Ajimu, but unfortunately the Japanese construction company can't seem to leave well enough alone. There's now power cables cutting across the view, which I believe is a new development since I was last there.

Compare with Amy's Photo here. (Sorry, I mean Leeann's Photo).

Next the actual Fukino Waterfall...

After which we got back into the car and drove around to the opposite mountain to view the same waterfall from a different vantage point.

Following that, we drove over to Tsubusa neighborhood in Ajimu. I tried to take one of my infamous short cuts through the mountains. A couple of wrong turns and a bit of back tracking later, we arrived in Tsubusa.

After a long morning of sight seeing and hiking, we were ready for some lunch. We stopped by the "Michi no Eki" (road station) in Tsubusa, which is in a scenic spot overlooking the Tsubusa river, and ordered some Curry rice for lunch.

When we went to the cash register to pay, one of the woman recognized me. "Don't you work at the junior high school?" she asked.
I should have said, "Yes, I used to. But that was over 3 years ago. Since then I went up to Gifu Prefecture for two years. Then I went back to America for 8 months. Then I came back to Japan because of my fiance and started working for Nova. But then they went bankrupted and right now I really don't know what I'm doing."
But somehow it just seemed a bit easier to answer, "Yes, yes I do." As lies go, it was probably harmless enough.
"My daughter attend the junior high school," she said. "Please continue to teach her well."
I nodded, and we left quickly before there were a lot of follow-up questions.

Next stop: Heaven and Hell

This is a circular tunnel carved into a mountain with various representations of the Buddhist hell in it. After completing the circuit, there is a vertical shaft you can climb up to get to the top, where many statues of heaven await. I always thought this place was really cool.

All the times past I've been to this place, it has been light by a series of light bulbs strung together through the cave. For whatever reason, today the light bulbs were out. We took out our cellphones and were able to navigate through using the pen light function, but as you can see it doesn't make great video.

Next stop: Higashishiya Waterfall.

-Another one of my favorite Waterfalls in Ajimu. (There are actually five waterfalls located in Ajimu, but the other 3 are not easily accessible. I once spent an afternoon on a mission determined to find and explore the other waterfalls, but it was a bit more of a bushwacking adventure since the trails leading to them had been neglected and overgrown. And then once you got to them, they weren't nearly as impressive as the two main waterfalls anyway).

Because this was always one of my favorite areas, I kept the video running during the whole walk up to the waterfall, not just the waterfall itself. It might have been slightly overkill, but oh well.

After the waterfall, we headed over to Sada stone circle. A Stonehenge like circle of standing stones. I've never been sure of its significance, but it seems to pop up on a lot of Ajimu pamphlets and posters. The real attraction of Sada stone circle though is not the stones, but the hike behind it.

It is quite a grueling hike. At the top there is a nice view, but the view is not near worth the effort involved. The only reason to hike this mountain is if you like hiking. Fortunately we did.

Unlike a lot of other trails which meander slowly back and forth up the mountain, this trail takes a fairly straight up approach. It gets pretty steep in a lot of places, and so there are a lot of ropes you can grab onto to help with the ascent. (I got a little bit of this on video, but for better or for worse the only time I turned on the video camera was at the early stages of the hike when it hadn't gotten really steep yet and the rope wasn't really necessary. That did change as we made our way up.)

After this, we went to the Ajimu Winery.
Sort of. This is Shoko's place of work, so it's a bit sensitive. She told me once it was okay to go there, but I shouldn't walk in looking grubby. After hiking around all morning, we looked grubby. So instead of going inside for the wine tasting (which I had very little interest in anyway) we just went to the top of the hill for another scenic look out.

The day was winding down now, but we still had a bit of time left to see some of the old stone Buddhas and grave sites. I'm told these are 1000 or 2000 years old (it depends on who I'm talking to). Regardless, these are pretty old, and I've always been surprised by how little the town seems to value this heritage. It's almost paved over by the road right above it.

The last time I was here it was slightly more accessible. This time they blocked off much of the path due to falling rocks (and the crumbling rocks are no doubt due partly to the road directly above).

And after the stone Buddhas, we decided to call it a day. We could have kept going. There were a few more temples I knew of and a few more scenic overlooks, but by and large we had hit all the main spots. Plus it was going on 5 o'clock, and we were both feeling like we had put in a good day.

I hope you enjoy all of these videos. Although I was recently viewing them, and it occurs to me I'm going to have to find a new way to start these out than saying, "OKAY, so..."
(HA! I said it first. You can't mock me for it now!)

Bonus: Additional pictures of Ajimu here:

Bonus Video:

Another Bonus Video: My Apartment in Ajimu (from when Brett visited Japan)

Another bonus video (also from when Brett visited Japan).  The first half of this video--the driving section--was driving through Ajimu, specifically the Sada neighborhood.

Link of the Day
Violence Against Women in the D. R. Congo: The Most Horrible Thing You Will Read Today — And, Unfortunately, Perhaps The Last You’ll Hear Of It For Weeks

Monday, November 26, 2007

となりのトトロ/ My Neighbor Totoro

(Movie Reviews)

I'm not exactly sure if this was a movie I should have seen a long time ago, or if it was a waste of time.

This is an older movie (about 20 years old) but in terms of cultural significance it seems to be one of the most famous animation movies in Japan, right alongside with Astro-Boy. Little minitures or stuffed animals of Totoro pop up everywhere you go.

I've also had several people recommend this film to me (which is why I say maybe I should have seen it along time ago). But despite the fact that my friends who recommended it were all fellow adults, this is a children's movie. And this is not one of those children's movies like Shrek or the Pixar cannon that also contains some humor aimed at adults. This is a children's movie purely for children. Nothing wrong with that of course, but let the viewer be warned ahead of time.

Roger Ebert wrote a pretty good review of this film in which he states:

"Here is a children's film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap...''My Neighbor Totoro'' is based on experience, situation and exploration--not on conflict and threat. This becomes clear in the lovely extended sequences involving totoros--which are not mythological Japanese forest creatures, but were actually invented by Miyazaki just for this movie...There is none of the kids-against-adults plotting of American films. The family is seen as a safe, comforting haven. The father is reasonable, insightful and tactful, accepts stories of strange creatures, trusts his girls, listens to explanations with an open mind. It lacks those dreary scenes where a parent misinterprets a well-meaning action and punishes it unfairly."

This is indeed the charm of the movie. It is also, depending on your expectations, the main weak point as well. Not a lot really happens in this movie.

Although this is my first time to view the film start to finish, I have been in the room when part of this movie was being played for a 1st grade Japanese Elementary school class. And I can tell you they absolutely loved it. The amount of laughter from the classroom was almost deafening.

So if you have kids, know kids, are or a kid, you might want to check this movie out. If you're an adult, you can probably safely give it a pass.

Link of the Day
Uncle Sam's Favorite Targets

Sunday, November 25, 2007

天国は待ってくれる/ Heaven Can Wait. Maybe...

(movie reviews)

I just got done complaining about how sappy the Japanese movie "Always" was. Now here's another Japanese movie that's even worse. But I can't complain about it this time, because I knew what I was getting into when I looked at the DVD case.

I rented this movie because I'm trying to watch more Japanese cinema, and because it was one of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. (Strange that. Even films that get an international release often don't have subtitles on their region 2 DVD versions. I know we foreigners inside of Japan are only a small percentage of the market, but why not aim for as wide an audience as possible).

