Wednesday, February 28, 2007

North Country

(Movie Review)

Shoko and I had just finished eating dinner, and Shoko said, “I want to watch that ‘North Country’ movie I rented.”

“Can’t we watch something else,” I said.

“No,” said Shoko. “You’re always using my TV to watch your movies. Tomorrow’s my day off and I want to watch one of my movies.”

“But can’t we at least watch something of mutual interest?” I asked. “I really have no interest at all in that movie.”

“Really? But this is about discrimination and workers rights. This is the kind of movie you’re always renting,” Shoko countered.

That got me thinking, why was I so against seeing this movie? After all, I consider myself at least relatively progressive on women’s issues. I’ve marched for women’s rights, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve written articles, but ask me to watch a 2 hour movie on the subject? Noooooo! Am I a closet misogynist after all?

At the risk of excusing myself, allow me to suggest that I’m not atypical in this regard, and that this movie has not been on the top rental list of most men, even among us progressives. But why? Because it’s a movie about women?

But I recalled how excited I was when I once found a movie about Rosa Luxembourg at the public library. Or how I sat through all of “Reds” just because it had a short bit where Emma Goldman was portrayed in it. Or all the books I’ve read dealing with these two women, not to mention Louise Michel, Angela Davis or Bernadine Dorn.

And again, allow me to suggest that I’m not unique in this aspect either. In fact I’d hazard a guess that Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman are more a subject of male fascination than female. If you hang out in the testosterone filled, pseudo-intellectual revolutionary wannabe male circles at any college campus you’ll find Luxembourg and Goldman referred to with a large amount of awe and reverence, but not so much Susan B. Anthony. Why?

I guess the obvious answer is Susan B. Anthony was a campaigner for woman’s rights, and Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman were working together with male colleagues for general social revolution. Although both Luxembourg and Goldman were feminists, they were also big players in the male dominated sphere of politics. Rosa Luxembourg toppled the German government, and Emma Goldman inspired the assassination of a US President.

There is, to state the obvious, a gender gap in what kind of stories and movies interest men and women. We can quibble later whether this is a socialized or innate difference, but I don’t think anyone will agree with the initial premise. And “North Country” has chick flick written all over it. A single mother struggling to support her family, dealing with her angry teenage son, and her frayed relationship with her own parents. Throw in a friend slowly dying of a terminal illness, and some sappy courtroom drama, and I think its safe to say this is one for the ladies.

But actually, as the film went on, I got kind of interested in it. In fact half way through Shoko got bored and fell asleep, and I was the one who finished it all the way to the end. It was cheesy and over the top at points (I'm thinking specifically of a courtroom scene in which a witness suddenly reverses his testimony just because of being asked the same question over and over by the lawyer).

But it was absolutely amazing what these women had to put up with at the mine. I found myself almost disbelieving it at points. Not necessarily disbelieving that we men could be such pigs, but that these women would wait so long before they finally filled for a class action suit after all that happened to them. 50 years go maybe, but this story was shown as being concurrent with the Anita Hill hearings. However the movie did try and give lots of reasons why these women were scared of losing their jobs.

The DVD extra feature has interviews with the real women behind the story, which is very interesting, although it does sometimes indicate a slight disconnect between the kind of harassment these women faced in real life, and the full out assault they undergo in the film. Also in the movie it was one lone woman fighting both her male colleagues and her fellow women, but in the interviews it sounded like a lot of women were in on this class action suit together. But, that's Hollywood, right?

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Pygmies were a tribe of diminutive humans in Greek mythology
They were involved in a constant war with the cranes, which migrated in winter to their homeland on the southern shores of the earth-encircling river Oceanus. The old Greek poet Homer was the first to describe the battle.
In art the scene was popular with little Pygmies armed with spears and slings, riding on the backs of goats, battling the flying cranes. They were often portrayed as pudgy, comical dwarfs.
the term "Pygmy" remained essentially mythological until applied by nineteenth century European explorers to people they encountered

Link of the Day
As someone who could never have toy guns growing up, I thought this article on childhood gun play was interesting.

North Country: Movie Review (Scripted)

Olympos by Dan Simmons

(Book Review)

This is the sequel to "Ilium", which I reviewed last month. Although sequel isn't really the right word, because that implies each book can stand independently. This is one long story that, for whatever publishing or marketing reasons, is being sold as two different books. The "Kill Bill" of literature, if you will.

I suspect that the primary reason for this would be the sheer length of the story. At a combined total of close to 2000 pages, it would be hard to fit it all into one binding. However in my opinion, the publishers of this book are being slightly dishonest, because the book jacket really should read, "Don't even think about buying this book if you haven't read 'Ilium' yet, because it will make absolutely no sense." But there's not a word about this book being a sequel on the cover. In fact for someone just wandering through the bookstore, like I was a couple months ago, it is very hard to tell just by looking at the book covers which book is a sequel to which.

Marketing quibbles aside:

...Much of what I said in my review for "Ilium" still holds true for this book. I thought Simmons did an excellent job of re-writing the characters from Homer's Iliad. At this point in the story, the meddling Dr. Hockenberry has succeeded in diverting the Trojan War from its normal course, and Homer's characters are now off on a new adventure, but all the more fun to follow these classic characters as they go down a new unknown path.

I was absolutely glued to this book during the Trojan War sections. However, as I noted in my review of Ilium, unfortunately the Trojan War sections are only 1/3 (maybe even less) of this story. The rest deals with the standard post-apocolyptic future being terrorized by cyborg killing machines, resurrected dinosaurs, Caliban and the characters from Shakespeare's "The Tempest", and some strange half organic robots from Jupiter. It all ties together somehow at the end, but for me, it got a bit too bizarre. Furthermore I never really got interested in any of Dan Simmons's original characters the way I was interested in the Greek and Trojan heroes.

Dan Simmons is juggling several balls at once in this story line, and I don't think he really does any of them justice. The plot, to the extent there is a plot, becomes this huge monster of a story line, which has several loose ends and unanswered questions by the time the book comes to a close. Furthermore several of the side stories could easily have been pulled from this book without making a difference. For example, the whole story about the Trojan War taking place in the future didn't really impact the other storylines in this book all that much.

Furthermore there are several errors in this book, both in regards to Homer's story, and continuity errors in regards to Dan Simmon's own story, which indicate a lack of thorough proof-reading or editorial oversight. To give one example from many: Dan Simmons claims Sarpedon was killed by Patroclus, which is technically true in Homer's Iliad, but Simmons apparently forgot that in his own story Patroclus was kidnapped by professor Hockenberry before the last chapters of the Iliad were allowed to unfold. These kind of things don't spoil the whole book, but there were enough of them to annoy me.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
It was common among 1960s and early 1970s United States leftists to write Amerika rather than "America" in referring to the United States. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] and is still used in political statements today. [6] [7] It is likely that this was originally an allusion to the German spelling of America, and intended to be suggestive of Nazism, a hypothesis that the Oxford English Dictionary supports. It may additionally have been an allusion to the title of Franz Kafka's 1927 novel Amerika

Link of the Day
Evicted From Wikipedia

Olympos by Dan Simmons: Book Review (Scripted)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Brett visits Japan part 2

The second (or 3rd, if you count the waterfall pictures) series of Brett's visit to Japan in the Spring of 2003. The previous pictures were all inside of my town in Ajimu. These pictures are from the surrounding area. For example, the first two pics are of the Usa shrine (mentioned in the previous post).

