On my last pass through the $1 pile at the local bookstore I found a somewhat ragged but still perfectly readable copy of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki's slim but deeply engaging collection of lectures on Zen practice. Books like this are worth coming back to periodically, every couple of years, in much the same way a great film like 2001 or La Dolce Vita becomes a wholly different experience after you have passed through a bit of life. My first reading of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha — another book in the same vein — was punctuated with me saying to myself "Yeah, I know all that." On a more recent re-reading of the same book I instead found myself saying "Oh, I know exactly what he means by that..."
Suzuki emphasizes Zen practice — sitting, training, encounters with one's master, etc. — because the process and the experience acquired through it is far more important than any amount of talk about it. The talk is useful as an explanatory device, as an analogy, but it is not a substitute for making real in one's mind the crucial self-discoveries required along the way. One of my own slowly-accrued opinions about the process is that enlightenment is not about waking up one day and "seeing the light", but spending any number of years seeing everything in that light and acting accordingly. The doing of it well is the enlightenment. You don't have it unless you've already been in the thick of it for some time and made it into a part of your own nature.
It's the same as when a novice writer comes in the door and asks for advice about how to write that Great Book they have in their head. The first and hardest thing for them to give up is their preconceived notions — not just of what their work is supposed to be, but how to go about making it. They see falling short of the target as unacceptable, even if their whole notion of the target, of the distance to the target, of hitting the target, is all based not on true experience but on seeing the process from the outside — by bearing witness to nothing more than someone else's finishing product. Many of them aren't prepared to accept falling flat on their ass three, four, five times in a row. They think they have to get it RIGHT, or be shot in the back of the head.
The few who see falling flat on their ass as being no different from "getting what they want" — no different for them emotionally, that is — have far fewer hurdles to overcome. They see the whole process of trial and error and success as just that — a total process, where the stuff you ditch is vital to the whole, too, even if you're the only one who ever sees it.
I shall have a great deal more to say about the parallels between Suzuki's explanations and my own experiences with creative work in future posts.
And at some point I'll tell the story of how I threw out the same novel twice — once with tears and the second time without blinking.
As a TV series, Ghost in the Shell was top-of-the-line. As a movie, it was an ethereal, free-floating meditation on the ideas introduced in the story. Then you go back to the original manga and it’s like being devoured alive by the incestuous offspring of an R-rated cartoon pinup and an Aibo field-service repair manual.
Thing is, I’m not sure I’d be compelled to make such a florid comparison for the sake of a book I didn’t like. After almost two decades, Shell not only holds up but inspires all the more to follow in its path — if only because at every page you’ll have another example of Masamune Shirow going that much further through the ceiling to cement his status as Overlord of the Otaku. His books have great girls, great guns, great gadgets, and more incomprehensible technological jabberjaw per square inch than the last issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE. Shell has story and characterization to balance out those things — more so of both than there was in the dizzying slap to the head that was Orion, for instance. I read Orion and felt cheated, like the victim of a shaggy-dog story. Then I read Shell, and while its plot is also a bit of a rambling free-for-all, it’s rooted that much more in characters we come to be curious about and follow all the more eagerly for what they’ll choose to do on their own. Read more
My current prevailing theory about pop-culture success in Japan is that it gets you adapted. Novel, manga, live-action TV series, live-action movie, animated series, animated movie, drama CD, cellphone story — if you create any one of the above and it’s a hit, odds are it’ll be cross-adapted into every single other medium on that list, too. That doesn’t guarantee any of the results will be readable or watchable; just that you’ll receive that much exposure.
Enter Otsuichi, one of the more recent J-culture superstars to do the Crossover Shuffle. His short-story collection Zoo has shown up as a manga, and now been turned into a five-feature anthology film along the lines of Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams. That compilation sometimes departed heavily from its source material, for the same reason Richard III was fun to stage in a proto-fascist WWII England and Kurosawa made grand, bold images out of staging King Lear and Macbeth as samurai dramas. Zoo sticks closely to its inspiration for the most part, and deviates from it when it helps. Read more
Somehow in between drawing enough manga to fill an entire bookshelf — and that’s no figure of speech — Osamu Tezuka also found the time to create animated films. What’s probably most surprising to learn is that they were not adaptations of his manga work; he left that job to other people. On his own, he created animated work that was as eclectic and experimental as the manga he created for his own left-field magazine COM. The man was large; he contained multitudes.
Few people outside of Japan or the film-festival circuit have ever seen those films, but Tezuka has become a more familiar name in English over the past decade, and so there’s now a market for a DVD anthology of that work. The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (last name first in the title, as per Japan’s naming conventions) compiles thirteen of Tezuka’s short animated productions (total time, two and a half hours) along with a half-hour interview with Tezuka itself. Even fans of Tezuka’s work in all its breadth might not recognize most of this as his product if his name wasn’t on it. Read more
Cult cinema is a continual game of one-upsmanship of the bizarre. Just when you think you’ve seen the Weirdest Thing Possible, something else comes along and flings a wrecking ball through it. Let me introduce you to the new wrecking ball.
