Friday, June 29, 2007

The Old Man

I've alluded to this before, but it's official now. After 5 months since my starting date I am now the most senior teacher at our branch.

The company is famous for its high turn over, although fortunately in the case of our branch all of the other teachers left for external reasons and not because they couldn't stand the job any longer.

Nevertheless, it has been a bit of a shake up saying good-bye to 6 teachers in the past few months. Even when I first arrived I was already the old-man on the block in terms of age (English teaching in Japan is a young person's gig. It is mostly filled up of people fresh out of college or in their early 20s, like I was six short years ago)....but in the space of 5 months I've also become the old man in terms of seniority.

Because of all the teachers leaving I've had to work a lot of overtime recently. In fact between the overtime and the shift swaps I had to arrange so I could make it home for my brother's wedding, I do not have any more days off until I go back to America on July 18th.

Speaking of which: I will be back in Grand Rapids from July 18th to July 31st. Much of this time will be taken up with family activities because of my brother's wedding, but much of it will not, so start clearing out your schedules now, and let me know if you'll be around for those dates and would like to hang out.

Link of the Day
Via Tom Tomorrow

assume most of you have seen the first two articles in the Washington Post’s four-part series on Cheney by now. If not, set aside a little time and read them. Everything you figured was happening was, and then some.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lucky Number Slevin

(Movie Review)

I didn't know much about this movie before I rented it, but a bit of Internet sleuthing reveals that this is a remake of the Kurosawa film "Yojimbo". I haven't seen Yojimbo, but I guess this is another example of me absorbing Japanese culture through the American remake, (despite having lived in Japan for 5 + years).

This movie appears to have a lot going for it at first. A classic story borrowed from Kurosawa. An all star cast (Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Lucy Liu, Josh Hartnett and Bruce Willis). A Guy Ritchie esque plot with confusing changing alliances in the gangster world. And Tarantino-esque dialogue.

Unfortunately its a real stinker.

Let's start with the dialogue. The film wants to pick up the torch of "Pulp Fiction" and "Seinfeld". At key dramatic points characters will stop to have mundane discussions or discuss semantics, etc.

In addition to the fact that we've all seen this a million times before, the film's writers can't quite pull it off. The whole script just comes off sounding like someone who's trying way too hard to be funny. Most of the time I was watching this film I was cringing out of embarrassment for the writers. Part of the blame lies with the uninspiring delivery of the main actor Josh Hartnett, who's no Jerry Seinfeld. But most of the blame must go to the writer. All the rest of the actors sound just as corny when trying to mouth this dialogue.

There are a few surprise plot twists in this film and a few characters who are not what they seem at first, but that is almost to be expected in these kind of films.

The two rival gangsters in this film are Morgan Freeman as "The Boss" and Ben Kingsley as "The Rabbi". The Jewish mobster faction under "The Rabbi" are such a cliche collection of Jewish stereotypes as to further add to the embarrassment of this film. (Hasidic dress, a Rabbi who quotes scripture and talks about the Kosher ways to kill people, an alert button in the shape of a Star of David).

Admittedly I'm being slightly hypocritical now in that I've forgiven other films for a lot worse when it comes to Jewish stereotypes. But in the past I generally thought that the films had a satiric point to make, or were being deliberately irrelevant of everything (South Park, Family Guy). I guess you could argue that this film as well was satire, but you can't tell me it is good satire. It's just plain dumb.


Link of the Day
I've found the complete movie "Iraq for Sale" on-line here. This movie is a must watch. If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, try and at least watch the first 15 minutes or so. It will absolutely horrify you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We're Headline News

In a half-assed effort to be professional, I have so far avoided mentioning by name the company I work for on this blog. Not that it's a big secret. I'm just trying to get into good habits in case I ever have a job that matters.

But it is probably worth mentioning that my company has been in the Japanese news pretty much none stop since I came back to Japan 5 months ago.

First a brief recap: I work for a private English conversation company. Teaching English can sometimes be big business in Asia, and the company I work for is the biggest private English Conversation company in Japan. Every major city has at least one branch. The mega cities have multiple branches on every street corner. The McDonalds or StarBucks of English Conversation, if you will.

Given the size of this company, and the large amount of both employees and students, and given the blogging times we live in, you can guess there is a ton of blogging, commentary, inside exposes, and complaining already on the internet if you look in the right places. (Both from the side of the foreign teachers, and from the Japanese students. Shoko, who is following in my footsteps as an internet addict, often reads Japanese Internet bulletin Boards, and gives me the Japanese perspective).

The buzzing on the blogosphere has only increased since the company started making headline news, so everything I'm about to tell you has already been done to death, but assuming those of you stateside haven't been following it, here's my 5 minute summary.

(I've highlighted the news stories, if you want to just skim through and skip my commentary).

1. February: Seven Teachers Arrested in Drug Bust in Tokyo

In February, seven teachers from my company were arrested in Tokyo during a drug bust. Mostly marijuana, a bit of cocaine. Hardly something that would make national news for several days running back in America, but then this isn't America. Japan's drug laws are notoriously strict, and recreational Marijuana use is practically non-existent or kept very very quiet. (I have meet one or two discreet Japanese users in my 5 years here).

Apparently some years ago two JET Program participants were busted with Marijuana, and it was huge news in Japan. This was before my time, but they use their example as a warning in the JET Orientation book.

Despite the strict laws and the official warnings from JET Program, I have been at many foreign partys and gatherings where the substance was being indulged. The Japanese stereotype is that we Americans are a bunch of drug heads, but actually we're pretty tame compared to a lot of these other countries. New Zealand reportedly has the highest marijuana per capita use rate in the world, and many of the Canadians I've met (especially the West Coast Canadians) have had a fondness for the grass.

Most people just figure they won't get caught, and they're usually right (especially out here in the countryside in the middle of nowhere). But every now and again your luck runs out I guess.

2. March: Teacher's Body Found Murdered
In March, one of the teacher's for our company, a 22 year old British girl, was found murdered. The murder suspect, amazingly enough, escaped on foot (barefoot) from a squad of Japanese policeman who came to his house to question him, and is still at large to this day.

