Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lethal Weapon 3

(Movie Review)

The other night I was in the mood for a brainless film, and, well, they don't get much more brainless than this.

Believe it or not, I still haven't caught up on the "Lethal Weapons" series. Up until now, all I had seen was the 4th film, which a buddy had dragged me to back in 1998 when it was new in the theaters.
Was it a problem figuring out the plot when jumping straight into the 4th movie? Of course not. These films are so formulaic, in no time you've figured out who the good guys are, figured out who the bad guys are, and you're ready to go. There's absolutely no complicated plot to keep track of.

And I actually had a really good time in the theater. The film had lots of really great action scenes. Plus it was really funny. What more could you ask for?

Of course it was also a completely forgettable film. Which is why I never bothered to track down the other "Lethal Weapons" movies.

But the other day, I wanted a brainless movie, and so I re-visited the series.

I started by re-watching "Lethal Weapon 4".
It wasn't as good as I remembered it. The jokes were pretty corny. And most of the humor was strained. (The jokes didn't seem quite so funny, because I felt like the movie was trying way too hard).
Oh well, I guess my humor has matured a little bit since I was 20. Not a bad thing.

The action sequences also weren't as good as I had remembered. But then, even though the film is only 12 years old, that's pretty old in movie years. The bar has been raised so high on action so that scenes that used to blow us out of our seats 10 or 15 years ago now just seem routine.

After re-watching "Lethal Weapon 4", I put in "Lethal Weapon 3". (I figured I'd work my way backwards).
Well, a lot of the things I just said about "4" are also true of "3".

It's funny, but sometimes the movie feels like it's trying way too hard.
And the action scenes are decent, but obviously dated by today's standards.

A fairly entertaining film. And a pretty forgettable one. And not too much more to say other than that.

Except maybe to re-emphasis how quickly movies get dated.
This movie was from 1992, which to my mind doesn't seem that long ago (maybe I'm dating myself by saying that). However, already this movie is so full of cliches it almost feels like a parody of itself.

I mean the whole buddy-cop routine alone has just become a parody of itself by now. Plus the really cheezy jazz music that comes on every time this movie wants to punctuate a bad joke or a sentimental moment is just....just so 80s. And pretty weird.
And the young energetic rookie cop killed out on his first mission--well, you couldn't possibly get anymore cliche than that if you tried.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Democracy Now

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Milk

(Movie Review)

As a history geek, and as someone who gets more of his history from movies than I would like to admit, I really enjoy watching biopics. However they can start to all seem the same after a while.

I'm not sure if this is because all life stories naturally share similar elements, or if it is a result of Hollywood's one-size fits all approach to screen writing.

But there were certainly a lot of elements in this story that I felt like I had seen all before.

The protagonist is roused out of his blissful existence when he becomes awakened to a huge injustice. He rallies others to the cause, and goes from being a complete novice to the most unlikeliest of leaders. However as his dedication to the cause grows, his personal relationships begin to suffer, and at some point he's forced to make a choice between his dedication to his wife(/boyfriend) and his work.

[Although to be fair, the ending of this movie is anything but routine. Public officials getting assassinated is nothing new, but when one public official is assassinated by another public official, who also assassinates the mayor, and then gets let off in court because he had been eating too many twinkie....well, that's just something you don't see in the papers everyday.]

There are however, a couple redeeming features which makes this film rise above the usual biopic fair.

One is the incredible acting job everyone does. Sean Penn is amazing in this role (to the point that you almost forget he's a normal straight man in real life). James Franco does an excellent job. Emile Hirsch, who I had never even heard of before I saw this movie, is great as Cleve Jones.

And Josh Brolin is just an awesome character actor. He's so completely different in ever movie I've - seen - him - in, I didn't even know it was him until the ending credits.

And well the over-arching story can seem a bit cliche, the execution of it is very well done. The scenes are set up in a way that keeps the story moving quickly, and the dialogue is snappy.
The movie does lose some points with me for the overly drawn out, melodramatic death scene at the end. But generally speaking very well-paced.

And finally, a word about what is probably the biggest point of this movie: it's topical nature.
We've all seen lots of historical movies about racial discrimination. And when we watch these movies, we often think to ourselves, "how could people be so prejudiced/ignorant/hateful back then?"

Because this movie is more topical, we don't need to ask those questions. Instead when we see the scenes of discrimination of prejudice in this movie, what first pops into the mind is, "I know people just like that."

The issue with proposition 8 out in California last year sparked a lot of parallels to what was going on in the film.

Proposition was about marriage equality, whereas in the film homosexuals were fighting to just keep their jobs--indicating we have made some incremental progress since the 70s. But one often gets the sense we aren't too far from reverting back to where we started. (There are a number of people in mainstream political parties who would love to roll back the clock on this.)

On a personal level, having grown up in a conservative area of the country, I could tell you lots of these views I've heard first hand. And I'm sure you could to.

To me though, the really amazing thing about both proposition 8 (W), and the Proposition 6 -the Briggs Initiative (W), is that the religious right was actively organizing to take someone else's rights away. I can't understand what would motivate people to band together and do that. One would think that the natural response would be, "It's no skin off my back if gays have equal rights. Sure, why not, go ahead. At any rate, I'm much to lazy to organize and do something about an issue that doesn't affect me at all." (At least that would be how I would react.)

The film doesn't really answer these questions. But it does at least try and expose the ignorance and bigotry of the people behind it.