Good to have you in Japan Brett. You should visit again. And if anyone else fancies coming over, I'm in Japan for one more year at least, and we have a spare bedroom in the apartment.

Video Playlist HERE:

Since the 1960s, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips has become very controversial, because of its portrayal of the Japanese and Bugs' attitude and casual violence toward them. Despite its dated anti-Japanese slant (in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drawing the United States directly into World War II against the Axis powers), and because the cartoon was not one of The Censored Eleven, it was occasionally shown on television in syndicated packages with other pre-1948 Warner cartoons that were under the ownership of Associated Artists Productions. It debuted on home video in December 1991 on the first Golden Age of Looney Tunes laser disc collection. The niche market format did not cause a stir, but when the 5 disc set was later issued in the more accessible VHS format on 10 separate tapes, Japanese rights groups protested its distribution, and both releases were withdrawn. Reissues for both formats replaced the cartoon with Racketeer Rabbit. The VHS reissue combined volumes 4 and 7 of the 10 tape set.
Link of the Day

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Usa/ 宇佐

(Better Know A City)

“What are you going to do tomorrow?” Shoko asked me.

“I think I’ll visit Usa as part of my “Better Know A City” project,” I said.

“But you’ve been to Usa hundreds of times,” Shoko said.

“Not as part of this project I haven’t.”

“I thought the purpose of this project was to go to towns you haven’t been to yet,” Shoko said. “But so far all the towns you’ve done have been towns you’re already familiar with.”

“I’m starting with the towns close by,” I said. “I’m working my way out to the towns I haven’t been to yet.”

“This whole project seems like a waste of time,” said Shoko. “Isn’t there some better way you could spend your days off? Like studying Japanese for example?”

During my 3 years in Ajimu, I went into Usa a lot. Actually that’s an understatement. I think I drove into Usa for some reason or another almost every day.

As it was the closest town of any significant size, I would go into Usa every time I wanted to rent a video, catch a train, go to a bar, or buy anything more complicated than my daily food. Aside from my own town of Ajimu, there’s no place in Japan I know better than Usa. And after 3 years to explore, I’m more than familiar with all of the main tourist spots already. I’ve been several times to Usa Shrine, Usa historical museum, the old World War II era hidden airplane hangers, the 100 stone statues of Buddha, etc. In fact I’ve even acted as an unofficial tourist guide to Usa on several occasions, such as when the new ALT arrived, or when Brett visited, or when the Australians were here. (I’ve also been subjected to many bad jokes about the town’s name).

So I tried to go to some of the out of the way places this time around. For example, Usa, like many Japanese towns, is surrounded on its sides by mountains which most Japanese, being spoiled for mountains, view more as transportation obstacles than natural beauty, and so they don’t get a lot of attention.

Because of a glutted, government subsidized construction business, many of these mountains are carved up with dodgy narrow winding roads going nowhere in particular. But hiking access is a bit harder to find. I vaguely remembered some hiking trials I had seen, but not explored, in the mountains between Usa and Ajimu. I drove my car up through the winding roads until I found a trailhead, and started off.

After wandering through the mountains for a little while, I came upon a Japanese man in a white robe sweeping the trail with a straw broom. And I saw that the trail opened up to a clearing where a small shrine was.

“Is this a temple?” I asked.

“No, it’s a shrine,” he answered. (Actually I knew it was a shrine, but Japanese people derive a lot of pleasure from correction foreigners on this kind of thing, and who am I to deny them this joy?)

“Which shrine is it?”

“Do you know Usa shrine?” he said.


“This is the original shrine. This is where the god first came down to Usa.”

Now that he mentioned it, I did remember seeing something about this in the Usa historical museum. There was the big famous Usa shrine down below, and then there was the little shrine up in the mountains that had started it all. I guess I had stumbled upon the original.

And apparently it was cleaning day, because there were about 5 other people in white robes wandering around and sweeping various things. (I’m not exactly sure what good it does to sweep a dirt trail, but I’m sure they had a reason for doing what they were doing.) I asked if it was all right if I looked around, and they said yes, so I wandered around the shrine for a while.

The shrine itself wasn’t particularly impressive, but there were all sorts of trails branching off from the shrine that I wanted to explore. Apparently on this mountain all roads lead to the Shrine. And not only that, but many of them lead right back to the Shrine also. I kept going in circles, branching off on one trail, and ending up coming back to the Shrine after walking a while. I saw some sort of old tomb of someone who must have been famous. Even though I didn’t know who he was I enjoyed the view from his spot.

Another trail led down to a series of stone steps that had fallen into disrepair. And sections of an old stone wall, indicating that this little shrine was part of a much larger set-up at one point, but all of it was now covered by bamboo and moss now. In fact, the trail itself got smaller and smaller until it too was covered up by the bamboo, and I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

So, after satisfying myself that all the trailheads branching off from the shrine were dead ends, I went back on the original trail and returned to my car.

Somewhere around this mountain was a small ridge that leveled out into a plateau, which my crazy Canadian friend David had showed me a few years ago. “I spent all day exploring this mountain,” he had said. “And this is the most beautiful spot I found.”

There wasn’t an established trail leading out to it, but David had discovered a path relatively free of thorns and underbrush. Either I lacked his intuitive orienteering instincts, or the underbrush has sprung up in the last 3 years, because once I remembered where this outlook was I had a hard time getting out to it. At one point I was using old tree roots for a foothold, when they gave way beneath me and I got my foot caught in the vegetation and all sorts of dirt down into my sock. I was able to free myself with a bit of effort.

The plateau outlook was just as beautiful as I remembered it though. Right in the middle of the mountain, in every direction you looked from it you could see the mountain ridges rising. There is a steep drop off from the edges of the plateau, and it has occurred to me more than once that a miss-step here would be disastrous, but I’ve never been particularly worried about it as long as I walk slowly.

Back to my car again, I decided to follow the road I was on and see exactly where it ended up. I figured it would either take me up the mountain, or back down, but it just seemed content to go along the mountainside. One of these infamous Japanese mountain roads that go on forever without really going anywhere. After a couple kilometers, I saw an opportunity to turn around, and just went back. I hate to waste the time and gas, but dead ends are just a part of exploring new territory.

Back down from the mountain, I drove in the direction of Usa Shrine. I had been there often enough that I didn’t feel the need to go again, so I just followed the signs to see some of the historical markers along the side streets. Most of what I saw I didn’t understand the significance of, like 3 holes dug in the ground, or a bunch of stones stacked on top of each other, but it was a nice day and their were wildflowers along the path, so I considered it time well spent.

I drove over in the direction of the ocean. Japan in general, and Oita prefecture in particular, has a lot of land bordering the Ocean, but very little of it scenic beaches. Most of it is rocks or concrete barriers. I followed signs for a little park by the Ocean. The sign said it was closed for the winter, but I decided to pretend I couldn’t understand Kanji and wandered along the beach for a little bit. Because I grew up in the Midwest, I’m still unused to the strong odor of the sea, and I felt the whole place stank like dead fish.

