Thursday, May 31, 2007

デスノート/ Death Note

(Movie Review)

This movie was the big blockbuster last summer in Japan. I usually try and stay away from big Japanese films, because I've been burned before. (At their worst, they are like bad Hollywood films minus the snazzy special effects). But a couple of friends were telling me about the premise for this movie, and it actually sounded pretty cool, so I decided to check it out.

Like most Japanese cinema, this film followed the standard route by starting out as a manga, then an anime series, and then finally made the transition to the big screen.

The story is based loosely on the Japanese mythological death gods, who keep death notebooks in which they write down the names of people destined to die.

In this story, one of the death gods throws down his notebook from heaven, where it is picked up by a precocious teenager Light Yagami. Once he figures out what he has in his hands, Light starts using the notebook to kill off all the criminals and other undesirable elements from society.

Meanwhile the Japanese police notice notice that gangsters are dying off in mysterious ways and try to find out what is happening. To aid them, they enlist the help of "L", another teenage genius (did I mention this was based on a comic book). And thus begins the battle of wits between L and Light.

It turns out this movie is the Japanese version of "Kill Bill" in the sense that one story was divided into two different movies. So after the first movie ended, the story is still a long way from concluding and it looks like I'm going to have make a second trip back to the video store to find out how everything will end. Knowing only half the story, it feels like I've only watched half a movie so far, but I will try and jot down a few thoughts nonetheless.

Although I've neither read the manga nor watched the anime, I suspect this is probably one of those stories that was better in the original format. There's a high body count in this movie, but most of the deaths are mysterious heart attacks caused by the death note, and so its not the kind of story that lends itself to a lot of action, explosions, and high speed chases.

Instead its more of a suspense movie, but unfortunately the director is no Alfred Hitchcock, and the tension is never as tight as it could be.

Also given the plot you might expect the movie to get into the moral issues between vigilante justice and whether the world would truly be a better place if we could just kill off all the bad apples. But again, the issue is only slightly touched.

I suppose I don't need to tell you that as Light continues to use the notebook his moral standards begin to slip. (If you're at all familiar with these kind of movies, you can see that a long way off). But an in depth look at what causes this shift is never provided. A better movie exploring some of these same themes might be "The Last Supper" (1995) although even that film slips into the obvious a bit. In both films it turns out (surprise) that taking justice into your own hands and killing off whoever you like is not a good idea. Phew, I'm glad we got that complicated moral problem solved.

Again I suspect this story line might have worked better in the comic or animation form, because given the nature of comic book stories we tend to suspend a lot more of our critical facilities when reading them. Once the story becomes live action and life like, you start to realize just how ridiculous a lot of the story is.

For example: just how many criminals who escaped justice are there wandering around the streets of Japan? I mean I know the Japanese Yakuza is famous for being outside the law, and I know Japanese courts can be famous for letting people off the hooks on technicalities (witness the Lucie Blackman case), but after a couple weeks of killing, you would think Light would run out of victims (especially since it appears he gets almost all of his names from the news).

And once L starts closing in on Light, Light does not stop his killing spree but goes through enormous difficulties to be able to escape L's detection and continue killing. Again, that might work in a comic book, but I had trouble believing a real live teenager would continue that obsession so far. (I know I certainly wouldn't, but maybe that's just me. It's a good thing I was never blessed with any evil genius, because I would be the world's laziest supervillian ever).

Well, regardless of the flaws in this movie, now that I've sunk in over two hours on the first one, I might as well go out and rent the second one to find out how it ends. I'll keep you updated.

This video is probably hard to find back in the U.S., but for anyone who isn't too concerned about intellectual copyright laws, I did find this copy online complete with English subtitles. (Sigh, I spend way too much time on the internet).

update: I also posted this review on Amazon.com (for a while I had a habit of reposting my blog reviews on Amazon, just to give more people the benefit of my wisdom.) It provoked a surprising amount of strong feelings, which I thought I'd copy and paste here just for fun.

Woopak says:
You are entitled to your opinion. Quite frankly, I don't agree with your view of the film. Aside from your view of vigitilantism, it deals with the issue of near-limitless power in matters of life and death. Death Note reflects on how power can corrupt a human mind. The human mind is unpredictable, how would you know how a live college student would react? Light was in Law school, not a teen-ager! In Asia, when you're in law school, means you are over 22 yrs. old. Plus, you took the film too seriously. This is a supernatural fantasy. Hey, Pirates of the Caribbean was a fantasy, and you didn't get all analytical with that. You want to watch Foreign films, learn to approach it with more acceptance and always put in consideration the source material.I thought it was well-done. I liked the way it dealt with the battle of wits between good and evil. Sorry, I definitely do not agree with your rating in your review and your understanding of the film. DEATH NOTE kicked the heck out of most Hollywood thrillers...!

Neil Ford says:
Most Japanese cinema does NOT start out as manga!

Woopak says:
I agree with Neil Ford. Don't underestimate Japanese cinema. It has influenced a lot more films made in Hollywood than you'd think. (Example: Kill Bill, The Matrix, The man with no name trilogy(spaghetti westerns), Magnificent Seven)As with super-hero films (like Spider-man), manga just moves on to another medium such as film.

Advo Asks says:
Awful review... lemme tell you why...

Teenager? Like someone already said, Light is studying Law in Uni. Of course, the anime DOES start with Light as a senior in high school, but we're not reviewing the anime here, and even if we were... This isn't just some green kid picking up something he can't understand. It's the (precocious, as the author already stated) son of a well-respected, highly ranked member of the police force... the top of his class, studying relentlessly to fulfill his already strong dream of delivering justice to the wicked. A genius with high expectations of himself, who is disgusted with the state of the world's rotting virtues.

So with that in mind... say again how it's difficult to imagine that he would actually take on the responsibility of ridding the world of scum? Besides, much of the reason that Light doesn't stop killing is that he CAN'T stop killing without increasing suspicion. Continuing the spree of murders is a way for him to continue his important work, sure, but if he can continue killing while appearing innocent, that should lead suspicion elsewhere. So for him, there is no choice BUT to keep killing. [This intention is present in the film, but probably more evident in the anime.]

(By the way, there is no evidence to support that L is supposed to be a teenager either.)

The complaint that real life would provide fewer criminals to kill is way off. Certainly Light goes after unpunished criminals, but he also attacks those who have already been incarcerated... and given the many millions of prisoners around the world... he would't run out of victims for ages.

The author is certainly right that the story was better in anime format (I don't read comics, so I can't speak for the manga), which I will discuss at some length in a review I'll be writing shortly. Unfortunately, this film wasn't great, but I think so for reasons other than Swagman. His review was written with a minimal amount of understanding of Japanese cinema (see review's first sentence), incorrect interpretations of the film's facts and implications, and a ridiculous amount of prejudice and inappropriate comparisons (hitchcock, kill bill, .the last supper). "Was this review helpful to you?"... No, not at all.

I probably should have just ignored all this, but for better or for worse one afternoon when I didn't have enought to do I wrote a long defense of my review, and pasted it after their comments:

Dear Woopak, Neil Ford, and Advo Ask,
thank you for taking the time to read my review, and giving me your feedback. It has also been interesting to read some of your thoughts on this movie over the last few months. When I posted this review a few months ago, it was the only one. Having read your reviews has helped me to understand this movie a little better, and I probably would have written this review a bit differently if I had read yours first.

We might have to agree to disagree on some of the thematic issues of this film, but I'll start with some of your more concrete objections first of all.
1) Most Japanese cinema does not start out as Manga
2) Light is not a teenager

1). I might be talked into admitting that I've overstated this point. Certainly this wasn't true in the days of Kurosawa, but having lived in Japan for the past 7 years, it certainly feels like most of the big hit movies during that time have some sort of Manga connection. Even a lot of dramas like "Go" or "Always" turn out to be based on a manga in the end, not to mention all more obvious manga derivations (Devilman, Cutie Honey, I could go on). If we throw in movies based on TV shows and anime, I'd be willing to place a bet that this accounts for most of the big budget Japanese movies in the past 5 years, if not most of the recent Japanese movies period. But I've not done a formal study on this, and am open to be convinced otherwise.

