We’re Stuck With ‘The Last Samurai’ While Everyone Else Gets Crazy Rich

by Kaori Shoji

In high school, the girls around me had one wish–to have a different nationality, preferably American, and to trash our drab school uniforms for the outfits in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Being Japanese was just no fun, though it did seem better than hailing from other Asian countries. After all, this was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was gearing up to enter the bubble era. The Equal Employment Law for women kicked in. Chiaki Mukai was training to be Japan’s first woman astronaut. Takako Doi was rumored to become the future Prime Minister. Things were happening here, albeit minus the fun, sophistication and glamour we so coveted.

Little did we know that one day, Singapore and China would trump (pun intended) the US in many things regarding money, or that Asian women would come to rank among the richest in the world. These women would book first class flights on the five-starred Singapore Airlines to chill in the gaze of the Mer-Lion, and immerse themselves in gossip, shopping and spas with unlimited supplies of yuzu-scented sheet masks.

No yakuza, geisha, or Matt Damon here.

For that’s what the ladies in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” do. On the occasions that they haul themselves off the mani-pedi bed or tear themselves away from the mahjong table, they reach for their phones to tap a few keys and murmur a few instructions, to put extra padding on their already bursting bank accounts. After that, they’re off to dinner parties where a billion orchid petals pave the paths and splendid fireworks explode in the background. Who do these people think they are, clones of Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”?

Speaking of which, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the kind of insular, extravagant love story that would have made Scott Fitzgerald weep with envy. Director Jon M. Chu, who hails from Palo Alto and attended USC, has been working in films and TV since 2002 and this time, he literally hit the jackpot. Somehow the man knew that the world needed the sight of well-heeled Asians with perfect teeth, flinging their cash around at the same time they’re being swooningly romantic.

Chu dares to tread where no Hollywood movie about Asia ever has. There is no poverty or war. No samurai conflict. No appearance of Matt Damon (The Great Wall)  or any white saviors to save the day. No immigration issues.  Most importantly, there are no mothers crying about the sacrifices they made, to give their children a bright future in America. The mother in “Crazy Rich…” (played by a gorgeously frosty Michelle Yeoh) is the type who, when running up against a racist manager at a London hotel, calmly takes out her phone and makes arrangements to buy the hotel then and there. Minutes later she strides away, leaving the manager to get down on his knees and scrub the mud off the carpet from her son’s shoes.

When Hollywood does Asia, it goes for the jugular, like “Joy Luck Club” and “Sayuri” and “The Last Samurai.” Hollywood executives hear the word ‘Asians’ and immediately conjure an image of sweating maidens in rice paddies, or yakuza with swords in Shinjuku, or maidens and yakuza hooking up in Shinjuku, or all of the above. But in “Crazy Rich..,” Asians get to do what white people in movies have been doing for centuries. It’s about time.

In the US, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the movie sensation of the summer and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the endlessly entertaining antics of the Asian one percent “Crazy Rich…” knows how to entice an American audience. The characters have American names like Nick (Henry Golding), Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu). They speak perfect English and hold engrossing conversations about love and family. They take their entitlement completely for granted. And they’re never weird. If they are, they’re weird in ways that Americans understand. Like in one scene, a bunch of catty woman put a dead fish in a girl’s bed as a bullying tactic, and it’s straight our of  “Desperate Housewives.” Or if you want to be authentic about it, “The Godfather.”

Meanwhile, over here in the Land of the Rising Sun, people’s names are adamantly Japanese. Women are told to shut up and bear children, or shut up and work until 50 after which they must quit to care for elderly parents. Prime Minister Abe, now firmly ensconced in his third term, has promised the nation’s women that “things are going to change.” Seriously? They ain’t changing fast enough. All over Asia, Asian women are liberating themselves from tradition and antiquated family values to get a lot richer a lot faster than the Japanese ever did. Japan had its five minutes in the economic spotlight in the late 1980s but the 20-plus year recession combined with the notion of “seihin (清貧・clean poverty)” just about did us in. Evidence to that is seen in the way “Crazy Rich Asians” completely ignores Japan. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong – these places all get mentioned but Japan? Nada. True, Japan-born actress Sonoya Mizuno is in the cast but she plays a filthy rich Chinese woman. Go figure.