Crazy Lips has the form, but not the content, of any number of J-horror/J-thriller productions. Or maybe it’s the other way around — form, but not content. Something like that, anyway. Included within are psychic powers, sexual perversity, bloodshed, violent revenge, government cover-ups — it’s all been mashed together in a way that would be easy to dismiss as incoherent if I was not also certain that was precisely the idea. It’s a satire on everything from Crossfire to Ringu, with deliberately hammy acting and over-the-top music stings to underscore the fundamental silliness of everything going on. Even if you go in with some inkling of how deranged this thing is, you’re still likely to never lose one iota of the disbelief that forces your jaw to hang wide open. Read more
My copy of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 on Blu-ray arrived today. I encourage everyone with an iota of respect for this film not to buy it.
There are two things wrong with GITS2.0. The first is the 2.0 "remix" of the film itself, which looks like two entirely different movies spliced together without regard for continuity of visual tone. The original idea didn't seem like a bad one: take the computer-generated effects that were in the original edition of the film and recreate them using 2009 technology.
Fine so far. Except that the newly-created footage and the original footage clash so badly in tone and look that they might as well have scrapped the entire original film and re-made it. The original movie's CGI wasn't great, but it was impressive for the period — and, as with any movie, it was a part of an accepted whole. Bringing it "up to date" only means now you have two badly contrasting aesthetics — one from "then", one from" now" — being forced to share the same film.
Here and there they've attempted to bridge the gap between the two versions by changing the color balance of the original footage to match the gold-tinged CGI of the new material, but it doesn't work. Worse, many perfectly good shots in the original that showed plenty of native craftsmanship — like the magnificent hand-painted panorama in the closing sequence — have been replaced with CGI that's as impersonal and soulless as a screensaver.
I am not, in principle, against the idea of using digital techniques to correct deficiencies present in a film. I didn't mind when George Lucas re-composited many of the old effects in Star Wars to look that much better. I did mind when Han no longer shot first. But the temptation to fix what wasn't ever really broken is strong, it seems.
Now, none of this would be quite so egregious if you could only opt for the original unmolested version of Shell and be done with it. You can't. At least, not in anything resembling a watchable version. The import version of the film sports the 1080p 1.0 and 2.0 editions on the same platter — but it's $80. The U.S. edition, for $15, has only a dreadful-looking upconverted 1080i version (for all I know, it could be 480i) of the 1.0 cut. It is one of the most contemptuous things I've ever seen done to a film.
I wouldn't have minded paying extra — $40, $50 even — for good editions of both films, even if they weren't on the same disc. This is the sort of tactic I would have expected from a major studio with no real empathy for its customers, not indies like Anchor Bay Entertainment and Manga.
In sum: Save your money. Get the import version, which is expensive but is Region A and sports English subs. And write both Manga and Anchor Bay nasty letters — and perhaps Kodansha / Bandai as well, since I can only assume they did this as a sneaky way to prevent parallel imports of the product back into Japan at cut-rate costs. (You can expect to see a good deal more of that sort of thing in the future, too.)
Thanks, guys. Thanks for nothing and then some.
Some artists have a way of riveting your vision with the certitude of what they do. This has nothing to do with subject or style. It's inexplicable. Andy Warhol and Grandma Moses. The spareness of Bergman or the Fellini circus.
Yes, yes! I murmured to myself while reading those words. (Written for a review of a movie I've been eager to see since its trailer popped onto Apple's site, no less.)
You know the real ones right from the beginning. The minute you start a song by Led Zeppelin or X or John Mayer, you know it's them and no one else. When Takeshi Kitano nails down his camera and fills the soundtrack with music that's as soothing as the action is not, he's unmistakable. When Roberto Bolaño fills two whole pages with a labyrinthine paragraph that somehow spits you back out right where you came in, and you realize this without having to flip back and look, you know you're dealing with an original.
You're an original when you can't be anything else but. Werner Herzog embodied this sort of thing from the inside out. Nothing was worth putting on film unless it was worth risking everything for. Small wonder he put Klaus Kinski on that raft with all those monkeys, or left that steamboat halfway up the mountain, and boiled and ate his shoe in real life when Errol Morris dared to finish and release Gates of Heaven.
You're an original when people think of you as something to take to a desert island. If greater flattery exists, I have yet to find it.
Claymore just got the Blu-ray release I insisted it deserved. Sure, it comes out in February, but what's a couple of months and about a thousand redeemed bottles between friends?
It's been a while since I did a rundown of things not yet in English that have caught my attention recently. Kataribe I did a full piece on, of course, but here's some other things from the shelf that so far have not gotten justice.