2).I wrote this review directed at the average American who knows nothing about this franchise, so I tried to give a brief overview of both the manga and the movie. I knew from discussions with Japanese friends that the manga character starts out as a high school student. In the movie he was in law school, so certainly not in high school anymore and unlikely to be a teenager. I'm not sure if the movie ever clearly states his age, but if you read my review carefullly, you'll notice the only time I refer to Light or L as teenagers is when I'm refering to the story behind the manga-anime-movie adaptation, not the movie itself. That was an intentional choice of words on my part, intended because I didn't really know how old he was in the movie.
Upon re-reading my review, however, I can see how this kind of semantic hair slicing can be easy to miss, especially if you're reading it through quickly.

Allow me to suggest, however, that regardless of whether light is a teenager or not, or whether most Japanese cinema is based on manga or not, that both of these are extremely minor points in my review, and I think an undue amount of attention has been focused on both these areas at the expense of ignoring some of my borader points, and that this kind of nit-picking is not always helpful for moving the discussion forward.

Thematically I stand by much of what I said in this review, although Woopak I have read your review as well and I can see where you're coming from and respect your opinion. I guess for me the big issue is not only what themes does the film attempt to address, but how well does it succeed in dealing with those themes. I will admit that this film takes on some pretty ambitious themes, as you mentioned in your review (death penalty, power corrupts, man playing god). For me though the film didn't really give me any new insight into any of these themes, and I'm not convinced the film quite pulled off what it set out to do.

I'm not sure the comparison wiht Pirates of the Caribbean is entirely apt. After all, as you mention in your review this film attempted to deal with a number of themes that Pirates of the Caribbean never pretended to address. And given how little action there is in this film, it would be hard to compare it to a mindless action fantasy like Pirates of the Caribbean was. A suspense movie maybe, but I tend to judge those by different standards than summer popcorn movies.

I do agree that people are unpredictable, but (as a literature professor of mine once said) they should be written so as to have a predictable unpredictability. In other words, the human mind as unpredictable shouldn't be a catch all excuse for any jump the writer wants to make.

Advo, I'm not entirely sure why my comparisons to Hitchcock, Last supper, and Kill Bill were inappropriate. In the case of Kill Bill for example the only reason I even mentioned that film was as another film that was released in two parts but as a continious story split into two instead of as a standard sequel. I guess I could have written all that out, but I think Kill Bill is a nice short hand way of conveying the same thing to an American Audience. Last Supper, well admittedly not the greatest film in the world, dealt with a lot of the same themes and I'm not sure why it's not appropriate to make the comparison.

Also I'm not sure why you would say my review has a ridiculous amount of prejudice. Perhaps you could explain that one to me a little more.

That said, I did read with interest your theory that Light had to keep killing in order to appear innocent. This was something I didn't quite catch when I watched the film, but your explanation does make a bit of sense. I still think it would have been much easier to just walk away from the whole thing, but then we come back again to the unpredictability of the human mind.

PS--I'd be interested to hear what you guys thought of Death Note II. Although I see woopak incorporated elements of both into his review, the last I checked I was the only reviewer on the Death Note II page. It would be nice to get some more opinions over there.


Link of the Day(s)
A number of interesting articles in the Washington Post recently.
I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.
By Andrew J. Bacevich

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."

...and just for the sake of contrast, don't forget that while the Bush administration has long used rhetoric about democracy to justify the war in Iraq, our tax dollars are still proping up authoritarian regimes in Egypt.
Help Our Fight for Real Democracy By Wael Abbas

And finally this op-ed from the LA times:
The terrorist we tolerate
The administration's botched handling of Luis Posada Carriles says a lot about Bush's so-called war on terror.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man's Chest

(Movie Reviews)

My summer movie blockbuster list (and this may not be original but at least it's honest) is: Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Harry Potter 5, and The Simpsons.

One down, three to go.

Now that I'm back in the Japanese countryside, access to movie theaters is again a problem (I might have to wait until some of these come out on video tape) but fortunately "Pirates of the Caribbean" was playing at the local Nakatsu one screen theater.

It was the first time I had been to this theater, and, after hearing many bad things about it, me and my co-workers were surprised to find it was actually a pretty decent theater. Our only one minor complaint was that after the movie ended we (and the other Japanese customers in the theater) found ourselves locked in. Apparently the theater staff had forgotten the movie was still running and shut the gates. We all wandered around the theater for a while, and tried to estimate the jump down from the balcony, when after 10 minutes or so someone came running over to lift up the gate.
(It was all quite humorous at the time, but maybe you just had to be there).

Anyway, onto the movie review...

I've read several reviewers who complained that this movie had too much action and too many battle scenes in it. But as far as I'm concerned, a summer movie can never have too much action. So no problem there, but you should at least realize that going in (which you probably do anyway if you've seen the first two movies).

The big problem with this movie, especially the first act, is that it just gets too weird. All those trippy dream-like scenes in the afterlife are out of place in a summer pop-corn movie, and a couple of them go on for way too long.

The plot continues to get more complicated. I lost track of who was betraying who, but I didn't let that bother me too much.

Chow Yun-Fat is added to the cast of this movie, although he is criminally under-used. It is a huge waste to cast one of Hong Kong's biggest action stars in a movie like this, and then not give him any decent fight scenes.

Chow Yun-Fat's Chinese crew end up sailing with Will Turner, Jack Sparrow, and the other protagonists from the first two movies, although the Chinese end up serving the same role in this movie as the native African tribespeople did in those old Tarzan movies. They stay in the background, and whenever a dangerous situation appears a couple of them die just to increase the drama of the situation.

But while some actors are under-used, on the other side of the coin Naomi Harris (Tia/ Calypso) is unfortunately given an expanded role in this movie. Don't get me wrong, I loved Naomi Harris in "28 Days Later", but am I the only one who found her fake Jamaican dialect in this movie was like nails on a chalk board? I think I cringed in every scene she spoke in.

And the dialogue in this movie was just awful. A pity because it was so witty in the first movie, slightly corny but tolerable in the second movie, but is just painful in the third movie.

There is an interesting, but brief, scene at the beginning where civil liberties are being suspended because of the pirate threat. Unfortunately (or given this movie's lack of subtlety, perhaps fortunately) these themes are never followed up on, and instead of making social commentary it ends up creating an odd scene which doesn't really fit with the rest of the movie.

Now, that I've gotten most of those complaints of my chest, onto the positives...

Wow, was that quite a 3rd act, or what? I'm willing to forgive a lot of the movie's other flaws just because of that spectacular action scene at the end. The physics of it didn't really make sense (even by the standards of summer popcorn movies) but if you just suspend all your common sense for 30 minutes and let yourself go it is a wonderful ride.

I'm told there are no current plans for a 4th movie, but the film ends leaving a lot of story threads that could still be further explored, if they ever do decide to make another film someday.

And just in case you haven't seen this movie yet, be advised there is a little scene snuck in after the ending credits if you want to wait for it. I didn't know this and left the theater early, only to be told by my co-workers later what I had missed.

