Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Tokyo Comedy Bar Opens In Shibuya

Tokyo Comedy Bar launches in Shibuya by Phoebe Amoroso

After the past couple of years, we could all do with more laughs. Yet when Ben “BJ” Fox proposed opening a comedy venue in the middle of a pandemic, many people thought he was having a laugh – and not the right kind. It’s a fact he acknowledged at the venue’s opening night last Friday, describing the project self-deprecatingly as a midlife crisis. 

There’s nothing sexier than a hard tall and thick hot mike.

The audience, however, was gleeful and, as comedy-lovers, presumably grateful too. Tokyo Comedy Bar becomes the city’s only stand-up comedy club, bringing shows nightly to the heart of Shibuya. From roast battles and improv to hosting international comedians, the venue has big ambitions, impressively offering shows in both English and Japanese. As the name cunningly suggests, it’s also a bar, boasting craft beers on tap, and there’s no obligation to stay for a show.

We caught the late show of Tokyo Comedy Bar’s English two-part opening event, with BJ Fox MC-ing a line-up of six comedians. Admittedly, we were a little sceptical whether they could all deliver, but we were proved wrong; the laugh-a-minute from the audience was evidence enough that these performers knew their crowd, tackling everything from politics to sexuality, and especially life in Japan. 

Jon Sabay kicked off the evening, riffing on expats versus immigrants drawing on his own family history, and then educating us on the true signs of whether someone is a gaijin. Up next, Bill Miller began his set by taking on Japanese apartment sizes in some near-the-bone humour that definitely wouldn’t make it onto NHK. A shout-out must also go to the musically talented Ruben VM for highlighting the most endangered species in the world in his song “Extinction,” and getting us all to sing a truly heart-warming song about nationalism. 

Good beer, good cheer

With both opening shows sold out, it’s going to be exciting to see how Tokyo Comedy Bar will develop the city’s stand-up scene and whether it’ll bring fresh comedic talent to the stage. One thing, however, is for certain: after two years of almost all events being cancelled in the city, the venture couldn’t be further from a midlife crisis. It’s post-pandemic therapy, and long may it continue. 
For the full event schedule, check Tokyo Comedy Bar’s website or Instagram.

BJ Fox Welcomes you!

Japan: The Shape Of Things To Come? Find out this Sunday (May 15)

Join some of the greatest experts on Japan to discuss the future of this island nation.

This coming Sunday (May 15, starting 10am), sees a unique event at the Yokohama campus of Meiji Gakuin University and online via Zoom, called THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, marking the international departmen’s ten years of teaching global and transcultural studies.

Predicting the future is a lot harder than learning to make sushi

This one-day symposium features a panel of star speakers who will try to predict what will happen in the next ten years in Japan, East Asia, and the World. The star speaker is MUHAMMAD YUNUS, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, known as “banker to the poor”, live by Zoom link from the Yunus Centre, Dhaka, Bangladesh . The event also features Alex Kerr, author of books such as Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, noted professional economic journalist, Rick Katz, Hiroko Takeda author of The Political Economy of Reproduction: Between Nation-State and Everyday Life (2005) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Japan (2021) along with Kyoko Hatakeyama(Professor of International Relations, University of Niigata Prefecture), David Leheny, Masafumi Iida, Eric Zusman, Mika Ohbayashi and Hiroshi Ohta.

It will be an interactive event, with 15-minute presentations and equal time for free discussion. This is a great chance to get into conversation with some elite experts on Japan and broaden your own knowledge of the country and Asia. Admission is free and open to all, but prior registration is required.


Click here for the Online program here:


Click here for the Online registration

The full press release is below:

A Symposium commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Foundation of the Department of Global and Transcultural Studies, Meiji Gakuin University

SUNDAY MAY 15, 2022, MEIJI GAKUIN UNIVERSITY YOKOHAMA CAMPUS

As our department marks ten years of teaching global and transcultural studies, the world appears to be balanced on a knife edge. Internationalism is locked with nationalism, secularism with religious fundamentalism, democracy with authoritarianism, tolerance with intolerance. The Corona Pandemic has ushered in a new and frightening era of massive biohazards, while Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of a return to Cold War type confrontation. Casting a long shadow over these massive ideological struggles is climate change, thought by many experts to be close to a tipping point from which will flow disastrous consequences for humanity and the natural environment.

This symposium will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Department of Global and Transcultural Studies. It will be an opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and survey the world and the prospects for the ten years to come. Each of our speakers will be invited to gaze into their crystal ball and forecast how global affairs will develop in the next ten years. We hope to examine their predictions ten years later, when the department celebrates its 20thanniversary.

Keynote speaker

Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner)

PROGRAM

9:30am: Doors Open; Registration

9:50am: Welcome and Opening Remarks by Leo Murata (president of Meiji Gakuin University)

10am

Panel 1: Prospects for Japan

Chair: Prof. Tom Gill (Meiji Gakuin Dept. of Global and Transcultural Studies)

Japan’s economic, social and demographic challenges for the next decade.

Alex Kerr (long-term resident of Kyoto, known for books such as Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan)

Richard Katz (economist, New York correspondent of Toyo Keizai; will join online)

Hiroko Takeda (Professor of Political Science, Nagoya University)

11:45am

Panel 2: Peace and Security

Chair: Prof. Kōki Abe (Meiji Gakuin Department of International Studies)

Prospects for peace and security in East Asia in the shadow of China-US competition.