We’re a tad miffed, to be honest. But that really shouldn’t stop Japan from savoring every single frame of “Crazy Rich Asians.” From the sleek, precision make-up on the women to the bared torsos of the males (firm, slender and hairless – God’s gift to Asia) to the decor and wardrobe to the food and cocktails, “Crazy Rich…” is one huge, glittering monstrosity of a sweet, sweet treat. No wonder that for an increasing number of Japanese who will never be crazy rich, Singapore has come to represent the unattainable Japanese dream.

Sayonara, Robuchon-san: A Eulogy to Japan’s Beloved French Chef

The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”

The finest coffee ice cream dessert ever.
Every dish, delicious and beautiful. A feast for the eyes and the palette

Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.

The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.

Presentation matters

He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.

Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.

Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.

Fork and knife, not needed, the meat is so tender.

In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.

New Movie “The Trial” (審判)Shows The Kafkaesque Side Of Japan’s Often Criminally Unjust Justice System

If you are unlucky enough to be indicted for a crime in Japan, you’ll find that the system actually works on the presumption that you are guilty until proven guilty. The conviction rate is 99%.  If Franz Kafka was alive today, he’d find that Japan’s courts provided ample material for his pessimistic work. The recently released film The Trial (審判)based on Kafka’s famous work, and directed by John Williams, thus seems tremendously disturbing.

The Trial (審判) is a new film which updates Franz Kafka’s classic nightmarish novel to modern Japan–with great effect.

John Williams is that rare western filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in Tokyo, though he originally came to Japan in 1988 with the intention of saving enough money to go to film school in the US. “I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14,” he said, in the offices above the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, where his latest work The Trial (Shinpan) is showing. It’s not everyone who keeps a promise made in their teens, but John Williams did just that, albeit in a place very far from his native England.

John Williams is from South Wales  and back in the mid 1980s when he graduated from university, the British film industry wasn’t what you’d call thriving, in fact it was rather gomping. “Actually it was at a very low ebb,” laughed Williams. “Of course in the 90s, works like ‘Trainspotting’ changed the landscape but we couldn’t see that coming just yet. There were practically no film schools for young students and the average age at the National Film School – the only institution for aspiring filmmakers, was 27.” So John Williams decided, like many others before and after him, to study movie-making in the US, specifically at NYU film school. To that end, he needed to get some cash together and Japan seemed like the place to earn it.

Fast forward 30 years and with the completion of “The Trial,” Williams has 5 films under his belt. He also teaches film production/European films at Sophia University’s Foreign Languages Department. But he never did get to NYU since, just like in the Lennon song, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. By the time Williams got the funds together for New York, he was deep in the throes of life in Japan and travels in Asia. “I was in India when the acceptance letter came and didn’t even see it till I got back. And, well, going to the US seemed to me like a conventional, boring choice. Staying here seemed much more interesting.”

Listening to Williams say that in the Eurospace office, the moment felt like a movie scene all by itself. Eurospace is an iconic Shibuya theater, famed for showcasing indie gems from around the world. There was Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Francois Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers.” More recently, it put on “Frances Ha” when few Japanese were even aware of the now Academy award contender Greta Gerwig. And now Williams’ “The Trial” is being shown as a limited release, it will currently be running as the late show every night until the 20th. Given the story (based on the Kafka novel) and weird but intriguing vibe, “The Trial” and the Eurospace venue seem to be made for each other. (Please check with Eurospace website for movie times as they may change).

Eurospace – situated in Maruyamacho, and sandwiched between two love hotels. In fact, every square meter of land in the area is occupied by love hotels. Couples sheepishly stroll around, checking on room prices and curiously eyeing the movie theater. “The Trial” – a film about a young Japanese salariman suddenly condemned for an unnamed crime, and who has a weakness for women and sex.