There was a pier I tried to walk out on, but 2 old woman gathering sea weed nearby yelled at me that it was dangerous. They said the pier was slippery because of all the algae. I would have been more than willing to take my chances, but I didn’t feel like arguing with them, so I didn’t go out. (Japan has got to be the most paranoid country in the world. Whenever you try and do anything, someone is always yelling at you that it’s dangerous).

My last stop was the historical museum, although I didn’t go inside, but just wandered around the grounds. There are several large mounds of earth where the ancient chieftains of Usa are buried. And according to the Usa people, possible the legendary Princess Himiko is buried in these mounds as well, although the rest of Japan disputes this belief.

I have been here several times before, but it was nice because the plum blossom trees are already in bloom (due to the warm winter this year). These aren’t quite as famous as the Japanese cherry blossoms (which bloom later in the spring), but to my eye they look just as beautiful. After wandering around this park for a while, I decided to call it a day and headed back.

Additional photos:

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Hey Joe" is an American popular song from the 1960s that has become a rock standard, and as such has been performed in a multitude of musical styles. Diverse credits and claims have led to confusion as to its authorship and genesis. It tells the story of a man on the run after shooting his wife. It is most widely known for the version recorded by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The song title is sometimes given as "Hey Joe, Where You Gonna Go?" or similar variations

Link of the Day
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) -- A U.S. soldier was sentenced to 100 years in prison Thursday for the gang rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her family last year

シクスティナイン/ 69

(Movie Review)

This movie came out in Japan about 3 years ago. Given my interest in the Japanese student movement, I guess it’s surprising I waited so long to see this movie, but I had my reasons.

Not the least of which was the bad review this movie got in “The Japan Times”. Since The Japan Times has taken their archives off-line, I can no longer link to the article in question, but the general thrust of it was that this movie took all the politics out of the 60s, and just made this as a “kids just want to have fun/ boy gets girl” kind of movie. The reviewer then went on to claim that this was part of a broader trend in Japanese media to forget or ignore the upheaval of the 60s.

He’s half right. Despite the fact that the 60s in Japan were more turbulent than in the US (the whole Japanese University system had to be shut down for a year in 1969 while riot police battled student barricades), today the student movement receives little to no attention from the history books and mass media. And when it is brought up, the media almost always focus on the whacko extremists like the Japanese Red Army, and ignores the massive popular anti-Vietnam war and anti-government protests.

Much of the same can be said about the US, but it's worse in Japan. I've met many Japanese people my own age who didn't even know there had been a student movement.

Some of the Japanese people I've talked to who are old enough to have lived through the era believe it is no accident that this part of Japanese history is currently being ignored. They believe that the powers that be are very anxious for the population to forget about this era of mass rebellion. And given my Chomsky informed politics, I’m inclined to agree.

But all of that aside, this film needs to be judged on what it is, and not on what it isn't.

A couple years ago I read the English translation of the book by Ryu Murakami on which this film is based. This roman-a-clef, apparently mostly true, memoir of the year 1969 recounts young Ryu Murakami as a high school student in the countryside of Kyushu (not too far from where I currently reside). He is aware that something revolutionary is happening, he reads Camus and other counter-culture books, and sees the large protests on TV, and he wants in, but he isn't sure how to get involved from his small country town.

He uses the Vietnam War as a way to try and gain the moral high ground over his teachers, he and his classmates sneak into the school at night and paint it with revolutionary slogans, and he tries to organize a rock festival in his town. His politics are muddled, and much of what he does is more to get the attention of a girl than out of revolutionary conviction. As a political manifesto you could criticize this every which way, but as a memoir of what it was like to be a 17-year-old kid in 1969, I think this is just as real as a story about fighting riot police in Tokyo.

The movie takes a lot of liberties with the book, but the essential plot elements are all there, as well as much of the ironic humor. The filmmakers were unable to resist the temptation to add in a final climatic confrontation with the PE teacher who terrorizes young Murakami (or at least his roman-a-clef counterpart). In the book no such dramatic ending exists, but that’s the film industry for you.

Actually a lot more scenes like that are added for dramatic effect. At various points the protagonists in this movie manage to offend, and get chased down by, the police, US army, and College age student militants. None of which was in the book, and all of which takes the tone of the story up a few notches. And as is often the case with Japanese films, there’s a bit of over-acting going on here.

But as a comedy, the film is a success. I don’t usually consider myself a fan of Japanese humor, but I was laughing through this whole film. If you’re looking for a fun film, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Update: Turns out the Japan Times review is still online after-all. You just have to go through one of their pain-in-the-ass registration procedures first. Link here if you think it's worth the trouble.
Useless Wikipedia Fact
Critics say frequent use of ain't is a marker of basilectal — which is to say, "vulgate" or "common people" speech. The same applies for using i'n'it (normally written as innit) instead of "isn't it". There is little justification for this judgment on etymological or grammatical grounds, but it remains a widespread belief that the word is "not a word" or "incorrect".

Link of the Day
Liberal Icons and War: The Problem of Bi-Partisan Empire-Building

69: Movie Review (Scripted)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Good Night and Good Luck

(Movie Review)

I’m a bit behind on this one because of Japan (my standard excuse for everything). I wasn’t able to see this movie at first in Japan because it never got a big theatrical release over here. And then by the time I was back in the US, all my friends had already seen it.

Although I suppose I could always have just rented it by myself. Which is what I ended up doing the other night.

Despite my lateness in getting around to seeing this movie, I have a feeling for most people this is the kind of movie that you’ve either already seen or aren’t interested in. But I’ll go ahead and sing its praises anyway.

For fellow history buffs, this is a real treat. It mixes in Hollywood stars with lots of old archival footage to give a film that feels like a gripping drama and a documentary at the same time. Although wikipedia draws attention to some of the accuracy gaps in the film, I still felt like I learned a lot.

And, although I’m far from the first person to mention this, its subject material couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. As you listen to discussions of civil liberties, secret military tribunals, the act of habeas corpus, and the rights of the accused to fair trial, you can’t help but compare it to recent events.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I can’t recommend it enough.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Gartner Group forecasts that blogging will peak in 2007, levelling off when the number of writers who maintain a personal website reaches 100 million. Gartner analysts expect that the novelty value of the medium will wear off as most people who are interested in the phenomenon have checked it out, and new bloggers will offset the number of writers who abandon their creation out of boredom. The firm estimates that there are more than 200 million former bloggers who have ceased posting to their online diaries, creating an exponential rise in the amount of dotsam and netsam (i.e. unwanted objects) on the Web.

Link of the Day
The Daily Show and Political Activism

Good Night and Good Luck: Movie Review (Scripted)

The DaVinci Code

(Movie Review)

You may or may not know this (and you may or may not care) but when the Japanese translation of “The DaVinci Code” was released, it caused just as much waves over here as it did back in America. Because there is no strong Christian tradition in Japan, the book didn’t offend as many people over here, but for the same reason a lot more of them were unable to distinguish between Dan Brown’s fabrications and real Christian tradition, and Japanese TV and popular magazines devoted much space to exploring the claims of “The DaVinci Code.”