Most anything by Baku Yumemakura, the novelist whose adaptations of the Abe no Seimei quasi-legend were made into the Onmyoji films. The books were also adapted into some of the most gorgeous manga imaginable — which are also, inexplicably, not available here — and one of his short-story collections (Akumugurai, "Nightmare Devourer") caught my eye thanks to its Yoshitaka Amano cover art.
For every Ryū Murakami that comes out here (like Coin Locker Babies or Almost Transparent Blue), there are a bunch that don't. Among them is Topaz, the novel Tokyo Decadence was based on. It's short, weighing in at barely more than 200 pages, so perhaps it could be anthologized along with some of his other works not yet published domestically.
Most readers of this blog know about Masami Akita as Merzbow, but he's also a fairly prolific writer. The Trevor Brown cover art of Terminal Body Play makes it a collector's item, but his book Noise War — about the industrial-music scene until roughly the end of the Eighties — would make a nice addition to the literature of the movement. Of which there is not enough — Charles Neal's Tape Delay is really good, and I ought to talk about it in depth at some point, but I'm deadly curious to see what Akita (himself a member of said scene) has to say about the whole shebang.
Filmmaker Shunji Iwai is another fellow with novel-writing as a side hobby, and in the case of both Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou-chou he penned books to go with the films. (In the case of the latter, the book preceded the film and was partly derived from an experimental website set up by the author, where people could come and contribute writings about a fictional singer-songwriter.) Butterfly is another short one that could stand to be packaged as a two-fer with Lily.
I have this fantasy wherein some Japanese historian unearths a cache of scrolls that tell us what the legendary “ninja” Yagyū Jūbei was really like. The most exotic version of this fantasy has Jūbei himself coming forward in time to the present day, and reading all the crazy mythology that grew out of people simply not having a lot of hard facts about his life. He’d probably laugh until he fell out of his chair. Or, better yet, he’d take that very mythology and twist it for his own ends. Turn it into a weapon. Use it to give the Evil Overlords of the Universe a few sleepless nights. In short, he’d do everything he’s been doing in this series.
There’s pleasures big and small alike in Yagyū Ninja Scrolls, but one of the most consistent is how Jūbei approaches everything with the same cocky little smile. This man has seen them come and seen them go, and has sent a great many of them on their way with his own two hands. He’s having a grand time of it, and that’s part of why his opponents are such nasty stiffs. It’s not just that they’re evil, but that their entire idea of a Good Time is kidnapping helpless young women for their mega-harem. They need less vile hobbies. Jūbei has one: messing with their heads. Read more
Before Masayuki Ishikawa had his big hit with Moyasimon (a tale of talking bacteria, no less), he had a couple of other one-shot titles that may or may not get an English release. I’ve been pushing for “may”, as after I discovered Del Rey was putting out Moyasimon I went to their acquisitions editor and encouraged her to look into also picking up Ishikawa’s Kataribe. It only ran for one volume, but what a volume it is: it’s a rousing, violent, eye-filling adventure that comes off like one of Miyazaki’s wide-gauge productions, right down to the stubborn young heroine in the titular lead. A clone it’s not, though, and the Japan Media Arts Festival gave it a recommendation when it appeared back in 2006 (right alongside Honey and Clover, and Moyasimon itself).
The plot: Kataribe’s the disguised daughter of a noble family returning to Japan after being in exile*, now that the internecine conflict on the island finally seems to be winding down. Unfortunately they return just in time to be captured by a band of marauding warriors, the “Demon Masters”. The lucky prisoners only get killed and have their bodies thrown to the Demon Masters’ pack of cannibal-like conscripts. The unlucky ones probably end up as those beasts — and they’re a truly creepy gang, with their names tattooed on their backs, their faces always obscured behind rough hoods with eyeholes, and buckets of severed human ears as proof of their conquests. Read more
The term set piece in filmmaking refers not to something that happens on a set, but the sort of action sequence that you go and tell your friends about after you get out of the theater or turn away from the TV: And then he jumped out with his legs on fire and kicked all their butts! It’s something that happens in manga, too, as just about all of Gunsmith Cats would serve as evidence for. The whole series is one giant excuse to give us car chases and shoot-outs, and often a mix of the two.
Very little that has come before in the series prepares us for the set piece that takes up most of volume 4 of Gunsmith Cats Burst. It’s a shootout in a house — up and down stairwells (before and after being blown to pieces by grenades), through walls and doors, between floors and you-name-it. It is, very literally, what you’d use to storyboard for the inevitable live-action version of this series. Given that no deal has been cut yet — although somehow they found the money to make a movie version of, god help us, Monopoly — we’ll have to settle for the manga, but the manga’s always been good enough that it’s not like we’re settling for anything inferior. Read more
Dogs: Bullets & Carnage. Truth in advertising. Or, at least, a declaration of attitude. Manga noir, we could call it: a dark, stylish world where the outfits are vintage Harajuku, the guns are wartime surplus, and the swords are classic Muramasa. Like Sin City before it, everything is shades of gray as expressed in the starkest of blacks and whites — but with a tot more Spooky Cute on top.