Link of the Day

The GOP's torture enthusiasts
This week's Republican debate was a Jack Bauer impersonation contest.
May 18, 2007
IT WASN'T AN edifying spectacle: a group of middle-aged white guys competing with one another to see who could do the best impersonation of Jack Bauer, torture enthusiast and the central character on Fox's hit show "24."In Tuesday's Republican presidential primary debate, Fox News moderator Brit Hume — who appears to have been watching too much "24" himself — raised what he described as "a fictional but we think plausible scenario involving terrorism and the response to it." He then laid out the kind of "ticking-bomb" scenario on which virtually every episode of "24" is premised — precisely the kind that most intelligence experts consider fictional and entirely implausible.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Himeshima Island/ 姫島

(Better Know a City)

(First a couple bloggy notes: Last time I added pictures to these "Better know a City" entries. This time I'm taking it a step further and adding video. Still fooling around and figuring out what I'm doing. I'm a bit unhappy with the grainy quality in which these videos have uploaded on the web, especially since I really wanted to show off the natural beauty of this place, but until I figure out a better way to do this I'm stuck with it.
Because I'm still working out the bugs with embedding videos, I'm including the links to the videos which you can use if the embedding gets screwy. )

Also, for your viewing pleasure, I offer the choice of watching all the Himeshima footage at once here (although, perhaps because of the size of the file, this ended up being especially grainy) or various smaller videos are inserted throughout if you just want to watch certain parts.



Now, onto Himeshima Island itself:
This is one of those places I've been meaning to get out to for some time, and never got around to. I like nice trip to an Island as much as anyone else, but of course making a trip out requires coordinating Ferry time schedules and planning ahead a little...not my strong suit. Those of you with long memories might recall this post from 3 years ago when Mike had a birthday party out on Himeshima Island, and I didn't get my act together in time to join the gang. Typical me.

But, thanks to this "Better Know a City" blogging project, I have no excuse not to go out this time around.

Himeshima is a small island off the coast of the Kunisaki Penninsula in Oita prefecture. The Kunisaki Penninsula is itself considered pretty out in the boondocks, and this Island, being even further out, is famous for being so remote. The image of this place I often get from talking to both Japanese and foreign friends (image mind you, not the reality) is that its kind of like the Japanese version of "Deliverance", where everyone on this Island is so inbred and isolated from society that they've all gone a little crazy.

Despite the fact that there is one JET stationed out on this island, someone told me a few years back at a JET conference that they had gone out to this island for a camping trip, and the Island people were so overjoyed to see foreigners that an old man bowed down to them and thanked them for coming to their island.

I believed it at the time, but after spending the day in Himeshima I've decided that either this story is a lie or its outdated. No one on the Island seemed the least bit surprised by my presence. Or at least, I didn't get any more stares than I usually get in my daily life here in Japan.

Because Shoko had the day off, and because I thought going for a day trip to the Island would be a fun thing to do as a couple, I persuaded her to come along with me on this trip.

Now, ordinarily when I do a "Better Know a City" day, I like to get up early, explore every nook and crevice I can find, and feel like I've thoroughly conquered the city before calling it a day.

However, I decided that one of the quickest ways to ruin a relationship is to force the other person to get involved in your insane projects, and then make them play by your rules. So we did things a bit more relaxed. We slept in till 8, didn't leave the house till 9, and didn't catch the Ferry over to the Island until 11. And then we caught the returning Ferry at 4:30, so we were only on the Island for about 5 hours. If you feel so inclined you can add an asterisk to this entry to note that I wasn't here for a full day. If I ever end up finishing this project and visiting every city in Oita, maybe I'll return here to make up for that last half a day.


But the Island was pretty small, and Shoko and I both thought we had seen pretty much everything there was to see in the short time we were there. In fact we even regretted slightly the fact that we had brought our car over with us on the Ferry. We could have easily done this Island on bicycles, and saved the extra $40 car Ferry charge. Live and learn I guess.

After looking at the map, the first stop we decided to make was at a small Temple on the other side of the island. We went around to the other side (something that ended up only taking two minutes) and parked the car and got out and walked for a bit along the beach.

We soon realized we were on the wrong path, but the water was crystal clear and there were lots of cool rock formations along the beach, so we walked around for a while and took some pictures and video. It was a really beautiful beach, and Shoko commented that the beaches reminded her of Okinawa. (I haven't been to Okinawa, so I can't comment).










Although it doesn't show up in the pictures or video, there was sadly a large amount of litter on the beach as well, which really kills you to see in such a beautiful place. Unfortunately this is all to common in the Japanese countryside. There have been books like "Dogs and Demons" which talk about the problem of littering in Japan. I started to get on my high horse about this.



"Don't start in on that with me," Shoko said. "When I went to New York it was the dirtiest place I'd ever seen. Besides most of the garbage here isn't tossed by the local people, its carried in by the waves from who knows where."

After that we got back into the car and got back on the main road (such as it was in this tiny Island). A Caucasian looking man, who I assumed must have been the Himeshima JET, was walking along on the side walk. We both stared at each other as I drove past. (We foreigners always complain about being stared at by Japanese people, but actually foreigners can be the worst for staring at other foreigners.)

After we had passed, Shoko said, "You should go back and introduce yourself. He probably gets really lonely on this Island and would be glad to talk to another English speaker." I realized she was right, so I reversed the car and headed back down the same road. The JET was nowhere to be seen. In the two minutes it took us to turn the car around he had somehow managed to disappear.

There were some signs for some sort of historical Japanese house, and we stopped the car and had a look around. Some sort of old Samurai lord or something. The house wasn't that impressive to me, but I guess in comparison to the usual old style houses it must have been quite something. "He must have had a lot of money to have a house like this way back then," Shoko commented. Shoko was also surprised that there was no one around. "Usually a place like this would have some sort of ticket gate at the front, but we can just walk in freely here," she marveled. We took a picture of me sitting in the historic house, and then moved on.



Shoko was very keen to check out the local shrimp, which apparently Himeshima is very famous for. They call them "kuruma ebi" in Japanese which translates to "Shrimp as big as a car". I was starting to get excited about the great pictures I could take, but then Shoko explained that they weren't really as big as a car, that was just the expression. They're just jumbo shrimp.

Apparently these shrimp are supposed to be eaten while still alive. You snap off their head and then eat the rest of it while it's still wriggling. It was safe to say that this was one delicacy I would not be partaking in, but even for the Japanese this is a bit unusual. Which was the main reason Shoko wanted to try it; just for the bizarre novelty of it.

Because the downtown area was so small, we kept the car parked and through the town to the Shrimp farms. On the way Shoko commented that, contrary to her image of Himeshima, many of the buildings looked new and well kept up. The supermarket was fully stocked, and we even saw a couple of young people and a few stray cats. (Given how small this Island is, I was surprised by all the private cars around, but I guess the Japanese are just as addicted to their cars as we are in America).

Unfortunately for Shoko we never did find a place to eat raw shrimp (according to some of the locals we asked, there was one restaurant which served it, and they were closed for the day). We did walk around the shrimp farms and watched the shrimp farmers at work. (For reasons I'm not completely sure of, they were driving a tractor around the fishery pond when we saw them).
I was obliging enough, but Shoko could tell I wasn't interested in it. "Don't you think this is interesting?" she asked.

"Maybe the things that interest Japanese people and the things that interest foreigners are different," I said. (Japanese people are famous for going on food tours, in which they will go to a location just for sampling the local delicacies).

"Where ever we go your only interested in the nature and hiking," Shoko said. "But that's the same everywhere. Aren't you interested in how the people here live?"

After seeing the Shrimp fisheries, we walked back to the car. (Stopped briefly at the supermarket to buy a lunch of Sushi, and eating it at a park bench) and then headed out to the East side of the Island.

There was something on the map about butterflies. I didn't really understand it, but we followed the signs down a side road, stopped the car by the beach, and walked along a path for a little ways.

A man, who I recognized from the Ferry ride over, was busy taking pictures of the butterflies. A couple other people were trying to catch butterflies in nets.

I took this video before we really understood what was going on,



but after I switched off the camera Shoko asked someone what this place was. He explained that for some reason this little area (not this Island, but this little section of the island) was a main stop on the path of migrating butterflies. He showed us on the map the path the butterflies took as far north as Gifu and as far down south as Okinawa, stopping over for a couple days in Himeshima for some unknown reason.

