This is the first, last and only novel you will ever find by John Okada, and that fact made me seethe with sadness. There was another John Okada book, almost finished when he died of heart failure at the far-too-young age of forty-seven, but his wife could find no one to take an interest in it, and when she moved from Seattle she burned that second manuscript along with all of Okada’s other personal effects. Those who encountered No-No Boy decades after its original publication — it was picked up by none other than Charles Tuttle, and promptly sank from sight after one printing — took an interest in its unknown author, tracked down his wife, and were divided between hating her and pitying her. Pity won out, because in the end she was a human being trying to put the death of her husband behind her, and to carry that manuscript around would have been like holding a stone in her throat. Better to just spit it out and move on. Blaming her would be sadism. Read more
Albums, like books, can be seeds: they can lie dormant for any length of time and then flourish in completely unexpected ways. This was definitely true of Yoshinotsune, one of Merzbow’s less widely-discussed albums, and one I confess I went to with expectations that held me back. The album’s apparent theme was Yoshitsune — a national hero of Japan, the subject of enduring legend, and a personal fascination of mine. But the record itself didn’t seem to use its subject in a way that connected at all with the music, and after the high of Amlux this seemed like a letdown. I threw it back onto the shelf and tried to forget about it. Months later it surfaced again, on one of my portable music device’s playlists, and then in that context — without my overriding expectations for it — it clicked wonderfully. What had sounded arbitrary and uninvolving the first time now made sense.
In many ways I had a hard time not bringing expectations to the record, partly because of my affection for the material Merzbow was referencing (if only for the sake of a title and the names of the songs). In recent years he’s been drawing more explicitly on Japan’s past and heritage, but in creative and unpredictable ways. It isn’t always possible to map an unbroken line from the source material or the underlying idea to the finished product — probably in the same way you wouldn’t necessarily draw a connection between a tube of paint fresh from the factory and a finished Mondrian canvas. And maybe you shouldn’t have to, but one of the pleasures of Merzbow’s music is that I’m being challenged — that I’m being asked to see past the changes on the surface and sense the greater governing dynamics of what’s going on. Read more
In every recording artist’s catalog there’s almost always one or more releases that seems so far out of phase with everything else they’ve done that it might as well not bear their name. Those are the recordings that tend to catch my eye first, actually — the anomalies, or “outriders”, as they say in the world of statistics. They’re not always as good as the artist’s general body of recording, but I always like to give them more of a chance than they might normally have. Sometimes you make wonderful discoveries.
This is definitely the case with Vangelis, the Greek piano prodigy and sometime progressive-rocker now best known for his movie scores: Chariots of Fire, 1492, and most famously Blade Runner (for which a decent CD edition didn’t even exist for decades on end, and the best versions of which are still only available as bootlegs). Even most of his non-soundtrack releases have a very soundtrack-like feel to them — if they aren’t already soundtracks, their inclusion in a movie soundtrack is probably inevitable over time. Read more
The Great Yokai War brought back to mind an on-again-off-again debate I’ve been having with friends for a long time: Are kids today more jaded, cynical and worldly than they were even a generation ago, or is that just me? I ask this because the movie serves as the perfect context for such a debate: a fantasy epic aimed mainly at younger viewers, one which comes on like an overheated Asian version of The NeverEnding Story — but it’s been put together in such a way that only adults might really appreciate it. That said, kids today are a lot more sophisticated than most of us are willing to give them credit for, so maybe this is just further evidence to that end. I know I enjoyed it, but I wondered if even the Pokémon and Naruto set would connect with it. Maybe they will, and I’m simply being cynical.
What really had some people’s heads spinning about Yokai was the director: Takashi Miike. Yes, the same Takashi Miike who gave us the cheerfully lurid madness of Dead or Alive, Ichi the Killer, City of Lost Souls, but also more whimsical stuff like The Happiness of the Katakuris and the genuinely bucolic and understated Sabu. As it turns out, he’s a pretty good fit for the project: Miike’s playful, juvenile sense of humor mates well with the movie’s need for a fun center. Even what could have been preachy moralism (“Those who discard the past have no future”) winds up fitting nicely into the movie’s overall feel. Read more
What we have of Ninja Resurrection opens a door just wide enough to give us a tantalizing peek at something good-to-excellent — and then slams that door in our faces forever. The two episodes produced for this mini-series, clocking in at a total of eighty minutes, are all we’ll ever get: like many other direct-to-video animated productions made in the Nineties in Japan, it fell under the axe of the bubble economy, and the remaining episodes for the series were never assembled. If they had followed in the vein of the first two, we might have had one of the better projects of its kind.