Update: Loius CK on gay people on youtube--thought this illustrates the point nicely.
and this one too.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein Respond to Obamas First State of the Union

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Hangover

(Movie Review)

This is another movie that I wanted to catch up now that I'm back in the states.

Word of mouth out on this movie was pretty impressive. (In particular I was influenced by this video review here which made this movie sound really over-the-top).
And with a reported 78% fresh rate from Rotten Tomatoes (W)it seemed like it was hard to go wrong with this film.

In the end, however, I was disappointed.

Perhaps my expectations had simply been built up too high. It was a perfectly find run-of-the-mill teen comedy, but it was nothing special. (I say "teen comedy" meaning a movie aimed at the teenage boy demographic. Obviously not meaning a storyline revolving around teenagers in this case, but rather 30 year old men simply acting like teenagers with more money).

There's not too much to say about a movie like this. It had plenty of funny moments. And although I rarely found myself laughing out loud, I was usually amused. It was entertaining enough to keep me sitting there the whole time. Really there's not a lot more to say.

********************
At the risk of sounding like I'm jumping on the politically correct bandwagon, this movie proves once again that Asian-Americans are the last ethnic minority it's still okay to negatively stereo-type.
Actually I wouldn't have minded so much if it weren't for the stupid accent they gave that guy. Despite the fact that the actor playing him is a native born American (W) , apparently he has to learn to talk like that to get roles in Hollywood.

Link of the Day
Chomsky: US Supported Indian, Pakistani Nuclear Programs

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Invention of Lying

(Movie Review)

I've been taking advantage of my brief stay back in the U.S. to catch up on a lot of movies which haven't come out in Japan yet. And this one also fits into that category.

Via the magic of the Internet, I saw a lot of previews for this movie.
For a time, comedy central was plugging ads for this movie off of their webcasts. So every time I wanted to see the new episode of the "The Daily Show" (a show I watched off the internet religiously while I was in Japan)I would have to sit through an ad for "The Invention of Lying".

It looked pretty funny. And, I've been a big fan of Ricky Gervais ever since some British JETs introduced me to "The Office". So I decided to check it out once I got back to the States.

The film's premise (a world where no one can tell a lie) is a pretty cute idea. At first I wasn't sure if they would be able to stretch it out into a whole movie or not, but I was mildly entertained.

I was also surprised by all the cameos in the film. I hadn't been expecting it, but I had fun playing "spot-the-cameo" with all the famous actors they got to appear in this.

Then the movie began to satirize religion, and this took me completely off-guard because I hadn't been expecting that from the previews. But I really enjoyed it.

I had known that Ricky Gervais was an atheist from his stand-up comedy on youtube. If you're a youtube junky like I am, you've probably already seen it. But if you haven't, it's worth checking out. Philosophically he doesn't really break any new ground, but it can be pretty funny. Check out for example "Ricky Gervais on the Bible and Religion" (youtube link here)and "Ricky Gervais-Bible/Creationism" (youtube link here).

I'm not an atheist myself. Rather I consider myself an agnostic. In short, I believe that both the atheist and the religious person are claiming to know things that they really can't know, and claiming certainty where there is no certainty. (Although like most human beings, my views on religious matters are far from set in stone, and I'm likely to give you different opinions depending on which day you ask me.)

But I do appreciate it when someone makes me think about these issues. And Gervais's movie does just that.
Like his stand-up material, he doesn't necessarily bring anything new philosophically to the table. But in a humorous way he does bring up again some important issues.
Is religion, and the idea of an eternal paradise, simply a form of wish-fulfillment for human beings who desire to escape death? It's worth thinking about, and the movie does a good job of showing how desperately people latch onto the idea when presented with it for the first time.

(Of course I suppose the other side of that is to ask why we human beings are created with such a strong desire to escape death in the first place. And why does our biology dooms us to die?)

When Ricky Gervais's character is asked "how do you know all this?" he simply responds, "The man in the sky told me."
Of course it sounds silly when you say it like that, but this is the essence of all religion when it is stripped down to its bare essentials. All the sophistication of all the forms of theology must inevitably trace back to some form of divine revelation.

Although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops predictably gave this film a scathing review (link here)the sensible response of religious people should be not be simply knee-jerk reactionary anger, but rather to engage the arguments raised in the film.

But theology aside, the parts of the film were Gervais is explaining heaven to the assembled crowd, and dealing with their various questions, are just really funny as well.

It's a shame the film didn't stick with this angle, because they were really bordering on brilliance here. Instead, the film decided to veer back towards a typical Hollywood cookie-cutter movie by spending the last half hour dealing with a sappy romantic story.

I know there are always studio and marketing pressures when doing a mainstream film, but I would have liked this film a lot more if they had gotten rid of the sappy love story all-together and just concentrated on the religious satire.

As it is, this is a film which flirts with genius, but then settles for banality.
Still, over all more than enough laughs to justify a rental. And as a bonus it will even make you think a little bit.

Link of the Day
THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS !!! NOAM CHOMSKY COMMENTS

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

(Book Review)

Like "Me Talk Pretty One Day", this is another book I'm reading in preparation for graduate school in Applied Linguistics.
And, also like "Me Talk Pretty One Day", several people have told me this book has little to no carry over value into what I'm actually going to be studying. But because I'm stubborn, I read it through anyway.