Masafumi Iida (Professor, National Institute of Defense Studies)

Kyoko Hatakeyama (Professor of International Relations, University of Niigata Prefecture)

David Leheny (Professor of Political Science, Waseda University)

1:15pm: Lunch (Please bring your own lunch. Alternatively, there are two convenience stores and one small restaurant near the campus.)

2:15pm

Panel 3: Renewable Energy/Environment

Can Japan meet its ambitious carbon reduction targets for 2030, and if so, how?

Chair: Prof. Paul Midford (Meiji Gakuin Dept. of Global and Transcultural Studies)

Eric Zusman (Senior Researcher, Institute for Global Environmental Studies)

Mika Ohbayashi (Director, Renewable Energy Institute, Tokyo)

Hiroshi Ohta (Professor, Waseda University School of International Liberal Studies)

4:00pm

Panel 4: Careers in the Coming Decade

Chair: Prof. Takayuki Sakamoto (Meiji Gakuin Dept. of Global and Transcultural Studies)

Seven of our graduates will discuss prospects for the fields in which they are working.

11KC1020 Rina Takeda, Sony Music Solutions Inc.

13KC1031 Kaji Deane, automotive distributor

13KC1045 Megumi Miura, project manager, Amazon Japan

14KC1018 Ruxin Wei, systems engineer, Intelligent Wave Inc.

15KC1025 Jinzaburo Tasaka, web designer, SoftBank

15KC1026 Yumi Tajima, fashion merchandiser

15KC1504 Vladislav Lushchikov, restaurant manager

5:45pm

Introduction of Prof. Muhammad Yunus by Prajakta Khare (Associate Professor, Meiji Gakuin Dept. of Global and Transcultural Studies)

6:00pm

Keynote Address

Professor Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, “banker to the poor”, live by Zoom link from the Yunus Centre, Dhaka, Bangladesh

“Global Economic Inequality: Now is the Time to Redesign”

Q&A moderated by Prajakta Khare

6:45pm

Yokohama International Study Association (YISA) – Officers of the Meiji Gakuin alumni association will explain the association’s activities and how to get involved in them.

7pm

Vote of thanks by Prof. Aoi Mori, Dean of the Faculty of International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University

May the Force Be With You (May 4th) Zen Wisdom From Star Wars! The Dao of Jedi

May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe.  “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely.  (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).

Zen Wisdom From Star Wars
Zen Wisdom From Star Wars

The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so.  The books works better than you might imagine.

Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.

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The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:

山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).

安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい)

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閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.

Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.

Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”.  According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.

So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching

Force Te Ching

by Yoda- chapter 81

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.

The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

So until next year, May the Force Be With you!

フォースと共にあれ!

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The 11 Rules Of Being A Good Journalist In Japan

When I was just starting as a reporter in 1992, a veteran reporter at the Yomiuri Shimbun gave me some valuable advice on being a good journalist, specifically being a good investigative journalist. I’ve never forgotten it but in the 30 years since then, times have changed. This is the first revision I’ve ever done of the rules. Think of this as the 2022 edition, a three decade late update.

The job is hard but often rewarding.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Japan are the laws related to civil servants.

The laws here in Japan basically state that if a public official (police officer, bureaucrat etc) shares confidential information with a third party, they are committing a crime. They can be fired or prosecuted. This happens. If it’s a state secret they may be sentenced to five years or more in jail.  This is why newspaper articles in Japan abound with anonymous sources dressed up with phrases like, “according to someone close to the investigation” or “government sources”.  Japan’s press freedom ranking in 2010 was 11th in the world, now 66th out of 180 countries. Protecting sources gets harder all the time.

So keeping that in mind, here’s the list again with three new rules and here’s a little background. 

I interned at the Yomiuri Newspaper briefly in 1992 before starting as a regular staff reporter in 1993. When I was visiting legendary crime reporter, Inoue Ansei at the police press club, took me up to the coffee shop, ordered us some green tea, and asked what I wanted to do at the Yomiuri.

“Well,” I said, “I’m interested in investigative journalism and the side of Japan I don’t know much about. The seamy side. The underworld.” I told him that my father was a country coroner and that crime and the police beat had always interested me.

He recommended I shoot for Shakaibu (社会部), the national news section, which was responsible for covering crime, social problems, and national news. 

Inoue put it this way: “It’s the soul of the newspaper. Everything else is just flesh on the bones. Real journalism, journalism that can change the world, that’s what we do.”

I asked him for some advice as a reporter. 

“Newspaper reporting isn’t rocket science,” he said. “The pattern is set. You remember the patterns and build from there. It’s like martial arts. You have kata [the form] that you memorize and repeat, and that’s how you learn the basic moves. It’s the same here. There are about three or four basic ways to write up a violent crime, so you have to be able to remember the style, fill in the blanks, and get the facts straight. The rest will come.

“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.

Let me tell you kid. There are eight rules you gotta know to be a good reporter in this town (1992)

One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.

Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.

Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.

Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.

Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to an unfolding investigation and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of breaking news make you forget about the unfinished news.

Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.

Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.

Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.