You J-Culture fans should know what I mean by Spooky Cute. It’s that mix of endearing and blood-curdling that you see in everything from Tim Burton movies to Junko Mizuno’s artwork. It manifested back in “volume zero” of this series, Dogs: Prelude, and it shows up here as well in the form of the Hardcore Twins, Luki and Noki. They’re a pair of death merchants that only look like cute little girls dolled up in pink-and-black outfits; the inside cover spread and the chapter titles hint at the colors, even if the interior art doesn’t. And from their sleeves, they produce guns and knives that are about the size of small schoolbuses. They arrive, they giggle, they devastate, and then link arms and skip off into the sunset. Kids these days. Read more
Maybe it sounds like a cheap shot to say I picked up the manga adaptation of Otsuichi’s Zoo for a dollar, but it’s the truth. I was already curious about how the short-story collection had been adapted into manga, but having a pricetag that low closed the deal, and now I’m here to tell you if this doesn’t show up in English anytime soon you won’t be missing too much.
Well, that does sound like a cheap shot, doesn’t it? Especially since Zoo itself was bumpy going; the best stories in there were cheek-by-jowl with other stories so inept I wanted to red-pencil them as I went along. The manga version adapts three good stories from that collection (“Words of God”, “Zoo”, “Song of the Sunny Spot”) and one dud (“Kazari and Yoko”). Art’s by Akihisa Yanari, the creator of Tattoon Master, which is not exactly the biggest credential around but the results are acceptably clean and dramatic-looking. On the whole, though, it’s lockstep: for fans and completists only. Read more
The other week I finally watched Hot Fuzz (yeah, I know, what kept me?), which did the neat trick of making fun of the very thing it was paying homage to. It worked as comedy, it worked as an action film, and it worked as a comedic action movie — you could take your pick of any one of those three and come away happy.
Black Lagoon’s been straddling a similar divide. On one side of the divide is gun-bunny insanity where the cheese is blown off the mountaintops every couple of pages. On the other side is a knotty political-intrigue plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-Eighties Oliver Stone screenplay (e.g., Salvador), where honor-of-a-sort flourishes among thieves and the various Powers That Be are all busy screwing over each other and everyone else in their way. Read more
Samurai Princess is the latest pustule of throbbing madness to pop off the same Japanese cinematic assembly lines as Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police, RoboGeisha, et whacked-out cetera. For less money than what most movies spend on promotional gewgaws, you get a torrent of gory, high-energy weirdness and hilarity. Gory is a mild word: the movie’s obsession with body parts and guts is so heedless of good taste, so patently absurd, it’s not just grindhouse cinema, it’s grindcore cinema.
Princess is set in one of those dirt-cheap versions of the future, where the world has been reduced to rusted industrial machinery and empty office buildings. Black market surgeons make big bank by building illegal mecha, but they don’t visit the scrap metal dealers for spare parts: their machines are cobbled together from the bodies of the freshly deceased. One such surgeon offers a second life to a girl who’s the sole survivor when an entire outing of friends is massacred by murdering thugs. He doesn’t just rebuild her better/faster/stronger, either; he places the souls of the other eleven dead girls into the same body, too. (Brings new meaning to the term “coffin hotel”.) Read more
I knew I liked Wim Wenders, but the essay Criterion has published about his creative process for Wings of Desire has transformed my comradely admiration into something like brotherly love. Reading it was like receiving a letter from someone who knows you entirely too well.
At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire.
That’s how it begins, making a film, writing a book, painting a picture, composing a tune, generally creating something.
You have a wish.
You wish that something might exist, and then you work on it until it does. You want to give something to the world, something truer, more beautiful, more painstaking, more serviceable, or simply something other than what already exists. And right at the start, simultaneous with the wish, you imagine what that “something other” might be like, or at least you see something flash by. And then you set off in the direction of the flash, and you hope you don’t lose your orientation, or forget or betray the wish you had at the beginning.
Go read the whole thing. It is both poetic and analytical, and cuts more keenly to the core of how this Whole Crazy Thing works than most anything else I could dig out of the library to the back of me as I type this. So rather than dig through the pages, I'll dig through myself, because I know I've been there too.
Most everything I've written — and certainly everything in that sidebar over there — started like this. In fact, the more I dug down into my own motives about why I wrote anything at all, the one thing that surfaced more often than anything else was the need to fill a void. I'd tell a friend, You know, I'd love to see a story where — [insert description of story here] — and he'd reply, You should write something like that. Well, yes! That was a big part of why I dangled said bit of bait in front of him, to see if he'd snap at it.