I'm hoping that this book will at least get my mind thinking about language and it's complexities, and will help to ease me into the topic. And if not...well, it was a pleasant enough read, so no complaints about wasted time.

After belatedly discovering Bill Bryson, I've become a fan of his work, and have yet to find a book of his that isn't a pleasant read.
(For Bill Bryson past reviews, see:
A Walk in the Woods,
The Lost Continent,
and The Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid .

And this book is no exception. Although the material it deals with might become dry in the hands of a lesser writer, Bryson manages to infuse with enough humor, wit, and interesting anecdotes to make this little book on the history of words more enjoyable than several novels I've read.

As the chapter headings indicate, this book covers a wide variety of topics. Everything from " The Dawn of Language" and "Where Words Come From" to "Swearing" and "Wordplay". This makes it somewhat hard to succinctly summarize, but you'll just have to take my word for it that there are plenty of fascinating tidbits of information contained within the pages.

Having spent almost the last 9 or so years teaching English as a foreign language, I've discovered through my own experience that many of the things we English speakers take for granted can present formidable challenges to speakers of other languages.
I've also discovered, through my struggles with the Japanese language, some of the differences between my own mother tongue and a foreign language.

Another theme of the book, the varieties of the English language, is something I also have some personal experience with, after interacting with the other English teachers in Japan, people from Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad, and sometimes other countries.

For example, on page 177 Bryson writes, "'to be stuffed' is distinctly rude, so that if you say at a dinner party, 'I couldn't eat another thing; I'm stuffed," an embarrassing silence will fall over the table. (You may recognize the voice of experience in this.")
Indeed I myself once committed the exact same blunder -- as I wrote about in this post here.

Nevertheless, although parts of Bryson's books were telling me things I had already figured out, the vast majority of this book was new information for me.
The history of why we pronounce words differently than they are spelled I thought was pretty interesting.
The history of the English language was really interesting as well. (And again Bryson's skill as a writer makes this stuff especially interesting in his retelling.)

The chapter on swearing, which talked about when and how some words become taboo (but oddly enough not why)was also interesting. (And this is also a topic I've -touched on before in this blog).

Other notes:
***When Bryson mocks politicians for their ineloquence, he goes after George Bush senior, and not Junior. This struck me as a bit of an odd choice, until I looked at the copyright, and noticed this book was published in 1990.

***Page 17: "In Japanese, the word for foreigner means "stinking of foreign hair."
I've never heard that one before. Of course I don't claim to know every Japanese word ever uttered. It may well be a Japanese word for foreigner, but it is certainly not the Japanese word for foreigner. (The Japanese word for foreigner is a compound word reading "outside-person".)

Of course Bryson isn't a trained expert, he's just a good writer who did a lot of research for this book. This was one mistake I caught. Hopefully there aren't too many more.

***And one last thing I found fascinating. In his chapter on wordplay, Bryson talks about the French word game called called holorime (W), a two line poem in which each line is pronounced the same but uses different words. Bryson claims that in English we have the ability to do this in English, but for some reason we rarely do.

The recent Brittney Spear's song "If You Seek Amy" (W)strikes me as a brilliant modern day example of this.
I never thought I'd be praising a Brittney Spear's song, and I know she didn't write it herself, but whoever did write the song is certainly a lot more clever than I'll ever be.

(Although as this article points out (link here) they really just ripped it off from James Joyce who wrote:

If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.

In the third line, Joyce manages to encode cunt as well. Take that, Britney
)

Still original or not, it makes me angry that busy-body groups like "Parents Television Council" have nothing better to do than to harass radio stations which play this song (W).
I mean it's just silly. Anyone who has listened to the radio at all recently knows that there are any number of sexual explicit songs being played. The reason this song is being targeted is not because of the meaning, but because a number of years ago, for reasons no one can quite remember, certain people decided to make a sacred cow out of the "F-word" and now devote a lot of time and resources trying to keep it off the radio. To the point where they don't even want to allow it to be spelled. And to the point where they won't even allow the spelling of the word to be hinted at.

Really, guys, with all the problems out there in the world, this is what you're going to dedicate your energies on?

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - The New Order of World Government

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nuremburg

(Movie Review)

Let me begin this review by talking about two completely different movies. Both of which I saw before I started this movie review blogging project (and thus never got reviewed here) and both of which are well worth seeing.

One is a documentary film called "Tokyo Trial" (or "Tokyo Saiban" in Japanese)about the Internationl Military Tribunals for the Far East in Tokyo.
The film is fascinating, first of all because of all the documentary footage they have collected. I didn't even know that these trials had been captured on film, but the whole trial was filmed and you can watch it just like you would watch any other modern media sensational trial.
The film was made by a Japanese film director, and so it has its biases (he implies that the whole trial is simply a victor's justice).
And yet at the same time, the fact that it is from a Japanese perspective makes it all the more fascinating. For example, the film says that the Japanese were not familiar with an Anglo-Saxon court system, and so did not expect to get a fair trail or a fair defense. They were therefore completely surprised when their court-appointed American defense lawyers actually took their jobs seriously, and provided a vigorous defense for their clients (to the point of clashing several times with the court judges).
There were translation issues (at one point Tojo yelled at his translator, "you can't translate Japanese at all").
And there lots of behind the scenes politics keeping all the allied nations happy. The head judge of the tribunal, an Australian, wanted to put the Emperor himself on trial, but was forbidden to do so by the American government.
The lead defense attorney (himself an American) had so many arguments with the court that he ended up resigning in protest.
And at the end the judge representing India voted not guilty on all the counts.