And that was it. I haven’t grown much wiser over the years but as the media landscape and technology have changed, I think it’s time to add three more rules.

“But 30 years later, in 2022, I think we need three more rules in addition to the big 8.”

And here they are:

Nine: Share your data. The internet is a vast and endless storage hub. If you’ve written something the world should know–put up supporting data and documents on the web, maybe in a dropbox file that anyone can access. Use hyperlinks. Knowledge empowers everyone. Be sure not to reveal sources but share the intel you have;  some of your readers may even return the favor. 

Ten: Seek information. Learn every means possible of ferreting information from the web and from public sources. Social media can be a cesspool but it can also be a wonderful way to find information, collaborators and whistleblowers. Ask questions. Post your query and post a way to contact you, and welcome what comes.

Eleven: Protect Your Sources–And Protect Yourself.  In the modern world, when people don’t like the message, they attack the messenger. This wasn’t the case back in 1992 when Yomiuri reporters didn’t get bylines. Individual reporters were rarely attacked because no one knew who wrote the stories. Now they do. You will make enemies because of this.  To paraphrase a detective I admired, “An investigative journalist without enemies, isn’t investigating hard enough”. 

You’ll find that enemies (people who wish you harm) include people who don’t like what you’ve written, or what you are going to write, and sadly,  other journalists who are professionally jealous or hold a grudge.  Protect your reputation.  It’s not just a matter of your big fat ego: if people don’t feel you’re credible,  the good work you do won’t be read or won’t be taken seriously. 

When you know someone is gunning for you, be proactive. The person on the defensive always looks guilty. Anticipate attacks, undercut them, and prepare your rebuttal.

A few footnotes and some final advice. 

There are many interesting ways to share data and also learn to collect information more efficiently. Please have a look at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) website. “IRE is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of journalism”–they say and they’re worth joining. The AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) also offers valuable training and advice.  Another great source for learning how to get your message out and get read by many people is The Journalists’ Resource, which has a self-explanatory name. 

And some final advice. There are many types of journalism in the world: sports journalism, entertainment journalism, gaming journalism and they’re all valid forms of the art and wonderful vocations. Investigative journalism, by its very nature, involves writing things that the powers that be don’t want written. This will make people angry. You can’t avoid it. You should always try and weigh the public’s right to know something versus the damage that it will do to the life of an individual. If you’re not a full-time staffer, who’s assigned to cover this or that story, then you have the ability to decide what is and what is not worth writing. So choose wisely but if it’s important, write it.

Hidetoshi Kiyotake, my former supervisor at the Yomiuri, gave me some good advice which I will share with you. 

If you’re going to be an investigative journalist here, you have to make up your mind and be ready [for what comes]. You must endure unreasonable criticism, and continue to fight. 

In Japan, reporters who reveal their sources are scorned and cannot continue to do proper and decent reporting. That’s why you must keep your important sources anonymous. This often leads to investigative journalists having to go it alone, feeling isolated. You just have to believe in yourself and your friends and hang in there.

****

(調査報道記者として不公平に叩かれる宿命について)腹を据えて、理由のない批判に耐え、戦わなければならない。日本では情報源を明かすような記者は軽蔑され、まともな取材を続けられない。だから、重要な情報源は匿名にならざるを得ないのだ。そのために調査報道にあたる記者はしばしば孤立する傾向にある。自分や友人を信じて、頑張るしかないよ。

Intimate Strangers: Mothers Without Sons—new suspense film explores the depths of human connection

By Kaori Shoji

UPDATE

“Intimate Stranger” will be screened with English subtitles at 6:50 pm on March 17, and at 4:15 pm on March 21 at Shibuya Eurospace. On March 21, there will be a post-screening talk with Jake Adelstein, the journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice.” https://www.cine.co.jp/shinmitunatanin/eng/

In Intimate Stranger a razor blade – the old fashioned kind that you see barbers wielding in movies, with an open blade that folds into a scabbard – makes a frequent appearance. So often in fact, that its significance shifts from symbolic to menacing, and the film starts to feel like a horror story. It’s pretty sharp, this blade, enough to slash open the face of a yakuza but with the right pressure, will leave a photogenic wound on a young man’s face. One of the questions that came up during the Q&A session after the screening of Intimate Stranger held at the FCCJ, was whether the writer/director Mayu Nakamura went around with a razor blade stashed in her bag. To which Nakamura replied breezily, in English: “I keep a razor blade in my heart.”

Director Mayu Nakamura discusses the deeper meanings of her film and motherhood in Japan.
Photo by Satoko Kawasaki

Intimate Stranger is about a woman with a missing son, who connects with a 17-year old boy during a mask-clad, pandemic stricken winter in Tokyo. The woman works in a high-end shops that sells baby clothes, and at night she trawls the Net in search of a son who, in his photo that sits on her desk, looks incredibly unhappy. The teenager whom she takes under her wing (though the story reveals the circumstances are far less benevolent) is missing a family who cares about him. They strike up a relationship of sorts, each enabling the other to be what they want: a devoted mother, an adored and adoring son. Only the older woman is aware that this charade has a payoff. 