Shoko got caught up in the craze as well, and one day she gave me a phone call asking me all sorts of questions about “The DaVinci Code” and Christian history. Fortunately for her, at that time I had just finished reading “The Davinci Code” a few months earlier myself. And, like many people, I also felt the need to go on and read all the explanation and companion books before my curiosity was completely satisfied. The DaVinici Code” should come with a warning that it is not just a quick paperback, but an introduction to weeks of research.

By the time the movie came out, I felt like my interests had moved on, and I didn’t feel any great need to see it, especially as it had gotten panned in the press reviews. Shoko however did want to see it, despite the fact that the Japanese press was just as harsh on the movie. So we rented it the other night.

A funny thing “The DaVinci Code”. When you’re reading through the fast paced car chases and Indiana Jones like romp through history, you think to yourself, “This has ‘Hollywood Movie Script’ written all over it.” But when you actually watch the movie, it feels remarkably like you’re reading a book. Yet one more example of a story that, for one reason or another, didn’t survive the jump between mediums very well.

Although it is tempting to say that Ron Howard really mucked this up, I’m not sure how well the story would have fared with a different director. Although the book at first glance might seem to be the perfect Hollywood movie, on further reflection this probably would have been a difficult transition in any case. The success of Indiana Jones and his ilk is based upon the fact that they are action/adventure movies with a bit of history thrown in for flavor. “The Davinci Code” is essentially a historical thesis, with some action thrown in to make it an interesting novel. But there’s just too much information in the book to pack into a Hollywood movie. As Shoko pointed out, anyone who hadn’t read the book would be left confused about what was going on, and yet the movie already seems terribly long and talky as it is. I thought it was one of the longest 2 1/2 hours I ever sat through.

There has already been much discussion about the accuracy of this book (to put it mildly) and how much of this Dan Brown can get away with in the fictional genre. I don’t approach this book with any sort of religious axe to grind, but at the same time I don’t particularly like being lied to. Which was my main criticism of “The Davinci Code.” I do realize its fiction, but I would have felt a little better about the whole thing if the author had been upfront about it.

However when this turns into a big budget Hollywood movie, all bets are off. I don’t expect it to be true, and I don’t care if it’s true. I just want to watch something interesting. If I wanted to actually learn about the knights Templars, I’d read a book or rent a documentary.

And this I think is the second big problem with this story in the film medium. I’m not saying Hollywood films shouldn’t be educational. Hollywood does some great history bi-opics, but they do it by actually showing the life. The kind of talking heads in “The Davinci Code” is not why people go to the movies.

In short, this film may represent another example of “The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ” phenomenon. It’s a mediocre film that would probably have faded quietly away, if the religious right hadn’t made such a big deal of protesting it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The "27 Club" is a popular culture reference to a group of several rock musicians, each of whom had a meteoric rise to success that was cut short by a drug-related death at age 27. The musicians are:
Brian Jones (February 28, 1942July 3, 1969) (The Rolling Stones)— Drowned in his swimming pool.
Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942September 18, 1970) (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) — Asphyxiated on vomit while sleeping after presumably unintentional overdose of sleeping pills
Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943October 4, 1970) (Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company) — Heroin overdose
Jim Morrison (December 8, 1943July 3, 1971) (The Doors) — Heart failure
Kurt Cobain (February 20, 1967April 5, 1994) (Nirvana) — suicide by shotgun

Ed note: Isn't it weird to think we're now older than all these famous rock stars we spent most of our lives looking up to?

Link of the Day
Over the past week, the Grand Rapids Press, the major newspaper in West Michigan, has published a series of articles that appear to be designed to build support for the Bush administration's Iran policy and possibly even building support for a military attack on Iran. The articles all stem from the context of heightened rhetoric from the Bush administration linking Iran to attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, with many of them relying on evidence presented at a briefing by United States military officials on the weekend of February 10. That briefing, conducted by officials who refused to be quoted and insisted on anonymity, presented what the military claimed was proof that the Iranian government is supplying insurgents in Iraq with weapons

The DaVinci Code: Movie Review (Scripted)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871 by John Hick and Robert Tucker

(Book Review)

This book on the Paris Commune begins with the following words: “The history, the psychology, and the improvisations of the Commune will be compelling in the present period for any American reader disturbed by signs of constitutional crisis in the United States: to persons who see a century’s growth in the scope and power of the presidency approach monarchical or fascistic proportion in the police, espionage, and war-making powers of that office; who see effected an unprecedented practical independence of the executive branch of government from the safeguards of traditional checks and balances by Congress and no less by the press; who see the role and responsibility of the elected representatives of the people gravely diminished as a great discussions of war and purse are veiled from concurrent public discussion; or who ask…how can a citizen make his government accountable to the nation’s primary values and responsive to critics both internally and publicly.”

The catch is that this book was released for the 100th anniversary of the Commune, and those words were written in 1971. So this book is either a bit dated, or frighteningly relevant again, depending on how you look at it.

This book contains 21 short articles on the Commune by 21 different authors, differing widely in content, focus, and quality. And as is often true with these collaborative books, I don’t have the energy to review every article separately, and yet it is hard to focus them as a whole.

As this was 1971, many of the articles compare the Commune to the May 68 revolution. Also a lot is made of the Commune’s ideological importance in Soviet Russia and communist China. (If any of my friends who live in China are reading this, I’d be interested in knowing if the anniversary of the Paris Commune is still a national holiday in China).

All of the articles in this book can be described as generally left of center, although within that designation they differ widely, from unapologetic revolutionary sentiment to an article on “The Failure of Revolution”. (“The students and their followers were just strong enough to provoke their enemies into repressing them, thus assuring a stronger power base for the state they had hoped to destroy.”)

Some of these articles were extremely interesting, like one about the reaction to the Paris Commune in the United States. (Did you know that in 1871, the Paris Commune received more headlines in the United States Press than any other issue, save governmental corruption?) Other were pretty boring, like “The Paris Commune, and Marx’s conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.

And some were down right rot, like “Images of the Paris Commune in Contemporary Chinese Marxist Thought.” I think any attempt to take the Cultural Revolution as a serious ideology is in itself a waste of paper, much less to attempt to relate it to the Paris Commune.

Most interesting for me were the reprinted primary sources. Such as an interview Marx gave to the New York World in July 1871. Or a defense of Gustave Courbet.

For me the best part of this book, which alone makes it worth picking up, is the complete text of Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Days of the Commune”. I’d often seen this play referenced, but never the whole text before. It’s a short, but really great play.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
When Doonesbury ran the names of soldiers who had died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, conservative commentators accused Garry Trudeau of using the American dead to make a profit for himself, and again demanded that the strip be removed from newspapers.
After many letter writing campaigns demanding the removal of the strip were unsuccessful, conservatives changed their tactics, and instead of writing to newspaper editors, they began writing to one of the printers who prints the color Sunday comics. In 2005, Continental Features gave in to their demands, and refused to continue printing the Sunday Doonesbury, causing it to disappear from the 38 Sunday papers that Continental Features printed.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Iran, Iraq, and the Rest of the World

Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871 by John Hick and Robert Tucker: Book Review

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Producers (2006)

(Movie Review)

I’m a little late in seeing this movie, but it’s not for lack of interest I assure you. I’ve wanted to see this movie for a long time. I would have rather have seen the original, but as I never came across it in any video stores, I figured this remake would be just as good.