I watched it with Shoko at the time, and it sparked a lot of interesting conversation afterwards.

Absolutely fascinating from beginning to end. If you get a chance, you should definitely rent it.
(It's available in English, although it might be a little hard to track down Stateside. If any of my old buddies in Japan are still reading this, you can find it in most Japanese DVD rental stores in the documentary section. It has an English dub on it, so don't worry about language issues).

The second movie is "Judgment at Nuremberg" (W) which I watched with Bork a few years ago.
This isn't a documentary film, but at times feels like it is. And I mean that in a good way. The speeches and the dialogue feel so heartfelt you imagine they are from real life.
The film, although fictional, depicts a trial of the lesser Nazi war criminals. At this point all the big fish have already been sentenced, but now the German judges and college professors who helped create the intellectual climate for Nazism to flourish are put on trial.
What's interesting about this film is that the defense attorney is given equal time to expand on his view, and the film gives you plenty to think about even though it comes down predictably on the side of the prosecutors. One gets the sense for watching this movie of a reality that is far more complicated.
(Also, for fellow Trekkies out there, an added bonus is a young pre-Kirk William Shatner playing a bit part in this movie--in addtion to an all star cast for the lead roles).

(As of this writing, you can watch the whole thing on youtube--check out the link here).

Which brings me to "Nuremberg", a film I rented hoping it would be just as fascinating as the others, but unfortunately I was disappointed.

This movie is not about the legal complexities of an international tribunal, or the behind the scenes politics that go into setting it up. (It hints at these issues oh so briefly in the beginning, but then it moves quickly on).
Nor is it about the difficulties of placing responsibility on a few individuals for crimes of a whole nation. (Again, it hints at this, but it's not the main focus).

No, this is mostly an "weren't the Nazis really horrible" type movie. The courtroom drama simply serves here as a forum to display all the terrible things the Nazis did.

I believe that these type of movies have a place, don't misunderstand me. No one should ever forget what happened in Nazi Germany. Nor should we forget that this happened not in some savage nation or some dark age in history, but rather in modern times, in an educated, Christian, civilized Western nation. That is a horror that can never really be over-emphasized.

I guess my main complaint is that this movie wasn't what I was expecting. Maybe that's my problem and not the movie's.

However this movie did have a kind of "after-school special" type feel to it.
"Tokyo Trial" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" both treated me like an adult. They presented the world as complex, and allowed me to make some of my own conclusions. But this movie felt like it needed to hold my hand the whole time and walk me through all the different emotions I was supposed to be feeling.

For example, whenever Nazi atrocities are being described in the courtroom, the movie feels the need to get reaction shots from everyone in the room. Just in case we weren't quite sure how we were supposed to feel about it, we need to see reaction shots of everyone getting red eyed and crying.
And they really over-do it as well. At one point, the prosecutors show documentary footage of the concentration camps, and for some reason the movie feels it can't show more than 3 or 4 seconds at a time without cutting to the reaction shot of someone crying while watching it in the courtroom.

The narrative drama in the movie is framed as a battle of wills between prosecutor Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin) and unrepentant Nazi Hermann Goering (Brian Cox). Some of the more complex issues surrounding the trial are hinted at in their dialogue, but the way the story is framed, what they're actually saying isn't important. What's important is how much time Goering is given to answer each question, and which one of them is able to control the atmosphere in the court.

In conclusion, I very highly recommend the documentary "Tokyo Saiban" and the film "Judgment at Nuremberg."
"Nuremberg" isn't nearly as interesting however.

...Which is unfortunate, given that it's a very long film to watch--3 hours long. It was originally a TNT 2 part TV movie, which they packaged as one long movie for the DVD release. Since they had so much time to fill, it's a shame they didn't use it better.

********************************************************************
Actually while I'm on the subject of TV movies, I should make a quick bloggy note here about my reviewing policy. (This probably isn't of any interest to anyone else but me, but I'd like to get it off my chest anyway).
Since I've started up this reviewing project, I've been quite strict with myself about reviewing every theatrical release movie I've seen. TV movies are a bit of a gray area though. Especially if they come out in two parts, I often will classify them as a mini-series and don't feel the need to review them.
For example, the British TV version of Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather" (W), or "The Colour of Magic" (W) were both films I saw, and then decided that since they were 2 part television mini-series, I wasn't obligated to add them to my reviewing project .
Same with the BBC "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot" (W), and "The Devil's Whore" (W).

This movie, however, because it was put onto a single DVD, and because it had been edited together into a single movie (with no ending credits popping up halfway through), I decided to count as a movie rather than a mini-series. But it's a gray area, and in the future I'll continue to review or not review TV movies on a case by case basis.

************************************************************
Last word on Nuremberg goes to professor Chomsky:

"...what was considered a crime [at the Nuremberg trials] was based on a very explicit criterion, namely, denial of the principle of universality. In other words, something was called a crime at Nuremberg if they did it and we didn’t do it.

So, for example, the bombing of urban concentrations was not considered a crime. The bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and so on -- those aren’t crimes. Why? Because we did them. So, therefore, it’s not a crime. In fact, Nazi war criminals who were charged were able to escape prosecution when they could show that the Americans and the British did the same thing they did. Admiral Doenitz, a submarine commander who was involved in all kinds of war crimes, called in the defense a high official in the British admiralty and, I think, Admiral Nimitz from the United States, who testified that, ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of thing we did.’ And, therefore, they weren’t sentenced for these crimes. Doenitz was absolved. And that’s the way it ran through. Now, that’s a very serious flaw.