Otherwise the movie is an invitation to match and compare. Williams does a superb job of superimposing Kafka’s most famous character Josef K., a 30-year old German banker in 1914, onto the life of Yosuke Kimura, a 30-year old banker in present day Tokyo. “It’s present day, but I deliberately made the time frame abstract, almost non-technological,” said Williams. Indeed, Kimura’s hand isn’t welded to his smartphone the way everyone’s is these days, and he almost never looks at a computer screen. Kimura’s main interest seems to be women, as he tries to hook up with every female who crosses his path. His success rate is dismal however, and there’s clearly no emotion or chemistry involved. “I thought about Japanese women a lot when making this movie,” said Williams. “They’re trapped in a society controlled by men. They get so much encouragement to please men and become good wives and mothers, and practically no support when it comes to voicing their opinions or carving out careers.”

Aptly, “The Trial” is wintry and bleak, steeped in various shades of black and gray. Kimura (played with studied excellence by Tsutomu Niwa) even lives in a monotone apartment, devoid of color, clutter or any human warmth. On the morning of his 30th birthday, Kimura wakes up to find two strange men in his bedroom, and they inform him that his “case” is coming up for trial. Kimura has no idea what they’re talking about but in a few days, he receives an envelope summoning him to court the following Sunday. It doesn’t say what time or where exactly and when Kimura finally arrives, the Judge (Ichiro Murata) informs him that he is one hour and 26 minutes late. Kimura is incensed by this, and tries to argue that he cannot be late for an event that doesn’t specify the time. While this is going on, a woman (Shizuko Kawakami) has loud sex with a man in a dark suit in a back room. When Kimura returns to court the next day, the woman crudely seduces him and Kimura is ready to fall for it, until they’re interrupted by the janitor (Ichi Omiya) who tells Kimura that the woman is his wife. Later, Kimura encounters a group of people who are all awaiting trial, and no one seems to have any answers, either to the nature of their crimes or the system that seems convinced of their guilt. Yes, I know – surreal, right?

“For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”–John Williams (photo by Kaori Shoji)

On another level, “The Trial” shows up the very Kafka-esqueness of Japan’s judicial system – the long, grueling process of scrutiny between arrest and indictment, and how, once indictment kicks in, it’s impossible to overturn it*. “For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”

And how. Watching Kimura’s expression shift from incredulity and contempt to finally – defeated resignation, a kind of dread washes over me like a wave in a polluted ocean. The whole thing is maybe a little too close to home.

Editor’s note: One of the dark secrets of Japan’s criminal justice system is that the prosecution in Japan will punt (fail to prosecute) any case that is not a slam-dunk for fear of losing. Sexual assault cases have a particularly low prosecution rate and politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats are often allowed to walk free–including the 39 bureaucrats involved in forging, deleting and altering documents in a dubious land deal involving a right-wing school and the Prime Minister of Japan. The prosecutor who dropped the cases was recently promoted. 

Help Support Japan Subculture Online. Reporting on the strange side of the Rising Sun since 2007!

Gentle reader,




Welcome to our semi-annual pledge drive. Japan Subculture Research Center (@japankenkyu) was founded in 2007 by Jake Adelstein and many contributors to expose the hidden side of Japan – its underground economy, its transient and strange trends, its robust sex trade, wacky politics, corruption, social issues, many subcultures, yakuza, host clubs and hosts, Japanese cinema and all the other intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running. Balancing commentary, reporting and dark humor–we’re the kakekomitera (駆け込み寺) aka “last resort” of some news stories that no one else will touch. We’ve covered rebel graffiti artists, crusading lawyers, and some real heroes.

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Over the years, articles posted on this website have become books, like Outsiders Among Outsiders and we are pleased to also feature the witty essays and review of Ms. Kaori Shoji, including her seminal short-fiction series, The Amazing Japanese Wife

We would like this summer to support two interns so that we can post more original material and also revamp the layout. We’d like to add a current events section, more book reviews, more informative and provocative essays about Japan, and fund some investigative journalism. Ambitious yes, but we have lofty goals here at JSRC. Please read our manifesto: If you love Japan, make it better. Our mission statement.

Meanwhile, as part of this year’s pledge drive, we are giving away to the lucky two readers who donates before Thursday (drawing by lottery) free tickets to to see Shoplifters with English subtitles and a Q & A, by the director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Your contributions are greatly appreciated, however small or large.

