By all accounts Zen Master Seung Sahn was a funny guy, and that squares with my understanding of the way Buddhism and Zen specifically act as a liberating force on the personality. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, likewise, is a funny book. Funny in a way that is unforced, because the best humor in most anything — whether it’s Zen Buddhism or trying to fry an egg or what the President said the other day — is something that comes directly out of the material without being forced. Much like Zen itself, I suppose.
Seung Sahn was a preeminent Zen master in his native Korea, but in the 1960s he moved to the United States and began the process of founding what would ultimately become several thriving centers of Zen study in New York, Providence, and many other places. He bootstrapped the whole thing more or less by hand. He didn’t even know English when he came to the U.S., and for a time supported himself as a repairman for a Laundromat. In time he accrued students, learned the language, ordained monks of his own, and created an explanatory body of literature and practice for Zen Buddhism that had the best sort of homespun simplicity about it. His advice was cheerful, direct and unadorned: “Only keep don’t-know mind, only go straight”, “Don’t make anything,” or “Put it all down!” — all of it revolving around the basic Zen practice of allowing the mind to receive things exactly as they are, to add nothing and take away nothing. I never met him — he died in 2004 — but I can say his work more directly influenced my willingness to delve that much more deeply into Zen than most any other single figure. Read more
There are a few actors I will watch in literally anything. Chow Yun-Fat remains one of them, and I have sat through some of the most amazing junk just because he was in it and could make anything seem plausible — or tolerable — with that snappy smile of his. He made the bloated Curse of the Golden Flower marginally watchable, and he even made it possible to keep my eyes on the screen during the bottom-of-the-barrel Bulletproof Monk (at least, when he was actually visible). Likewise, he makes Confucius that much more watchable, even when the film itself never remains more than average.
The title should be a tipoff. It’s a lavishly-funded and spectacularly-photographed (by veteran HK cinematographer Peter Pau) look at the thinker who has become most closely identified with Chinese culture generally. His ideas remain important and thoughtful: he put human beings above abstractions like gods and empty ritual; he emphasized the importance of personal cultivation and learning; he noted that all of this had to take place within a stable social structure for the benefit of all. He came up with this doctrine at a time when China was a patchwork of feuding kingdoms and when violence was terribly commonplace, and so to many ears his words sounded Utopian and unreachable. Read more
The first half of The Last Princess gave me hope — not much hope, but hope all the same — that this remake of The Hidden Fortress, one of Akira Kurosawa’s better films, would not be the crashing bore that was Tsubaki Sanjuro or (egads) the Samurai 7 anime. The second half didn’t dash those hopes completely, but they served as a reminder of how spectacle and noise are quickly becoming substitutes for vision and storytelling in modern movies.
What they do get right, though, is a sizable slice of the romping spirit of adventure in the original. I can’t deny Princess has great energy and visual style, and there isn’t a single boring second of it. It tells more or less the same story: during one of Japan’s periods of internecine war, two conscripts escape from being captured by the enemy and blunder into the lair of a princess hiding out as a commoner. Her bodyguard has been hatching a plan to get both her and the gold from the royal coffers back home, and he’s tempted to let these two scruffy troublemakers rot in their dungeon. Then they suggest a sly way to avoid the authorities, form a tentative alliance, and encounter one dangerous enemy after another. Read more
I once read that there were two François Truffauts — one being a filmmaker of life, light and laughter (Day for Night, Love on the Run, etc.) and the other a director fascinated with death and stark emotional horror (The Bride Wore Black, The Green Room, The Story of Adele H). In the same way, there are two Osamu Tezukas. One is the creator of Astro-Boy and Unico and any number of other sunny, optimistic stories. The other is a man smashing his heart against all the walls of the world: MW, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, Phoenix, Buddha, and now Ayako.
And yet as more of Tezuka’s work is translated into English, the more I see this dualistic view as being fundamentally wrong. The same fundamentally transcendent impulse runs through all of his work, great and small; he was simply seeking tirelessly for any number of different ways to express it. Sometimes he could seek it in a more upbeat or commercially acceptable fashion (Dororo, Black Jack); sometimes, he sought it by flinging himself into a place where it seemed no one else would dare follow.
Ayako is one of those into-the-void works. It is loaded with excess, but it’s all fearless stuff, and all in the service of a story that looks pitilessly at the way people cling desperately to scraps of power and influence even as it corrupts them from within all the more. No lie is great enough to tell, no sin mortal enough to contemplate, no life sacrosanct in the face of such need. What’s remarkable is how Tezuka’s storytelling makes such dank and horrific things into the stuff of compulsively readable, wide-gauge visual drama. You’re drawn in despite yourself, not just once but many times over. Even if the final product doesn’t quite have the focus and force of his best work in this same category — for me it’s a tossup between MW and Kirihito for such honors — it still deserves to be read by as broad an audience as possible. Read more
I do have a cause, though. It is obscenity. I'm for it. — Tom Lehrer
Those might well be the same words that Subuyan of The Pornographers might have printed on his business card. He’s an entrepreneur dealing in contraband: not drugs, but hard-core smut. Japan of the 1960s may have stern laws about what you can and can’t show in books and on film, but since when have little things like the law stopped any self-respecting businessman from reaching his target market?