The woman is Megumi, and she’s Nakamura’s creation as well as a bit of her altar ego. Megumi has no qualms about keeping a razor blade on her person: she uses it as much for self-defense as a source of sensual pleasure. An attractive, fiftyish woman played by veteran Asuka Kurosawa, Megumi is first seen as a lonely single mother looking for 17-year old Shimpei, who one day left their little home and never returned. The young scammer she befriends is Yuji (Fuji Kamio) who shows up to claim the reward cash promised for ‘any information’ about Shimpei. 
Yuji is one of the runners for a phone scam operation but he’s not very good. His boss is abusive and violent and Yuji sticks around because he has nowhere else to go. When he meets Megumi, he cadges a cafe meal and 5000 yen in return for fabricated information. “I met your son in an Internet Cafe. We played some video games together, and then he left.” He’ll probably feed her enough lies to string her along, and at the right moment another runner will call her up, pretending to be Shimpei, and ask for money. 

Megumi however, surprises Yuji by inviting him into her apartment “just until Shimpei comes home.” And Yuji can’t resist the prospect of home-cooked meals and a warm bed, plus a maternal figure who scolds him for throwing his dirty jockeys under the bed. She promptly picks them up, launders them, hangs them out to dry and irons them out. 
Megumi is a great launderer as well as cook, cleaner and knitter of baby clothes. She revels in doing what other women may consider domestic drudgery, with a repressed, almost secret joy. This trait may be particular to Japanese women – they grow up expecting and expected, to spend their adult lives running a household, bearing and raising children and receding into a hard shell of domesticity. After years of doing that, a kind of demon may take up residence in her mind. “I feel like I’m in a pressure cooker,” says Megumi at one point. “The pressure mounts and mounts and one day, I snap.” 


Sparse and minimal on the surface, Intimate…ispacked with a roiling, murky weirdness Nakamura feels is unique to Japan. In one scene, Megumi airs her views to Yuji: “Did you know that phone scamming happens only in Japan? Grown men calling up their mothers and grandmothers for money and expecting to get it…this would be unthinkable in the West. Why does this society pamper their males so much?” And Yuji, who earlier had scammed an old woman out of 200,000 yen by pretending to be her Covid-infected grandson, has no answer. 

Intimate…is Nakamura’s second fiction feature, since 2006 when she made her debut with “The Summer of Stickleback.” Nakamura is not your ordinary Japanese filmmaker, meaning, she didn’t apprentice (read: slave labor) under an older, established male director or work in Japan’s tradition-entrenched, labor intensive studio system. Nakamura got her filmmaking experience and eye for frame composition in London, first as an undergrad at the University of London’s film society, and later in the graduate program of NYU film school. She made her first film at the age of 18, “on a Super 8” and 2 years prior to that, had quit high school in Tokyo to enroll in a London boarding school. “My father was a poet and my mother was a journalist,” Nakamura told me in a separate, private interview. “They never said ‘no’ to my plans. I’ve always been independent and competitive and I hate to lose.” 
You could say Nakamura benefitted from this upbringing but she also made paid a hefty price to be the person she is today. Her parents were so wrapped up in work that they left their 6-year old daughter to live with her grandparents in Kyoto, where she subsequently spent the rest of her childhood. “Kyoto is heavily conservative. They don’t take kindly to outsiders and since I was from Tokyo and couldn’t speak the local dialect, I was bullied.” It was the kind of intense and destructive bullying designed to break her spirit – everyone in school ignored her totally and pretend she didn’t exist. “As a result, I became very strong,” laughed Nakamura adding that whatever hardships came her way, they couldn’t match what she suffered through in Kyoto. 

As soon as she could, Nakamura got herself out of Japan and spent the next 14 years of her life abroad. She even got a green card in the US (“I won it in a lottery”) indicating that there could be a god out there who evens up past misfortunes with a destiny jackpot. 

That god, in the scheme of Intimate Stranger, is definitely female. Nakamura, who had waited a decade to make Intimate…, says that after her years abroad, she was floored by many aspects of Japanese womanhood and felt the need to unleash her bewilderment and rage. “I had a very tough time getting funding. I was told by male investors that it was disgusting for an older woman to be in a semi-erotic relationship with a teenage boy. I am sure that they wouldn’t have said that if the genders were reversed. In Japan, women past 30 are no longer women, they’re expected to become mothers and morph into asexual beings.” 
Megumi, for all her allure, clings to her identity as a mother. The apartment she shares with Yuji is a metaphor for her uterus, explained Nakamura, which account’s for the feeling of deep security, coupled with unbearable claustrophobia. They say that few people ever survive their mothers but my guess is that even fewer women survive the experience of being a mother. 

Driving In Winter With Haruki Murakami… and Why We Still Need Him

by Kaori Shoji 

Drive My Car which opened last August 2021, was one of the best things to hit Japanese theaters in years. Yet many Japanese cinephiles or people who footed it to theaters in spite of the pandemic, quietly gave it a miss. Two weeks later audiences were willing to sit through the new 007 movie with masks on throughout the nearly 3 hour duration, refused to pay the same tribute to what is effectively the first successful cinema adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story by a fellow Japanese. Shame on us. Drive My Car bagged three awards at Cannes including Best Screenplay, (the first such feat for a Japanese filmmaker) and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It’s now firmly placed on track for an Oscar. 

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words) There must always be something that vanishes, a mysterious girl (woman), jazz and coffee.