Anyway, I knew right from the box it would be on the sappy side, and I was right.

This movie contains themes that are in a lot of Japanese dramas: childhood friendships and young loves that are brought together again by a death, with lots of hospital scenes interspersed with nostalgic reminiscing. In my limited experience with Japanese dramas, I've seen several variations on this theme so far.

In this case the story involves 3 childhood friends: Takeshi, Hiroki, and Kaoru. Kaoru has always been in love with Hiroki, but Hiroki bows out when Takeshi proposes to Kaoru. Then Takeshi is in a car accident and goes into a coma for 3 years. Eventually Hiroki proposes to Kaoru but just as they're announcing their engagement, guess who finally wakes up from his coma. But before you can say "cue the soft orchestral background music", it turns out Takeshi only has a month to live.

Under different circumstances, this film might have made my dreaded "worst movies I have ever seen" list. However I'm giving it a bit of leeway because:

1). It is a foreign film designed for an a domestic audience with different tastes than me and...

2) I knew I wasn't in the target audience for this film and I rented it anyway. This is a movie made to be watched at a high school girls slumber party with plenty of tissues and chocolate ice cream handy.

At any rate, I can definitely say it was a chore to sit through. At least I got some Japanese practice out of the whole thing.

Link of the Day
New Photos Raise Questions about Evidence in Mumia Abu-Jamal Case

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tora! Tora! Tora!

(Movie Review)

This is continuing my World War II movie theme after the "Patton" review. (In fact this movie came out the same year as "Patton").

This is one of those movies that's probably more talked about than watched. It's more well known for its ambition than its merit, but it is worth watching. It certainly kicks the pants off that Ben Affleck piece of crap that came out 5 years ago.

Most people are probably familiar with the premise behind this film, but I'll recap it anyway: this is a film about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the events leading up to it. It tells the story from both the Japanese side and the American side. This movie was a cooperative effort between Japan and America, with two separate production teams, one in Japan, and one in America.

This was supposed to be the American debut for Japanese film legend Akira Kurosawa. But he was eventually let go from the production. (The DVD commentary goes into this in more detail, but basically it boils down to he was too much of an obsessive perfectionist). And Kinji Fukasaku (of "Battle Royale" fame) took over.

Despite the fact that wikipedia was able to nitpick a few inaccuracies, this film is meticulously historically accurate. About every scene, and even much of the dialogue, comes straight out of reality. It's almost more of a docu-drama than a film, but for the history geeks like me, it's a real pleasure to watch.

There's lots of things going on, but basically the story is about the preparations to attack the Harbor from the Japanese side, and all the reasons we were caught off guard from the American side.

Of course since the viewer already knows the outcome, a lot of the suspense of this film is lost. (Which may help to explain why this film was a flop commercially).

Of course in hindsight it may seem like the attack was inevitable. Especially when you go through all the instances (as this film does) where the Americans should have realized something was coming, but didn't open their eyes.

I actually did an oral report for one of my Calvin classes on conspiracy theories surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack--the theory that the Roosevelt administration knew about the attack beforehand, but allowed them to take place in order to mobilize popular support for entering the war.

(I didn't actually believe in any of these theories, mind you. The report was just exploring the fact that the conspiracy theories existed. However since coming to Japan I've learned that over here those conspiracy theories pass as the commonly accepted version of history. It's a source of frequent debate between me and Shoko).

After I gave the report about all the warnings the US had blatantly ignored, the professor commented that sometimes something can be so outside of our field of imagination that all the warnings in the world won't convince us. The US government was convinced that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would have been impossible to carry out.

And both of these sides, the early warning signs, and the US governments certainty that an attack would not take place, are shown in this film.

(I'm sure some parallels could be made to the Bush administrations bungling of the events leading up to September 11th. And for that matter the conspiracy theories surrounding those events. Which, by the way, also seem to have penetrated mainstream Japanese media and is another source of my debates with Shoko. Personally I side with Noam Chomsky's opinion.)

The battle sequences in this film are absolutely amazing. Despite being over 30 years old and in the days before CGI, I think they can hold their own against any of today's Hollywood battle scenes.

Because of the complicated history behind this film (coordinating both American and Japanese film crews) the directors commentary on the DVD is almost more interesting than the film itself. There are lots of interesting stories: for instance the early film sent over from Japan featured so much over acting they had to send it back and ask the Japanese crew to re-do it. (Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm always criticizing Japanese cinema for over-acting. I'm glad to know it's not just me).

Link of the Day

Friday, November 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(movie review)

After Spiderman 3 and Shrek 3, I'm now continuing my way through the summer blockbusters as they come out on video on account of having been stuck out in the Japanese countryside when they were in the theater. (This film however is one I wish I would have seen on the big screen. There's just too much going on in several of these scenes that's hard to catch on my little television screen.)

Although this is probably only of interest to me, this is the first Harry Potter movie I've seen after having finally caught up with the books. (See my review of the book "Order of the Phoenix" here). All the previous four movies I saw before I got around to reading the books.

So now I can finally assume the position of moral superiority and complain about how the movie isn't near as good as the book.

Actually generally speaking, I think these movies do a great job adapting the huge books into something watchable. It's not a job I would want to have. Especially with "Order of the Phoenix" which was one of the thicker tomes of the Harry Potter series. Not only do you have to cut everything down to the bare bones, but you have to take care not to offend all the rabid fans out there, and you have an increasing amount of characters that you have to juggle and make sure all of them get a little bit of screen time. And finally you have to make the movie something that will stand up on its own.

The trick with any movie adaptation is that you have to make a movie based on a book that feels like an independent work and doesn't feel like its a movie based on a book. And as much as I recognize the tremendous task faced by the film makers, I don't think any of the Harry Potter films have ever quite pulled this off. All of the Harry Potter films feel like you're just skimming the surface of a much larger story (which in fact you are).

In fact often I wonder if these films were not such great cultural phenomenons, with the legions of built in fans from the book (and the rest of us who are just curious to see what all the fuss is about) if this whole series wouldn't have been a commercial flop.

However viewed as tributes to the books, I think these movies work out quite nicely.

My big criticism however, (and again this extends to the entire series) is that the one place where these movies should shine the most is where they drop the ball. By which I mean the action sequences.

The movie of course can't be expected to compete with the book in terms of exposition or character development. But people go to these big budget Hollywood movies expecting a little razzle dazzle in the action sequences. Instead they're often confusing, poorly choreographed, and just not all that exciting when it comes down to it.

For example, although it was a short scene, I think it was a particularly bad choice to include Voldermort's possession of Harry Potter, and Harry's inner struggle to defeat him. That's the kind of thing that works in a book, but not on a big screen. (Although come to think of it, I don't even remember that part in the book. Did they just add that for the movie, or does anyone else remember it?) On the big screen we want to see the outer battle between wizards and witches. The scene in the book battling the giant brains, for example, would have made an excellent movie sequence if they had decided to film it.

Still, all in all these movies have done a tremendous job of staying faithful to the main parts of the books, bringing in a larger audience, and, perhaps most impressive of all, keeping together a huge cast for 5 movies running.

Link of the Day
Another must read article from the Washington Post: What Does Iraq Cost? Even More Than You Think.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


(movie Review)

Another one of those old classics that I really should have seen long ago, but for various reasons am just getting around to now.