I'm not sure if this made the papers back home at all (maybe someone out there in internet land could help me out), but it certainly got all the tabloid treatment here in Japan, and I understand in Britain as well.

This is not the first time a pretty young British girl has been killed by a creepy Japanese man. There was the Lucie Blackman in 2000, which is remarkably similar to this case and also had a fare degree of police incompetence. In a case of remarkably bad timing, the Japanese courts found Blackman's killer innocent on a technicality the following month, further angering the British public. (He's still going to jail for all his other rapes and murders though).

As a result, Japan has been getting slammed in the British press. Shoko informs me of the Japanese counter-reaction on the internet, where Japanese bloggers complain of all the Japanese tourists and exchange students killed in foreign countries and then blamed for being so careless. Apparently some Japanese people in the internet community are also angry that the media isn't mentioning that both killer's have Korean blood in them and aren't pure Japanese. (Japan Times article here confirms this has been an issue in Japan's blogosphere...which I guess shouldn't be surprising).

3. Loses Court Battle over Refund Policy

I've got this listed as number 3, but it's been in and out of the papers for the past 5 months or so, so I could probably break it into several stories if I was so inclined. (Fortunately I'm not).

There are a few stories going on here, but basically the problem is students are complaining about being sold an expensive time limited lesson package, and then, due to a shortage of instructors, not being able to book lessons at convenient times, and then getting short changed on the refund. More complete info here.

I don't have any especially witty comments on this, but if you search the internet everyone else does.

Me, I'm just glad the students are complaining about the scheduling and not the teaching.

I'll close by saying none of this has affected me one way or the other in my day to day routine at the little branch out here in the boondocks in Nakatsu. But it certainly has given us a lot of discussion in the staff room.

Link of the Day
At Least Seven Afghan Children Killed in US Airstrike

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Confimation Sunday: Spring 1992

(Retrospection)

This is the photo from Confirmation Sunday, Spring 1992. I'm first row, third from the right.

Despite attending Confirmation classes once a week for two years, if you were to ask me what exactly this class was, I'm not sure I could tell you. I mean it was a class where we learned about God and the Bible and stuff, but I don't remember what made this class any different from normal Sunday School or Wednesday night youth group.

(For anyone interested, the home page of the Evangelical Covenant Church has a page on their Confirmation class here, which is supposed to explain the purpose of this class. Unfortunately the whole thing is written in "Jesus talk" and uses a whole bunch of religious sounding words to essentially say nothing useful. For example:
Begin to understand some of the major doctrines of the Christian faith
Develop meaningful relationships with pastor(s), friends, and members of the congregation
Facilitate parent-adolescent sharing of the Christian faith in conversation and action (service)
...Again I'm still not sure what the difference between this and normal Sunday School classes is supposed to be.)

Anyway, it seemed like a big deal at the time. After the two year course, we got up in front of the church in our best clothes (I'm not 100%, but this might have been my first time wearing a necktie in my life) and recited the apostles creed, and afterwards we were eligible for Church membership.

I've mentioned this before, but growing up my siblings and I were all sent to Christian Reformed schools during the week, and attended Covenant Church on Sunday and Wednesday night. As I've grown older, I have increasing mixed feelings about private religious schools. (I think it's dangerous to segregate ourselves religiously in America. Plus I appreciate the value of local neighborhood schools).

Nevertheless, I do have to admit that Christian schools did give me a thorough knowledge of the Bible. And confirmation classes was the first time I realized the gap between myself and the other kids in youth group. I couldn't believe how little they knew. I remember particularly being appalled when we covered the entire period from the Judges to the return from Exile in one single class.

I wish I could say I handled this revelation with Christian humility, but I'm afraid at that age I still believed in showing off my knowledge. (Actually I'm not sure I've changed.) I made a point of repeatedly announcing to the youth group leaders in Confirmation class that I had not learned anything new the whole year. (Which was more or less true, but perhaps I could have been a bit more discreet about it).

Furthermore one of the youth group leaders once stated in class that during the divided Kingdom the tribe of Benjamin went with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. I made a big deal about correcting him in front of everyone. He didn't believe me at first, so I had to look up the passage in the Bible and show it to him.

(The second year of confirmation, which was taught by the Pastor of the church, and got a little into Church history, was somewhat new to me).

Link of the Day
My old roommate Rob is officially a father now. Go over to his blog and congragulate him.

Also from Media Mouse: Realities of the Recent Vote for War Funding
According to the National Priorities Project, if the $456 billion would have been spent locally:
*5.7 million people could have been provided with health care coverage each year since the war began; AND
*1 million affordable housing units could have been built; AND
*430,000 school teachers could have been hired since the war began; AND
*4.7 million students could have received tuition and fees for four years at a state university.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Departed

(Movie Review)

This movie just came out on video in Japan last week.

Like most people, I rented it mainly just because of the impressive star power of the cast. (Which, in our celebrity obsessed culture, is probably just as good a reason to watch a movie as any). And it is quite an impressive cast: Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and directed by Martin Scorese....Now is that a cast or what? And I know that usually in movies with too many big names somebody ends up being under-utilized, but I thought all the main actors in this movie were given at least a couple great scenes to chew the screen up.

Some researching on the internet reveals that this movie is an American remake of the Hong Kong flick "Infernal Affairs". (I've not seen "Infernal Affairs", but it is somewhat popular over here in Japan, so I've seen the previews at least. It always looked kind of interesting.)

"The Departed" is set in Boston and revolves around the Irish-American culture and the Irish mafia. It doesn't come close to the level of pyscho-analysis that "The Godfather" did for the Italian mafia, but there are various throw away lines referencing the Irish-American experience: "Twenty years after an Irishman could't get a job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace."

The plot gets a little complicated but basically Jack Nicholson is a Irish Mafia boss. Leonardo DiCaprio is an undercover cop infiltrating the mafia. Matt Damon is an undercover mafia who has infiltrated the police department. As the movie progresses various betrayals and changes of allegiance follow.