So never mind the box office beating. The careers of director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi and lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima went on a meteoric ascent as Hamaguchi picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Wheels Of Fortune And Fantasy months before Drive My Car and is now being inundated with offers from Hollywood and Netflix. Veteran lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima was all over the media in TV and film last year before giving his best performance yet in Drive...He was named Best Actor by the US Films Critics Award, the first for an Asian actor. 

Through it all, the 43-year old Hamaguchi appeared unfazed. In interviews he has stated that Japan isn’t his only playing field though he has professed a love for its cinema industry and in early 2020, he crowdfunded over 330 million yen to save arthouse theaters from Covid bankruptcy. Hamaguchi discipled under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another auteur whose international reputation has come to overshadow his Japanese notoriety. Under Kurosawa, Hamaguchi learned the ropes of competing in the film fest circuit, dealing with foreign distributors and grooming his stories for global appeal. Otherwise, Hamaguchi is a visionary filmmaker with a special flair for intricate and nuanced storytelling, which comes to the fore in Drive My Car. He took a 40-page Murakami short story and leavened it up to a running time of 3.5 hours, adding Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Korean actors and the Hiroshima City backdrop in the mix. Through Hamaguchi’s careful doctoring, Murakami’s original story was reborn with much more weight and muscle, able to grapple with emotions that have both urgency and relevance. This is some serious cinema alchemy we’re looking at here. 

On the other hand, Hamaguchi is respectful of Murakami and makes sure the film has the author’s logo stamped all over it. There’s no mistaking the elegant lassitude permeating the storyline, the finicky intellectualism and inherent narcissism of the characters. The only factor that strikes a non-Murakami chord is the presence of Toko Miura, who plays a woman named Misaki. She’s a chauffer with a skeleton or two in the closet of her mind and she’s at once fragile and tough, capable and vulnerable. In Murakami’s story, Misaki serves as a young, female sounding board for the protagonist’s inner musings. In Hamaguchi’s film, her importance goes up several notches and she’s recreated into a women with her own agenda and personal demons, who’s not there to be sexually objectified or soothe anyone. Miura, who used to work part-time at a Tokyo gas stand when she wasn’t working as an actress, is now one of the most watchable performers in the Japanese film industry and Drive My Car owes a huge chunk of its success to her prowess. 

Still, being a Murakami story, Drive My Car ultimately comes off as tale of male ego, or more to the point, the taming of it. Nishijima plays a slender, 50-ish man named Kafuku (an obvious play on the name ‘Kafuka’ from the Murakami bestseller “Kafka By the Sea”), a stage actor who discovers that his wife Oto (played by a splendid Reika Kirishima) has been sleeping around. Kafuku has been semi-aware of Oto’s infidelity but when confronted with the scene of her having sex with another man, his mind shuts down. That night, Oto is found dead from a brain hemorrhage and Kafuku retreats into a shell of wordless grief.

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words)

Two years later, Kafuku accepts a residency position in Hiroshima and he’s introduced to Misaki, who has been hired to drive him to and from the theater in his car (a Saab 900, of course). Through their brief conversations finds himself able to face Oto again, not as a wife who betrayed him but a woman in her own right. In the meantime he collaborates with Korean actors for the stage production of Uncle Vanya and builds a rapport with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had been Oto’s last lover. 

Murakami’s story is part of a compilation titled Men Without Women, a fate which, in the Murakami scheme of things is akin to death by torture. Men cannot exist without women or their fantasies and much of Murakami’s words are devoted to describing the subtleties of their allure. In his fiction the female is never objectified outright but she’s not to allowed to exist outside the confines of the male ego, either. Murakami always hands over the reigns of power to his women characters, making sure they will never abuse it. If she gets too much for the man to handle, she tends to make a fast exit. Like Oto. Or Naoko from his trademark novel Norwegian Wood. 

This Murakami penchant is in perfect keeping with the Japanese literary tradition and reveals, that for all the Americanisms and western-liberal icons/props scattered across the pages of each and every one of Murakami’s works, the master is in fact, a traditionalist. The combination was dazzling and exotic back in the 20th century. Personally I likened a Murakami novel to a cool, fizzy drink ordered in a bar in an American military base, not that I could set foot in such a place. But two decades plus into the 21st century, the magic of Murakami’s words come off as nostalgic and quaint. It took an alchemist like Ryusuke Hamaguchi to filter out the antiquated grunge of the original short story and upcycle it into a masterpiece. 

For all that, many of us who grew up on Murakami are not ready to cancel him altogether. Generations of Japanese owe him for showing us a world outside the archipelago, for writing about jazz and beer and summer afternoons spent swimming laps at the pool, for dedicating an entire book to marathon running as a pleasurable hobby, for girls who enjoy sex and own up to their sexuality, for boys who are clumsy about relationships but bafflingly knowledgeable about coffee. We owe him for being easily translatable and comprehensible to an international audience that would otherwise equate Japan with anime and karoshi (death by overwork). 
Maybe Haruki Murakami can’t carry the brand on his own anymore but that happens to every established business with a recognizable logo. And now that Ryusuke Hamaguchi has set the precedent, more Murakami adaptations are sure to follow. If you’ll excuse the slightly nationalistic tone, it’s a good time to be Japanese.