When Chief Justice Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecution, spoke to the tribunal and explained to them the importance of what they were doing, he said, to paraphrase, that: ‘We are handing these defendants a poisoned chalice, and if we ever sip from it we must be subject to the same punishments, otherwise this whole trial is a farce.’ Well, you can look at the history from then on, and we’ve sipped from the poisoned chalice many times, but it’s never been considered a crime. So, that means we are saying that trial was a farce.

....

...at Nuremberg, we weren’t trying the people who threw Jews into crematoria; we were trying the leaders. When we ever have a trial for crimes it’s of some low-level person like a torturer from Abu Ghraib, not the people who were setting up the framework from which they operate. And we certainly don’t try political leaders for the crime of aggression. That’s out of the question.

The invasion of Iraq was about as clear-cut a case of aggression than you can imagine. In fact, by the Nuremberg principles, if you read them carefully, the U.S. war against Nicaragua was a crime of aggression for which Ronald Reagan should have been tried. But, it’s inconceivable; you can’t even mention it in the West. And the reason is our radical denial of the most elementary moral truisms. We just flatly reject them. We don’t even think we reject them, and that’s even worse than rejecting them outright.

If we were able to say to ourselves, ‘Look, we are totally immoral, we don’t accept elementary moral principles,’ that would be a kind of respectable position in a certain way. But, when we sink to the level where we cannot even perceive that we’re violating elementary moral principles and international law, that’s pretty bad. But, that’s the nature of the intellectual culture--not just in the United States--but in powerful societies everywhere


...Go read the entire interview here.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Haiti, and other stuff too (recommend skipping ahead to point 2:30).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Up

(Movie Review)

Ordinarily as a grown man I feel a little embarrassed about renting children's movies.
[Although to be perfectly honest, this is not the first - children's - movie - I've - reviewed - on this blog.]

But this movie had gotten such rave reviews that I thought I should check it out anyway.

In fact the reviews of this movie had even led me to believe it was really an adult film in disguise as a kid's film. But it turns out it is still, in fact, a kid's film. Although no doubt one of the better and more imaginative kid's films, it is designed for kids and not grown-ups, and the viewer should be fully aware of this going in.
(The charm of a lot of these Pixar movies is that you go in with low-expectations, and then are pleasantly surprised by how clever these movies are. This is perhaps somewhat ruined when the film gets so much hype.)

Ed Asner is perfect as the grumpy old man. And he had a couple grumpy one-liners in the movie that caused me to laugh out-loud.
And those one or two times pretty much made the movie for me--even though the rest of it was kind of goofy childish humor. The image of the grumpy old man trudging on refusing to be impressed by talking dogs and giant birds was enough to justify this whole story. (No doubt it also helps that this is a short film at only about an hour and a half.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky versus young conservative

Friday, February 12, 2010

Better Know A City: Reflections

Having left Oita Prefecture now, I'm going to have to leave this project half finished. (I completed 41 different towns (see index for a complete list), but I still had 17 left to go.)

One never knows what the future holds. It is possible in a few years I might someday find myself back in the area, and I might someday yet finish this project up. But for now, I'm stopping.

Even without finishing, I still completed 41 different cities on this project. And now I'm a little unsure if this represents an accomplishment to be proud of, or an eccentricity to apologize for.

It was no doubt a heavy investment in time. Each one of those 41 cities was a whole day in itself. As I got farther and farther away from my home base in Nakatsu, driving time reached as much as 3 hours each way. And sorting through my maps, notes, pictures and video afterwards often took the better part of a second day.

And yet, the project had its rewards as well. When I felt the sun shining on my back, or smelled the ocean, or felt the wind on my face, or saw the view from a mountain, I often felt like it was the most alive I had felt all week, and that I was living life to the fullest.
The appeal of exploring a new area, or hiking around outdoors, is perhaps something that can't be explained to the uninitiated. If you enjoy sight-seeing, than you don't need me to explain its appeal to you. On the other hand, if you dislike it, I'm not sure I could explain why I do it.

And for what it's worth, I also saw some truly breathtaking areas of beauty, that I most likely would never have seen otherwise.

But this only explains half of my eccentricity. I suppose the next question is: given what a headache it is to sort through notes, photos, and videos, why do a blog post on each city? Why not just hike around in it and call it good?
Well, as I said when I first started this project, after years of wandering around Japan aimlessly, I wanted to give my expeditions a bit more structure and purpose. And I enjoyed keeping a record of where I had gone and what I had done.

Journalling, like hiking, perhaps can not be explained to the uniniated. If you suffer from the same compulsion, I'm sure you already know what I'm talking about. Otherwise it's probably useless to try and explain it further.

This was a project I undertook to challenge myself, and to keep myself intellectually occupied after I had stayed in Japan way too long, and was in danger of getting bored.

Therefore this is something I did primarily for my own benefit, and if it doesn't entirely make sense to anyone else, that's OK.

Although I suppose I would be lying if I said there weren't times when I was trying to engage other people.