I had a college roommate who was a big fan of this movie, in part because he was a big World War II buff and amateur military historian, and in part (I suspect) because he shared the same surname with the General himself.

He used to replay this movie constantly in our apartment, and I because of him I would often see parts of this movie, but never sat through the whole thing. Mostly it was because of my "no movies during the school year" policy but also because I thought there were way too many World War II movies out there already, and not enough movies about the kinds of social history and popular movements I was more interested in.

I still think this actually, but when I saw this movie staring at me in the video store last night, I thought I was in the mood for a good bi-opic, and I was probably overdue to watch this movie anyway.

This is one of those classic movies that is worth watching at least once in your life if for no other reason than to be able to catch all the references to it that pop up all over the place. There were several times in this movie when I experienced the old, "Ah, so this is where that comes from," moment.

As for the merits of the movie by itself...
Despite this movies epic length, and despite the fact that this movie focuses only on two years of General Patton's life, one gets the sense watching it that the subject material is just to huge for 3 hours. There's so much stuff that you feel is just hanging off the edges because it doesn't have time to get covered in the movie.

For example, every school child knows the final fate of Rommel, implicated in the plot to kill Hitler and forced to commit suicide. But although Rommel figures prominently in the beginning of the movie as Patton's adversary, his final fate is never shown and he fades out of the movie without explanation.

Similarly General Eisenhower, someone else whose future fate we all know, is referenced repeatedly in this movie, but never makes an appearance. (If I can say this without sounding too much like a literary snob, Eisenhower in this movie reminded me of Fortinbras in Hamlet, as an off stage figure who is always haunting the action that goes on onstage. I half wonder if the structural similarity is intentional).

These and other details could have perhaps been crammed into the movie if the director had cut out some of the scenes of Patton standing around looking tough or soldiers marching with dramatic music in the background. But obviously the film makers were more concerned with producing an image of Patton than cramming in all the historical details.

The battle scenes in this movie are slightly repetitive, especially since after movies like "Saving Private Ryan" all previous World War II battle scenes are going to look tame by comparison and have lost their ability to shock us.

But the really interesting parts of this movie are the politics behind the war. Patton's rivalry with British general Montgomery, Eisenhower's struggle to hold the coalition together, and the famous slapping incident that almost ruined Patton's career.

Of course the slapping incident I knew about already from The Simpsons parody.To my surprise however Grandpa's quote: "You can push them out of a plane, you can march them off a cliff, you can send them off to die on some God-forsaken rock. But for some reason, you can't slap 'em", never appears in the movie. Does anyone know where this is from, or was this a Simpsons original?

Link of the DayFrom the Washington Post: Losing Afghanistan, One Civilian at a Time

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

(Movie Review)

I was avoiding this movie for a while because I thought it would be really depressing. Recently a friend recommended it to me so I thought I'd check it out.

My initial reaction watching this movie was, "Wow, this guy has quite a story to tell."

Then of course I jumped on the ol' Internet and found out that the story about Scottish Doctor Nicholas Garrigan and his unique relationship with Uganda strongman dictator Idi Amin was entirely fictional.

As a self-avowed history geek, I'm one of those people who thinks that when it comes to historical pieces, the actual is always more interesting than the fictional. Who cares about the problems of fictional doctor Garrigan? Not me. But the actual historical details of Amin's reign in Uganda are something I'd like to know about.

At the same time though, I do understand the narrative difficulties in putting together a story like this. You need to have a sympathetic narrator you can identify with and through whose eyes you can see the train wreck of Ugandan history unfold. Otherwise the movie would never draw you in.

I'd be interested to hear from someone who read the original novel, but I suspect this balancing act is something that's a lot easier to pull off in a book. In a novel you have the space to explore both the fictional story and the historical story, and give ample background and detail to both. In a 2 hour movie you have to pick and choose a bit, and I felt like this movie gave very little background about the politics surrounding Amin's reign of power.

The story focuses almost exclusively on Nicholas Garrigan and his fictional relationship with Amin. To the American viewer uninformed about Uganda's history (which, lets face it, is pretty much all of us) we don't know anything about who he is fighting, why he is fighting them, and what the British stake in all of this is? What is his connection to the Palestinian terrorists? Why is he anti-Israeli?

That being said, the film did inspire me to go to the internet to look up a lot of this stuff. (Amazing thing the Internet. Did you ever wonder what people did before it? How did they ever tell which parts of a movie were fictional and which parts were real?)

And assuming a number of people are like me, this movie will send many people surfing around to find out the facts themselves. This is perhaps of particular interest to people like me born after the events depicted in teh film, who would otherwise have had no idea about who Idi Amin was. And it that respect it can be viewed as educational. It is certainly a lot better than most of the crap the film industry cranks out.

...One last thought. I hate to be the politically correct guy, but the question has to be asked: Can we have serious films about the problems in Africa that aren't viewed through the eyes of a white European protagonist? "The Power of One", "In My Country", "Cry Freedom", "Blood Diamond" all dealt with White protagonists. I don't even think I've seen a film about Africa that didn't have a white protagonist, with the exception of Lumumba, which doesn't really count because it was a foreign film. (Although granted I've never seen "Hotel Rwanda").

Link of the Day
On a Deadly Day, US Reports Drop in Iraq Attacks

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Battling Poets: May 2, 2000 E-mail


From the e-mail vault, here is a little poetry exchange between me and Jared English. The first e-mail from Jared was a mass e-mail sent out to everyone in our group of friends. (Or, I don't know, did someone hi-jack his e-mail account and send it out for him? Given the strangeness of this e-mail, I could easily be talked into believing that. On the other hand, given Jared's sense of humor I could go either way. Does anyone want to confess to ghost writing this).
At any rate, I decided it merited a response, and replied to everyone with my own poetry below.

We'll start with Jared's:

Yo You Ma to all ya funka-delicks. This is the muffin comin' at you live from freakville 35 chi.

The guys of Chi 35 real rock
and I just knocked out a clock
Sometimes I like to clean docks
because I am scared of the chicken pocks
This rhyming has really gone to far
But I frisbee golf I like to get par
Now I am going to say Vale!
to make sure you cheer Pele.

P.S. Vale in Latin means Goodbye

P.P.S. Hope Reaks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

P.P.P.S. I have no underwear on right now.

P.P.P.P.S. Have a merry Valentine's Day and a happy Purim...God Bless all the the little rabbits out there. I think I am being spoken to by a higher being; oh wait, I was just getting high on Dean's fumes.

Because I am the master of the Universe,

My response:

Here is my own try at poetry, based on personal experience:
Brett Nelson's on the phone
Even though he's all alone,
He's trying to get a date
With a girl who owns real estate (that means she lives off campus)
He asked her out to eat
Just to get a little treat (dessert as opposed to a whole meal)
He's invited me along
And I know it won't be wrong
Sara Schipper's a nice gal
So I'll just go along as a pal
I hope things go good for Brett
But no need to Fret
Ask me tomorrow how it goes
I don't keep secrets very well


PS-Based on a true story

Bonus: Below are all the nicknames Jared used when sending out this e-mail. See if you can guess which nicknames go with who.