Editor’s note: If you’re a fan of Haruki Murakami, with a sense of humor, be sure to avail yourself of a copy of 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary of Haruki Murakami Words) which is tongue in cheek tribute and guide to his writings. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the great illustrations, the haiku-like use of English, and the pin-pointing of his common themes and motifs is a delight to read.

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words)

To End Global Warming: We Need Oil…To Be Left In The Ground

by Eddie Adelstein (special guest contributor)

The earth’s core is a like a sun hidden within the earth.

Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Scientists have abundantly proven that global warming is real and causing havoc on the planet.  CO2 levels are rising with Earth’s temperatures, but the truth of the matter does not make the relationship a cause and effect. There is a rising level of CO2 with now 412 parts per million.  In addition to increased levels of methane and nitrous oxide, this is considered the primary reason for global warming. This theory, which receives strong support from scientists, may not be the only factor. This article proposes other mechanisms that may play a role in global warming.

There is a massive nickel-iron ball at the center of the earth with a diameter of 760 miles, spinning faster than the rotation of the earth and having a temperature of 5000°C.  It generates heat in the earth so that when you dig to 32 inches deep in Missouri the pipes don’t freeze.  Additionally, it produces magnetic fields that are easily measurable. Around this ball of solid iron-nickel is another layer with a  radius of 2,165 miles. It is believed to be made up of a liquid alloy.  There is an interface at this level with the outer mantle, and some scientists believe oil is produced there. Exactly how this heat is generated or the mechanism is unknown. It’s almost as if we have a sun buried deep inside the earth.

The origin of man or how we have been designed is a mystery to me, but lubrication is built into our physical self.  Our joints, eyes, and reproductive organs are lubricated.   There may be a mechanism in place at the interface with this giant heat-producing ball at the center of our planet that deals with the friction that it produces. Current theories suggest that the spinning ball and surrounding liquid iron might produce their own oil, reducing friction. The removal of portions of this oil may cause irregularities in the spinning ball, contributing to global warming and earthquakes.

Editor’s note: In short, we are pumping so much oil out of the earth, that we’re essentially running a car without oil, causing tremendous friction and making the engine overheat. 

Several scientists believe that oil is produced at the interface between the heated sphere and the carbon surrounding it.

This is the abiogenic theory of oil‘s origin.  As this oil seeps between the plates, Saudi Arabia has an infinite supply of oil, whereas when drilling in the Gulf of Mexico closer to its source, there were such great pressures that it took many months to stop the leak. 

We have not identified  any planets that support life as we know it.  We have the water vapor cycle, the carbon dioxide/oxygen system,  and  the nitrogen cycle.  How do we know that oil is not a vital component of the planet’s survival?  Approximately 135 million tons of oil have been extracted since 1850, yet the world is not running out of oil.

When the oil is taken from the earth, the spaces around it are apparently filled with water.  The water supply is affected but more importantly the water acts as a poorer insulation than oil, which could also contribute to the warming of the earth.   Many of our weather patterns are caused by the heating of vast amounts of water.  The heat produced causes global warming and an increase in hurricanes.  In recent days, we have witnessed tornadoes wreaking havoc on Kentucky and its neighbors. While glaciers are melting, ambient temperatures do not appear to be high enough to cause this. There is a possibility that the melting is caused by heat from the earth itself. 

The solution to global warming remains the same, stop taking oil out of the earth. We still have time. 

A very wise friend recently told me that it is unlikely we would find similar life forms on other planets–because they would have likely destroyed themselves already.  As a species, we are destructive, not only killing each other, but also destroying the planet. We have the intelligence to stop doing one thing that is undeniably bad for the environment, drilling for oil and using it. Next time the oil light in your car comes on, think about it. 

Back To The Matrix: The 4th Time Is The Charm. ★★★★

#MatrixResurrections Matrix Resurrections opened in Tokyo on December 17.

ALMOST SPOILER FREE REVIEW:

Matrix Resurrections opened on December 17 (Friday) in Tokyo. I went to the 9:20 am showing, giving up the chance to watch the 4D version, which is dubbed into Japanese. It’s a rare thing to see a US movie first in Japan. And that is the only justification I can find for posting a review here, on this Japan centered-blog.

If you loved The Matrix but the original Matrix trilogy left you feeling vaguely unsatisfied and lacking closure, then Matrix Resurrections is just the cure.  It’s not a reboot of the series, but a sequel with loving homage to the original. “The Resurrections” in the title is a big hint.

Neo is not dead but still somehow alive in a new configuration of the Matrix, once again as Thomas A. Anderson. Except this time, he’s a legendary computer game designer, whose claim to fame is having created the sprawling, highly interactive game, The Matrix, which made a generation of humans question their own reality. 

Yet, Anderson is plagued by visions of a past that he never had and imagines he is not in the real world but a construct, much like the game he designed. His benevolent psychotherapist tries to keep the suicidal Anderson on the straight and narrow path, with compassion, understanding and a ceaseless prescription of blue pills. 

Maybe those blue pills are also jumbo Viagra. Thomas Anderson seems perpetually depressed, like John Wick, after his wife died and a Russian gangster killed his dog. He also has the same shabby facial hair as John Wick, except Anderson is not a ninja assassin. A woman who may have been the model for Trinity in his game frequents the same coffee shop close to his office, but she seems more like a motorcycle riding soccer Mom, or computer geek idea of a MILF, than a world saving heroine.