At the moment they were busy catching and marking the butterflies so they could better track their movements. (He showed us a butterfly in which they had written on the wings the date and the place). The unassuming man with the camera who had been on the ferry ride turned out to be a professor from the prestigious Tokyo University. He had come all the way down to Himeshima to study these butterflies.

"Isn't it amazing that a Tokyo University professor is studying all the way down here?" Shoko said.

"I think I got in the way of a couple of his pictures on the Ferry ride over," I said. "We were both trying to take pictures of Himeshima at the same time."

"Maybe the back of your head will end up in the next presentation about butterflies," Shoko said.

(Update: We actually later found out the professor simply studies butterflies as a hobby. His actual field is more in psychology, or something like that. Apparently he's quite well known inside Japan, or at least so Shoko tells me. Once we got home and she went on the internet she found some of his books on the power of the mind, and she claims to have read them when she was in college.)

Back in the car and onto the other side of the Island. (The East side of the Island actually looks like it was originally a separate island later joined by the man made road.) We got a bit of a view from the lighthouse at the top of a cliff (see video)



We were already getting to the point where we had seen most of the island. "Himeshima island is famous for having 7 strange things," Shoko said. "Why don't we check those out. It will give you something interesting to write about on your blog."

The first strange thing was a mysterious cave, the oysters from which were supposed to give you a bad stomach ache if you ate it, because they were shaped like ghosts. We didn't actually see the cave (it was on the other side of the cliff with no access paths) but there was a sign telling us about it.

Nearby was the second strange thing, a sign with a story about a rice field coming out of a snake long ago. (Shoko tried to explain the sign for me, but I was only half listening.)

"Are all the 7 wonders of Himeshima island going to be as lame as this?" I asked. "Let's forget about these, and just go back to looking for interesting things on the map. For instance I really want to see this lake in the middle of the Island. According to this map we already drove past it, but I don't remember seeing anything."

We went back the way we came looking for the lake. (Making a brief stop at a temple along the way: see video).



The lake was hidden from the road, which was why we missed it the first time. We found it the second time, but there wasn't much to see. In fact, instead of a lake, it was more of a man made pond. Shoko explains on the video here that it is used as a water reservoir because there's not a lot of fresh water on the island.



Back to the West side of the Island, we made a brief stop at the Nishimura Memorial park. (Shoko explains on the video here that Nishimura, local Himeshima son made good, was a member of the Cabinet in the postwar Japanese government).



With a half hour to kill before the departing Ferry, we made one more attempt to visit the Seaside temple (which we had seen, but not been able to get to, from the beach that morning).

In the end we were both really glad we did, because there was a little path going up the cliff which had a great view not only of the ocean, but of some of the rocks down below we had been climbing around on earlier in the morning. (Hopefully some of this comes through a bit in the pictures and video).









Link of the Day
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called on Africa's Anglican church to overcome its "obsession" with the issue of gay priests and same-sex marriages.
He said they should spend time on more pressing issues in the region.
In his usual forthright manner, Archbishop Tutu told the BBC that the Anglican communion was spending too much of its time and energy on debating differences over gay priests and same sex marriages - a subject, he said, that had now become "an extraordinary obsession".
He said: "We've, it seems to me, been fiddling whilst as it were our Rome was burning. At a time when our continent has been groaning under the burden of HIV/Aids, of corruption.

"There are so many issues crying out for concern and application by the church of its resources, and here we are, I mean, with this kind of extraordinary obsession."


...Unfortunately, this applies to more than just the Anglican denomination

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Labyrinth

(Movie Review)

I was playing poker the other night with my co-workers, when someone suggested we put in a movie . After the usual debating of titles, the gang settled on this one. I was the only one who hadn't seen it before, but everyone else had fond memories of it as a child.

This is yet another movie from the 80s I remember seeing advertisements for as a child, but not being allowed to see at the time. (This is a children's movie, but rated PG which is a bit of a strange combination. We'll get to more of that below). For one reason or another I never bothered to catch up with it in the years since, but in college and beyond I met several people who were huge fans of this movie.

Although I know this movie has a large cult fan base among people of my generation, I think much of that is based on nostalgia. Which is hard for me, at the age of 29, to plug into. If I had seen this movie when I was 7, I'm sure it would have been a different story. And perhaps if I had seen this movie at 17, when I was just getting into classic rock and learning who David Bowie was, it might still have had a lot of appeal as a psychedelic rock film. But as it was, I'm afraid I found most of the film pretty stale and boring.

It's a pity because there's so much talent attached to this film: George Lucas, Jim Henson, Terry Jones of Monty Python as the screen writer, the drawing of MC Escher...(now that I'm no longer 17, I've decided I'm not a David Bowie fan, but you can't win them all).

And don't get me wrong, there are moments of genius in this film. A lot of the weird fantastic creatures are absolutely wonderful, and reminded me of why I liked the Muppet show so much as a child. And the general atmosphere of the film reminds me of "The Jim Henson Hour", (a short lived television that was on for a few months when I was in 5th grade) and so gets a couple nostalgia points from me there.

Unfortunately despite all the weird and wonderful Muppet creatures that populate this movie, the story is long, pointless and wandering. And, as usually happens with Muppet movies, the human actors really stink up the stage even though the puppets do a wonderful job.

The humor in this movie is really touch and go. Especially after all the recent children's movies by companies like Pixar which have sharp cutting humor that can also be enjoyed by adults, the humor in the Labyrinth doesn't hold up well by comparison. Typical example:
"If she kisses you,I'll make you a prince."
"You will?"
"Prince of the land of stink!"

A lot of the humor is also based purely on random strangeness, which has got to be the laziest kind of humor.

And yet, again, there are periodic moments of genius, where the old Monty Python influence seems to be coming through in Terry Jones. Like the scene where the Stone creatures are yelling out warnings of doom, and when they get told to shut up they become sensitive and reply that they are only doing their job.

The obvious comparison for a film like this is "Alice in Wonderland". Which was a children's film Disney released in 1951 and 20 years later, much to the Disney company's dismay, became known as a classic "Head" movie.

I think by the time "Labyrinth" came around, they were already anticipating that this film would be a hippy classic. Call me cynical, but I can't believe the people making this film never leaned over and said to each other something like, "Man, this is going to be such a good film to watch while high."

And this is the biggest problem with this movie. It doesn't have a clear idea of what it wants to be. Is this a children's movie with lovable puppets and messages about friendship? Is this a psychedelic rock musical with David Bowie? Is this just a weird trip? Mixing genres isn't a bad thing to do, but it's a dangerous thing to do if it's not pulled off right, and this movie doesn't pull it off right. Scenes from one part of the movie don't fit with scenes from another part.

And the Muppet urinating scene? What were they thinking?

Link of the Day
Study Shows Grand Rapids Press Iraq Coverage Over-Emphasizes Government Perspectives
May 25, 2007: A two-month study of the Grand Rapids Press' coverage of the Iraq War has shown that the Press over-emphasizes government and military sources and fails to investigate the claims of these sources. Additionally, much of its original reporting consists of overly emotional stories on the deaths of area soldiers in Iraq.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Testing, Testing

Video Camera

Shoko and I recently purchased a video camera. Although it's not exclusively for blogging (we plan to use it for all the usual things people do with video cameras: take it on vacation, document special occasions, send greetings) I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited about all the blogging possibilities it represents. Especially after all the fun Brett and I had making this video.

Right now I'm still trying to figure out how to use the thing. I won't bore you with all my technical problems...well, ok, I will, but at the very least I'll save it all for the end of the post so you can skip over it if you want. Suffice it to say, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing yet, so I'm making a bunch of videos just to test out how this thing works and how easily I can post stuff to the Internet.