Blogging is sometimes a bit ambigous that way.
All private journals are written for the writers benefit. All published works are written for the reader's benefit. Blogging, at least the sort of blogging I do, walks an awkward line in between. There were times when I was writing about wrong turns I took on back country roads not so much because I thought it would be interesting to someone else, but because I was trying to keep a thorough record for my own benefit.

However, especially once I added pictures and videos to this blog, there were times when I went out of my way to get pictures of an area because I wanted other people to be able to see what I had seen.

The idea that I was filling a blogging niche on the less-travelled road of Oita prefecture also appealed to me. Although there is very little truly virgin ground left on the internet these days. Just about every place I wrote about or photographed is already up on the Internet somewhere. (And that is why I often included links to other webpages at the bottom of each post-- to acknowledge people who had written about these areas before me).

Even though I get no sort of benefit from documenting every city in Oita prefecture, now that I've gotten started the anal rententive part of me really hates to leave this project half finished. So I'm leaving the door open for the possibility that I might someday return to finish it, should the fancy strike me (In a couple years, or 5, or 10, or maybe 15).

To that end, here is a list of the remaining 17 towns I never got around to.

In Hita district
1. Kamitsue-Mura

In Oita district
2. Notsuhara-Machi

In Yufu district
3. Hasama-Machi
4. Shonai Machi

In Taketa district
5. Ogi-Machi
6. Kuju-Machi
7. Naoiri-Machi

In Bungo Ono District
8. Kiyokawa Mura
9. Asaji-Machi
10. Ono-Machi
11. Chitose-Machi
12. Inukai-Machi

In Usuki Distric
13. Nostu-Machi

In Saiki City
14. Yayoi-Machi
15. Honjo-Mura
16. Ume-Machi
17. Naokawa-Mura

If I want to get even more anal-retentive about this, I should add the first few towns I did don't have any pictures or video to go along with them. So I should probably redo Nakatsu, Usa, Bungo-Takeda and Sanko-Mura. (Even though I did later add some additions to Usa and additions to Nakatsu, neither of those were very thorough. In Nakatsu in particular I never got the main part of the city.)

I never had video for my post on Matama. And I didn't have good definition photographs for my post on Kitsuki. Although probably both of those posts are adequate as they are.

I did a real poor job on Oita city (stayed entirely within a small radius from the station, and was inside most of that time.) That might be flagged for a redo.

And if you really want to get picky, during the grey months of winter the towns were all drab. So I was unable to capture the beauty of any of the towns I did in the winter months (Yamaga, Kakaji, Hiji, and Kitsuki (again)...and perhaps Ajimu, which is unfortunate because this was my home as a JET. It's actually a very beautiful place, although you wouldn't necessarily know that from my blog post.)

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Geithner

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nakatsue Village / 中津江村

(Better Know a City)

[Editor's note: this is the last "Better Know a City" trip I did before I got really burned out on the whole thing. As a result, it has been about 6 months between when I originally toured Nakatsue, and the time it has taken me to write up this post. Obviously the memory gets a little faulty after 6 months. Certain parts of this may not be lacking in detail where the memory gets a little hazy, but hopefully the pictures and video will make up for what this post may lack in description. After sorting through my old notes, I'm reasonably sure I got all the photos in the right places. Anyone who notices an error can feel free to correct me in the comments section.
And, this is it. This is my last "Better Know a City" entry.]

Monday, September 21, 2009
For a long time, I would always get Nakatsue Village and Nakatsu city mixed up. Aside from the little "e" at the end, they're spelled almost exactly the same, and the pronunciation is just as similar. It's just asking for confusion to have two towns in the same prefecture with such similar names. But no one consulted me when they were naming these towns.

Nakatsue Village is located close to Hita, and when I was staying in Hita and bored, I think I drove through it a couple of times.

Also way back during my first year on JET in the spring of 2002 I participated in the annual JET cycling ride. We cycled through Nakatsue Village, and spent the night at a Nakatsue campground. (Well, campground in the Japanese sense at least--meaning we stayed at a lodge rather than a hotel).

This was right when Japan was gearing up to host the 2002 World Cup. Nakatsue Village had been chosen, for some reason, to host the Cameroon soccer team. In fact, the campground where we were staying at was going to be where the Cameroon soccer team would stay and practice during the summer, and preparations for the Cameroon team's arrival were already underway. We were instructed to be on our best behaviour and not mess anything up.

Also already throughout Nakatsue village there were several signs up welcoming the Cameroon team. Many of these signs were written in French (apparently the national language of Cameroon).
Not all Japanese towns were given the privilege of hosting a soccer team, so the Cameroon team was Nakatsue's big claim to fame that year.
After the trip, when I got back to my office and mentioned we had stayed in Nakatsue there was first the usual confusion over weather I meant Nakatsu or Nakatsue. Then they immediately mentioned "Ah, the Cameroon soccer team."

7 years later, Nakatsue Village is still actively advertising its association with Cameroon, and you still see Cameroon's flag prominently displayed, and random signs written in French.

Driving down from Nakatsu city, Nakatsue Village was almost 2 hours away. I had to drive down to Hita first, then from Hita through Oyama before finally crossing over into Nakatsue Village.

Shortly after arriving, there was a dam (Shimouke dam) and a little park built around it (Hachisu Koen), so I stopped here to stretch my legs and take a few pictures.

There was a small information center for Shimouke dam where you could wander through and take pamphlets. So I tried to find as many pamphlets on Nakatsue as I could. (Because Nakatsue was a small village, there weren't many pamphlets just on Nakatsue itself, but there were a lot of pamphlets on the greater area.)