From the very start of the film, we know that Anderson is not crazy. Anderson/Neo has not been forgotten. In a dark corner of the video game world he designed, someone or something  is trying to free him—or so he believes. He’s not incorrect. 

Of course, Agent Smith is also not dead, but he’s not the same program he was before. 

The gradual reappearance of heroes, heroines, and villains from the previous films is handled with grace, wit and subtle foreshadowing. The Oracle and The Architect are conspicuously absent. Morpheus also returns but not the way you remember him. The movie is well-written with delicious doses of dark humor and wonderfully choreographed action sequences.

One the best action sequences takes place on a Shinkansen in Japan. However, despite being set on a bullet-train there is no slow-motion “bullet-time” action on the train.

BTW, there is only a smattering of the “bullet-time” effects that made the first film so ground-breaking, but for good reasons. It’s two and a half hours of B+ grade sci-fi suspense with an ending that won’t leave you wishing you were dead. It did make me hope they don’t do another sequel.

It’s a fine open-ended conclusion. Let’s leave it at that.

Yes, it’s a love story, as every reviewer will tell you, but specifically about “the power of love” (pun intended). It’s also a story about making hard choices when the path of least resistance seems the most comfortable. 

Open your mind, lower your expectations, and you’ll find the trip back to the Matrix a worthwhile journey. 

International Idol Supergroup “KUROFUNECHAN” To Perform First and Final Concert On December 14

Alice, the founder of almost legendary international idol group, Maidoremi (2019-2020), former maid cafe meister, irreverent Twitterdachi, stealth commentator on Japanese culture is leaving Japan—-but not before she and four other idols, the gang of five, unite for their first and last concert together on December 14th as KUROFUNECHAN.  Yes, it’s the international idol community equivalent of the supergroup, CREAM, or for those in a younger generation, NKOTBSB (An American pop supergroup consisting of the members of American boy bands New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys). 

International Idols Assemble! 空前絶後の黒船チャン Kurofunechan will perform their first and last show December 14 in Shinkoenji.

Meet the other girls:

Riria, from Mexico. She’s lived in Japan for 3 years. She originally came because she wanted to be an idol but now she’s more interested in cosplay 

Yuriko, who’s Italian, but one of the most famous foreign cosplayers in Japan. She came here to be an idol. 

Heidi, an American, who graduated from a seiyu (voice actor) school in Tokyo and does voice work. She is currently producing her own idol group where she performs as three different characters and sings in three voices 

Raaya: she’s half Japanese, half—british, and 100% otaku. She used to be an idol but quit earlier this year, and now works at a cosplay bar. She considering getting back into the idol world so stay tuned 

Join Alice and crew for an epic twenty-minute set as they do newly choreographed covers of J-Pop classics. Alice assembled this super-team, much like Nick Fury assembling the Avengers. They hope to bring a little light to the gaijin stranded in Japan while the entry rules make leaving or entering this country a colossal gamble but also are there to support Alice perform her swan song.. It’s also Alice’s bittersweet farewell to a country that in the last two years has made everyone who feel like they belonged here uncertain of whether they are really welcome at all. 

Alice, who was born in England, speaks Creole, English, German and Japanese. She became interested in Japan as a pre-teen when she was making maze boxes in wood-working class. She was planning to decorate her wooden box with Egyptian hieroglyphics but evil classmate Olivia stole her idea. Alice decided to paint her box with kanji, but after noticing the character on the cover of a book about Chinese looked like a centipede (and she hates centipedes), Alice decided to use Japanese characters instead. That was beginning of her descent into the labyrinth of the Japanese language. 

In her teens, she became a huge fan of Hello Project associated idols like Morning Musume and Buono! (Buono! was initially formed as an idol project group to perform theme songs for the Shugo Chara! anime series, which ran from 2007 to 2010).  After studying Japanese intensively, she was able to come to Japan on a Lion’s Club fellowship, staying with several Japanese families and falling in love with this island country, even climbing Mt. Fuji. The following year, after writing to a talent agency, she was flown to Japan for auditions, turning 18 in the land of the rising sun. 

Unfortunately, the demanding talent agency told her to lose 13 kilograms if she wanted to perform in Japan. She told them to fuck off. Undaunted she returned to Japan for a working holiday and after some severe ups and downs, including an abusive Japanese boyfriend from Nagasaki, she managed to begin building a career for herself as a talento, appearing on Japanese TV, modeling, dancing and working odd jobs. Of course, she ran into trouble because she was told “your Japanese is too good and that’s boring” thus failing to fall into the desired stereotype of the hapless Japan-loving gaijin who can offend no one. 

Eventually, in 2019, Alice formed her own idol group, Maidoremi, which started small and grew to become a serious idol powerhouse. “At our early concerts, sometimes we performed for only one or two people. But that was all right.” They gradually developed a following and were filling live houses. Unfortunately, when the group was signed by a major production firm, things fell apart quickly as the girls lost autonomy and the overbearing push of the management became too much to bear. Since the group’s official dissolution in December of 2020, Alice has only performed a few times. Now she’s ready to hang up her idol shoes and head home. 