The first video I made was a 10 second video of Shoko washing dishes, in which she was saying, "Is that thing on? You better not be taping me." Afterwards I was asked to erase the tape, so I won't be showing it to you. (Shoko is a bit more self-conscious than me about when she appears on the video tape. She doesn't like being taped in her lounging around clothes or without make-up, but hopefully will get her on video one of these days).

My next idea was just to do a little video tour of the apartment. You know, just for the folks back home to see where I'm living and how I'm settling in, etc. Shoko has vetoed this idea until the apartment gets cleaned.

By the way, I'm supposed to add that the reason the apartment is not clean in the first place is all my fault, and has no reflection on Shoko's house keeping skills. She tries really hard to clean up after me, but whenever I have a day off from work the apartment gets really messy again and she just can't keep up. (Those of you who've seen my bachelor pad days can relax however, it's not even close to as bad as it was when I lived by myself. Shoko just has a higher standard of cleanliness).

Anywho, failing those first two ideas, I just resorted to turning the camera on and acting silly. For some reason I thought it would be funny to talk into the camera whilst drinking a cup of coffee. I call it: "The Coffee Drinking Fool."

This is a rather pointless video, but keep in mind I just made it so I can have something to play with as I figure out what I'm doing. Hopefully more interesting stuff will follow as I get a handle on this, and actual tape some stuff worth taping.

I was able to successfully upload this online, but at the moment I'm having trouble embedding the video in my blog (see technical problems below), so I'll just give the link here instead for anyone who's got 5 minutes to waste. In the meantime I'll continue fooling around with the embedding links, so if you happen to be checking this blog regularly and seeing a video appearing and then disappearing, that's just me playing around.

The coffee is hot out of the kettle, which is why I'm slurping so loudly. Anyone concerned will be happy to know that I've got a haircut appointment scheduled for tomorrow. Shoko previewed the video before I posted it and commented, "It's so strange. You're good looking in real life, but you never seem to look good in photographs in videos." After that comment I was a little self-conscious about posting this, but I guess it's a little late to start having pride now. If you're watching this video and you don't know me, just keep in mind that I'm supposed to be better looking in real life.
Other than that I'll just let the video speak for itself...

Technical Problems
Despite the excessive amount of time I spend on line, I like to think of myself as more of an internet couch potato than a techie, so I really don't know what I'm doing. A techie co-worker was kind enough to help me pick out a camera I could easily use with a computer, which really helped me out because otherwise I wouldn't have had a clue what to get.

And now, figuring out how to use it with the internet...

It turns out this little 5 minute video I shot is 360 MB, over 3 times over youtubes limit of 100 MB, which is why I posted it up on google video instead. Is there a way to change the format of the video to something that uses less space?

As for the embedding problem: according to Blogger help, this is a problem that has been happening in a lot of blogs recently. I'll keep fooling around.

Link of the Day
Speaking of youtube videos, here's a friend's youtube page which has several Calvin Airband sketches on it. Great nostolgia. My favorite was this Calvin "Real World" Parody.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Magician by Raymond E. Feist (New Revised Edition)

(Book Review)

I started reading this book mainly because it was lying on the book exchange table we've got going at work. (In Japan, English books can be a little hard to come by, so people will often get book exchanges going). Apparently this book is a bit of a classic in certain fantasy circles. And in fact two out of my 4 co-workers are big fans of this book (and the accompanying series). I had never heard of this book before I picked it up, but there's a lot of things I haven't heard of.

This book was originally published in 1982. The version I have in my hands is the "New Revised Edition" published in 1992 which "incorporates over 15,000 words of text omitted from the previous editions".

I guess I should have learned my lesson after reading "The Stand" to stay away from the author's revised edition. I'm sure Raymond Feist is in love with every word he put down on paper, but in my opinion this book could have done with being a lot shorter. Several whole plot lines could have been easily removed from this book without harming the story in anyway. I've worked my way through Russian epics in less time than it took me to read this book, and to be honest, now that's its finished, I'm not sure what I got out of it.

In the forward to the revised edition, Raymond Feist writes, "I hesitate to admit this publicly, but the truth is that part of the success of this book was my ignorance of what makes a commercially successful novel. My willingness to plunge blindly forward into a tale spanning two dissimilar worlds, covering twelve years in the lives of several major and dozens of minor characters, breaking numerous rules of plotting along the way, seemed to find kindred souls among readers the world over."

Which raises the question: after he's already admitted the book's major faults, is it still fair for me to go after him on these points?

Well, let's start at the beginning. This book is set in the standard fantasy genre setting. Some of Feist's fans (and publisher's reviews) have compared him to Tolkien. He's not in Tolkien's league, but, like most modern fantasy writers, he should probably consider paying royalties to Tolkien's estate, because most of the elements in Feist's fantasy world come straight out of Tolkien: the elves as tall mystical forest druids instead of small little mischievous creatures in a shoemakers shop, the dwarfs as a race of underground miners, the anachronism of having characters based on ancient Norse mythology smoke tobacco, and even going so far as to steal the idea of the Elves and the orcs (or "Dark Brotherhood" as Feist calls them) being related races.

As Feist admits, he has probably far too many characters and plotlines going on in this world of his. Just as your beginning to get a handle on who everyone is, and where all the different races live, and what the relationship between the Dark Brotherhood and the Elves are and all that stuff, the entire world is invaded by beings from another planet. Kind of almost like a sci-fi Alien invasion, I guess, except instead of technology and spaceships they use magical powers to travel back and forth between worlds.

At first the aliens are just an invading host, but then eventually one of the main characters gets captured, and goes back to the aliens' world, and then we have to learn all about the history, politics, and culture of that planet.

Now all this can be part of the charm of the book if you let yourself go along with it, but at the end of the day for me personally it was too many characters and plotlines to keep track of, and too little pay off. I guess I don't really expect any big life changing sociological or political messages from a book like this, but even in terms of plot, once everything was said and done, there was nothing extraordinarily special about this book which would cause me to recommend someone to wade through all 700 pages of it.

The descriptive passages are actually pretty good in this book, but the dialogue is terrible. It's somewhat a cross between the formal epic style of Tolkien and a more colloquial modern style, and it just comes off very stilted sounding. Everyone sounds like a character in a book instead of real people. (I'm told by one of my co-workers that even among Feist's fans his dialogue skills are often criticized.) The dialogue attribution is also overloaded with either adverbs or adverbial phrases, giving the book the old "Tom Swifty" effect.

Link of the Day
White House ‘Strongly Opposes’ Extra Pay for Troops
The House of Representatives wants to boost soldier pay by 3.5 percent in order to close the gap with private sector wages, but the White House opposes an increase beyond 3 percent. The White House has also come out against new benefits for disabled veterans and survivors of military retirees.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo

(Book Review)

This is another one of those books that has been on my reading list forever, and I picked it up several times before in the past before finally getting around to finishing it now. (For example, I listed it as a book I was reading in this blog post way back here, although in truth I got less than 50 pages into it back then).

Like a lot of classic books, then isn't a bad read at all, but it's not written in the modern style and therefore requires a bit of discipline to get started before you get hooked by the plot. If you can make it past the first 50 pages, you'll be hooked.

Although to be honest, I think it also helped that I'm a little bit more knowledgeable about the French Revolution than I was a couple years before. Like "The Gods Will Have Blood", this is a book on the French Revolution by a French author, and so gets a little more into the intricacies of the Revolution than say "A Tale of Two Cities". The book starts out in the middle of the civil war out in provinces in 1793, and the reader is more or less just thrown into the action. It can be a little bit confusing.

The action then swings back to Paris, and if you don't know who Robespierre, Danton, or Marat were, then it is going to get even more confusing. You don't have to be a scholar to understand this book (I'm certainly not), but a passing knowledge of the major figures of the French Revolution is certainly helpful.