At first the whole thing isn't even anything recognizable a story. It's just an image — a snapshot or two from one of the pivotal moments in the story. Sort of like when you walk out of having seen one movie, past the double doors for another theater — and right as someone leaves that theater, you catch a glimpse of whatever's flickering away on that screen. You want to linger and watch, but you can't: one, you've gotta go home; and two, that's cheating. So you drive on home, but you have that image-moment lodged inside you all the way.
If I painted, I'd go and paint what I saw, and be done with it. Or maybe not just be done with it — first use this lighting, then express it through this motif, and so on, the way Giger could take a "landscape" and turn it into twenty-five different nightmares in a row. Or try to paint it, and fall short of what I could see in my head, and punish the canvas a la Derek Jacobi's portrayal of Francis Bacon in Love is the Devil.
When an image like that is stuck inside you, it engenders a feeling somewhere between a splinter in the ball of the thumb and a toothache. Most every thought, most every space between the thoughts, is dominated by it. No recourse but to get one's ass to the dentist or break out the tweezers. Except in this case, the tooth- or splinter-pulling can take the better part of a year. Sometimes more.
Small wonder some people decide it's not worth doing more than once. Some see rewards beyond the pain, since bringing anything new into the world is always an occasion for pain — and after a while, you realize it's just the pain of adjustment, something that gives way faster than you know to real joy.
You probably know the Peter Gabriel song "Mercy St.": All of the buildings, all of the cars / were once just a dream in somebody's head. Another line also comes to mind: The Wound That Was Given Birth To Must Be Greater Than the Wound That Gave Birth. That one's courtesy of Keiji Haino, another metaphysician / sorcerer of the dreamtime. I can picture him and Wenders sitting down at opposite ends of the same very long table and having quite a discussion. And me a fly on the wall.
Some bits and pieces from AICN Anime...
The smash-hit manga/anime franchise Gin Tama (a favorite of mine) is apparently set to be adapted into a live-action film Over There. Warner Bros. Japan is footing the bill — which means due to their weird licensing deals we'll probably only get to see this one domestically thanks to the parallel-import mill. Ten to one they get someone like Jō Odagiri to play everyone's favorite testy, silver-haired troubleshooter with a glucose level problem.
The Blu-ray of Versus has been "postponed indefinitely." No word if that's because of Media Blasters just cutting back on titles generally (they've put a lot of titles on hiatus lately) or if they're just finding a new spot in the schedule for it.
Another live-action version of Yasutaka Tsutsui's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is set to be made. Given the number of times it's been made and released, how about giving the original story an English premiere, too?
Apparently Astro-Boy wasn't just a dud here, but in Japan as well. Why? I'll still need to see it for myself to get an idea, but from what I've gathered there was enough deviation from the feel of the original story (I've read the manga and seen the show) to alienate existing fans without drawing in a lot of new ones.
A bit of news that brought a twisted smile to my face:
Japanese studio Nikkatsu is launching an extreme gore label, Sushi Typhoon, to produce films from Japan’s leading cult directors including Takashi Miike (Yatterman) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police). The first project from the label is action Samurai drama, Alien Vs Ninja, directed by Yuji Shimomura (Death Trance).
Alien vs. Ninja? What shrine do I make the sacrifices at?
Janus Films (the folks who are basically the theatrical arm of Criterion) have a website up for Nobuhiko Obayahshi's mind-chewingly insane House. Words will fail you when you see this film; my own exposure to it was limited to a very bad, blurry bootleg that nevertheless had me pawing at the screen and going "WHA? WHA!" for a couple of days. (The poster is awesome, too.)
Anime News Network and Nikkei news source report that a work by the late manga and anime creator Shotaro Ishinomori will be adapted into a live-action and computer-graphics film in Hollywood in 2012. Ishinomori conceived of several popular classics, including Kamen Rider, Cyborg 009, Harmagedon, and The Skull Man.
Odds on it being Kamen Rider. (If it was Harmagedon, I would be flabbergasted — the anime version is either embarrassing or brilliant depending on your approach.)
I was probably as surprised as you to learn an OEL Vampire Hunter D manga was slated to go into the works at some point. Well, it never happened, no thanks to a clash between the original licensors and the creator they hired, Jimmy (Power Girl) Palmiotti. The Japanese manga, which are almost beat-for-beat adaptations of the novels, are pretty decently done even if the art style isn't what I had been jonesing for personally.
The name Michael Arias doesn't ring bells? Tekkonkinreet, maybe? He's since worked on a live-action film, Heaven's Door, which I'd love to see out here sooner rather than later. Let's find out what the man's been doing with a real camera and real actors.
I also confess to be insanely curious about Barbet Schroeder's Inju, his movie adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's The Beast in the Shadows. That book was one of the first of Rampo's full-length works to be translated in English after literally decades of only a handful of short stories making it to this side of the ocean.