I don't want to give away too much to anyone who hasn't seen this movie, but at various points I thought it should have been obvious who the respective moles were. And it seemed like everyone was getting pretty sloppy and getting away with it. But that's Hollywood for you I guess.

Also (and again, I hope I'm not giving too much away here. Spolier alert) the climax of the movie revolves around a taped conversation. You know, it turns out that something one of the characters said was being tape recorded and he didn't know it, and he said a lot of self-implicating things. Like we've seen a million other times in a million other movies and TV shows.

I suppose this is the most obvious way to end a story like this (which is why it's been used so many times before), but perhaps because it is the most obvious it is also the laziest. For my two cents I would liked to have seen a more interesting ending.

But the movie definately held my attention for the time I was watching it.

Link of the Day
I'm a few days late in linking to this, but Mr. Guam has a post on the anniversery of the Loving Case and inter-racial marriage in America, which includes a link to James Dobson's thoughts the subject here.

As Mr. Guam states: "Most, if not all sites, come down on the side of allowing it. But they seem to preface their opinions by noting how hard interracial marriages can be. James Dobson states explicitly that while he has nothing against interracial couples, he wants to make sure people know how difficult an union like that will be. Not to sound to high and mighty... but to me that sounds like a pathetic last gasp. If interracial marriages are hard that just means the Church has more work to do to reach out to those couples. People like Dobson should point that out before they focus on the difficulty."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Louise Michel by Edith Thomas

(Book Review)

Louise Michel was one of the leading figures in the Paris Commune, and afterwards became one of the leading figures in the early anarchist movement.

Because of her polemical role in history, Louise Michel is one of those historical figures always made out to be either a demon or a saint by biographers, but seldom given a balanced treatment.

Which is why Edith Thomas offers a refreshing take on the life of Louise Michel. Although Edith Thomas is sympathetic to Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and the anarchist tradition, she fortunately does not believe in hagiography or making saints out of revolutionary heroes. Edith Thomas comes down very hard on Louise Michel on a number of points.

Edith Thomas's criticisms vary from the trivial to the serious. On the trivial side, she notes that throughout her life Louise Michel consistently lied about her age. ("Whether sparring with the judicial system or providing biographical data under calmer circumstances, Louise consistently claimed to have been born in 1836, rather than (as was the case) 1830. This is a traditional practice on the part of beautiful women, but a curious indulgence by a plain woman who--as we shall see-- was never preoccupied by affairs of the heart.")

Another recurring theme throughout the biography is Louise Michel's graphomaniac nature, and her compulsion to constantly write poems and novels. And no literary critic could be harder on Louise Michel than Edith Thomas. (She calls Michel's novels unreadable.)

On the more serious side, Edith Thomas points out that Louise Michel, despite her romantic dreams of revolution, really understood very little of the socialist or anarchist economics she dedicated her life to.

And, like many political celebrities, Louise Michel could be a bit of a sensationalist seeker, and loved the media lime light a little too much.
And yet inspite of all this, it is impossible not to admire Louise Michel when reading Thomas's biography. Louise Michel always gave away everything she had. She worked herself tirelessly for the anarchist cause even after the onset of old age. When a crazed rightest tried to kill her during a speaking engagement, she forgave her attempted assassin and even intervened in the courts to save him. And until her death all the European governments were so frightened of this little old lady that she had an escort of police spies follow her everywhere. (The only exception being England, which she much preferred because the government at the time had a much more relaxed attitude towards political refugees and radicals).
Although Louise Michel is most famous for her role in the Paris Commune, the entire Paris Commune ordeal (from the initial revolution, to the final trial of the revolutionaries) occupies a comparatively small part of the book. Over half of the book deals with Louise Michel's life after she returned from exile and became a leader in France's anarchist scene.
(As Edith Thomas notes in the introduction, one of the things that makes Louise Michel such a fascinating figure is that old age never seemed to slow her down. She continued leading demonstrations and speaking in political clubs until her death at close to 80.)

Therefore this book may be somewhat disappointing for those interested in a detailed history of the Paris Commune, but it does provide an interesting look at the anarchist movement in Europe in the 1880s and 90s. Although the author never takes her spotlight off Michel, glimpses are given of the first May Day demonstration in France (at which Louise Michel was prominent) the anarchist era of dynamite in the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair, and how it split the anarchist community in France, and the Russian revolution of 1905, and the excitement it caused among all European radicals. Figures like Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin also make small appearances.

Louise also had several friends in more mainstream politics, such as writer and politician Victor Hugo (with whom Louise had a rumored sexual liaison. Thomas explores this rumor in the book).

And George Clemenceau (later to become prime Minister of France during World War I) who supported Louise financially several times throughout her life.

I have two quibbles with this book, and both have to do with the publisher rather than the author.

First of all there is no index, which makes it hard to keep track of some of the characters wandering in and out of Louise Michel's story.

Secondly the translator for this book chose not to translate any of the poems in English. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds like, considering how many of Louise Michel's poems are quoted in the book. Not to mention poems about Louise by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.) I can't tell you how much I hate this kind of thing. If I could read French, I wouldn't have bought the translated version of this book.
(To add insult to injury, the translator has an introduction in which she apologies for translating street names into English, and adds: "I have based my own [translation choice] on one simple assumption: most people who read a translation do so because they do not speak the language of the original publication"...And then she leaves untranslated verse on pretty much every page of the text).

This book review has also been printed at Media Mouse

Link of the Day
Via Tom From Guam, Pentagon Confirms It Sought To Build A 'Gay Bomb'

Sunday, June 10, 2007

10 Most Under-rated Beatles Songs

This has apparently been circulating around lately. I found it on Dr. Bob's blog (one of the Blogs I've been lurking on) and being a Beatles fan I thought I'd throw up my own list for the hell of it.