I walked around and taking some pictures (and interacting with a few children who wanted to practice their English on me).
















There was a small cafe near the lake, and I stopped in to get a cup of coffee.



The cafe had lots of antique furniture there would could look at.

The woman there served me a free piece of banana cake as well. "We have extra banana cake," she explained. "Please, have a piece."

She also asked me if I was an artist. "Me? No, nothing of the sort," I responded.

"I thought I saw you drawing in your notebook outside," she said. And I explained that I had simply been writing down the names of the signs.
While I was drinking my coffee, a number of people were coming in and out of the cafe giving gifts, and the woman explained that this was because it was Respect for the Aged day (W).

After this, I set out to visit Taio no Kinzan (Taio goldmine). Taio Goldmine is the biggest attraction in Nakatsue-Mura, and they have signs for it from miles away. Driving through the Hita area, I've seen the signs a lot over the years, but for some reason never made it out to the goldmine.

I followed the signs, and drove to the goldmine. As I drove up the hill, the Cameron theme of Nakatsue-Mura became more and more apparent, and there were several signs in French.

Despite being located out in the middle of nowhere, the Taio Goldmine was incredibly busy. This was probably because I had visited during "Silver Week" (W). There were uniformed men directing the traffic who showed me where they wanted me to park. There were lots of motorcycles parked there (apparently a lot of people go touring on motorcycle during Silver Week). And the car license plates were from all over Japan. (Again, pretty impressive for a little tourist resort up in the middle of nowhere).








There was a big sign in the parking lot, proclaiming in big letters that Nakatsue-Mura was "the Switzerland of Asia." In smaller letters was written the explanation that the Cameroon ambassador had come to visit Nakatsue-Mura, and said it reminded him of his hometown. (And I guess the Cameroon ambassador must have had some Swiss connection. I don't know, maybe I read the sign wrong.)



There were several shops on the way to the goldmine. There was also a building where (for the price of admission) you could sift through the sands and look for gold yourself.
This seemed to be quite popular with people, but I passed it by. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with gold even if I found some.



I continued on towards the Taio Goldmine.
I was a little bit confused about where to buy the ticket once I got to the entrance, and when I finally found the ticket booth, they seemed almost reluctant to sell it to me. "It's 1,000 yen to go in. Are you sure?" the lady asked me.

Before getting to the actual goldmine, I had to walk through a couple non-related (as far as I could tell) exhibits, like a dinosaur exhibit. There was also a display indicating that the Mayor of Nakatsue (Yasumu Sakamoto) had been awarded the medal of the knights of Cameroon.

At the entrance to the actual Taio goldmine, they gave me a set of earphones. There was also a small box which hung from around my neck. As I walked through the Taio goldmine, the box was supposed to pick up the various radio signals, and broadcast the appropriate information into my ears. So I guess a free audio-tour is included in the price of admission.

I asked if they had an English version of the audio. They did not, but they did, however, give me a written English translation of the Japanese audio, running 12 pages.
--Which I never even read, so I guess it was kind of a waste of paper. The beginning starts out with:

Taiokinzan--Tour Guide Script
(Girl Voice): Welcome to the Underground Museum, Taiokinzan!
(Boy Voice): At Taiokinzan's prime, this serene locaction--a mountain covered by teh verdant foliage of ceder trees--reverberated with the joyfull cries of people who gathered here in search of gold.
(G): Now, this part of earth relives as "Underground Museum: Taiokinzan" and welcomes visitors like you.
The entire mine tunnel is approximately 1 kilometer, or 0.6 miles, long and is divided into nine areas. The tour will take about 40 minutes. The first half is a recreation of the mining process during the Showa period, and the second half is a recreation of the mining during the Edo period.
(B) Step one foot inside the mine tunnels and there you'll discover the surviving dreams and romantic sentiment of the "yama-otoko", or "mountain men"--the name give to mine workers in Japan.

And on it goes for 12 pages.

I dutifully wore the earphones at first, trying to gain every useful piece of information that I could. But after about 5 minutes, I decided I was sick of this extra noise in my ear, and just took them off.

Almost everyone else around me seemed to follow the same pattern. Everyone had the earphones on for the first five minutes or so, but everyone took them off after that.

There were a few things to see before entering the tunnel, like a water mill (complete with an English explanation).



And then I went through the tunnel, and I was in the cave.
As opposed to the hot weather outside, it was actually nice and cool inside the cave. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. (Although on the downside there were a lot of kids crying and yelling, and that sound reverberated off the walls of the cave. But this was probably worse than normal because it was a public holiday).

The place was, as advertised, essentially a museum underground. There were various mannequins in poses to illustrate what life was like for mine workers of that time. (Some of them were even primitive animatronics that moved a little bit).

For the most part, I'm going to let the videos and pictures speak for themselves, without recounting every single thing I saw in that cave. But it was pretty cool.

























Just a couple quick notes: according to one sign (if I read it correctly) at one point there was a Japanese television drama about a mine worker, and parts of it were filmed in this cave. I thought that was kind of cool.

And one of the tunnels (although they had it blocked off) appeared to lead over to the neighboring town in Fukuoka prefecture.

And, despite many low hanging areas, I managed to somehow miraculously get through the whole place without banging my head once.