The business friendly Japanese government fails to deal with preventing Death By Overwork. In January, the Labor Ministry did put signs saying” Stop Karoshi” urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”.

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CICADA by Yu Shibuya Limited Screening with English Subs

CICADA

Yu Shibuya is a quiet force to be reckoned with. As a rare bilingual and exceptionally talented playwright, screenwriter and director he has won multiple awards with his shorts and features across the world. His works are often painfully tragic yet peppered with subtle humor, resulting in a poignant and hopeful aftertaste. His ability to depict Japan with a loving gaze of one that knows it from the inside and out, uniquely teases out the mundane and obscurities alike, creating a distinct and irresistible world.

His latest feature CICADA(千里眼) is no exception. It was made in 2014 in Japan with a Japanese cast but with an entirely American crew. The director Dean Yamada is a Japanese American whom Shibuya teamed up with in 2009 to create the short “Bicycle” which was chosen as an official selection at major film festivals, including the 66th Venice Film Festival and Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival.

CICADA has won many awards including three Grand Prizes at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Guam International Film Festival, and the Pan Pacific Film Festival and is now showing for a limited run at Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas with English Subtitles. Shunji Iwai, legendary director of  90s New Wave films became a fan of Shibuya’s work after watching Bicycle and flew to LA to watch CICADA, subsequently casting Yugo Sasou the leading man in his own films.

JSRC recommends film lovers in Tokyo to seize this opportunity to enjoy his work on the big screen while they can.

STORY (TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJc2iQdfKSw)

Cicadas live underground until their final stage of adulthood. When they surface, they attach themselves to a tree bark, shed their skin and fly away, leaving behind their exoskeleton still clinging fully intact to the tree.
Much like the cicada, Jumpei, a mild-mannered schoolteacher, is sheltered. Introverted almost to a fault, Jumpei has finally found a woman he is ready to marry. Ever weary and careful, Jumpei decides to take a series of premarital tests and finds out that he is infertile. Devastated, he keeps the news from his girlfriend.
In the meantime, Jumpei’s nine-year-old nephew is being bullied in school, and his distraught mother and clueless father are at their wits’ end. Jumpei is enlisted in helping out the family. While Jumpei’s prospects of having a family of his own seem to be non-existent, despite attempting several alternative cures, he is forced into his sister’s dysfunctional family life, and what transpires is a series of comical and heartbreaking events.

IKEBUKURO HUMAX CINEMAS

〒170-0013 Tokyo, Toshima, Higashiikebukuro, 1 Chome−22−10

Limited run until 2/23 at 20:20 every night, with post screening talks with Yu Shibuya and guest.

http://senrigan-movie.com/

If you cannot make it to the screening, enjoy his work here

The Apology (100年の謝罪)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPr6wH2VwWY

Bicycle(自転車)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I_rok_FMW0

 

6 murderers are paroled in a small Japanese town. Will they bring the place back to life or bring more death? See “The Scythian Lamb”

Rural depopulation is a serious problem in Japan, so much that for the past decade, media fiction has devoted an entire genre into telling its stories. Bankrupt shops with their shutters permanently closed, desolate mountain and sea landscapes, no one out on the streets but a handful of old people. These are both metaphors for, and the hard facts of, most Japanese rural areas. Regional governments have been desperate to bring in new residents and to this end, they’re offering stipends, free housing, even matchmaking parties – on the governments’ dime. Rumor has it that since the early nineties, rural towns have been recruiting parolees to become part of the local populace. This information cannot be verified. The people involved will never admit to such a program even existing. But it’s there, and “The Scythian Lamb” is a brilliant fable about what happens when this program kicks in (pun fully intended) on a sleepy little coastal town. A town where, “the people are kind and the seafood is delicious.”

© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

With its slow burning violence and small town melodrama, “The Scythian Lamb” is mindful in many ways of “Fargo” (the TV series) but without the broad streak of snarkiness and splashy bloodletting. Most of all, the dystopian despair that make up much of “Fargo” (and like-minded others) is missing from “Scythian…”

This isn’t a spoiler but the ending is hopeful, even happy. The final scenes close on a rural town whose residents are marginally more joyous than they were last year and there is absolutely no mention of the violence that erupted briefly like fireworks, then disappeared into the night sky. However, the journey to the peaceful end is not easy.