A quick note on criteria:

Under-rated is not a word that is often associated with The Beatles. Easily the most famous band in Rock and Roll history, most music fans I know are familiar with the whole Beatles canon. So I guess when I say "Under-rated" Beatles song, I'm talking relatively.
Obviously I've stayed away from anything that was #1. And I decided to stay away from anything on "Sgt Pepper's".
Also I avoided any of their various covers from the early years, or anything that wasn't a Beatle's original.

Other than that, I just used my own judgement.

Once I got going, it was hard to stop at 10. I would have like to go on to the top 30 under-rated Beatles songs, but I made a few tough choices and held myself back.

In no particular order, the top ten under-rated Beatles songs in my opinion

Links are to the wikipedia articles. In cases where I could find a version on-line, I linked to that as well in case someone doesn't know these songs as well as me.

10. Happiness is a Warm Gun...This song is divided into 3 parts, and the first 2 are my favorite. The beginning has classic nonsense Lennon lyrics.

The second part: "I need a fix cause I'm going down, down to the fix that I left uptown..." I have no idea what it means but it sounds really cool, and I like the way the music goes up and down with the lyrics.
(version on-line here)

9. The Word...Not only a top under-rated song, this is one of my favorite Beatles songs of all time. I've always been amazed that this song isn't better known than it is. It's got such an upbeat jazzy feel, plus a great positive message. (version on-line here)

8. Tomorrow Never Knows...I like George Harrison, but it is interesting to compare this Lennon song against any of George Harrison's Indian inspired music, and see what a talented song-writer Lennon was. This song manages to combine Eastern influences with a captivating rhythm. It just grabs you and pulls you in. (version on-line here)

7. Dig a Pony...I have a hard time not singing along when this song is on the CD player, even though some of the high notes strain my vocal range and make me look ridiculous. Even though I lose some dignity, I just can't resist it. It's such a fun song. (version on-line here)

6. Don't Let Me Down...Alright, this might be pushing the definition of "under-rated" a bit. I know it's a famous Beatles song, but it's not as famous as it should be. I hardly ever hear it on the radio, and it often gets left out of Beatles compilation albums.
Possibly the best Beatles song ever, the energy and feeling behind it is amazing. It never fails to lift me up a bit when I play it. (version on-line here)

5. Run for your Life...I'm not sure how I feel about the misogynistic undertones behind the lyrics, but a great bouncy song. (version on-line here)

4. Things We Said Today...Another song I have trouble not singing along to when it comes on. Especially when the chorus comes along.
I once saw part of this song randomly inserted on a T-shirt of the lady in front of me at the Oita Train station as part of Japanese-English:

Someday when we're older
Deep in love not a lot to say
Then we will remember

(The T-shirt stopped there, but it still made my day). (Version on-line here)

3. Yes it is...Wikipedia claims this as one of John Lennon's least favorite compositions, but the first time I heard it I thought it was one of the most beautiful songs ever. It has a haunting type of melody. I always envision this song being used as background music for a smoky bar.
(um...trouble finding an on-line version. Closest I could get was this cover by some other band).

2. I'm Only Sleeping...I love to listen to this song when I'm feeling lazy (which is pretty much all of the time.) And the weird backwards part is fun too. (version on-line here)

1. I Me Mine...Does this describe our society perfectly, or what? And I love the way the tension in the verses seems to build up until it explodes in the chorus. (on-line version here)

I've decided I'm going to tag this.

I know Jared is a big Beatles fan (although I'm never sure if he has blogging access).

Brett, you my friend are long overdue for a post. (If you don't start posting soon, I'm going to take a page from Mr. Guam and start a "Brett needs an update" campaign.)

Phil, Bork, I know neither of you are huge Beatles fans, but I always enjoy your thoughts on music.

Mr. Guam, you were never one to turn down a list.

And any fan who feels like picking up the challenge.

Link of the Day
Chomsky "Interventions" Interview

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mutiny on the Bounty

(Movie Review)

This is a film I've wanted to see ever since I was a young lad, but, despite it's classic film status, I've never managed to run across it until now. (Granted I never really scoured the video stores for it).

It is a fascinating story, and the acting remains top notch even if the style of story telling is somewhat dated. At times the story telling boarders on being pedantic, a trend which starts right at the beginning with the opening prologue.

In December, 1787, H.M.S. Bounty lay in Portsmouth harbour on the eve of departure for Tahiti in the uncharted waters of the Great South sea.
The Bounty's mission was to procure breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves.

Neither ship nor breadfruit reached the West Indies. Mutiny prevented it--mutiny against the harsh eighteenth century sea law. But this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline, based upon mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain's sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the seas.

Like a lot of old movies, subtlety is not always this films strong point.

The prologue pretty much spells out the films plot (which I guess we kind of knew already anyway from the title). And yet it is 1 hour 2o minutes into the film before the mutiny takes place. And during that time you are just patiently waiting for what you already know is going to happen anyway.

During the first 1 hour and 20 minutes the crew is given no lack of motivation to mutiny. In fact "The Simpson's" parody (viewable on youtube here), in which Captain Bligh seems to almost want the crew to mutiny, isn't too far off the mark.

The last 40 minutes of the film, which deal with the aftermath of the mutiny, is in my opinion the most interesting part. And a good history lesson to all us Americans ignorant of British naval history (although as Wikipedia points out, there are some historical inaccuracies in the film).

Link of the Day
Rep. Agema: Legislation will make Michigan "a more Difficult Place for Illegals to Survive"
June 7, 2007: Republican State House member David Agema of Grandville has introduced a measure that will make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Ignoring their contributions to the state, Agema instead equates undocumented immigrants with terrorists and claims that they take jobs from Michigan residents.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Casino Royale (2006)

(Movie Review)

I was a big James Bond fan back in my middle school days. (And I know that's not saying anything special. Every middle school boy is a James Bond fan).

After the last two Pierce Brosnan films though, I told myself I had lost my patience with the franchise, and I would never again see a new James Bond film again. ("The World is not Enough" was particularly awful. "Die Another Day" may have been just so-so awful, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back for me).