Doug Moo, 1.21 Jigowatts of energy, Buck Wild, Cant make it for lunch, Citric gospel female/male, Devil with a blue dress on, Dr. Godbert MD, Forgot how to walk, Gortex, Hen Hao Nan Ren, JEB, Mattress, Mentos Mama, stuffed shells...PASTA...noodles, Private, Rump McFly, Shalom to you!, maniac she's a maniac, Squints, THE BASS, the freakiest of the freakland, The Jedi, THE REAL KNIGHT, undee man, YOSHI, Tatt Muckey

Link of the Day
Trapped by Their Own Militarism? Democrats Bare Their Back for the American Right

Friday, November 16, 2007

ブレイブ・ストーリー/Brave Story

(Movie Review)

Another review of an anime movie that has yet to be released in the US (although it's already over a year old in Japan). If you're reading this State side, consider this a sneak preview I guess.

Actually this is an interesting case because this is a Japanese movie that was released under the American studio Warner Brothers. And to be honest I'm not entirely sure what the story behind that is. (There's not a lot of info in English about this movie on line). If anyone out there knows more than I do, feel free to drop a comment.

The basic plot of this movie is a familiar one. A 5th grade boy, suffering from problems at home and being bullied at school, suddenly goes into a fantasy world where he becomes a hero, makes many new and wonderful friends, and ends up saving the whole world. To greater or lesser degrees the same idea can be found in "The Never Ending Story", "Last Action Hero", "Labyrinth", "Alice in Wonderland", "Peter Pan", et cetera, etc, etc.

Despite being pure childhood wish fulfillment, these movies can at their best be a great showcase for the imagination, and show a strange land filled with many wonderful and strange creatures.

However there is a line they have to walk. If they are too strange or too random it is hard to get absorbed in the story.

The plot of this movie is fairly linear, but at times it crosses the line. My main complaint is that it is never clear what powers a lot of these characters have, and they manifest new powers as needed to get out of whatever tight spot they happen to be in at the time.

There are also several questions or plot points that are never fully explained. I won't list them all here, because it won't be of interest to anyone who hasn't seen this movie, but if you ever end up watching this movie try and make a list of every question you have that is never fully answered. (Maybe some of these questions are answered in the book.)
There are also a few scenes that seem like they were brutally cut in the editing room, and start or end rather abruptly.

And yet despite the fact that a lot of scenes could have used more exposition, I found this film too long to sit through as it was. The last half hour or so I was really getting antsy. This is one of those films where you wish it were longer, and yet it was a bit hard to sit through as it was.

Part of the problem is that, like a lot of Anime, this film gets a bit preachy, especially near the end. And that creates a lot of dead time. And like a lot of Anime, it doesn't really end up saying anything too profound. Instead we are treated to grade school speeches on morality about how you can't sacrifice everyone else for your own happiness.

But then of course this is a movie primarily aimed at children, so I shouldn't be too critical. Children's movies back in the US can be just as preachy.

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World
The Writers Strike Explained in Under 4 Minutes
and Daily Show writers on writers strike

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Continuing Chronicles of a (Semi) Unemployed Man

Unlike last time, I won't write up a day to day description of the past week. Mostly because there is even less to tell and I would sound even more pathetic.

I continue to be in employment limbo. I continue to teach part time lessons at the local temple, and Shoko's friend, and make about probably $100-$130 a week. I continue occasional social get togethers with friends. I continue to have a lot of things I should be working on (Grad school, new job,and wedding plans) and I continue to look for any possible excuse to procrastinate (like writing this long defense of a previous movie review. What a waste of intellectual energy that was.) And I continue to get chewed out by Shoko for how little I've accomplished.

There has been frustratingly very little official news from our company NOVA. (You'll notice I'm dropping my long standing habit of not referring to my employer by name. I just don't care anymore). The last thing I was told when the company shut down its doors was to just keep my eye on the official web site for more information, but the little information grudgingly released on their site has been almost useless. Mostly we get our info from sites like which carry English translations of day old Japanese newspaper articles.

Friday I got a text message from Leanne asking if I knew anything about a meeting in Nakatsu. This was the first I had heard about it, so I called around and asked other people and no one really seemed to know anything.

Saturday I made a few more phone calls, and finally found out that there was an important meeting that day at 2:00 in Oita City. Information about unemployment insurance, recovering our loss wages, and our future with the new owners of the company would be given. We would also have a short interview, so we should wear a suit and tie and dress sharp.

I called all my co-workers to pass the information along. We rushed to the train station and all arrived in various states of disarray, unshaven, underdressed, someone even had to run out of a lesson to make it on time. I myself was wearing a mismatched suit because half my wardrobe was at the cleaners.

None of us were happy with the lack of timely information (to put it mildly) but I was probably the most vocal. I griped most of the way down there.

"I heard this meeting had been posted on facebook," someone said.

"Fuck facebook," I replied. "Nobody ever told me I needed to be checking facebook. If they have important information for they need us to get they can put it on their website or make sure we get a phone-call."

I then continued with my rant something like this. "You know, the thing is I didn't even mind when they went bankrupted and we didn't get our pay. I mean I minded, but I didn't take it personally. I knew they weren't going bankrupt on purpose. But since then I've just been losing more and more faith everyday.
"I mean, we were all reading the internet. We weren't ignorant, we knew the company was going bankrupt and there was a good chance we wouldn't see our paychecks. But we kept going to work anyway, because we had an obligation to the students and the staff. And then they closed down without giving us a single day's notice, or even time to get our things out of the staffroom, everyone we know is being evicted from their apartments because they haven't paid the rent (despite taking it out of their paychecks), they've stopped making payments on our insurance because the court told them they don't have to, and we can't even apply for unemployment insurance because they've been waiting to officially declare bankruptcy.
"The least, the LEAST they could do is give us timely information about where these meetings are going to be. How much trouble would it have been to post it on our website?"
Et cetera, and so we occupied the time ranting away all the way down to Oita city.

At the end of the hour long train ride, I felt like I had worked myself up into a pretty agitated state, and was ready to ask some pointed questions and make some accusations during the meeting. (I already had a pretty good mental image of me standing up and soapboxing to the applause of my fellow co-workers.) However when we got there we found out that the "meeting" consisted of us sitting down and watching a live TV link to the big informational meeting in Tokyo. Which meant there was also no one in person there at Oita city for me to take my anger out on. (Isn't that always the way it is with big companies? The person you're actually angry at you never get to talk to, and the person you take your anger out on is some little peon that stands at the complaint desk or answers the phone).

The video conference was some of the most boring 4 hours of my life. There were several teachers and several Japanese staff from different branches assembled, and there wasn't even enough room for everyone to sit down. Everyone was more or less in the same furious mood that I was, and most people had just found out about this at the last minute like I did.

During a break, I took out some of my anger by yelling at the high school students outside collecting for charity. (No, I kid. Actually I did ask them very nicely if they could keep it down a bit because we were having trouble hearing. I was as polite as I knew how to be in Japanese, and I gave them a donation as I spoke. And the fact that I was able to complain to somebody about something did make me feel surprisingly better).

After the video conference there was no big meeting where I could grandstand and make a speech, but I did track down a company representative and complain about the lack of contact. She apologized of course, and said she had thought we knew, and then began the usual shifting of blame and uncertainty over who was supposed to have called whom. In the end I think I probably only succeeded in getting my Japanese manager in trouble, which wasn't my intention because I consider the Japanese staff friends (and I'm pretty sure it wasn't her fault. Friends from other branches in other parts of Japan all had the same trouble with finding out about these meetings).