At the end of the gold mine there was, included in the price of admission, a museum dedicated to beetles. (Again, not sure what the connection is).

Historically, the goldmine had at one time been owned by an Englishman named Hans Hunter (maybe around the turn of the century or so) and according to the sign, to this day Nakatsue-Mura keeps up an exchange with mining towns in Wales.

After touring the mining areas, I went to the Taio Kinzan resturant to get some food. They were incredibly busy, but I managed to find a seat at the long bar facing the window.

I ordered the "Miner's Curry", and this took an eternity for them to get it to me. Fortunately I had a good book with me. (I was still chugging my way through "War and Peace" at the time). Just when I was about to give up and leave without my food, they came out with my Miner's Curry.

I'm not quite sure it was worth the wait, but it was pretty tasty.

There was a shrine on the hill located next to the goldmine, and I went through the trouble of climbing up and exploring the different paths. From the top I got a scenic view of....well, of the Taio Goldmine parking lot. I'm not sure it was worth the climb up, but I got a few pictures anyway.








And with that, I left the Taio Goldmine area.

The Taio Goldmine is the high point of Nakatsue-Mura. Once I had left it behind the rest of the afternoon I was really struggling to find things worth seeing.

Driving down the road I saw a sign for a place called "Camp Cameroon", and I turned off the road to check it out.
I suspected this might have been the campground I had stayed at in 2002 on the JET biketrip, and indeed it was. (The very steep driveway going up gave it away. Even though it has been 7 years, I still remember struggling up that hill after a long day of biking).
Apparently since I had been there last, they had renamed themselves Camp Cameroon in honor of the Cameroon soccer team that stayed there once.

There was some sort of high school soccer event going on in the soccer field. High school teams were out practicing, and even more high school kids were arriving.

I got a few looks as I walked around taking pictures, but for the most part they ignored me and I did my best to stay out of everyone's way.










There was a statue of a lion there with the inscription underneath: "Les Lions Indomptables (Bon Courage!)."

I drove next to the town hall in the hopes of getting some more pamphlets or tourist stuff. But the town hall was closed. (I should have known. It was a public holiday).



Ordinarily the town hall represents the town center, and I would usually walk around and just try and take in the town atmosphere. But here there was absolutely no town center. This town hall was located on a mountain road with no shoulder, and the cars would come zooming down the road. I walked around the outside of the town hall a little bit, but there was nothing to see, and I didn't feel safe walking down the road.

Next, I stopped at a small temple called Denraijiteien, and walked around the temple grounds and looked at the garden.
Ordinarily walking around the temple grounds is free, but there was a sign here about paying an admission fee.
Nobody seemed to be around to collect it, however, so I just ignored the sign.








While I was there, a tour group came through. I wasn't sure if these were paying customers or not. A priest was showing them around, and I got a few looks, but nobody asked me to pay anything.

Next I followed the signs to Kogawakoen (Public River Park?).

Despite being on the maps, there was absolutely nothing here. Driving through I saw absolutely nothing, so I parked the car and walked around to see if I had missed anything the first time.



There was a Log House Roller Skating building, or at least there was supposed to be according to the signs, but the place had obviously been abandoned a long time ago and feel into disrepair.
This was very typical of the Japanese countryside, especially the last 50 years as there has been a huge exodus of young people to the big cities. All the areas that have been built for families or children have been left to rot. It's possible to imagine that at one time this might have been a cool place to hang out way back when.



A little bit further down was another park: actually this was just a big red bridge going across the river, and a few park benches underneath.







But I was running out of places to visit, so I stopped here to kill some time. I read my book on the park bench while I looked out on the river.

Next, I found a few more scenic overlooks of the lake.





Around 4:30, The last stop I made was at a coffee shop overlooking Shimouke lake.



(This was my second stop in a coffee shop for the day, but I felt like I had exhausted all the sight-seeing possibilities Nakatsue-Mura had to offer).

A woman behind the counter, the owner apparently, directed me towards a seat near the back where I had a view of the lake.
On the wall hung an autographed picture of Yukorin in this same coffee shop with the owner. (I had no idea who Yukorin was, but when I asked about it I the owner told me Yukorin was a famous Japanese television celebrity from Tokyo, who had visited this shop last year on September.)

After a while, the owner's nephew and niece came into the shop, and she directed them over to my table. "Oh, good, you can speak English," she said. "Go talk to this foreigner, will you."

So, they came over to my table to talk to me for a while.
They were quite nice folks--about my age (a couple years younger maybe). Their English was limited, and to be honest I think my Japanese was better, but since their aunt had told them to go over and speak English to me I tried to give them a chance to show off their English, and didn't switch languages.

Neither of them were from the area (they lived in Osaka and Hiroshima respectively), but their grandparents lived here, so they were visiting because it was "Respect for the Aged Day."
Because they had visited this town many times as children, I asked them what was worth seeing.
"Taio Kinzan," they answered.

"Yep, got that one covered. Anything else?"

"No, nothing else."

We talked for a while about various things. At 5, their aunt came over and said to them, "Make sure you tell him this place closes at 5, so he has to leave then."
They were slightly embarrased, but dutifully translated this. I didn't mind being kicked out so much actually. I felt like I had put in a good day of sight seeing. I said my good-byes, and left.

Nakatsue-Mura Links:
HOSE PROJECT in Taio Goldmine,
Gold fish thief charged,

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky On Democracy and "The Common Good"