And yet, here I am, reviewing the latest film. (Never say never again, I suppose.) Most of this is due to boredom, laziness, and the fact that I had already rented everything else at the video store rather than a true forgiveness of Pierce Brosnan. However one does need to be slightly forgiving of the James Bond franchise. After all there were plenty of awful James Bond movies that were made before I was even born, and that didn't stop me from being a fan in my middle school days.

(Although there is a different emotional investment when you're watching an awful Roger Moore movie as part of the TBS Wednesday night James Bond marathon, as compared to when you wait months for the new Bond movie to come out, sit through all the hype and TV commercials, pay your $8 at the theater, and only then find out it's a real stinker).

Several people had recommended this movie to me, and I do have to admit it is one of the best James Bond films in years, and goes a long way to washing away the bitter aftertaste of "The World is not Enough."

Still, there's a reason everyone says Sean Connery is the best James Bond, and it's not just nostalgia. It's because Sean Connery was the one who originally defined the character in the popular imagination, and every other actor since has just been trying to imitate that.
James Bond is the quintessential cold war spy, and he never really feels at home in the post cold war era. You can't blame Hollywood for wanting to make more money out of the franchise, but I don't think James Bond has had any cultural relevance since the 60s. Everytime he gets picked up, dusted off, and reimagined again for the next film, he gets more and more diluted. Do people really want to see James Bond in the post 9-11 world, or should we just give up the ghost and create a new hero for a new generation? (I'm not suggesting we forget about James Bond mind you. We would still have all the old DVDs.)

There is also the question of whether the Bond cliche's have been worn a little to thin. I mean, after 21 movies, I think we all get it by now. He's a suave secret agent who drives slick cars and sleeps with beautiful women. How many times do we have to be reminded?

On the other hand, I guess someone turns 13 every day...

I guess I'll have to leave the question hanging for the moment as I move on to the review of this film itself.

As any film buff knows, this is actually the first Ian Fleming James Bond novel ever written, but for some bizarre complicated copyright reason, they couldn't get the rights to make a serious film about it until now.

(There was, however, a spoof version in 1967 staring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles, which I did watch in my youth and have since re-watched it several times. It does get pretty weird at points, but it also has enough moments of genius to make up for all the self indulgent eccentricities. As a Woody Allen fan, I especially enjoyed the parts with Woody Allen as James Bond's nephew.)

With this film they decided to reboot the whole Bond franchise, which was probably a good idea given how lousy it got under Pierce Brosnan. But then for some reason they replaced all the actors except the actress Judi Dench as "M", which is slightly confusing.

A lot of friends have told me they liked this film because it got back to the roots of James Bond as being a cold brutal killer.

The James Bond franchise is similar to Batman in the sense that there is a subset of fans who are always complaining that the character isn't dark enough, and needs to return to his dark brooding roots and away from all his cartoonish gadgets. But, like Batman, the character can just as easily get ridiculous in either direction. As in: "you know he has a darkside, but you don't know it enough until you see this movie".

I don't think Bond's cold side has ever really been neglected. In most of his films it shows up in some form or another.Even in films like "The World is not Enough" there was that scene where Bond remorselessly shot the woman he had slept with.

"Casino Royale" boarders on over-emphasizing Bond's psychopathic nature (I'm thinking primarily of the scenes in the beginning). But on the whole I think it walks the line pretty well, and does faithfully reproduce Ian Fleming's classic line: "The bitch is dead."

The extended poker scenes also emphasize Bond's cunning side, and give the film a bit of high class Casino glitz. And the action scenes are well done, I'll give this film that.

Link of the Day
We've been having a few earthquakes here in Oita Prefecture the past couple days, as Inertbat writes on his blog.

Also G8: Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another Tombo Times Article: Oita Library--The Happiest Place on Earth

Yet another article I wrote for the Tombo Times (the monthly publication for foreigners in Oita Prefecture).

Perhaps this is a sign that I'm already running out of stuff to write about, but I decided to write about the fascinating topic of the prefectural library system. (Oh well, maybe at least someone will find it useful).

Most of the information in this article is based on first hand experience over my 3 or so years in Oita, but just to round out a few edges and get some answers to a few questions I went to my local library branch. I showed them a copy of the Tombo Times, told them I was writing an article on the library, and asked if I could talk to them.

...I should probably have added, "By the way, "Tombo Times" is an amateur newspaper that's probably read by maybe 10 people. I'm just writing this article because I don't know what I'm doing with my life and this makes me feel productive"....

Because once I identified myself as a member of the media, they made way too big a deal of it. All normal work in the library stopped, there was a flurry of activity to see who would have the honor of talking to me, and I was offered a seat and given coffee.

And after all that, it turned out later some of the information they gave me was wrong. Particularly the part about donating books to the library. It turns out the library (for whatever bureaucratic reason) is not supposed to accept donated books.

Fortunately the Tombo Times editor caught the mistake (which saved me from looking foolish). Now the question was what to do about it. Removing the whole section would be almost half the article and it appeared, based on the what the local librarians had told me and my own experience, that some libraries did indeed bend the rules on this and were happy enough to accept donations. In the end we decided to just add this little sentence: "For bureaucratic reasons that need not be discussed some libraries will not accept donated books."

Without further ado, here is the text of the article (Also available on line here).

Oita Library: The Happiest Place on Earth

A frequent complaint about Japan is the difficulty of finding English reading material. Which is true. I personally would hate to add up all the money I've spent ordering books online or buying train tickets to Fukuoka to check out their bookstores. But if you know how to use it, the Oita Library system can soon become your best friend.

If you haven’t yet gotten a card at your local library, this is your first step. Just walk down with your alien registration card in hand, and ask one of the smiling librarians for help.

You are eligible for a library card in the town you live in and, in most cases, the immediate bordering towns as well. Your local librarian should be able to give you a list of which libraries you will be able to patronize, although you will need to register for a separate card at each one.