If the title of the story and the main character’s predicament sound familiar, it might well be. Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel was the inspiration for Shohei Imamura’s witty, biting film, and so coming to the book at this point feels as odd as it did when I read Shotaro Ikenami’s Ninja Justice long after having watched Baian the Assassin, or watching Vibrator and then reading Mari Akasaki’s novel a year or more later. Odd, but not wrong: in each case I fully expected the book and movie to diverge from each other, and here I went in curious about where they broke off and how they rejoined. Read more
I liked Neil Marshall’s previous film Doomsday for its sheer unapologetic audacity. Centurion is essentially the same movie stuck in a single timezone (the Roman Empire vs. the Picts), minus the audacity and with no Frankie Goes To Hollywood music over the climactic battle. It’s mostly a showcase for some stuntwork, costuming, helicopter-shot scenery, and a neat title sequence where the credits hover in midair. No one, me included, is going to have much to say about the storyline, the characters, or the acting. They’re as functional as a taxi ride: they get you where you need to be, but unmemorably.
Centurion’s lead is Michael Fassbender, the haunted-looking fellow who was at the center of the disturbing movie Hunger. Here, instead of playing an IRA hunger striker, he’s a Roman soldier, Quintus Dias, who’s taken prisoner when a Pictish tribe storms his outpost. He escapes and encounters another Roman legion that’s been sent north to put down the Pict leaders once and for all. In their company’s Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mute Pict tracker whose allegiances are, shall we say, questionable at best. It isn’t long before Quintus is once again stuck behind enemy lines with only a few men to his name and a plan that may simply drive them that much further into the mouths of the wolves chasing them. Read more
After a few delays, I finally have a start date for when my version of anime.about.com goes live: this coming Thursday, Nov. 11.
So what does this mean for this site and all the other things I've been doing here? Right now, I dunno. It may mean, at first, a few months when I don't post much of anything, because I'll be in the process of getting a feel for the workload and the ways things are done. It might mean me just turning up here from time to time and mumbling about something or other when I can find a moment. That means, sadly, no more of the material I covered here regularly — at least, not for now. I just won't have the time, and even the simplest things required time I'm finding I no longer have. I don't mean to paint a gloomy picture, but I gotta be realistic.
I've been through some fairly major upheavals in the past twelve months, from job changes to various other things not worth going about in public, and all of it forced me to do some heavy thinking. It's all made me realize, for one thing, that I can't do a hundred things at once. Then I run the risk of doing them sloppily and stupidly, and that's not a trap I want to fall back in. I've been there before, and it wasn't good at all — it got other people hurt, not just me. (And for that, I can't be more sorry — thank goodness being dumb is a curable illness.)
I've been lucky enough to have the help of a great many good people, friends and family alike, to keep my head screwed on straight and to offer support in various forms. But in the end we all have to walk on our own.
Back when I first started studying Buddhism I learned about how most people have a skewed idea of how it works. They think that you meditate and study, and the "bad" of daily life (samsara) is replaced with the "good" of enlightenment (nirvana). It's actually more direct than that — the nirvana is in the samsara. In fact, they're the same thing — all that's changing is your perceptions of things. The things that you think are obstacles on the goal towards wisdom are the wisdom itself. It all sounds terribly hincty and facile when you run it down like that in so many words, because it doesn't convey an iota of the real flavor of it — the doing of it, where you become the laboratory and run the tests inside yourself.
So in the same way, all this work is a practice path — the path, really. Here's hoping my journey on that path is a good one.
The Timeless and the Dated
There’s little more frustrating than truly great writing in a middling package. Ryunosuke Akutagawa: The Beautiful and the Grotesque was originally published in 1960 under the unfortunate name Exotic Japanese Stories, and the approach it presents to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s timeless work is encapsulated by that wince-inducing title. As annotated and translated by John McVittie (in conjunction with Takashi Kojima), I am reminded of some truly beautiful paintings stuck in the most tasteless of frames.
I’m not positive the book having been published in 1960 is the sole reason it comes off as such a stodgy artifact of its moment. When Donald Keene translated Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human in 1958 and wrote an introduction for that book, his opening paragraph for that essay contained this sentence: “[With the praise for the English translation of Dazai’s earlier novel The Setting Sun] … there was no trace of the condescension often bestowed on writers emanating from remote parts of the world, and for once nobody thought to use the damning adjective ‘exquisite’ about an unquestionably Japanese product.” Read more