Six ex-cons, all who had served time for murder and now on parole, are selected to live in a fictional seaside town called Uobuka (which means ‘fish deep’). One by one, they arrive – four men and two women between the ages of early 30s to mid-60s – and are given a welcome by the city hall worker Tsukisue (played with breezy finesse by Ryo Nishikido). They are allowed to live in the town, on the condition that they take jobs provided them by city hall, and that they stay for 10 years. In other words, they’ve exchanged a shorter prison sentence for another kind of penance. Already, one of them (Kazuki Kitamura), who represents Japan’s new breed of criminal, has started to complain that he will be “bored to death” here.

Tsukisue is still young, lithe and naive though his high school pal Sudo (Satoru Matsui) assures him that living out in the boonies ages everyone twice as fast. “In your case, it’s four times as fast,”  Tsukisue jokes to the noticeably overweight Sudo. But Tsukisue may be envious of the fact that fat or not, at least his friend has a wife and daughter to go home to. Tsukisue on the other hand, looks like a guy who has been celibate for a long time, which is fast becoming the norm for many single Japanese men. But (and this is the thing about Tsukisue) the guy is NOT bitter. He’s gentle, kind and above all, conscientious. He does his job, and then goes home to take care of his dad who is recovering from a stroke. Not much of a life for a good-looking dude. But when he discovers that the newcomers he had chaperoned were each convicted for murder or manslaughter, Tsukisue’s equilibrium is shattered. Will they, you know, like, do it again? His supervisor intones to Tsukisue not to dwell on the past. “And don’t go telling people they’ve just gotten out of prison,” adds the supervisor, because this project could well have a bearing on “Japan’s future.”

Based on the award-winning manga by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, “The Scythian Lamb” is directed by Daihachi Yoshida. As one of Japan’s last old-school filmmakers, Yoshida has a solid reputation for churning out crime/suspense blockbusters like “Pale Moon” in 2014. “Scythian…” shows Yoshida in an unusually political mode, exploring the many woes of Japan’s rapidly shrinking, super aged population and the general feeling that ours is a no-hope, claustrophobic society. Which is probably true, but in “Scythian…,” the suggested silver bullet is violence. No one is excited about Uobuka being, in the words of Tsukisue, “a nice place with kind people and great seafood.” But when a dead body turns up on the pier, everyone seems to get a glint in their eye. A cloudy sky turns blue. An old man even gets laid.

All this is cause for celebration, considering that most of the Uobuka populace acts half-dead most of the time. Even Tsukisue’s high school crush Aya (Fumino Kimura), the supposed heroine of the story, hardly speaks and never smiles. Aya, Tsukisue and Sudo had once played in the same rock band and Tsukisue tries to rekindle their friendship by inviting them to practice again. Aya reluctantly agrees. Big surprise for Tsukisue when he learns that she has started dating one of the ex-cons: Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) who comes off like a bullied victim but actually hoards menace like a grandmother with yarn. You know those skinny, quiet guys who may or may not be a serial killer in a Netflix series? That’s Miyakoshi, right down to his discount sneakers. (Editor’s note:And if you’re a student of true crime in Japan, he channels all the skinny sociopaths who have been responsible for some of Japan’s more horrendous mass murders in recent years–but of course, he’s not one. Not quite) 

 

A troubled young man who is quick to appreciate that the town has “nice people and good seafood.” He has one small issue.
© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

The others are as compelling if not as troublesome. Still, whenever one or the other is in the frame you sense a storm brewing: Min Tanaka as the ex-yakuza who did eighteen years for killing another boss and feels that it may be too late to start afresh. There is Kazuki Kitamura’s Sugiyama who really enjoys stirring things up, and seems like a refugee from the dismantled gang, Kanto Rengo, which won fame for beating their enemies to death with baseball bats. His confrontation with the ex-yakuza rings surprisingly true. And there’s Shingo Mizusawa as Fukumoto, an ex-barber who slashed his boss’s throat with a razor. The women are given less to do but Mikako Ichikawa and Yuka try to make the most of their roles. Yuka is in her usual hot-chick mode, but Ichikawa manages to steal some scenes as a woman who had routinely been beaten by her boyfriend until one night she cracked his skull as he slept, with a large bottle of sake. “I’m a scary woman,” she tells Tsukisue and it’s moments like these that Uobuka morphs from a nice place with great seafood, to somewhere real.