Like most adolescent boys do, I went through a stage when I was a big Mel Brooks fan. But aside from that, the plot of this movie intrigues me. I used to think it would be really funny to make a Hollywood movie about making the worst movie ever, long before I discovered Mel Brooks had already had the same idea. (And if we count “Waiting for Guffman”, “Ed Wood”, and several similar movies, it appears my childhood ideas aren’t as original as I once thought they were.) And last there is the pure political incorrectness of a movie like this which, right or wrong, ought to generate plenty of material for discussion.

And so after all that, I’m sorry to say that this movie is a big disappointment.

I remember reading a review of this movie which said that the problem with this film is that it sticks too closely to the Broadway musical, and thus the over-acting and slap stick comedy that works on the stage doesn’t translate well to the big screen. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage not having seen the original or the play, but I think this is undoubtedly part of the problem. But the woes of this film run deeper than that.

Some of the songs in this movie are pretty funny, particularly the ones that are part of the play within the film. But most of them are unmemorable, and serve only to slow down the action of the movie. Whenever something borderline interesting is going on, the action stops for a song. (Maybe this is just the bias of a man who never really understood the purpose of the Hollywood musical. Or at least always been impatient when watching them for the first time.)

And then, most of the film just isn’t that funny. I'm not saying it doesn't have its moments, but sad indeed would be a 2-hour comedy without any moments. (Not that it stops Hollywood from cranking them out. Whatever Hollywood screenwriters get paid, it's too much.)

Of course every Mel Brooks fan knows the man is just as famous for his stinkers as his successes, but then the question is how did this play become such a big Broadway hit? Is this something you have to see live to appreciate? Is more lost in the transition to film than we realize? Or is the kind of person who patronizes Broadway plays completely out of touch with the South Park/ Family Guy generation, for whom politically incorrect humor is no longer a shocking novelty.

I suspect the latter is a big part of it. A film like this might have raised a lot of eyebrows in the 1960s, but these days the notion that anyone would be shocked by it may serve as a generational litmus test.

….Then again, Charlie Chaplin did “The Great Dictator” way back in the 1930s. Although he did say later that if he had known about the death camps, he wouldn’t have done the film as a comedy.

Which raises the inevitable question of the morality of this kind of humor. After I had made a big deal last year of emphasizing to Shoko that Nazi symbols are not acceptable in America, I had to adjust my explanations after we watched this movie.

By the time I get around to chiming in with my two cents, I think this debate has been pretty much exhausted, as every single review of “The Great Dictator” or “The Producers” over the last 60 or 40 years, has dealt with question: the debate between not wanting to make a sacred cow out of Hitler, and also not wanting to minimize the horror of the Nazi regime. I think most of us can understand both sides, and have a healthy nervous ambivalence about this kind of thing, which, if handled right, adds to the humor. The question is, can the director pull it off? In the case of “The Great Dictator”, I’d say yes. With “The Producers”, I’d say try again.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland suddenly found itself in vogue with the times almost two decades later the initial release, following the North American success of George Duning's animated feature Yellow Submarine. In fact, because of Mary Blair's art direction and the long-standing association of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland with the drug culture, the feature was re-discovered as something of a "head film" (along with Fantasia and The Three Caballeros) among the college-aged and was shown in various college towns across the country. The Disney company resisted this association, and even withdrew prints of the film from universities, but then, in 1974, the Disney company gave Alice in Wonderland its first theatrical re-release ever, and the company even promoted it as a film in tune with the "psychedelic" times

Link of the Day
Congressman Vern Ehlers Votes against Measure Opposing Escalation of Iraq War

The Producers (2006): Movie Reviewer (Scripted)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

High Noon

(Movie Review)

This summer, when I was in love with the book “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, I recommended it to Shoko during our weekly phone calls. She found a Japanese translation, got halfway through it, and then just opted to buy the DVD instead. (Actually to be fair to her, I think she did finish the book eventually as well.)

By the way, I thought the movie did a really good job of being faithful to the book. I’m not going to get into that here, because I’m busy enough on this blog as it is, without going into everything I’ve seen the past 6 months. But I’ll just say that movie is worth watching if you get a chance.

Anyway, since seeing the movie “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, Shoko has fallen in love with Gary Cooper. By the time of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” Gary Cooper was already showing his age, but as Shoko tactfully explained to me, “Men can have a few wrinkles and still be good looking. For example, you’ve developed a few lines around your eyes, but you still look cool.”

Now several Gary Cooper DVDs (over half of Shoko’s movie collection) adorn our apartment. As for me, like most Americans of my generation, prior to all this if you had said the name “Gary Cooper” to me, the only movie I could have named was “High Noon.” Which Shoko had never even heard of. So I decided this would be a great movie to watch together. Especially since I had heard it was an allegory about McCarthyism, and because it is famous as Bill Clinton’s favorite movie. (Not that I’m taking up Bill Clinton’s movie list anymore than Tarantino’s, but it does add to the legend of the film).

“High Noon” is one of those movies that is so much a part of American culture that even people who haven’t seen it are familiar with the plot, as I was even before I rented it. However as I watched this movie next to a Japanese person, I began to think about how distinctively American this movie is. The idea of a hero standing strong for his principles even as he is abandoned by everyone around him would probably never be made into a Japanese movie.

In short, I think this movie captures both the best and worst of the American ideal. The notion of standing up for what is right, even as a minority of one, is an idea that makes me proud to be an American. But the second implied message of the film, that everything can be solved with a big gun battle at the end, is perhaps indicative of the flawed thinking that got us into Vietnam and Iraq.

I wonder if this film wouldn’t have been stronger with a different ending. Does the fact that Gary Cooper emerges triumphantly give the message, “Stand up for what’s right, as long as you’re quick with a gun”? Would it have been better if the bad guys had won the fighting, to show the price you sometimes have to pay for sticking up for what’s right?

Also I think Cooper’s isolation would have been further emphasized if his wife hadn’t returned to him at the end. Then again, maybe that would have been flogging a dead horse. We got the idea of the film just fine, even as it was.

Gary Cooper does a great job in this film. A lesser actor might have given into the temptation of overacting, but its amazing how much Cooper is able to communicate with just his eyes. You feel everything his character is going through just by watching his face.

I’m not exactly what the point of some of the sub-plots of this film were, like the woman Helen Ramirez or the torments of Cooper’s deputy, other than just to help fill up the time. The infamous Grace Kelly also stars in this movie, which greatly excited Shoko, although I can’t say I’m a huge fan. I was more excited by Lon Chaney Junior, famous for "The Wolf-man" movies, who has a bit part as the older sheriff, but for some reason is credited as Lon Chaney (his father, also a famous actor), which confused me a bit.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In reality, the scarcity of royals alluded to in the film "King Ralph" is not possible. There are currently 901 legitimate heirs to the British and other Commonwealth thrones. The first of those who do not reside in the UK is 60th in the real line of succession, and belongs to the Royal Family of Norway. Even if the fictional Wyndham dynasty had a different genealogy, there would still be many heirs who do not belong to the extended royal family present in the photographing tragedy.