The new sponsor company has promised to re-hire all the old teachers, even though they're re-opening less than 10% of the old schools. (30 schools out of 700). Also we've been promised we can stay in our city, even if they don't re-open the branch there. They'll pay us to just stay at home.

It sounds too good to be true. And especially after all the empty promises that were floating around right before the company collapsed ("Don't worry, everything's all right, we'll get your pay to you tomorrow") everyone is once bitten twice shy. Plus in order to join the new company we have to sign a letter of resignation from the old one (thus ending our one month pay termination benefits) and of course lose unemployment insurance. Everyone was asking questions about what the catch was, and no one was able to give a decent answer.

In the small town of Nakatsu we are probably not one of the branches that will be re-opened, but I went ahead and signed the papers anyway. I figured if I could get even just one months pay out of it, it would be worth giving up the other benefits. Now we'll see what happens next.

Link of the Day
Iraqi Government to UN: "Don't Extend Mandate for Bush's Occupation"

Saturday, November 10, 2007

シャル ウィ ダンス?/ Shall We Dance?

(movie review)

Although I have yet to see the Richard Gere remake of this movie, I will admit that if it weren’t for the Hollywood publicity I would never have heard of this movie. But seeing it in my local video store, I decided to give it a try.

I frequently complain in my movie reviews about how Japanese movies suffer from over-acting, over-sappiness, and a low-brow slapstick comedic sense. And doubtless I’m at least half right in the sense that those movies are out there. But this film is a great reminder that not all Japanese movies are like that, and some of the better films have a brilliant sense of subtle comedy.

My only complaint is that given the type of film it is, a slow subtle comedy, it went on for too long. At over two hours, I think it could have done with some more time in the editing room.
[Update: It turns out that according to Wikipedia, the cut for American video is significantly shorter and edits out a bunch of scenes. Wow, I really called that one. Looks like my attention span is just right for an American.]

This is a very distinctive Japanese film because Japanese people hate to do anything that makes them stand out. Thus even ball room dancing can be a dangerous sport. (Although granted the various hip hop dancers on the street don't seem to be too worried). It might be interesting to someday compare this with the American version and see how the story was adopted for an American audience.

(As I wrote earlier, I believe this film was responsible for spawning lots of other imitation films about people in Japan about people joining unusual clubs, like “Waterboys”, although I’m talking out of my hat because I have no evidence that “Shall We Dance?” directly influenced any of them. It seems likely enough though, and there have been a number of these types of films in Japan the past few years.)

The movie stars Koji Yakusho, who has also been in a number of movies I’ve been watching lately: “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Babel”, and “The Choice of Hercules.

Link of the Day
Via this modern world this story about a group of conservative writers suing their publishing house is too rich for satire.

The authors argue that in reducing royalty payments, the publisher is maximizing its profits and the profits of its parent company at their expense...

Mr. Miniter said. “It suddenly occurred to us that Regnery is making collectively jillions of dollars off of us and paying us a pittance.” He added: “Why is Regnery acting like a Marxist cartoon of a capitalist company?”...

The authors, who say in the lawsuit that Eagle has been “unjustly enriched well in excess of one million dollars,” are seeking unspecified damages. But Mr. Miniter said, “We’re not looking for a payoff; we’re looking for justice.”

It's too easy I'm not even going to comment. You can write in your own satire.

Friday, November 09, 2007

青春の殺人者/ Youth to Kill

(Movie Review)

This is another foray into old Japanese movies. I'm still doing this somewhat blind, so I rented this movie based only on the fact that it looked old, and that the DVD version included English subtitles.

The English subtitles on the DVD translate the title as "Youth to Kill", although I think a better translation might have been "The Killer Youth". Then again whoever did these subtitles obviously has better Japanese than me.

The very word "Youth" however is somewhat indicative of the time period. As in America, the baby boom generation in Japan has had a lot of media attention as they moved through the various life stages. During the mid 60s through mid 70s, there were a lot of songs and movies that invoked either the words Youth (seishun) or Young People (wakamono) in their titles. In fact as Shoko once explained to me (seemingly unaware of the irony), "If you ever hear a song using the words 'Seishun' or 'Wakamono', you know it's an old song that only old people listen to."

This movie is dated 1976, so it's coming in on the tail end of the youth movement (although I figure books and movies are always a couple years behind reality by the time they get written up and produced). It deals with a baby boomer now in his mid 20s, but who is still tormented by generational conflicts with his parents. So much so that he kills them both. (I'm not sure if the Japanese film makers were aware of Jerry Rubin's infamous admonition to "kill your parents", but this film does offer a literal interpretation of Rubin's bizarre rhetoric.).

The murders are at the beginning of the film, but through flashbacks we get more of a sense of the relationship between parents and son. Hints of the student movement, which by the 1970s had largely faded away, are also shown. In one flashback to the more turbulent student days, the son says, "Back then, Japan was a much more interesting country".
In another scene the father apologizes to the son for forbidding him from going to college. "I saw the violence on the news and I thought it would continue. I was wrong."
The demonstrations surrounding the building of Narita airport did continue well into the 70s, however, and as this movie takes place close to Narita there is one scene of a police checkpoint along the road to counter the demonstration.

The themes of generational conflict are obviously not very subtle in this movie, and in fact in one flashback we learn that the son had actually made a movie with his classmates back in high school about fighting (and killing) their parents and teachers.
And yet often the son seemed to be more of a disturbed head case then a spokesman for his generation. He's moody and he quarrels with everyone. Since most of the movie is about his mental breakdown after his crime, I suppose he can't be expected to be in excellent mental health. And yet his moody melancholiness reminded me a bit of James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."

There's also a girlfriend. She's important to the plot because she was the cause of the quarrel that ended with the son stabbing his father. But she seems to have no other purpose in life other than to attach herself to the side of her boyfriend, take constant abuse from him, and whine continuously.
(Japanese girls tend to put up with a lot of abuse in Japanese movies. I'm not sure how much this is a reflection of real life. I know in our apartment Shoko has a very low tolerance for any of my shenanigans.)
But seriously, I don't understand why this girl didn't get lost a long time ago. Forget all the abuse, if you ever needed a sign that you should stay away from a guy, it's when he kills both his parents. I take comfort in the fact that most Japanese women I know are smarter than their cinema equivalents.

Link of the Day
Pelosi and Me: Can't the Democrats End the War By Not Bringing the Funding Bill to the Floor?

Thursday, November 08, 2007


(movie review)

As I mentioned in my review of "Shrek 3", because I got a little confused by all the characters I made a return trip to the video store so I could re-watch Shrek 1 and Shrek 2.

But once I put this in the DVD player, I suddenly realized I had never watched Shrek 1. Somehow I had been living a lie all these years.

I think it happened like this. I saw Shrek 2 during my 3rd year on the JET program (2003-2004). There was a little gathering at Mike's house (the other JET in Ajimu) and someone had an illegal pirated copy from China. I had never seen Shrek 1, but I was able to catch up to the plot well enough, and the other people helped fill me in on the important points.

Somehow over the years I must have gotten that mixed up in my head (due, no doubt, to my infallible memory) and I thought I had seen both Shreks. But once this movie got underway in the DVD player, I realized my error.