What did she like about being an idol? 

“I love dancing, singing and acting and as an idol you get to do all three. You become a different character with every song you sing. I had quite a good range of songs and that meant playing people in the same set. When people tell you that your performance made them happy—that’s a great feeling. The costumes, the singing, the adoration and the satisfaction from performing well made me really happy. And I also get tremendous happiness from watching other idol groups. It energizes me as well. There’s a wonderful synergy between the performers and the fans that I’ll miss.”

So let Alice and company share there joy with you one more time. The doors open at 6pm at Shinkoenji Loft X (新高円寺LOFT X) and Kurofunechan will take the stage sometime between 6:30 and 7:30. Yes, it’s a weeknight but what else do you have going on, anyway? Like the lunar eclipse we had several weeks ago in Japan, there will probably never be another event like this in your lifetime. 

Idol International ライブ詳細:

日付/Date:12/14

場所/Place:新高円寺LOFT X

18:00開演、19:20出演

Starts 18:00, Kurofune-chan performs at 19:20 

チケット料金:2500円+ドリンク

Tickets are ¥2500 + drink fee

Live from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Closing Ceremony

By Chihiro Kai

(This article was completed 22:06)

As I sit here in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium press section, the seats are vibrating from the music and bass blasting out of the speakers. Even before the opening ceremony began, all the Paralympians seated on the stadium field were celebrating.

The United Kingdom and Peruvian teams were ecstatically encouraging their international peers to take advantage of their circular seating arrangement to complete a whole wave. The wave would make it through 2/3 of the Paralympians before losing momentum in the last 1/3 section adjacent to the flag poles. After each attempt would die out on its final leg, the particularly invested athletes from Peru and the U.K. would stand up and urgently “gesture” to the responsible section.

Finally, when the wave accomplished a full lap “around the globe,” so to speak, you could hear the whole stadium, including those of us in the press booths which have been following the wave’s progress, cheer and clap at this spontaneous game. The wave’s informal and collective nature lent it an intimacy that elevated our joy at its success.

Now, it has been early 30 minutes since the wave experienced a natural death. And yet, despite the pageantry and impressive stage production of the closing ceremony, I don’t believe anything that has transpired on the field has made me and my fellow reporters laugh and smile as it did. At least, that was the case with the two Japanese reporters flanking me at my table.

20:51
Representatives from each participating Paralympic team have been adding circular mirrors to a miniature figure of Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing tower. Just now, the final paralympic deputy for the Japanese team attached the last piece to complete the model. The mirrors represent the windows and natural skeletal gaps on the tower.

Upon its completion, the current focal point of the Tokyo skyline was raised, “Flags of Our Fathers” style by the ceremony’s performers. Who knew relations between the United States and Japan were so tight? (Indulge me in my humor readers. I am both Japanese and American, and that gives me permission to make such dry jokes.)

21:00
The first Paralympic I’mPossible Awards are being presented to the first five recipients of the recognition. For further information on the I’mPossible Award, click here.

  • Best host country School: Kizarazu Municipal Kiyomidai Elementary School in Chiba, Japan
  • Best overseas school: Lilongwe LEA School, Malawi
  • Excellence host country school: Chiba Prefectural Togane (I could not catch the end. I believe it was Chiba Prefectural Togane Special Education School)
  • Best (Male) I’mPossible Paralympian Award: Lassam Katongo from Zambia. He is a track and race Paralympian and secondary school teacher.
  • Best (Female) I’mPossible Paralympian Award: Katarzyna Rogowiec from Poland. A three-time Paralympian and two-time Paralympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing. She is also a former ITC anti-doping committee member.
  • The awards for the two Paralympians were accepted by their respective national Paralympic Committees on their behalf.

21:23
The Tokyo Skytree “miniature,” which must be roughly five meters tall, accompanies other notable architecture that shapes the city’s skyline, including Rainbow Bridge. You guessed it, the “Rainbow” Bridge is not actually colored in seven distinct shades. However, after numerous complaints that the bridge’s namesake made little sense, a night-time illuminating feature was added.

The closing ceremony’s similarity to a Disneyland parade is as prominent as the August 24 opening ceremony. The fluorescent animal costumes adorned by dancing performers and the musical production remind me of the Mermaid Lagoon Theatre from The Litte Little Mermaid area at Tokyo DisneySea.

22:03

“The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games have not just been historic. They have been fantastic,” Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said in his closing speech. He said that despite the games’ accomplishments, the world has flaws with accessibility that no mask can cover.

“As we build back better, 15% of the world’s population cannot be left behind,” Parsons said. “People with disabilities should not have to do exceptional things to be accepted.”

Following a WeThe15 campaign commercial, a Japanese singer seated in his wheelchair sang “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong with a powerful voice would have made the raspy icon proud. The song’s second half was sung by a female singer with a visual impairment. The two voices converged in the final part of the ballad accompanied by a children’s choir.

As a piano player in the center of the stadium played the last notes of the iconic song, the egg-like encasing of the Olympic and Paralympic flame closed, extinguishing the fire that has burned since July 23.

And with that, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games had ended.

Thank you for following me and Jake Adelstein throughout our coverage of the Olympic and Paralympic Games! It has been a true privilege and honor.