Link of the Day
A few years ago I joined a yahoogroups forum dedicated to the discussion of Saint Just. (There are yahoo groups for everything.) That has unfortunately died out, but you can fulfill all your Saint Just needs here, at

High Noon: Movie Review (Scripted)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

女囚701号 さそり/ Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

(Movie Review)

Japanese old movies, like Japanese old music, is a lot of crap with a few gems hidden away in the middle. The challenge for the un-initiated is being able to navigate through the video store when you don’t know one movie from another.

This 1970s Japan exploitation movie is under renewed interest as one of Tarantino’s inspirations for “Kill Bill”. I hate to follow Tarantino’s movie recommendation guide, because I don’t consider myself a Tarantino fanatic, and I don’t like the trendiness of it. Nevertheless, when I was in the classic section of my local video store, this was the only video I even recognized, so I decided it was as good a place to start as any with my forays into Japanese film.

The story is about a woman who is betrayed by her lover, an undercover cop, ends up in prison, is brutalized both by her fellow prisoners and by the prison guards, toughs it out, escapes, and takes vengeance on her tormenters.

Based on that description, you can probably tell this is a sexploitation movie without me even having to say it. And based on the fact that it’s one of Tarantino’s favorite movies, you can probably already guess that it’s pretty sick and twisted.

It’s easy to see where much of this movie influences “Kill Bill”. Aside from the obvious revenge plot, the film showcases unique art-house like camera angles and lighting, and lots of quick zoom in close ups against jarring music. Even the title music for this film has been used as part of the Kill Bill 2 soundtrack. And the quality of the fake blood is very "Kill Bill" esque

As this is a women’s prison movie, you can expect the usual shower scenes, gawking guards, and lesbianism. If it stopped there, it might be tempting to dismiss this as just more harmless trash for leering idiots. But some of the brutalization scenes in the prison also add an element of sadism and misogyny that is a bit more disturbing, although hardly surprising in Japan, considering the misogynistic trash that is on the magazine racks at any convenience store and supermarket. If any country could make an art film about misogyny, it is Japan.

How exactly to classify this film as art, trash, classic pulp, or blatant misogyny is beyond my philistine intellect. Despite all the torture she endures, this film does have a very strong female character who comes through triumphant in the end. Parts of it remind me of a female version of “Cool Hand Luke”, especially since a favorite tactic of the guards is making her dig holes and fill them up again. But other parts are….
Well, decency forbids me to go into detail.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Eikaiwa teachers come from a variety of backgrounds, and are generally native English speakers. Most come from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom or the United States. 97% (according to 2004 statistics from the Ministry of Immigration) spend less than 3 years teaching in Japan (Average of 1 year)

Link of the Day
From my fellow bloggers:
Whisky Prajer on breaking the 24 addiction
Mr. Guam on the real meaning of Saint Valentine's Day

Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Movie Review (Scripted)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Magnificent Seven

(Movie Review)

As every film buff already knows, “The Magnificent Seven” is the American remake of the classic Japanese film “Seven Samurai”. And the Japanese are aware of this as well. Given the Japanese fascination with Westerns, combined with the Japanese fascination with themselves and their influence worldwide, it is not surprising that 40 years later “The Magnificent Seven” remains very popular in Japan. Just last week several of my students, including some high school age kids, were telling me how great this film was.

I am sorry to say that I still have not seen “Seven Samurai”, despite having lived in Japan for 5 years now. Or perhaps I should say, because I’ve lived in Japan for 5 years. It’s difficult to find a subtitled version. Several years ago I was given a DVD of “Seven Samurai” by a Japanese friend, and every now and then I think I’m going to put it on for Japanese practice, and then get discouraged and switch it off 20 minutes in.

So for now I’m taking the easy way out and starting with the American version: “The Magnificent Seven.”

Much of the selling point for this film lies in the all-star cast. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Colburn, and Eli Wallach. Pretty impressive, no? Unfortunately, because there are so many stars, nobody really gets a lot of face time, (think the “Ocean’s 11” factor), and especially because everyone is running around in cowboy hats, during some of the wide shots it’s hard to tell who’s who.

Steve McQueen is, as always, the king of cool.
James Colburn, is one of my favorite underrated actors since I saw him in "The Great Escape" and "Hell is for Heroes" (both of which, incidentally, also star Steve McQueen. They must have enjoyed working together) and of course the "Our Man Flint Series". He does a good job as the callous knife thrower in this film, although he’s criminally underused. (Often I think James Colburn and Leonard Nimoy were twins separated at birth).

Yul Brynner gets the headline billing and most of the lines in this film. To the best of my recollection, the only other movie I’ve seen Yul Brynner in is “The King and I”, in which he looked ridiculous. (And what a god-awful film that was by the way. I agree completely with Roger Ebert who said: “It is an exotic escapist entertainment for matinee ladies, who can fantasize about sex with that intriguing bald monster and indulge their harem fantasies. There is no reason for any man to ever see the [movie].”)

In this film Yul Brynner looks a lot cooler. Some of his posturing is tough guy cliche stuff, like ignoring the person who is threatening him while slowly lighting his cigar, but he pulls it off well.

The plot is not particularly remarkable, but nobody ever watches a Western for the brilliant plot. You watch it as a celebration of masculinity, and for the feeling you get of having sand in stuck in your mouth, your shirt soaked through with sweat, your face covered with grime, and no worries in the world.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
While the plot of "Destroy all Monsters" resembles that of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), this entry is significant in that it showcases 11 daikaiju, a record for the Godzilla series until Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Link of the Day
Bush's Fantasy Budget and the Military/Entertainment Complex

The Magnificent Seven: Movie Review (Scripted)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Job Update

Now that nearing two weeks into the new job, I thought I’d post some follow up reflections.

Again, despite the bad reputation and high employee turn over of my company, I’m still having a pretty good time. There are times I can’t believe I’m getting paid for what I do. And there are times when I don’t think I’m getting paid enough. I’ll start with the good part.

I’m still enjoying the one on one and the small group interaction. With low-level students it’s a bit more of a struggle, but when it goes well its very rewarding. When a lesson doesn’t go well it tends to be a lot more painful, but ups and downs are just part of education.

Part of my work schedule involves conducting a free-conversation room, in which I’m literary paid just to go in and speak my native language and conduct a conversation with the students. Occasionally, especially with low-level students, it can be like pulling teeth to get the conversation going, but most of the time I enjoy the conversation, and sometimes I learn so many interesting things from the students I feel like I should be paying them.

In terms of hours physically at the job site, I’ve actually got a lot nicer schedule than I did on JET. I work 5 days a week, but 2 of those are only 4-hour days, and the rest are just under 8 hours. But the difference is that I’m actually working hard during those hours I’m there. We have 10 minutes in between lessons in which we must mark down the students scores, find the files for our new students, prepare a new lesson in the remaining 5 minutes, and then rush off to the new class. This gives the feeling of rushing all day long.

While I was working at the supermarket this summer, I wrote that the mind numbing boredom of stocking shelves would get to me after a while. Now I have the opposite problem. Because I’m trying to teach and talk to students the whole day, I have to keep my mind focused on the conversation the whole time, and I feel mentally exhausted by the end of the day. Which makes me very thankful for those two half days I have to break up my weekly schedule.