More often than not the English section at your local branch will be pretty pathetic, if it exists at all. But if you think your library could benefit from a bigger English selection, the best thing you can do is start one up yourself. Fear not, there is not a long and complicated bureaucratic process for donating books. In most cases you just walk up and hand the book to the librarian at the check out desk and explain you thought the English section looked a bit small. The librarians are always happy to receive new books (or at least they pretend to be.)

During my days as a JET I used to collect English comic books for my town library after I noticed how useful Japanese comic books were my own Japanese studying. I hoped some of my students might take an interest in studying English by using American comic books, or at least pick them up every once and a while and flip through them. To the best of my knowledge, none of them ever did, but at least it’s all there now in case any of them change their minds. Recently I have started giving my finished paperbacks to the local library in the hope that the foreigners after me might benefit. For bureaucratic reasons that need not be discussed, some libraries will not accept donated books.

Until the day when we foreign residents have built up a decent English section in every local library, the place to go in the meantime is Oita Prefectural library in Oita city. Every resident of Oita Prefecture is eligible for a membership, and they have a good three rows or so of English books. They don’t have many new books (most of their books seem to have been purchased in the 1980s), but if you’re not fussed about reading the latest thing, they should have more than enough to keep every bookworm happy during their stay in Oita-ken. Personally I enjoyed “Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army” by William Farrell which provided a fascinating look at Japan’s most infamous terrorist group. And “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” by Al Franken which is still very funny even if some of the political commentary has become a bit dated.

They also have an impressive collection of the classics. So, if you decide, as many people do, that you want to use your time in Japan to finally tackle the 19th Century Russian literature or the ancient Greek philosophers, the prefectural library is the place for you.

If you live out in the boondocks and can’t be bothered to make the drive down to Oita (or don’t have a car), you can request books through your local library for inter-library loan. The staff at your local library should in theory be used to doing this, although as with everything in Japan patience is the key word. It also helps if you write the title and author down neatly on a piece of paper to give to your librarian.

Local librarians make the trip down to Oita prefectural library twice in a month, so depending on when you make your request you might have to wait up to two weeks (or longer if the book is currently checked out, obviously). And if you make the request through your local library, you can also use inter-library loan to borrow from any other library within Oita prefecture.

You can even request books from other prefectures, although in this case you have to pay the shipping cost yourself. Any books requested from within the prefecture are of course free of charge.

And speaking of charges…
There are absolutely no late fines at Japanese libraries. How they keep the “due date” from becoming a mere formality is beyond me, but apparently it works for them. Patrons with books a month overdue will not be able to check out new books until they have returned them, but there are apparently no further penalties. I have personally returned books close to a year late, and was fully expecting a large fine, or at least a stern talking to, but the librarian simply said, “Oh, this is a bit late, isnt it? Okay, you can go now.” (Although I don’t necessarily recommend you abuse the system mind you. And you've probably already figured out the same lenient spirit does not apply to the private video rental businesses. I know I sure have.)

Link of the Day
Although not mentioned in the corporate media's focus on violence, organizers of the June 2nd demonstration issued a statement explaining why they were protesting the G8:
*Every five seconds, a child dies somewhere in the world from hunger. More than 800 million people are chronically malnourished. Primarily responsible are unjust world trade policies, forwarded by the rich industrialised countries within the G8 and other international institutions.
*Despite the whole-hearted promises of the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005, until now only a small proportion of the debt of Southern countries has been cancelled.

*Through their promotion of liberalisation and privatisation, the G8 have not only increased poverty in the global South, but also in the industrialised countries. The worldwide plundering of raw materials and other natural resources is being accelerated.

*At the same time as the rich industrialised countries seal themselves off from refugees and migrants, those who nevertheless arrive are illegalised and exploited as cheap labourers without rights.

*The G8 states are the biggest destroyers of the climate. They are alone responsible for 43% of worldwide CO2 emissions as well as being in favour of a renaissance of nuclear energy, which we decidedly reject.

*The G8 states are responsible for 90% of worldwide weapons exports and a new era of war for raw materials. They are the leaders of a world order based on war, which leads to migration, displacement, new hate and violence in many countries.

Little Miss Sunshine

(Movie Review)

This film just got released on video in Japan this week. Since I had heard so many good things about it from so many people, I decided to check it out.

It's not a perfect film, but it is definately entertaining, very funny at times and worth watching.

There are no huge stars in this film, but there's an impressive cast of actors that you kind of recognize from small parts in other movies. For example "The Daily Show" alum Steve Carell plays the uncle recovering from a suicide attempt, although it was such a different role for him I didn't even realize it was him until halfway through the movie.

Although it might be tempting to describe this as a movie about real people with real problems, the hand of Hollywood exaggeration is at play here. The way this family just experiences one huge problem after another is a bit over the top, and probably puts this film more in the category of "Worst vacation ever/Road trip disaster" films (like "National Lampoon's Vacation", "Planes, trains, Automobiles", "Road Trip", etc, etc, etc) than a family drama.

Not that I'm complaining mind you. I've seen a few films that tried to imidate real life, and they bored the pants off of me. I think most of us go into movies if not for pure escapism, than at least to watch people with far more interesting or screwed up lives than our own.

Shoko watched this movie with me, and was particularly interested in the child beauty contest scenes at the end. There are no child beauty contests in Japan, but the American phenomenon of child beauty pagents entered the Japanese popular conscioussness after the JonBenet Ramsey case (which was almost bigger news in Japan than it was in the U.S., if such a thing were possible).

I don't know how accurate the scene of the child beauty pagent was in this movie. Perhaps the hand of Hollywood exaggeration is at work once again. But if half of what was shown in this movie is true, the people who run these beauty pagents and the parents who participate should all be locked away for child abuse.

Link of the Day
Commentary of Emma Lazarus (via Tom from Guam). Sad, but true.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Japan E-mails: Aug 16, 2001

(Retrospection)

More old e-mails from Japan (in the pre-blogging days). On Aug. 16 I sent out 3 e-mails: a few book recommendations to a friend, a group e-mail updated, and a brief e-mail to my supervisor, all reproduced here.