File under: Hm, Interesting. Haruki Kadaokawa, back in the director's chair, now has a version of the classic Norwegian crime novel The Laughing Policeman, also adapted back in 1974 into a very good U.S. version with Walter Matthau (and Bruce Dern, and Lou Gossett Jr.). The book deals with the problem of random violence in otherwise peaceful societies, something that was diluted a bit for the U.S. version, although they attempted to salvage some of that aspect of it by setting it in the relatively tranquil urb of San Francisco. Set the same story in Japan, even in Tokyo, and you can preserve that aspect of it more or less intact. (From what I can tell, they missed a bet by not casting Ittoku Kishibe, he of the perennial basset-hound expression, as the homely middle-aged detective protagonist.)
One of Japan's "new religion" outfits, Kofuku no Kagaku, produces big-budget theatrical films that ought to function as thinly-veiled propaganda — that is, if audiences weren't busy laughing themselves silly over them. These are the same goofballs who brought us the insane catastro-flop Nostradamus: Sen ritsu no keiji, which I picked up on VHS for $3; I felt like I'd been cheated out of the cost of three perfectly good candy bars. Now they have a new movie about — an animated film, no less, about "Why Do We Need Buddha?". Color me all kinds of scared, and give me Tezuka's manga version of the life story of the Teacher instead.
And be sure to check out the trailer for Ryuhei Kitamura's animated project Baton, which looks trippy and wonderful.
(Word of advice to creators of Japanese movie sites: PLEASE STOP MAKING THE HOME PAGE A FLASH LOADER. At least give us the option to see something without having to sit through an hourglass icon.
(My review of Zetsubo-sensei #4 also got a shout in the same column; thank you, Scott!)
Tags: Criterion Edogawa Rampo Haruki Kadokawa Japan links Michael Arias movies Ryuhei Kitamura Shotaro Ishinomori Takashi Miike Vampire Hunter D Yasutaka Tsutsui Yoichi Sai Yoshihiro Nishimura Yuji Shimomura
Ebert looks (back) at Hoop Dreams, a project that started as a little documentary about kids playing basketball and turned into one of those movies. Like one of Werner Herzog's films, it grew out of the fact that the right people were in the right place at the right time, and they made the most of it.
''Do you all wonder sometimes how I am living? How my children survive, and how they're living? It's enough to really make people want to go out there and just lash out and hurt somebody."
When people talk about reality having it all over fiction, I nod and point them at this movie as evidence.
(NetFlix has it on Watch Now. Go see it if you have it.)
From a friend's blog:
While I was sitting at lunch today, a couple of my female co-workers were also in the break room talking about an article one of them was reading in the paper. It was about a small GPS device that you can give to your kids that lets you know where they are at all times. She noted that it was small enough to fit in a backpack, and then exclaimed that all she would be able to glean from that is where her son's backpack was. I thought at first that she was being funny, but after listening for a little while longer it became clear that she was completely serious. She wasn't going to be happy until she was basically able to track her kid's movements the entire time he was away from her.
Seriously? This is what it's come to?
I don't know that it's "come to" this. I suspect that technology has just made it all the easier to be a helicopter parent, in much the same way texting and GoogTwitBookFaceTubeSpace has made "being out of touch" the new big crime.
I've muttered before about how I don't think much of Facebook (come and get spammed) or Twitter (no other mode but the shout-out), but texting is another annoyance that is next to impossible to shut out entirely. Aside from the nickel-and-dime-you-to-death side of it*, there's the fact that suddenly, everyone you know with a QWERTY keyboard on their phone is messaging you with things that most of the time aren't even worth a Yes, No or I Haven't The Foggiest. For emergencies or for situations where talking on a phone is impractical — e.g., a convention where you're fighting to be heard over two thousand other people — texting is one thing, but ...
It depresses me that I can't remember the last time I actually sat down and wrote a letter to someone, if only because it's generally easier and faster to call any of those someones and talk to them. But a phone conversation is not the same thing as a letter, which is not the same thing as an afternoon spent in the living rooms, and I'm hoping our spur-of-the-moment love affair with instant connectivity wanes when we realize it's like swapping candy bars for a home-cooked meal.
* Yes, I could get a plan that offers me economy texting. No, I don't want it. For precisely the reasons outlined above.
Here is a movie which doesn’t really work as a whole, but is oddly fascinating if you take each piece by itself. The Black House was marketed as a thriller, but it’s really closer to one of Takashi Miike’s “thrillers”, where the workings of the plot take a backseat to outré examples of bizarre human behavior. I’m not sure I liked it, exactly, but I was never bored by it, and it earns a few extra points for being based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi (of The Crimson Labyrinth). The movie’s bizarre and striking enough to make you curious about the book, even if you’re not inspired to see the film itself more than once.