I'm enjoying teaching adults, but I'll start doing kids classes as well from next week. After my time in the Japanese elementary schools, I know that, contrary to common belief, Japanese children can be quite a handful. One of my coworkers came out of a kids lesson nearly in tears the other day. Still, at least there won't be 40 of them at once.

I work Saturday and Sunday, and have days off during the week instead, which I thought would mess with my social life, but since my co-workers are all doing the same thing, it works itself out. (Because of the high ex-patriot turn over here, most of the old gang from my JET days are gone, and new my co-workers are now my social group.)
Plus it’s nice having days off during the week because I don’t have to fight crowds in the stores, and I can actually get some banking and such done.

Which brings me to another, non-job related, point. Since I left Japan in May, I’m having to start all over again with Alien registration cards, cell phone accounts, et cetera. (Fortunately I still have my bank account open, although that was more just from laziness in not closing it out). Anyway, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass. I had naively thought that maybe I wouldn’t need a cell phone this time around. Since I was living with Shoko, it’s not like I was going to be trying to get girl's numbers in the bar, right? And I could do most of my socializing the old fashioned way, by making plans ahead of time and sticking to them.

Wrong, all wrong it turns out. Nobody makes plans ahead of time anymore. So, I’ve been trying to sort out a new cell phone. I’ve been to the shop 6 times so far, only to be told at the last time that I needed to wait until my alien registration paperwork and card comes through before they can give me a new account. Hopefully that will all get sorted out this coming week.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The book, "The Grapes of Wrath" is frequently banned in schools across the United States, and in 1986, in Graves County, Kentucky, an adult was arrested for possession of a copy.

Link of the Day
Reprieve for Officer Who Denounced "Immoral War"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Japan e-mails August 14, 2001

Things are going alright over here. My first couple nights were a little slow, but now I’m getting invites everywhere and making new friends. Today I was part of a panel discussion.

It was a little weird actually. Apparently 20 is the coming of age year in Japan, so they had a ceremony today for everyone who turned 20 in the town during the last year. Usually they have a famous speaker at the ceremony (or relatively famous, locally famous, you know, whatever they can get. Kind of like a college commencement ceremony). But they've had some problems in the past with the young 20 year olds getting rowdy and throwing things at the speaker. Not in my town, but in some of the other towns. (Surprising isn't it? It doesn't really fit my image of Japan).

So, to make things more exciting this year, they had an international panel where me, the New Zealand guy, and an Indian student from Asian Pacific University in Beppu (the next town over) talked about stuff. The funny thing though was that we were asked mostly about ourselves. Why did you come to Japan? What do you hope to learn from Japan? What do you like about Japan? Etc. I don’t have a clue what it had to do with the occasion. The only question that seemed to have any relevance was that once they asked us what coming of age day was like in our own countries.

Anyway, the audience didn't throw anything at us. But they were very visibly bored. And who can blame them really. Who wants to hear why Joel Swagman came to Japan at your coming of age ceremony. Afterwards however many of them were very eager to meet us. A couple of the girls there asked me to join them for lunch, but I had to go out to lunch with the school board instead. I’m really kicking myself now for not getting their numbers, but I just wasn't thinking at the time.

The town is pretty small, about 8000. I did meet the Mayor, although I think this isn't anything special. I think most JET’s get introduced to the Mayor during their orientation, at least briefly. And my meeting was very brief. The Mayor handed me a certificate, and I got my picture taken with him, but he didn't speak any English, and I don’t speak Japanese (Yet :)).

I can only hope I’m making a good impression. Everyone is very friendly and gracious to me, but of course the Japanese are famous for not letting on when they’re upset, and I’m sure I've been committing many faux pas. My predecessor may have been a bit difficult to please, but he spoke fluent Japanese and I think had a knowledge of the culture..

The food isn't bad, and I've been a bit adventurous trying things out. But I do have to be somewhat careful because they eat a lot of raw stuff here that my Western stomach isn't used to (lots of raw egg and fish in particular). I've already heard stories of westerners getting sick from the food.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Liberty Leading the People (French: La Liberté guidant le peuple) is a painting by >Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution, and specifically the events of the 28 July 1830 in the centre of Paris. A woman personifying Liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the >tricolore flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a >bayonetted musket with the other.

Link of the day
Swimming in Racial Backwater of Washington - Barack Navigates Sharks

Friday, February 09, 2007

Movie Reviews

One last project, and then I won’t burden this blog with anymore projects for a while, I promise.
As the above title of this post indicates, obviously I’m adding movie reviews to my list of ongoing blog features (Book reviews, retrospections, and “better know a city”s).

Regular readers of this blog of course know that movie reviews have been by no means absent from this blog since its inception. (Kill Bill Part 1, Kill Bill 2, The Passion, Troy, Lost in Translation, Fahrenheit 911, The Grudge, The Glen Miller story, The Benny Goodman Story, Batman Begins, Star Wars III, Harry Potter, Memoirs of A Geisha, The Last Samurai, Munich, V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, The U.S. Vs John Lennon, Godzilla: Final Wars , Battle Royale
And my wrap ups: Oh, the movies I've seen parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

But I want to make an official project out of it so that I don’t have to keep coming up with excuses for chiming in my two cents. Since I’m usually not the type of person to see a movie on opening weekend, I always feel the need to apologize by saying something like, “I know this is old news by now, but I just wanted to say a couple words about such-and-such movie.” This is especially true now that I’m back in Japan and all the movies open up late over here. And that’s not even counting all the video rentals and classic movies.

Truth be known, there were a lot more movies I would have liked to comment on over the past few years, but just couldn't justify it. I know a blog in theory is about anything the blogger wants to write about, but it just seemed a little out of left field to start out an entry by saying, “I saw an old 1950s movie the other night that none of you have ever heard of. I just want to write down my 2-cents.” But if it becomes a project, like the book review, I don’t need to justify myself. Every book I read gets reviewed on this blog, whether I think it’s of any interest to anyone else or not. Now the same is true for movies.

This has been a long time coming, but I've delayed doing it for two reasons.
1). I've been trying over the past few years (sometimes with limited success) to watch less movies and read more books. I don’t want to give myself a reason to watch more movies (i.e., feel that I’m being productive when I’m watching movies because I’m generating blogging material).

2). The book reviews have already taken over this blog, but I can’t read a book a night. I could easily watch a movie a night though, and then this blog would be completely swallowed up by reviews.

But I'm hoping that these two reasons may cancel each other out. I’ll try and avoid watching movies, because I’ll know that each movie I watch is essentially a homework assignment for this blog.

And besides, despite my best intentions, I'm bound to watch some movies. I’m just as much a sucker for the Hollywood blockbuster as anyone else. It is already a foregone conclusion that I will see the next Spider-man, Harry Potter, and Simpsons movies. And not to mention all the movies and videos I watch with friends as social activities. So I might as well give myself a place on this blog to reflect on what I've seen.

So in the coming weeks and months watch for some but, hopefully, not too many movie reviews on this page.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Endymion received scathing criticism after its release, and Keats himself noted its diffuse and unappealing style (see, for example, The Quarterly Review April 1818 pp. 204-208). However, he did not regret writing it, as he likened the process to leaping into the ocean to become more acquainted with his surroundings; in a poem to Haydon, he expressed that "I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest."