Victor Hugo published this book in 1874, shortly after the Paris Commune, which is one of the reasons usually given for why this book never became as successful or as well known as some of his other classics; the theory being that after the events of the Paris Commune the French public was in no mood for a book which idealized the turbulent times of the original French Revolution.

(Victor Hugo himself, although his radical legacy is often forgotten these days, was one of the leaders of the movement for amnesty of the Paris Communards, for which he once had his house stoned by a conservative mob. He wrote poems about the Commune martyrs, and he had a long friendship (and rumored sexual liaison) with Louise Michel, the most famous of the Commune revolutionaries.)

In fact the quick eyed reader can catch a couple of passing references to the Paris Commune of 1871, such as when Victor Hugo talks about how men were buried alive in the fighting of 1793, and then adds "we have seen a return to this recently" ( a reference to the Paris Communards, who were thrown into mass graves and buried alive by the Versailles forces).

But passing references to the Paris Commune are just that: brief and passing. This is a book about 1793.

Although it has been several years since I read "Les Miserables", I remember one of the major themes of that book was the legacy of the French Revolution, and whether it was possible to separate the ideals of the revolution from its excesses. Needless to say this is a theme Hugo continues even more so in "Ninety-Three".

(Here again a little digression might be in order, because I have noticed in conversation that many people who are familiar with "Les Miserables" only through the Broadway musical seem to think the barricade scene at the end of that book takes place during the French Revolution. It does not. In addition to what we think of as THE French Revolution (1789-1793), France also underwent 3 other Revolutions in the 19th Century: 1830, 1848, and 1871 (the Paris Commune).
But Revolutions do not come out of nowhere, and so in the years in between major revolutions there were growing tensions, street demonstrations, and occasionally failed uprisings. The barricade scene in "Les Miserables" takes place during one of these failed uprisings in 1832, an incident so minor it doesn't usually even make the history books. Which is of course part of the tragedy of the story.)

Many other parts of "Ninety Three" are also reminiscent of "Les Miserables". The revolutionary and former priest Cimourdian, whose strict sense of justice and duty forbid any forms of mercy, is very similar to Javert.

As in "Les Miserables" the characters advocating cold justice are contrasted against other characters using mercy and forgiveness. But in "Ninety Three" Hugo adds an interesting twist. Whereas the Bishops kindness towards Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" produces good results, in "Ninety Three" a beggar risks his life to shelter an aristocrat, only to regret it later when the aristocrat goes on to commit terrible atrocities.

And as with "Les Miserables", Hugo goes off on a few of his famous digressions at points. Fear not, however, they are not as long as the digressions in "Les Miserables" and, in my opinion, this time around they have more relation to the plot. But you just need to forgive him if in the middle of the story Hugo spends 10 pages talking about the Breton forests, or the French Revolutionary Convention.

For the history nerd, Hugo's portrayal of characters like Marat, Danton, and Robespierre are a real treat. When he gets into the sections on the Convention there is a lot of name dropping going on, and I didn't have a clue who most of the people were he was talking about were, but I was still able to appreciate the story.

Although this isn't one of Hugo's better known books, his perception and analysis as a writer are as brilliant as ever. This book is packed with brilliant observations and quotes. I actually wish I had written more of them down as I was reading, because so many of them seem like they would be perfect for framing on the doorway, or using in a paper. My favorite was when he was describing the various personalities of the French Revolution:

"Revolutions have two slopes, ascending and descending, and on these slopes they bear all seasons, from ice to flowers. Each segment of these slopes produces men adapted to its climate, from those who live in sunlight to those who live in lightning."
(As a history major, I think this perfectly describes the way a Revolution works.)

One final note: the edition I have contains an introduction from Ayn Rand who, it turns out, is a huge Victor Hugo fan, despite the latter's socialist leanings. She argues that Victor Hugo's books, in contrast to the Naturalist writers like Emile Zola, show man not as being controlled by his circumstances, but able to rise above them and realize true greatness.

It is an interesting perspective, although parts of "Ninety Three" do appear to directly contradict Rand's thesis at times:
"A Revolution is an act of the Unknown. Call it a good act or a bad act, according to whether you yearn for the future or the past, but leave it to him who did it. It seems to be the joint word of mingled great events and great individuals, but it is actually the resultant of events. Events spend, men pay. Events dictate, men sign....Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, Gregoire and Robespierre are only clerks. The enourmous and awesome author of those great pages has a name, God, and a mask, Destiny. Robespierre believed in God. Of course!"

I didn't quote the whole thing, but Hugo goes on in this way a little more. Looking at parts like this, one might think Hugo is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand. And yet when you look at the narrative as a whole, and the greatness that Hugo's characters aspire to, you just might think Ayn Rand has a bit of a point.

Link of the Day
Immigrant Rights Groups Condemn New Senate Proposal To Overhaul Nation's Immigration Laws

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lumumba


(Movie Review)

As a history geek, I'm a big fan of the biopic, but let's face,it's not an easy genre to pull off. The complexity's of a person's life do not lend themselves to being neatly condensed into a 2 hour movie.

This is true of biopics about musicians and movie stars, but it is especially true of someone like Lumumba, whose life story is hard to separate from the story of the Congo's struggle for independence. Try fitting all of that in two hours!

I'm told the directors cut of this movie is over 3 hours long, and I'd be interested in seeing that someday. (If we can sit through 3 hours of "Lord of the Rings", I'm sure we can handle 3 hours of a fascinating true story like this). However my video store had the standard 115 minute version, so that's the version I'm reviewing.

While I would have liked to see something a bit longer, I guess ultimately if you want to get into the details, that's what books are for. This movie was just meant to be a brief summary of the main events of Lumumba's life and the Independence of Congo, and as such I think they did a great job.

Like most Americans, I know little about the history of the Congo. Because I read a lot of Noam Chomsky back in college, and because of the Media Mouse crowd I hung out with, I already knew that the CIA was involved in the kidnapping and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, but that was about all I knew.

By the way, this is another little event which somehow never really makes it into the American history textbooks. Strange, isn't it? With all these omissions in our history, it's no wonder so many Americans still think our government is a force for freedom and democracy in the world.

Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie, shares the following thoughts: Why does the United States so often back the reactionary side in international disputes? Why do we fight against liberation movements, and in favor of puppets who make things comfy for multinational corporations? Having built a great democracy, why are we fearful of democracy elsewhere? Such thoughts occurred as I watched "Lumumba," the story of how the United States conspired to bring about the death of the Congo's democratically elected Patrice Lumumba--and to sponsor in his place Joseph Mobotu, a dictator, murderer and thief who continued for nearly four decades to enjoy American sponsorship.

Pondering the histories of the Congo and other troubled lands of recent decades, we're tempted to wonder if the world might not better reflect our ideals if we had not intervened in those countries. American foreign policy has consistently reflected not American ideals but American investment interests
...

Anyway, because of my lack of knowledge about the history of the Congo, I found some parts of this movie a little confusing. But to repeat myself, the purpose of a biopic isn't to give you a thorough grounding of history. That's what books are for. A biopic, if its done right, just gives you a little taste to wet your interest and encourage you to read more.

And judged on that criteria, I'd say this is one of the best biopics I've ever seen, right up there with "Gandhi" and "Malcolm X". It's a very powerful movie, the cinematography is great, and (although I wish it had been longer) I'd say it did a great job of summarizing the Independence of Congo, the life of Patrice Lumumba, and the role of the CIA in his assassination.

The actor who portrays Lumumba does a great job of giving dramatic speeches (and looks amazingly like the actual Lumumba as well). Unfortunately the movie never really has time to get into his childhood or personal life. Lumumba is already 30 years old when the movie begins. But I think the events surrounding the last days of his life is captured very well.

If you like a good biopic, or if you are a fellow history nerd, but this one at the top of your rental list.