Opens February 3rd.

Editor’s note: In my opinion, one of the best Japanese films in recent years. The story is subtle, the acting restrained, the quiet violence is convincing.  The movie also has a hypnotic, ethereal  soundtrack that matches well with the buried mystical theme that pulls the film together. (Jake) 

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.

FullSizeRender 6

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)

FullSizeRender 7

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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Some parting words from Yakuza movie icon Takakura Ken on yakuza films, his favourite movies, and acting

“I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.”–Ken Takakura, August 2013

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. This was originally published shortly before his death. 

Japan’s best actor Ken Takakura has died of lymphoma, at age 83. The actor passed away at a Tokyo hospital on 10 November, his office said on Tuesday. He has been called  the “Clint Eastwood” of Japan.  Takakura was renowned for his stoic roles in scores of action films and yakuza movies–he was also adept at playing tough but caring men, clumsy in expressing their emotions. He played alongside Robert Mitchum in Paul Schrader directed film, The Yakuza in 1973. He also starred as a by-the-book, honourable and ultimately brave Japanese police officer alongside US actor Michael Douglas in the 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain. One of his lines in the movie, probably inspired millions of Japanese men to later study English conversation: “(I’m ) Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Criminal Investigation section, Osaka Prefecture police. And I do speak fucking English.”

Mr. Schrader told me in March of 2011 that Takakura was one of the most impressive actors he’d ever worked with and that his Kendo (Japanese fencing)  ability seemed top-notch. He had once offered Takakura the role of Yukio Mishima, the literary genius turned right wing extremist, in his bio-pic film Mishima and Takakura had seriously considered it. However, in the end for reasons he only obliquely hinted at, he politely declined the role. The film Mishima has never been shown in a film festival in Japan.

Among his well-known films were “The Yellow Handkerchief”.  He won the best actor prize at the Montreal World Film Festival for “Poppoya” (The Railway Man). He also appeared in some the final “real-life” yakuza bio-pics including 3rd Generation Leader of The Yamaguchi-gumi. During the filming, the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kazuo Taoka, actually visited the set and spoke with Takakura. Ken Takakura was the consummate professional and even in supporting roles such as in Mr. Baseball, he brought dignity to the Japanese characters that seemed to embody many of Japan’s virtues.

In August of last year, we were able to interview him via FAX and his polite and short responses give a good sense of the man. They are here in both English and Japanese.

 

昭和残侠伝 破れ傘(プレビュー)
Ken Takakura, in a scene from 破れ傘

originally posted on January 31st 2014

Ken Takakura, 82,  aka “the Alain Delon of Japanese cinema” was awarded one of Japan’s greatest honors on November 3rd 2012. The  Order of Culture was given to him by the Japanese Emperor at a ceremony held at the imperial palace. Four other notable people, such as researchers and literature academics also received the award.

Known as to be very quiet and tough, Ken Takakura (高倉健氏) rarely gave interviews to the media throughout his career. He is known for having stayed silent nearly  for 13 seconds (a record for Japanese TV programs) after a famous television caster asked him a question that he did not want to answer. “In Japanese show business, only a tough and well respected celebrity is able to stay silent during a live show and have that tolerated by the producer,” explained a newscaster for one of Japan’s largest broadcasters.

Ken Takakura became an icon of the so-called ninkyou eiga, (任侠映画) or yakuza chivalry movie, inaugurated in 1963 by Toei Production. In the 1960s, as Japan was still recovering from its lost war and musing over the the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese audience wanted to see heroes in the black market making justice in the streets and feeding the dismissed hungry people, right after the war. The movie that kick started his career was Abashiri Prison. He also gained international recognition with the war movie Too Late The Hero, in 1970, and The Yakuza, in 1975. His role in Black Rain with Michael Douglas 1989, made him even more well-known in the West.