Most thrillers rarely have heroes — only victims or perpetrators. Wakatsuki, the protagonist of House, works in a small Kyoto life-insurance company but right from the start has VICTIM stamped on his forehead. He’s mousy, reticent, intimidated and twitchy. The only things in life that give him real peace are swimming and his girlfriend — when he’s in the water, and when he’s next to her, he’s a different man. He also knows his job well, and despite his meekness has a good nose for the fraud and double-dealing that are rampant. Things could be worse. Read more
... [in] those last couple of pages, where having already yanked the rug out from under us not merely once but several times, Tezuka finally just tears out the floor itself.
Now the good news: Vertica'ls reissuing it in softcover early next year. Go get it if you missed it the first time.
Critics and moviegoers alike are recoiling in amazement at Richard Schickel's mean-spirited kicking-to-the-curb of a biography of Robert Altman:
[Altman's] films do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times. This book provides massive evidence that people had lots of fun making them, but none whatsoever that they will survive as anything more than historical curiosities.
Jim Emerson gets it right in his dismantling of Schickel's viewpoint and motives:
Schickel prefers to criticize Altman for being Altman — which is his prerogative, although it doesn't reveal much about the filmmaker or the films. Altman's way of working is indeed essential to the texture of his films, and it was a non-factory method that by its very nature yielded variable results from picture to picture, depending even more than most movies (and parties) on the particular serendipity of the mix. As for Schickel's verdict, critics far more astute than he have explored Altman's films in great detail.
You don't need to read very deeply to see that Schickel has an anti-anti-Establishment axe to grind, and that he would rather use the space provided to him to rip Altman a new one (Altman as a proxy for all those other Easy Riders and Raging Bulls) than talk about the book itself. He seems more determined to prove that the book's agenda cannot be fulfilled than whether or not it manages to achieve anything in the first place.
Schickel tips his moralistic hand so many times in that "review" it's a little scary. Is anyone really shocked by the possibility that drug use ("smoking dope") is prevalent in Hollywood or creative types generally? Probably not, and so Schickel's invocation of it is a demarcation: he's on that side of the line, and we are over here, the Good Clean Folks ... like Elia Kazan.
Mavericks and iconoclasts come in more varieties than you can iterate; that's why they're, well, mavericks. Nobody mistakes David Lynch for Robert Altman (and nobody mistakes either of them for Pier Paolo Pasolini). But even though I dislike von Trier's motives as a filmmaker, even though I enjoy Altman's work and am iffy about Lynch, I'm still bound to give any one product by them its due, on its own terms. Lynch again: I go back and forth about Blue Velvet (I'd like to think its worst excesses are something the director has grown past), but Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive are keepers. I could care less about any of them personally unless it impacts me in some way, and somehow having a party atmosphere on the set hardly seems like A-grade miscreancy.
If Schickel had just come out and said I don't like Altman's movies, but for those who do ... he would have at least faced his own motives a little more squarely. Instead we get his foot-stamping that there's no lasting value to be found in them, period.
Now that I think about it, maybe the real blame isn't to be laid at Schickel's feet. What editor decided sending him that book would be a good idea? Talk about someone being on drugs...
The geisha have been a dying breed for a while, but apparently so are the pearl fishers:
... The dearth of potential successors could spell the end of a tradition thought to have originated 2,000 years ago, and which gets a mention in Manyoshu, a seventh-century collection of Japanese poetry. "We don't have a single young woman - and by young I mean someone in her 30s - diving with us these days," said Ms Sakai.
Article dates from 2006 but that only makes it all the more poignant.
Once upon a time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the VHS of Akira was still marketed by Streamline Pictures, there was a little monthly named Mangajin. They were, and still are, a godsend for someone who wanted to not only learn Japanese but learn about it through Japanese popular culture, via excerpts of translated manga. I even wrote briefly for them (I penned a couple of pieces about Japanese text processing in English editions of Windows), but then — in a move that played like a plot twist out of this very comic — they went belly-up and nothing like them has come since. And with the licensing costs for manga now through the roof it’s not likely anything ever will.
Curious, then, how Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei comes fairly close to filling one of the roles Mangajin played. Its U.S. edition is English-only, as opposed to Mangajin’s bilingual production, but it’s as culturally omnivorous an entertainment as The Simpsons, and easily as difficult (if not doubly so) for outsiders to appreciate. Each volume sports more marginalia, annotations and endnotes than most other series’ complement of such things. It’s brutally funny and deliciously mean-spirited, a black comedy of manners that got dressed up as a cultural encyclopedia and went trick-or-treating. Call it a “200-level” manga. This is what you pick up when ninjas in orange jumpsuits isn’t enough of a challenge for you, and you now want to learn about how one can “plead the Fifth” in the guise of a holiday observance by shoving a five-foot sushi roll into one’s mouth ... and gnawing on it for a whole week. Read more
Behind one of the odder titles in recent memory lies a very good show, if not quite a great one. Pumpkin Scissors has a flawed final stretch and some elements that don’t quite work, but put those aside and what’s left is really original and endearing. It’s not about ludicrous magic powers or giant war ‘bots; it’s rooted in something resembling our world, and so there’s that much less distance between you and what’s going on.