And then, since this was a new movie for me, I realized I now had to write a review of it up on this blog to be consistent with my own rules.

Seeing films in reverse order like this is always a little disappointing because you're already familiar with the basic premise from the sequels. You're expecting a little more, but then you remember that the first movie is the one that just establishes the premise. The sequels are where the ante has to be upped up.

This movie for example: it starts out with a really great premise that all the fairy tale creatures are together in the same movie. But then instead of making use of all of these wonderful characters, it sends Shrek, the Donkey, and Princess Fiona out on a long journey all by themselves. Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphey are two funny guys no doubt about it, but it wears thin after a while, especially when they're playing to a kid audience. I would have loved to see more of Pinocchio, the three little pigs, the gingerbread man, and the rest of the fairy tale characters. (Fortunately at least they're given more time in the sequels).

And is it just me, or is does anyone else think this movie is trying a little too hard to be hip by having all those top 40 pop songs in a kids movie? And, only 6 years later the film is already feeling a bit dated because of this soundtrack.

As for the misunderstanding between Fiona and Shrek that leads to their fight at the end of the second act: this has got to be one of the most overused plot devices in films ever. Children's films I think are especially notorious for it. It had me glancing at my watch and wondering how much longer the film was going to go on for.

Still, a few good laughs make up for a lot. Overall I'd say it wasn't as good as the sequels, but it was easy to see why this film did so well.

Link of the Day
Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Smokin' Aces

(movie review)

I had never heard of this movie until I saw the case in my video store. Which actually happens to me a lot in Japan. The big movies like Harry Potter and Spiderman get big hyped up releases, but some of these minor Hollywood movies by-pass the Japanese movie theaters and media machine entirely, and I don't even know they exist until I see them in the video store.

When I lived in America, I always read the movie reviews page or saw commercials on TV, and I would at least know the premise of the movies I rented. In Japan I have a hard time even reading the back of the video box. Often it can be an interesting experience sitting down to watch a movie you know absolutely nothing about. Usually we're used to having half the movie given away by the previews. Starting out with a completely clean slate you don't have a clue what's going to happen next.

Of course this approach is not without its drawbacks. You do run into some real stinkers along the way as well. Case in point.

I've seen so many bad movies in my life that the competition for "Worst movie I've ever seen" is pretty stiff. But this movie is a contender.

The plot of the movie is that a former mobster turned stool pigeon is hiding out in a hotel in Lake Tahoe Nevada. The FBI is looking to grab him before the mob can. The bail bondsman are looking to get him before the FBI can. And several competing hitmen and mobsters are after him as well. Basically a whole lot of people are all competing to get to the same guy.

(This all sounds vaguely familiar. I have a feeling I've seen other movies with a similar plot, but I can't think of them right now. Does it ring a bell with anyone else?)

Anyway, with all the different characters and competing motivations, I was hoping for a while this movie would turn out something like "Lock, Stock, and two Smoking Barrels". A really complex plot where things get more and more ridiculous and intertwined as different characters keep intersecting paths with each other.

Unfortunately the writers of this movie don't have the brains to do that. So they just throw everyone together at the end for an orgy of violence.
Lots of people get shot up. None of the characters in this movie were people the film makers bothered to make you care about, so you just kind of watch all the blood and guts flying with a detached attitude. Or maybe you're supposed to laugh at some of the more gruesome deaths, like when the guy sat down on his chainsaw. I was never sure.

There is a very morbid sense of humor in this movie that is attempting to imitate (and perhaps attempting to outdo) Tarantino. They get all the blood guts and gore, but the humor falls flat.

There's a bit of a twist at the very end which is supposed to be a Keyser Soze moment, but I think most people will see it coming from a long way away. It's just way too obvious.

Link of the Day
Iraq: Exposing the Corporate Agenda

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

オールウェイズ三丁目の夕日/Always: Sunset on 3rd Street

(movie review)

This movie came out a couple years ago in Japan, and apparently was a huge hit (although it flew below my radar). But this week the much anticipated sequel is coming out, and the posters and hype are everywhere.

Shoko said everyone at her job was talking about how wonderful this movie, so she borrowed the DVD from one of her co-workers and wanted to watch it last night. Fortunately it turns out the DVD version has English subtitles, which made it easier for me to follow.

This movie is set in Tokyo in 1958, and is heavily based on nostalgia for the Japanese people old enough to remember that period, and on collective nostalgia for those people who are not. Because Japan has undergone huge changes in the last 50 years, and 1950s Tokyo no longer exists, the film makes extensive use of CGI. But either CGI technology is getting better, or I'm just getting more used to it, because they were able to pull it off seamlessly. I couldn't even tell what was CGI and what was part of the backstage set.

Although the film takes place in Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world, the story in this movie has a real small town feel. Everyone on the block knows everyone else and is involved in each other's lives, the shop keepers know the customers on a first name basis, and in the local bar everyone knows your name and history. At times I felt like I was watching "Our Town" instead of a movie about Tokyo, but who knows? Maybe in the 1950s life was like that even in the big cities, in the days before computers and TV kept us shut up in our own house.

As such, the movie follows the interconnected stories of several different people on the block. There is an auto repair man who dreams of making it big, a girl from the countryside who comes to Tokyo for her first job, a lonely doctor who lost his wife and daughter during the war, a hack novelist and his frustrated literary ambitions who, through the convolutions of the plot, somehow ends up being stuck with a kid he has to take care of.

There's a lot of old Japanese 1950s pop songs in the background, which I enjoyed as a fan of Japanese oldies.

And throughout the movie many landmark events of the 1950s are shown: the first TV on the block, and all the excitement it causes, the first taste of coca-cola, the first refrigerator. (Even in the United States it is amazing to think how much life has changed in the past 50 years, but that's nothing compared to Japan which went from a 3rd world style of living after the war to the economic powerhouse in the 1980s. And underwent extensive Westernization at the same time.)

As with a lot of Japanese films, there's a bit of overacting in this movie. But when the director remembers to tone things down a notch, the film has a great subtle sense of comedy as well.

This is however primarily a Japanese drama, and Japanese drama's are famous for their sappiness. If you thought Hollywood could be sappy, it's got nothing on the Japanese film industry.

The first hour of the movie is spent setting everything up. Once all the characters are in position, the second hour is just one tear jerking scene after another. There was a soundtrack consisting of a soft piano and a violin chorus which would repeatedly start up, get louder and louder toward the climax, fade away, and then start up again in the next scene.

I'll admit I got a little misty eyed at points. It would take someone with a heart of stone to sit through this movie totally unmoved. But I felt manipulated afterwards.

I had a friend at Calvin, a philosophy student, who used to describe these kinds of movies as "emotional masturbation."
"Most people," he said to me, "watch movies just because they want to feel certain emotions. They want to laugh or they want to cry, and then they judge the success of the movie based on how it managed to manipulate their emotions, not on the actual content of the movie."

I know, I know, he was taking things too seriously. Nonetheless I've always hated movies that were sappy just for the point of being sappy. I mean if it was based on a true story, or a real social injustice, I can go along with it because it's manipulating emotions for a good cause.

(And you get extra points with me if you tone down the violins and orchestral music a little bit). But to create some sort of far fetched convoluted plot and then expect me to want to get weepy about it....I don't have time for that.