Link of the Day
Peace Activists Launch The Occupation Project: A Campaign of Sustained Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to End the Iraq War

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sanko-Mura/ 三光

(Better know a city)

For a variety of reasons, I’m starting this project close to home with cities I’m already very familiar with. Sanko-Mura (now technically part of Nakatsu because of the Gappei, but according to my rules I’m counting it as a separate city) sticks out in my mind for a variety of reasons.

1. Mike, the very vocal American JET who used to live there during my first two years in Japan. Since “Mura” means village, he would complain always complain about being stuck out in the inaka (Japanese countryside). Ryan and I would frequently play inaka one-ups-man-ship with him. “At least you guys are in a town,” he would say. “I’m the only JET around here stuck in a village.”
“Yeah, okay, technically you’re in a village,” we would respond. “But you’re right on the doorstep of both Usa and Nakatsu. You’re a lot closer to the action than we are. In Ajimu we’re in a small town surrounded by other small towns.” (In the end, the question of who was more out in the inaka was never satisfactorily decided.)

Also Mike was memorably for the big JET parties he used to throw in Sanko-Mura. And the police who would invariably come and break up his parties everytime. And then Mike would have to make the apology rounds.
2. Sanko-Mura has become the location of the infamous “Concert on the Rock”, which Eion and a couple of the other musically inclined foreigners around the area organized a few years ago, and have kept going ever since. (It even has a wikipedia article now).

3. Lastly, but most importantly, Sanko-Mura is the location of Mount Hachimen, which is a big old mountain with a lot of good hiking. Also, during the war, an American fighter plane crashed there. What that plane was doing so far out in the countryside I’ve never been able to figure out, but I guess during the last stages of the war all of Japan was subject to saturation bombing, even the inaka. (There are some wooden temples out in the Kunisaki peninsula, another inaka place, which also have damage from the bombing).

After the war, a peace park was built on the mountain with a memorial to the soldiers who died there. There is a plane preserved on the side of the mountain, not the same one that crashed I think but perhaps a similar model, and also a map of which state each of the US soldiers were from. I often look at this map and think about how funny life is. When these soldiers were growing up in the 20s and 30s, I’m sure they had no idea that one day a memorial would stand to them in the middle of nowhere in the Japanese countryside.

But as touching as this peace memorial is, the real attraction is the Buddhist garden neighboring it. Words don’t really do it justice, but it’s a garden of various flowers and bushes together with Buddhist images. What makes this place amazing is that it’s built on the side of the mountain, so you walk up from one level to the next. The river also flows through it.

When a Japanese friend took me here during my first year in Japan, I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been in my life. I thought I was in some sort of “Secret Garden” type Hollywood movie. But that being said, timing is very important. The first time I went here it was in the Spring. Most of the flowers were in full bloom, and there was a lot of mist in the air which for some reason always seems to add a lot of beauty to Japanese nature scenes. If you come here during the heat of mid-summer, it’s not near as impressive. Nor if you come, like I did today, in the winter when most of the plants are dead.

(When Brett came to Japan I took him here, and we were fortunate to catch it on a rainy spring day. Because of the rain we didn’t take the video camera out, but I think Brett got a couple of good still pictures which he might show you if you ask him.)

However, having seen this park on a good day, I don’t bother too much with it on a bad day. I just climbed quickly through it. Behind it is the amphitheater and open ground used for “Concert on the Rock”. In summer this area is also used for camping. I detoured here a bit to check out some of the trails through the tourist gardens, but nothing was in bloom.

My primary objective for the day was to climb up Mount Hachimen itself. Although why I wanted to climb up I really couldn't say, because I’ve already made the climb several times before, and it’s possible to drive up.

In the end, if the cliché can be excused, I’m the kind of person who has to hike up a mountain because it is there. Although when I was halfway up and huffing and puffing I asked myself, like I do every time, why I was doing this again.

Despite a delayed start on the day, I made it to the top of Mount Hachimen shortly after noon. On a clear day you can see all the way across Nakatsu and to the ocean, but today was not a clear day, and so aside from some of the neighborhoods directly below Mount Hachimen the view was a bit lacking.

Once at the top, I did some more hiking around. I used to come up here occasionally with a crazy Canadian friend who had to explore every bit of the mountain. There is a lake at the top of the mountain that I my Canadian friend used to love exploring. I had always been content to admire it from a distance, but I today I suddenly felt I should hike down to the water and have a look around.

My first attempts caused me to turn back because of the thick underbrush, but following the road for a little bit I found that there was indeed an access point down to the lake. And then even a trail that went around the lake, which I spent some time hiking around. The lake, like any lake at the top of a mountain, was absolutely gorgeous, and the water was very clear and unpolluted.

On the other side of the lake, I saw there was a path going up to the other side of the mountain, and I spent a good hour hiking around there. Part of me thought I should return to Sanko-Mura and do some walking around the town so I could report on that, but in the end I decided that if I was happy hiking around the mountain, that would be good enough.

The long walk back is always the same amount of time but not quite as interesting. By the time I got back to my car at the bottom it was after 4.

In the remaining time, I made an attempt to see some of the other parts of Sanko that I hadn’t been to. There was a “Flower Road Park”. It was advertised as kind of a petting zoo for dogs and cats, which doesn’t sound that exciting, but I went to check it out anyway. I had often seen signs for it from the main road, and sometimes advertisements in pamphlets, but when I actually got up to the place there was nobody there and I had a feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe it’s closed for the winter. There were several dogs barking at me, so I don’t think it’s completely abandoned.

I drove around trying to find signs for other attractions, but, as I find often happens in Oita, a lot of these signs don’t really lead anywhere. I followed a couple signs for parks up through mountain roads only to hit dead ends.

So, I decided to call it an early day. But not before going to the famous Onsen (naked bath) in Sanko-Mura.

If you like Onsen’s (and if you’ve been in Japan long enough you will. Once you get over the naked part, it’s just like hot-tubbing) the onsen in Sanko Mura is great. It has several different pools, and an indoor and outdoor part as well, so if the weather is nice you can go out and look at the stars. And it’s in right on the side of the mountain so you have a great scenic view.

I’ve been there many times before, but always with other people. I was tired enough from hiking that I decided to go by myself, but without a friend to keep you company its kind of boring to just sit in the tub alone. Plus as a lone foreigner I really stick out. With a friend I don’t feel so out of place, but by myself I get really sensitive to all the stares from the old Japanese men, so I didn’t stay too long.

On a different trip to Hachimensan, a friend took these pictures on her camera.  I am posting them here.

Brutus (Welsh: Bryttys), a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, was known in medieval British legend as the eponymous founder and first king of Britain. The Historia Britonum states that "The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul" who conquered both Spain and Britain. A more detailed story, set before the foundation of Rome, follows, in which Brutus is the grandson or great grandson of Aeneas.

Link of the Day
In the office the other day someone had posted a copy of "you know you've been in Japan too long when..." I thought it was pretty funny. Some of these jokes maybe you have to have been to japan to understand, but to the rest of you I'm sure it can at least offer some insight into the madness.

It turns out however on the internet there are several different lists.

And then this one. (and probably more, but I'll stop here).