The setup: The “Royal Empire” (an allegorical variant of post-war Germany, or maybe post-war Japan itself) has lost a war to one of its neighbors, the Republic of Frost. The shooting has stopped, but the Empire is still a wreck. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Hunger and despair are on every face, black markets are legion, and what’s left of the native army has lost its morale. To fight this grim picture, the army has established a special public-relations unit, the “Pumpkin Scissors” — but they’re widely regarded as a cheap publicity stunt, not an effective military unit.Read more
How long has it been since we’ve seen a really good animated samurai epic? Not a series, but a feature film? Apart from Ninja Scroll (which wasn’t to my taste), the animated Musashi (not yet seen by me) the middling Blade of the Phantom Master and a couple of other things that don’t even come immediately to mind, this is the first such production in ages. I had little doubt from the trailers and stills that it looked good, but it’s heartening to know the creators also gave us a story worth seeing through to the end. It’s not just a demo reel.
Stranger is set in a windy coastal stretch of feudal Japan, where peasants eke out hardscrabble existences by the seaside and wind-blown mountains. If you were a samurai, the best way to advance in the ranks as was to either a) kill as many of the other guys as possible or b) kill your own lord and declare yourself his replacement. It’s no country for old men — or young ones, for that matter. Small wonder the urchin Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru have turned to theft to survive, after the monastery where they were sheltered burned down. One day they find a visitor of sorts in the abandoned temple where they’ve been squatting: a handsome fellow, sporting both a sword — tied shut in its scabbard — and a rather diffident attitude. He’s not interested in robbing the kid; he just wants a roof over his head for a night so he isn’t sleeping in the rain. Read more
Amazon.com in Japan has just revealed another way for me to go broke: the Guin Saga animation artbook.
127 pages, ¥1000? Not too shabby. I'll save my pennies and see if it shows up at Kinokuniya once it's out (which is, apparently, sometime this week).
[Update: Link works now. My bad.]
Due to a screwup on my part, the PayPal "Buy Now" buttons that I had on this site were not rendering correctly. I've re-implemented how they show up, so they should appear correctly now. Click on any of the above links to go to a page where the proper "Buy Now" button appears.
(If you still have trouble finding anything or making it work, holler at me in the comments and I'll fix it.)
Now this wasn’t what I signed up for. I went into X-Cross thinking it would be a gory throwaway, and instead got something closer to Sam Raimi’s gleeful everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. We start off in conventional horror/thriller territory, then roll on through action-comedy, black humor, cyber-thriller, and even girl-girl relationship flicks. Five movies for the price of one.
This could have been a ghastly mess, but instead it’s goofy fun. The whole thing’s been adapted from a novel (not yet in English) written by Nobuyuki Jōkō, with director Kenta Fukasaku (Yo-Yo Girl Cop, son of Kinji) at the helm. I’d been tempted to write him off as a featherweight before — his first movie was, sort of, Battle Royale II, which he took over when his father died and which stunk for reasons unrelated to who was at the helm. (I blame whoever was behind the typewriter.) X-Cross is no Battle Royale, but it’s definitely no Battle Royale II. It’s got absurd, offbeat energy oozing from every pore. Read more
Sometimes you’re better off dumping all pretenses of being a critic and just coming out and saying you like something a whole lot. So it goes with Shonen Onmyouji, because, well, guilty as charged: it has a bunch of things in it which I like a whole lot. It’s set in ancient Japan, with elegance and mystery to spare; it has courtly intrigue and diabolical magic aplenty; and it moves at a decent pace and actually feels like it goes places with its story. Triple play.
Much like the little beastie that sits on the hero’s shoulder throughout this series, there’s been this devilish whisper in my ear the whole time I’ve been pounding out this review. Sucker! You’re only saying nice things about it ‘cos you’re a pushover for historical fantasy, hissed that voice. Fine, smart guy, have it your way. I pushed right over for Otogi-Zoshi, even though technically that was only half a period piece. It was also, and more importantly, a killer show that I would gladly watch again any day of the week.
I also pushed over for Hakkenden, and Moribito, and Requiem from the Darkness, and Blade of the Immortal — although I’d opine those are all good-to-great shows by most any standard. Onmyouji’s a bit closer to the middle of the road — it’s definitely not as thought-provoking as Moribito or as atmospherically lush as Otogi-Zoshi — but I walked in skeptical and in the end was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Read more