All of this is probably just a gender thing. I'm always worried I'm going to get in trouble when I generalize about gender and movies (even though everyone else in the world does it) but if there is a gender divide when it comes to movies and literature, I'd say my fascination with cheesy pulp science fiction, action flicks, old monster movies, and super hero comic books puts me safely on the male side of the divide. If you like these kind of sappy flicks, more power to you. You'll love this one.

The film ends with not quite all the loose ends wrapped up. I guess that's the set up for the sequel. I'll have to make a trip to the movie theater if I want to see how everything ends up.

Link of the Day
Chicago: Dozens of Berwyn High School Students Face Expulsion After Antiwar Sit-In

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Shrek 3

(movie review)

Continuing my journey through this summer's blockbusters as they come out on video. (Because I live out in the Japanese countryside, I don't really have access to a cinema).

It has become cliche to refer to these movies as kids movies with adult humor (not only the Shrek series but the Pixar movies as well, and to a certain extent the whole recent animation boom).

Much of this adult humor consists of sneaking in obscure cultural references or sexual innuendos that the kids won't get, and then laughing about how we pulled on over on them. "It's a kids movie, but they won't get that sexual reference until they're much older. Ha, ha, ha."

The Shrek movies definitely dip into this well, but fortunately they also rise above it. Certainly their very premise, a satire on fairy tales, gives them plenty of material to draw on, and is part of the reason they're still going strong on the 3rd movie.

By the 3rd movie there are a lot of characters being juggled around in this franchise. I'm not saying that's a bad thing (I come from a comic book/ Star Trek background, so character continuity is one of the things I look out for) but it had been about 3 years since I saw the last Shrek movie, so I had a hard time remembering who everyone was. I was still able to follow the plot of the movie, but I ended up making a second trip back to the video store to rent Shrek 1 and 2 just so I could remember who came from where. Already at the start of Shrek 3 we have an ogre princess with a human mom and a frog dad, a donkey married to a dragon with several flying donkey kids, several princesses and one ugly stepsister (who has apparently gone over and joined the good guys), et cetera. If none of this makes any sense to you, you'd better go back and rent the first two movies again before watching this one.

As a Monty Python fan, this film got extra points with me because of both John Cleese and Eric Idle. John Cleese only had one brief scene, but Eric Idle really got to ham it up as the character Merlin.

I thought the scenes in the medieval high school were hilarious, and my only complaint was that it was too short. I would have loved to see more of the Shrek satire on high school life.

All this being said, I did find myself getting a little restless as the film went on. The fault is probably my own ruined attention span, but I would have definitely preferred something a little more fast paced. Near the end I was even doing some cleaning while watching the film in the back ground to keep myself from getting totally bored. Like a lot of comedies, this film has some funny high points, but it doesn't stay on a high note the whole time, and it's the in between moments that the film has trouble sustaining. And there are a few too many heart to heart talks and character growth moments for my taste, but I guess that's what you get when you rent a children's movie.

Link of the Day
'U.S. Resisting Ban on Cluster Bombs'

Karate Lessons


These are two photos taken by my grandfather of my Karate class in, I think, second grade (could possibly have been younger). Half of me is just barely visible on the left hand side of one photo. On the other photo I'm in the background behind the two instructors.

This was of course right during the time when "The Karate Kid" movie had just been released, and every young boy was pleading with his parents for Karate lessons.

I was actually not allowed see "The Karate Kid" at the time. (I wasn't allowed to see a lot of stuff as a kid). I didn't see the movie until about 5th grade.

Nevertheless I was thoroughly infected with the Karate craze that had swept the playgrounds and captured the heart of all my male classmates. My parents eventually gave into my pleadings and signed me up for Karate.

Like a lot of young boys, I secretly believed that inside me was one of the greatest action heros, and was lacking only in opportunity to display my skills. These Karate lessons firmly put that fantasy to rest. Like my experiences doing gymnastics or dancing or anything requiring coordination, I couldn't do anything right in this class.

Coordination aside, my biggest problem was just remembering all the moves. The instructor would demonstrate this long sequence of moves we were supposed to act out with our partners. I'd get about two or three moves into it, and then forget the rest.

For some reason I was the only one who had this problem. And in retrospect, since I have such a great memory for obscure historical facts and comic book characters, I'm not sure why I couldn't remember a sequence of moves, but I couldn't. (I could never remember anything from my science classes either. It must have something to do with the way my brain is wired).

Then I would begin to get a reputation as the kid who could never remember the moves. Other kids would say things like, "Look, I'm really tired to day. I don't want to have to tell you all the moves again tonight." Or instead of helping me remember the moves, sometimes they would just call out, "Sensei, he's stuck again."

(Our Sensei, by the way, in contrast to the soft smiling woman I was used to for elementary school teachers, was not always the most patient person with children.)

Also I had a tendency to daydream in class, often without even realizing I was doing it. More than once I saw my teacher glaring at me, and then suddenly realized everyone else but me had already assumed the fighting position, and I was off in outer-space somewhere.

For several weeks during this class we were supposed to be working on this long elaborate sequence of moves which we would use when fighting several guys at once. We were supposed to be doing it as homework, and from time to time my mother would remind me I was supposed to be doing it, at which point I would respond (partly truthfully) that if I couldn't remember the moves how was I supposed to practice it?

Then came the day when we were supposed to display the whole thing in class. When it was my turn I was terrified at the idea of telling the teacher I hadn't memorized it yet, and burst into tears instead. I was embarrased to find myself crying, and he was almost as embarrased as I was, and the performance was temporarily forgotten. (He did reprimand me later though).

The other thing that sticks out in my mind from these Karate lessons was when we were practicing sparing one day, and I actually beat the Sensei. (A huge boost to my self-confidence. It never even occured to me that he might have let me win until I reached adult hood). Obviously the weight difference would have made any real fight between us painfully one sided, but in sparing we were forbidden any actual physical contact, and simply pretended to hit the other person. I actually believed at the time that I was really unpredictable enough to take him off gaurd several times and earn enough points to win the match.

Link of the Day
Waterboarding: A Tortured History

Friday, November 02, 2007

Diary of a (Semi) Unemployed Man

As I wrote previously, since last Friday the company has been in limbo status between bankruptcy and finding for a sponsor. During this time, all of us employees are in a similar limbo status as well. We've been told to stay home and not come to work until further notice.

Perhaps you might wonder what I've been up to with all this free time on my hands.

It's nice to have free time, but the no-job unemployed type of free time leaves you with a dirty taste in your mouth. I'm sure Maria in Denver can identify. Hell, we've all been there at one time or another in our life. I'm sure we can all identify. (In fact I was just in this position last summer). You enjoy staying up late and sleeping in and meeting friends for coffee, but all the while you have something hanging over your head reminding you that you really should be looking for a job right this minute, and every free minute you're spending with your friends is another minute you should have been looking for a job.

In my case, I'm only semi-unemployed, so I'm half waiting around to see what is going to happen with the company in the next week. But all the smart rats fled the ship a long time ago, and I should be looking for another job or at least polishing up the resume a little bit.

Also I'm supposed to be researching graduate schools (something still in the back of my mind), and planning out a wedding. So as Shoko said to me at the beginning of the week: "You've got quite a lot to do, so I don't want you wasting all your time by going out and playing with your friends."