Link of the Day
Remember those photos of Iraqi women triumphantly raising freshly inked fingers for Western cameras after voting in their new “democracy”? They were presented to the world by the U.S. government as an indication of a policy that would liberate Iraqi women and men. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, according to Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed, who argues that the situation for women in her country has significantly worsened since the American invasion in 2003. (Complete article here)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Second grade Journal: Halloween, Indians

(Retrospection)
Now I am tell you about halloween. I was a knight, my sister was a Ewok, and my brother was a cowboy. Something strange happened. After we finished trick or treating, my dad picked up my brother's cowboy hat. There was a piece of candy on the brim of the hat, but no one knew how it got there.

Now my class is studying Indians. We have Indian names. My Indian name is "Spotted Tail." My friend David's name is "White Chief."

Link of the Day
More wasting time on Youtube:

For whatever reason, The Simpson's never really caught on in Japan (the fact that humor doesn't always translate well, that Japan already has enough of its own domestic animation already, etc).

Therefore I'm not sure how they managed to land an advertising contract in Japan, but when I first came to Japan these Simpsons C.C. Lemon advertisements were really popular. I don't see them on TV anymore, but someone put them on Youtube, so for the Simpsons fan they might be worth a quick look just out of curiousity's sake.

(Wikipedia article here)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

パッチギ/ Pacchigi! We Shall Overcome Someday!

(Movie Reviews)

Although the issue of ethnic Koreans living in Japan and related discrimination has been a serious human rights issue for a long time now, it has finally been getting some attention on the silver screen recently (for various reasons, perhaps related to the current Korean boom in Japan).

When I first came to Japan six years ago, the Japanese movie "Go", which told the story of an ethnic Korean high school student in Japan, was very popular here. Eion and I had both watched it on separate occasions, and we used to debate it on slow nights at Tropicocos. Eion absolutely loved the movie. I had my mixed feelings.

To me "Go" seemed like a very confused movie. It wanted to take on the serious issues of discrimination, but it also wanted to be the Japanese version of "Train Spotting", complete with a lot of over the top cartoonish violence, black humor, a needlessly complicated plot, and several scenes which were pure fantasy. (Like a lot of Japanese cinema, this was originally based on a popular Japanese comic book, which may explain some of the cartoon-esque feel the movie had). I couldn't imagine an American movie attempting to blend serious social commentary with all these other elements.

Eion thought (and I hope I'm doing justice to his opinion here) that it was precisely these qualities which made the movie so interesting. This movie never intended to be the Japanese version of "Gandhi" or "Malcolm X". Instead, in the style of "Trainspotting", it was attempting to give a surreal view of the world that was half fantasy, and yet contained elements the young people and the dispossessed could identify with

Last year "Pacchigi!" came out, which dealt with the same many of the same issues in "Go". And , as with "Go", I have a lot of the same reservations about the cartoon violence and the mix of genres.

The movie "Pacchigi!" (given the perhaps somewhat pretentious English subtitle of "We Shall overcome Someday!") takes place in Osaka in 1968, and deals with the Romeo and Juliet type romance between a Japanese high school student, and a ethnic Korean girl.

According to Shoko, the Japanese attitudes towards Koreans have mellowed over time (or not), but the 1960s were still a time of more outright discrimination, which is probably why the film is set in 1968. Also during the 60s most Korean residents in Japan identified ideological with North Korea, which helped increase the tensions. (Actually a large number of Korean residents still identify more with North Korea, which was also a theme of the movie "Go").

The rest of the 60s are used as a background to the story. There's a great parody of Japanese "Group Sounds" in the opening sequence. A disastrous Beatles hair-cut follows, before the main characters turn to folk music instead. There is a high school teacher obsessed with the teachings of Mao Zedong, a Japanese hippy, and some student demonstrators. But for the most part all of this is background, and I think the story could easily have been moved to the present day with minimal changes. (Of course given how little changes in human nature over time, that could probably be said about any period story).

The story is pure "Romeo and Juliet", although because of the high school gangs and because of the retro setting, it does tend to evoke memories of "West Side Story" more. Two girls at a North Korean High School are assaulted by Japanese students on a field trip. The Korean boys respond by beating the crap out of the perpetrators and then turning over the school bus.

At this point the tone is set for the over the top fight scenes that continue throughout the rest of the movie. With all the flying round house kicks, kicks to the groin, head butting in this movie, and even beatings with steal poles, it is a miracle that everyone is still able to walk at the end, let alone have all their teeth. But just like in a comic book or a cartoon, a character may get his face beat into a bloody pulp in one scene, and be walking around fine in the next. Nobody even seems to get any scars.

There is one death about halfway through the movie (as there always is in these kind of movies, as a cheap way to heighten the emotional involvement of the viewer) but that was the result of a car accident fleeing the fight.

And in the middle of all this, one of the Japanese high school students falls in love with one of the North Korean high school students.

There are a few touching moments in this movie. At one point a Japanese student is asked to leave the funeral of his Korean friend, and the request is accompanied by an emotional recounting of all the wrongs the Korean population has suffered. Also there is a good scene where the same Japanese student and his folk band try and play a North Korean song on the radio, and have to argue with the Radio manager about it.

But on the whole I thought most of the movie was just too over the top, too violent and too silly to be taken seriously. Oh, and I haven't even gotten around to all the scatological humor in this movie yet. Well, perhaps the less said about that last category the better.

However as with "Go", I seem to have gone out on a limb by myself with my bad review of this movie. I can't find a single bad review of it on the Internet, and most of the (admittedly few) on-line English reviews can't praise this movie enough. The movie even won several awards. And the sequel has just been released to theaters now. So take my opinion with the appropriate grain of salt if you like.

Update: Since this movie isn't widely avaliable in the US, I thought I'd add a couple youtube links to give the general idea for anyone interested. A trailer can be seen here (all in Japanese, sorry)

The Producer talks here about why he made the movie. This has English subtitles.

Link of the Day
Grand Rapids Starbucks Makes Michigan the Fourth State with Starbucks Workers Union Members

Baristas at the Wealthy Street Starbucks store in East Grand Rapids announced their membership in the IWW Starbucks Union. The announcement is the first by Starbucks in Michigan and is the fourth state in which Starbucks baristas have announced their membership with the union

(I was minimally involved with campaign this past summer. And by that, I mean I attended the IWW meetings about it, and would perodically promise to try and get hired at Starbucks as an undercover Union organizer, but then not really follow through on it. At anyrate, I'm glad they pulled it off).

Friday, May 18, 2007

In My Country

(Movie Review)

There are a lot of great movies about the South African struggle. I've seen "Gandhi" several times. I loved "The Power of one" and "Cry Freedom". But I suspect I'm not the only one who sees a video about Apartheid in the video store and thinks: Do I really feel like being preached to tonight? I mean I already get it, Apartheid is bad.

(Quick sidenote: South Africa is a participating country in the JET program, and consequently I've met several South Africans here during my time in Japan. Among other people, Mike, who was my partner and crime in as the only other foreigner in Ajimu for a year, was from South Africa. Although I should have known better, because of the movies I had seen somewhere in my subconscious I expected all South Africans to be either demons or saints, either dripping with racism or overflowing with a passion for justice, constantly teaching me life lessons and speaking in proverbs. Needless to say, they turned out to be just ordinary people. We had some interesting discussions, but no one seemed to have emerged battle scared or traumatized from their Apartheid era childhood.)

The good news about this film is that, in comparison to the other Apartheid films I've seen, it offers a fresh take. It takes place during the Truth and Reconciliation commission hearings after the fall of Apartheid in 1994. During these hearings anyone who had committed atrocities during the apartheid era could make a full confession receive amnesty provided they had only been following orders.

As such, the film offers a whole new set of issues to explore. Not simply "Let's all agree on how awful apartheid is", but also what is the best way for a society to move forward after the nightmare is over? What is more important for society, justice or reconciliation?