The first e-mail has nothing to do with my life in Japan, but since I've been including so many book reviews on this blog recently anyway, I thought I might as well include them in the Retrospection segment as well. (Also this e-mail, the graphomanic way I go about writing it and the way I look for any small opening to launch into a lecture about my own opinions and book reviews, clearly shows that my personality was tailor made for the age of blogging even before blogs became widespread. No wonder I spend so much time on this thing.)

Any books to recommend you ask? Oh, I've got a bunch. That's a dangerous question to ask me.

I'm currently reading "The November 1918 Revolution" series by Alfred Doblin, which I'm enjoying. It concerns the socialist revolution in Germany at the end of World War I. Doblin mixes historical characters such as Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht with his own fictional characters. The historical parts of the book are great. Doblin is vivid in his descriptions, and he also makes fun of a lot of the historical characters which brings a refreshing humor to the story. Of course, if you're not familiar with World War I era German history (and let's face it, who is?) then there are a lot of strange names to keep track of. I was a history nerd, so I don't mind keeping track of strange names, but be forewarned.

Unfortunately the fictional characters are not as intriguing as the historical characters. They seem a bit flat, unrealistic, and Doblin's portrayal of his fictional female characters is somewhat dated (to put it nicely). Doblin was a Christian Anarchist, and he primarily uses the fictional sections of his book to flesh out both themes. And he tends to get heavy handed and preachy with both the Christianity and the anarchism.

Anyway, there were four books originally. The first one for some reason was never translated into English, so you have to jump into the middle of the story (which isn't too hard to do, although it does give the series a feeling of incompleteness). The second two books have been translated together into one volume, "A People Betrayed" and the last one is "Karl and Rosa" the book I was racing to finish at the end of the summer. Calvin library interesting enough contains a commentary on these books, but not the actual books themselves. The Grand Rapids public library has both books. (You can also get them off line for cheap, which is where I got "A People Betrayed" which I'm currently working through).

Another good book I read this past winter was "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo. The original version is quite long, and Victor Hugo tends to go off for several pages (say 50 pages or so) describing things that are connected with his general themes, but not his story. Many people are happy picking up an abridged version of "Les Miserables" but I have yet to find an abridged version I like. Many abridged version (including all the ones in Calvin's library...I checked) end up cutting out pieces of the narrative as well as the digressions. If you don't care about missing bits and pieces of the story, go ahead and get an abridged version. If you tend to be uptight about missing details, like I am, then just check out the unabridged version, and skim over the parts that aren't important. I think this is best because it allows the reader to become the editor, rather than having someone else make these decisions for you. And once you get started, you'll figure out pretty quick which sections of this book can be safely skimmed over.

I also read "1984" recently. I imagine you've already read this, but if you haven't run to the library right now and get a copy. It's a must read. I can't recommend it enough.

***********************************

Greetings from Japan. I hope all is well back home (or where ever you are) and I hope to hear back from all of you as to what has been happening in your lives.

I'm here in a little mountain town in Southern Japan called Ajimu. I've been here for a little over a week now, and getting to know my way around and getting to know a few of the local people as well. (Although the names are killing me. I was bad enough with names back in the States, but Japanese names are so unfamiliar to me that I have trouble remembering a single one of them. and to make it worse, everyone seems to remember my name.)

But lest I sound too bitter, I really am having a good time here so far. There are not too many other English speakers around. There's one other guy from New Zealand here, and that's it. so I'm trying to pick up a bit of Japanese.

School hasn't started yet, but because of the emphasis on teamwork here, I have to show up anyway, even though there is not much for me to do. It's not too bad though. It's a bit of a rough change from my workaholic lifestyle back in the United States, but I'm adjusting slowly. During my free time at the office I do e-mail (like the one you're reading right now), study my Japanese, and I've been trying to pursue my interest in the Japanese peace movement. My Japanese supervisor has been helpful in helping me find books on the Japanese peace movement, which I've been reading through, but there are so few of them in English. But I read whatever I get my hands on.

This week is the o-bon festival for the spirits of the dead. People have been trying to teach me the 0-bon dance, but you know me, I'm not very good at anything that is choreographed, and my feet are too big to be graceful.

Let me know how all of you are doing, and take care for your health.

******************************************************

Email to my Japanese supervisor:

Thank you very much for you help in locating books for me. I know it's very hard to find English books on the subject. I had the same problem back in Michigan when I was writing my college paper on the Japanese Peace Movement. It is a shame, because there are so many English books on the Japanese Wars, but so few on the peace movement. I think people should study peace movements as much as military history. I hope to learn a lot while I'm here, and bring the knowledge back home to the United States when I leave Japan.

Link of the Day
Now that we've got internet in our apartment, I'm engaged in the continuing struggle to use it for productive purposes instead of wasting time. So far my track record has not been good.

With that in mind I'm not sure if I'm doing the world any good by providing more time wasting links, but recently I've been spending a lot of time on TV Links. (And I do realize that some of you are way ahead of me on this one, but it's been a new discovery for me the past couple weeks. And maybe there are a few other people out there who don't know about it yet).

In particular I recommend: The U.S. vs John Lennon. (I reviewed this a while back, but if you still haven't gotten around to seeing it, now you have no excuse).

Also this BBC program Japanorama documents some of the more bizarre aspects of life in Japan. (Some of this I could identify with, some of it refers to things more focused in Tokyo and the other big cities, and not so much the countryside).

Saturday, June 02, 2007

デスノート後編/ Death Note: The Last Name

(Movie Review)

And back with the second part of the Death Note series.

The plot thickens a bit in this movie as we now have two Death Gods, and three different people with death notes. Also the battle between the teenage geniuses Light and L continues.

Because of the more complex plot, this is a slight improvement on the first movie, if not in terms of sophistication at least in terms of more plot lines being juggled to help make the story more interesting.

Unfortunately all of the criticisms I made about the first movie remain true here. In fact if anything a lot of those problems increase, making the premise of this second movie look even more ridiculous.