I've been trying really hard to buckle down and get some things done during all this time I have off, but it is intimidating, isn't it? Even if I intentional cancel all my social appointments and lock myself in my apartment, I just get un-nerved when I think of all the stuff I should be doing, so I think, "I'll just read the morning paper for a while. I'll just have a cup of coffee and play some video games while I get in the mood to do some research. I'll just watch this last video, and then straight to work. I wonder if any one e-mailed me lately. I should check all my friends blogs to see if they've updated..." And the time has a way of getting away from me really quickly. And then I end up with the worst of both worlds: not doing anything fun with my day, and not being productive either.
I was feeling really bad about this, until I was talking with my semi-unemployed co-workers the other day, and heard the same stories from them. Still, that's no excuse. Must be productive from this week on.

Anyway, my lack of productivity aside, here's what I've been up to this week.

Friday (October 26)
This was the day I received the phone call about our company being shut down. I was talking to some Jehovah's Witnesses at the time. (They have Jehovah's Witnesses here in Japan as well. They've been coming every Friday for weekly discussions with me. I should really write a blog post about this some time, but I don't have room to get into it here).

For some reason I've been designated the contact person for our branch, (probably because I'm the most senior teacher), so I was put in charge of phoning up the other teachers and telling them not to come into work that day.

Later in the day I got another call with more information (telling me to tell everyone not to come into work indefinitely) and I had to start making phone calls all over again.
I met a couple co-workers for coffee.

This was the day we did our day trip to Yufuin, which I already wrote about.

In the evening I went to tutor Shoko's co-worker's daughter.
This is a private lesson I took up on the side. Actually Shoko volunteered me for it. I was furious about the extra work initially, and Shoko and I used to have several arguments about it. Now, suddenly it has become my only source of income, and I have to thank Shoko for setting it up for me.

There was a Halloween party at Tropicocos that night which I didn't attend because it completely slipped my mind. (I understand all my co-workers had a good time there). I guess I dropped the ball on that one, but at least I've got good memories of this annual party in year's past.

A student of mine dropped by our apartment on Sunday afternoon. He was able to guess where my apartment was because I once talked in a lesson about the house fire next door.

This student, a Buddhist priest, was very concerned about our well-being because stories about Nova teachers without food or money have been all over the Japanese TV. I assured him I was doing all right thanks to Shoko. He then wanted to set up English classes at his temple to help all us Nova teachers get a little bit of spare income in the limbo period. It was extremely kind and helpful of him of course. As Shoko said after he left, "Well, I guess that's a priest for you."

I got chewed out by Shoko for having been unproductive the past couple days, and at her encouragement I cleared out my schedule for the next couple days so I could get some things done.

Got together at a co-workers apartment for a pasta dinner (a cheap way to feed everyone since we're all a bit short on cash). The evening then degenerated into drinking games. (Since I don't drink, I agreed to take shots of coffee instead). 
The lovely Shoko attended as well--here are a few pictures from that evening:

Earlier in the day I had made a phone calls to some of the Japanese staff to invite them out hiking on Tuesday. They replied with a counter offer to go on a picnic. I carried the invitation to everyone Monday night, but almost everyone declined to go for various reasons. Some needed to get a jump on the job search and interviews, and some had other plans, and some were a bit bitter over the way things had gone done during the last few days and the way the Japanese staff hadn't always shared information with us.

Maybe I'm too forgiving of a pretty face (the Japanese staff are all women in their early 20s) but I take the position that the Japanese staff were just doing their jobs and following head office instructions to keep certain info confidential, and in any case they probably didn't know all that much more than we did. But as Shoko said to me, "You're able to play the bigger man because you're financially secure with me paying the rent. If you were one of these Nova instructors being evicted from their apartment and without money to buy food, you'd be pretty angry as well."

Went on the picnic with the Japanese staff. In the end only one other foreign teacher came with.

We carpooled down to Oita city where we met up with all the other Japanese staff from the prefecture, some of whom I knew, many of whom I was met for the first time. All women in their early 20s. (It was in the paper this week that it had been Nova's policy to hire only young woman as Japanese staff so they could pay them less, and then they would work them hard enough to ensure they would quit early and not advance in the pay scale).

There was surprisingly little shop talk among the Japanese staff themselves, although they did answer most of my questions when I would ask directly about things. For the most part it was just a fun fall outing. We had a great picnic feast. We got out a beach ball and played a little volleyball in the park. There was a giant slide for children, but we all went down it anyway.

Besides the two of us from Nakatsu, there was only one other foreign teacher there. A British guy who, poor bastard, had only flown in a month ago, and so never received a single paycheck before the company closed down. He was, needless to say, a bit strapped for cash (like the rest of us). "At least you'll have a story to tell when you go back home," I told him.
"I know," he said. "I'm keeping a journal."

Yet another day in which despite locking myself in my apartment, I accomplished very little.

In the evening I and a couple other co-workers went to the temple to discuss with some students how we could continue lessons privately. Nothing is ever simple when it gets discussed in a group, and deciding on things like the time and the price turned into a 2 hour discussion.

It is difficult to negotiate these things in a group as well. Aware that the priest and the students were doing this partly out of the goodness of their heart (and also aware that if Nova company goes bankrupt, they stand to lose a lot of money in pre-bought lessons) I didn't want to overcharge, but me and my co-workers had no game plan before we walked into the lesson, and ending up debating the issue in front of the students.

In the end we chose a price that Shoko feels very strongly is over-charging the students, and my co-workers feel is under charging.

After the meeting, my co-workers were meeting for a video game tournament. I dropped by for a little while, but not having a big interest in video games I didn't stay long.

Since it was Halloween I went to the video store and rented some classic horror movies: "Frankenstein", "Dracula", "The Wolfman", and "Night of the Living Dead." (I know the old movies don't have the same punch as today's horror movies, but you can't beat the classics for atmosphere. To me it's not Halloween without some old black and white monster movies.)

Spent most of the afternoon finishing up the videos from last night. Another unproductive day, although I did do some cleaning and some Japanese studying while the movies were on in the background.

In the evening a co-worker and I met up to do a dry run and make sure we could find the temple again (it was hidden away in some side streets). We spent about an hour wandering through the side streets and squabbling about which way it was, before we were able to find it again.

After we had found it, I took a different way back home and discovered it's only a 10 minute walk from my house.

Yet another day that wasn't as productive as it could have been (although I have been doing a lot of Japanese studying).

The Jehovah's Witnesses came again. After our regular discussion they told me they were concerned about me since all the news about Nova has been all over TV. I assured them I was alright.

I walked to the Temple in the evening. I wish I had some pictures because from my apartment to the temple is such a beautiful walk. I cut across some rice fields and over a river, up a hill, and there the temple is. And the time of day I was walking there was just right before sunset when everything has a kind of pink color...Obviously this is something that's hard to do justice with words, but I couldn't imagine a more idyllic setting to teach some English classes in.

A few students came into the temple for some lessons. Everyone's still kind of figuring out what we're doing and how this new system is going to work, but I enjoyed myself.

After that stopped by briefly at a going away party for some co-workers (who are moving to Fukuoka to search for jobs there).

...And that pretty much brings me full circle. Stay tuned for more updates in the life of the semi-unemployed man.

Link of the Day
The Catastrophic Iraq Occupation the U.S. Media Rarely Reports: Interview with Dahr Jamail