The bad news is that the film never manages to rise to the bar it has set for itself. As is often the case with these historical films, the fictional characters and story the film makers have created don't do justice to the real history. We get a glimpse of the complexity of issues under discussion at these hearings, but then the story veers away to the personal lives of white South African Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) and cynical American journalist Langston Whitfield ( Samuel L. Jackson) and the unlikely Romance that develops between them. This would have been a much better movie if it had stayed more focused on the actual historical events, and skipped the Hollywood love story.

It's not a bad movie, but it's one of those movies that flirts with genius, and then drops the ball, and you feel the disappointment bitterly. It is apparently based on a non-fiction book, "The Country of my Skull" which is supposed to be much better.

Link of the Day
I don't link to Tom Tomorrow cartoons as often as I should. But this one here This Modern World: Convenient conclusions shows him at his usual brilliance.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My Infallible Memory

On our way to meet a few friends for dinner, Shoko and I stopped into a gift store to pick out a gift for my brother's wedding this summer.

Actually Shoko was picking out the gift. As often happens when we go shopping together, my role is reduced to giving confirmation on decisions already made. Which is why I often try and sneak a book into my pocket before going shopping with Shoko.

While Shoko was shopping, I wandered up to the second floor of the store just to look around, where I was ambushed by a waiting salesman. "Can I help you find anything?"

"No, no just looking."

"Wow, you are really tall!" he said.

Living in Japan, there are certain conversations that I find myself having over and over again. The "Yes, I am quite tall," is one of the most popular ones, as well as the "Where are you from?", "Your Japanese is very good", and "Can you use chopsticks?". Under normal circumstances I might have taken this line as my cue to escape yet another mindnumbing conversation, but I was bored enough with shopping that I went along with it.

So when Shoko came looking for me a few minutes later, she found me engaged in a lively conversation about how tall I was. The Sales clerk broke briefly when he saw Shoko. "Can I help you?"

"I just came up to get him," Shoko said.

"He's very tall, isn't he," said the sales clerk.

Pretty soon all 3 of us were talking about my height. And then another sales clerk made her way over to the conversation. "Actually I know you," she said to me. "Do you remember me?"

I once heard a comedian say: "It's one thing if you forget someone's name, because you can still work around that, but have you ever run into someone you have no idea who they are? That's really awkward." Yes, it is. And unfortunately it happens to me all the time in Japan.

"Maybe," I answered.

"We've been drinking together back when you used to live in Ajimu," she said. "You've been to my house. I even gave you a ride in my car, and you told me I spoke good English."

"Um...sounds like something I would say, yeah."

As the conversation continued, I was able to remember a little bit more. Like the fact that her husband had worked for the town hall, and that a Chinese exchange student had also been present when we were drinking at her house. But still, it's amazing how much the memory fades after a few years.

Along the same lines, I had a student come last week who I think was one of my old Junior High School students back when I worked in Ajimu. I didn't have a clue until he mentioned it, and even then I didn't recognize him. Although to be fair to myself, I taught all the grades at 7 different schools back then, and I had a hard time remembering names and faces even at the time.

As of yet I have not made a big trip back to my former town of Ajimu, even though I only live about 40 minutes away. Partly because some of the past trips back I made after first leaving I got a rather confused and unenthusiastic reception. Most of the Japanese people in Ajimu fall into two categories: either they are confused as to why I'm still in Japan, or they are really excited to see me again and end up asking for more of my time than I'm prepared to give. Sometimes its easier just to stay away.

Although I did make a trip to the Ajimu Winery this past Monday to see Shoko in action at her job and to show the place to one of my new cowokers who hasn't had a chance to get out there yet. Shoko was a bit upset that my hair was messed up when I arrived. "You looked like you just rolled out of bed," she said. "Most of the customers at our winery don't come straight from bed."

I tried to explain that I had actually showered, but because the AC in my car doesn't work all that well we had the windows down the whole way over.

In other news, I also got in trouble for wearing shoes inside our apartment. I don't make a habit out of doing this, but sometimes when you put on your shoes, tie them up, and then realize you left your wallet lying back in the bedroom, it is a bit of a pain to take the shoes all the way off again.

"I was wondering how all that dirt used to get into our apartment," Shoko said when she caught me.

"Well," I said. "When you're living with an American, some of these things can't be he--."

"No," Shoko said. "There will be no more shoes inside the apartment from now on."

Link of the Day
Bush met with Dobson and conservative Christian leaders to rally support for Iran policy

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mai 68 Grands Soirs et Petits Matins

(Movie Reviews)

So last week I wrote about how a 1997 French Documentary about Che Guevara had made its way over to the new release section of my video store here in Japan. What marketing considerations were behind this I'm not sure, but I didn't complain.

This one has got me scratching my head even more. This documentary on the May 1968 Revolution in Paris was originally released in 1978, but showed up in the Japanese video stores as a new release this week.

There's surprisingly little information about this movie on the internet (at least in English). It consists entirely of footage shot during May and June of 1968, but for some reason wasn't released until 10 years later. Apparently it has never been subtitled into English or officially released in America, but as of this past week it has been subtitled into Japanese and is in now in all the major video rental chains over here. Why is it being released now, and why in Japan? I have no idea. If anyone out there in Internet land has anymore insight than me, feel free to enlighten my ignorance.

(If anyone is interested in this movie, it has been posted in its entirety on-line here. It begins with what appears to be some sort of interview with the director, but you can skip that part easily enough. The actual movie begins at the 13 minute mark.)

As for me? Since I don't speak French I relied almost entirely on the Japanese subtitles. Which is what I usually have to do when I watch a foreign film in Japan. It's not a very relaxing way to watch a film, but I put up with it if it's something I want to watch bad enough.
My Japanese is still far from fluent (and in fact I think its been getting worse recently since I stopped actively studying). My track record watching foreign films subtitled in Japanese is much like my track record watching Japanese films: very hit and miss. I will watch a Jackie Chan movie with Japanese subtitles, feel like I understood it almost perfectly, give myself a pat on the back about what a genius I am, and then rent something else and not understand it at all.

Recently I watched "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" in German with Japanese subtitles and felt like I was able to follow it pretty well. However with "Mai 68 Grands Soirs et Petits Matins" I felt like I was about 50% comprehension. Maybe even a little less.

I would have loved to understand the speeches in the movie a bit more, but at a certain extent if I wanted to know the details about the May 68 Revolution I could read a book. The point of a documentary is to see the images. And this movie does a great job of doing that. The movie exists entirely of footage from the May 68 Revolution. (No commentary, talking heads, voice overs or graphics). As such, watching the footage in this movie is the closest thing to being actually there.

The camera in this film seems to have the ability to get anywhere and everywhere. We see the marching in the streets, the overturned cars, and the street barricades (if there is a category for the most times "The Internationale" is sung in one film, I'd say this film has got to be a shoe in for the record)...
But we also see the heated conversations on the street corners between ordinary people, the speeches in the crowded theaters, and the student planning meetings. The legendary Daniel Cohn Bendit is shown giving a speeches and answering questions.

The title of this film apparently translates to something like "Big nights and small mornings". And most of the rioting appears to have taken place at night, which doesn't always show up very clearly on the screen. Consequently the director focuses most of his attention not on the riots , but on the discussions happening on the streets and in the theaters, which occupy by far the majority of the footage in this film.

In closing, I suppose what I said about the Che Guevara documentary is also relevant here. If you're a history geek like me, you will seek this movie out on your own without my prompting. If you don't like history, then you won't. But I personally found it a fascinating two hours.

Link of the Day
Wasting Time on Youtube:
You already knew "The Family Guy" was ripping off "The Simpsons", but someone out there on youtube put together a damning clip show shows the similarities side by side.

Also since I'm in Japan (and since I'm no longer living in the college dormitories) I don't watch "The Simpsons" as much as I used to. I had almost forgotten how funny they were during the golden years, until I rewatched this "Homer Swearing" clip.