The battle of wits between Light and L is interesting to watch, even if some of their intellectual jumps don't always make sense to me (something that was true from the first movie as well) but at its best points the deductive reasoning of L reminds me a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Among the new characters in this second movie is Misa (actually Misa appeared briefly in the first movie, but only as a set up to her role in the second one) who also receives a death note from one of the death gods, and joins Light in his campaign.

Anyone at all familiar with Japanese media knows that there is often a problem with the portrayals of women. Whether these problems represent the exception or the rule I'll leave for other to judge, but Misa represents one of the low points. High pitched voice, cutesy gestures, given to either childish pouting or childish bursts of enthusiasm, and when she meets Light she immediately throws herself at his feet (literally) and tells him she wants to be his girlfriend, is completely devoted, and places her life in his hands. From this point on she plays nothing but an obsessively devoted girlfriend.

(Also the scene in which she is captured by the police resembles an S and M bondage a little too much. I know they had to restrain her because of her powers, but in the real world I'm sure they would have found a slightly more dignified way to do it. When Light is detained by the police, the circumstances of his detention are very different.)

In closing: now that I've watched both of these movies, I do have to admit I did find the story kind of interesting. But not nearly enough to justify the 270 minutes required to sit through both movies. If the movies had been a little bit shorter, or combined into one movie, then maybe I could justify recommending them. (In my opinion, there were more than enough parts that could have been cut out to trim this story down into one movie, but I realize the film makers were trying to be faithful to the original manga.) As it is, this movie series represents far more time than its worth.

Link of the Day
78,000 Iraqis Have Been Killed by Coalition Airstrikes

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Golem's Eye (The Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathon Stroud

(book Review)

It is hard to buy English books in Japan, but if you go into the big cities, you can usually find at least a few big bookstores with a small English section.

After living in Japan for five years and visiting bookstores in Hokkaido, Gifu, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Oita I've noticed it tends to be pretty much the same set of books in all of them. And, for whatever marketing reasons, they are not usually the same books that are big in the US (probably because these bookstores are not just catering to Americans, but also Brits, Australians, and Japanese people who want to challenge their English).

For example I've already written about how popular Terry Pratchett is over here. (Actually since being back in the US, I realized he was pretty popular back home as well, and I was just out of it. But he represents a bigger percentage of the market in Japan). And also the Darren Shan books (which I don't remember seeing much of in the US, but maybe I missed them).

And also these Bartimaeus Trilogy books, which I see a lot of in Japanese bookstore (both in the English section, and also the Japanese translation appears to be pretty popular over here). I don't remember seeing much of these books when I was back in the US, but maybe I just missed them.

(Actually come to think of maybe part of this is that in Japan all the English books are on the same shelf, whereas in America I have to make a special trip to the young adult section to run into them. This series is being made into a Hollywood movie, so I guess they have to be at least somewhat well known in America)

I read the first book in this trilogy ("The Amulet of Samarkand") back in the fall of 2005, before I started up this book review project. As such it never got a review on this blog, but before jumping into the second book I'll give it a brief few sentences.

The first book tells the story of a young mild mannered British boy (abandoned by his parents and with cruel foster parents) who is in training to become a magician. If this sounds like something you've heard before, it kind of is, but there are also lots of fun elements to the book to redeem it.

For example the story is told half from the boys perspective, and half from the perspective of the demon Bartimaeus, whom the boy has conjured up and bound with his fledgling magical powers. And Bartimaeus is a lot of fun as the quick witted sarcastic narrator, who makes frequent use of footnotes to amend his narrative sections. This might sound corny, but the author pulls it off pretty well.

Also, despite being a children's book there is a lot of black humor and many of the characters (both the magical spirits and the human beings) meet a premature death. This helps to keep the story interesting because you never know what is going to happen to a character.

The biggest flaw in my opinion was that the action scenes could get pretty confusing with all the spirits fighting and the different planes of magical existence. But I'm not sure if this is the author's fault, or my own fault for being such a dense reader.

Anyway, even though I enjoyed the first book, I didn't run out right away to buy the second one for a while. But I was in Fukuoka a few weeks ago, and once again saw these books staring at me from the bookstore shelf, and I thought I might as well figure out how the trilogy continues.

This next book picks up a couple years after the first one ended. The young boy Nathaniel is no longer an apprentice magician, and is now a high level government official at the age of 14.

(Which is the first problem with this book. In the first book Nathaniel was an 11 year old boy, and I thought his portrayal as an 11 year old boy was pretty believable. In this next book however I couldn't believe he is 14. He acts like he's a 25 year old yuppie.)

In the first book, brief hints were given that this was a separate universe from our own, but now this second book were learn a lot more about the world the magicians inhabit. It turns out to be kind of a disutopia 1984 esque world in which the magicians rule everything and the common British people are forced to be subservient.

In addition to Nathaniel and the sarcastic Bartimaeus, this book focuses on Kitty Jones, a resistance fighter to the magicians rule. Kitty appeared briefly in the first book, but in this book we find out a lot more about her. In fact, because this book covers a lot of the narrative from Kitty's perspective, as well as going into all of Kitty's back story, this book is more about Kitty than Nathaniel and Bartimaeus.

Because all of Kitty's back story has to be told, it takes a while before the forward story gets going. But once all the elements are finally set up (about 300 pages into the book), then the story really gets going with a vengeance. Once the story finally got going, I enjoyed this book much more than the previous one.

Despite being a children's book, there is once again a high body count in this book (the standards must have changed since I was young). There is a scene in which the Resistance fighters are on a dangerous mission to rob a haunted tomb, and the author really does his best to draw out the suspense as long as he can. And because you know he's crazy enough to kill off some of these characters, it really does get suspenseful. I was completely hooked. And then when the trap finally does spring, the horrifying pay off is well worth the wait.

Although political movements in these kind of fantasy disutopia books tend to be mainly stock characters and plot devices, I thought the characters in the Resistance were all very life like and their internal dynamics and squabbling were very realistic and believable.

I enjoyed this book so much I don't think I'll wait near as long to read the last book in the trilogy.
Link of the Day
The Mounting Failure of Abstinence Education