Resurrection is actually one of many adaptations of the same source material: Futaro Yamada’s novel Makai Tenshô, first rendered as a raucous live-action movie in 1981 by Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku and starring Sonny Chiba — then remade in 2003 in a more technically-impressive but somehow less enjoyable version. This version — or at least what we have of it — is an exercise in violent, stylish excess in the vein of Fukasaku’s movie; if anything, it’s even more uninhibited, since anime conventions let you thumb your nose at such beggarly concerns as gravity and historical continuity. The look-and-feel of the show is strongly reminiscent of Giant Robo, down to the character designs, and if they hadn’t been interrupted I suspect the finished product would have been about as impressive. Read more
A friend of mine has two abbreviations he uses to categorize certain things he likes: VFM and OTT. The first is “Value for Money” — meaning, it was worth the investment not only of cash but time to watch it. The other is “Over the Top”, which I think speaks for itself: he, like me, gets a huge bang out of something that is willing to be absolutely heedless of critical boundaries to be entertaining. In that sense I’m reminded of that quote by Karlheinz Stockhausen that I come back to a great deal: I demand two things [of a composer]: invention and that he astonish me.
Manji is nothing if not astonishing. It’s a wild, lurid, outlandish slice of melodrama — and Japanese melodrama, no less, a country with melodramatic cinema that puts the most shameless American productions right out into the street. People reared on tamer, more conventional movies will find it a giant headache: they’ll watch with their mouths hanging open in amazement at the amount of manipulation being thrown onto the screen. Not just manipulation of the characters by each other, but manipulation of the characters by the director, the writer — and most of all, the thoroughly shameless manipulation of the audience. But if you go in looking for all that, you’ll get VFM in a thoroughly OTT way. It’s Tennessee Williams by way of Douglas Sirk, and if that isn’t hysterical enough for you, nothing is. Read more
Osamu Tezuka is routinely called “the god of manga”, not just because of the sheer size of his lifetime output but its breadth and depth. He drew hundreds of thousands of pages in his lifetime, and did everything from simple children’s stories (Unico) to cosmic odysseys that spanned millennia and civilizations (Phoenix, Buddha). At one Japanese bookstore in New York City, an entire shelf over six feet high and three feet wide was packed top-to-bottom with nothing but his work — in very small volumes — the vast majority of which has never been published in any other language except Japanese. Imagine if all of Walt Disney’s work — not just the movies but everything else that took inspiration from all his creations — had never been seen outside the United States, or even outside of California, until decades after his death. The hole left behind would be about as big.
Now, gradually and to great acclaim, Tezuka’s work is being released in English thanks to the efforts of a number of different publishers, and people are discovering decades after the fact that Japan had a talent who not only took his inspiration from Disney himself but whose work was a whole order of magnitude more ambitious. He was not simply telling stories about friendship and adventure, but morality and humanity, life and death itself. He played for keeps. Read more
There are two widely-entertained speculations about how civilization might collapse: the first is warfare, the second is boredom. The two seem to be intertwined: when people get terminally bored and disenfranchised, they drift into things they would never have considered otherwise. Terrorists kill, or so the theory goes, because nothing the civilized world has to offer them compares with blowing themselves up on a bus along with a dozen innocent people. But what about folks who one day “just snap” or “go postal” — people with marriages, jobs, friends, children, careers, everything the world could offer them?
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? handles this question by giving us one such man and scrutinizing his life with such exhaustive and fetishistic closeness that by the time it’s over and he has indeed done something horrible we want to snap as well. In that sense, it’s an exercise in empathy, but set up and played off in a way that probably works best on a second viewing. The film stars the boy-faced Kurt Raab (a veteran German actor) as Herr R., “Mr. R”, an upper-middle-class German with no outward reason to do anything horrible. He wears a floral tie and a well-cut dark suit, and spends his days bent over a drafting table inking architectural designs. He is married, has a child, enjoys the company of his colleagues, and seems likely to be promoted.Read more
There was a time, not all that long ago, when pure excess and overkill were enough by themselves to get your name in the books. This definitely applies when it comes to noncommercial music, where a fair number of both the people in the audience and the creators themselves are mostly interested in seeing how far they can go for its own sake. After a while, however, the road to excess no longer leads to the palace of wisdom (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), but into a cul-de-sac where one-upsmanship is more important than real creativity.
It’s hard to find a better embodiment of this sort of thing than Masonna, the stage name for musician and clothing boutique owner Yamazaki Maso. He leapt — quite literally — to prominence in underground circles with his live performances, where Yamazaki would throw himself across the stage with fearsome disregard for his own safety and pump an ear-punishing flamethrower of feedback and stomp-box processed noise through the sound system. Some of these concerts didn’t last more than a few seconds: he’d come on stage, pulverize the audience, and walk off. Read more