Takakura-sama, agreed to answer few questions for JSRC. We carefully translated it and have posted the entire interview. We are also posting it in Japanese, for our Japanese readers.

Interview with Ken Takakura, in August 2013

JSRC: At present, many film fans in the world see you as the personification of the yakuza on screen, almost a symbol. What are your feelings about this?

Ken Takakura: It’s true that I did many yakuza films in the past, but whether or not I’m a symbol or not, I don’t know. I have done many other roles besides those of a yakuza.

JSRC: What led you to join the world of cinema?

Ken Takakura: I had to make a living.

JSRC: What kinds of movies do you like?

Ken Takakura: As I get older, my tastes changed, but I like movies that pierce the human heart and linger with me.

The Deer Hunter, 1978.

The Godfather 1 & 2.

Gladiator  (2006).

Heaven (2002).

Posta Pappi Jaakobille (2009).

JSRC: Do you have any interest in the modern yakuza films?

Ken Takakura: None whatsoever.

JSRC: Mr. Takakura, you have been called the Clint Eastwood of Japan, what do you think of that?

Ken Takakura: It’s what someone else thinks, so I have no thoughts on the matter.

JSRC: Why did you leave Toei Production in 1976?

Ken Takakura: There is no short answer (to that question).

JSRC: After leaving Toei, people were able to see you in many different roles? Was that your goal?

Ken Takakura: (My goal) was to meet people.

JSRC: Directors Takeshi Kitano and Miike are said to be geniuses of yakuza film but what do you think?

Ken Takakura: I’ve never worked with either director so I can’t answer.

END.

But the most striking explanation Ken Takakura gave us was worth mentioning here.

Ken Takakura: You seem to be very focussed on the yakuza films I did while at Toei. If you want to understand, why the yakuza films were endorsed by the (Japanese) people, you can’t do it without thinking of the social situation at the time.

When low budget films (picture programs) were at their peak production in Japan, I’d have a schedule where I’d be doing in 4 or 5 films a months. That doesn’t leave much room to really put your heart into a role. But I think that the reason the general  public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.

The thing that really changed after achieving independence from Toei was that I could choose which films I wanted to be in. I had my own standards for what films I would act in. Who would I meet? The words and lines written in the script. But the most important thing to me was this: would I be able to like the person I was going to play?*

*Portions of this interview were originally published in a French film magazine 

 

Please read this review by Jake Adelstein on the yakuza movies.

 

高倉健様とのインタビュー(2013年、8月)

JSRC: 現在、高倉さまは世界の映画ファンにとって日本のヤクザのイメージシンボルとして見られていると思いますがその事をどうお考えでしょうか?

 

高倉健様:かつて、何本もヤクザ映画をやりましたが、シンボルかどうかは分かりません。そうではない役も、今まで沢山やっておりますので。

JSRC: 高倉様が映画の世界に入られたきっかけは何でしたか?

高倉健様:生きるため。

JSRC: 高倉様はどのような種類の映画がお好きですか?

高倉健様:年齢とともに好みは変わってきていますが、心に沁みるものが好きです。

The Deer Hunter, 1978, 監督:マイケル・チミノ

The Godfather 1, 2, フランシス・フォード・コッポラ

Gladiator, 2006, リドリー・スコット

Heaven, 2002, トム・ティクヴァ

Posta Pappi Jaakobille, 2009, クラウス・ハロ

JSRC: 高倉様は任侠道ヤクザ映画で活躍されましたが今時のモダンヤクザ映画には興味はございませんか?

高倉健様:ありません。

JSRC: 高倉様は日本のクリント・イーストウッド、安藤昇様は日本のアラン・ドロンと呼ばれていますがその事についてはどうお感じですか?

高倉健様:他人が思うことなので、分かりません。

JSRC: 高倉様は1976年に東映を離れたのはなぜですか?

高倉健様:一口では言えません。

JSRC: 東映を離れてからの高倉様の作品から世界は今までとは別の高倉様を見せられるわけですが、それは高倉様の目的でもあったのでしょうか?

高倉健様:人との出会いです。

JSRC: 北野監督、三池監督はヤクザ映画作りの天才だと思いますか?

高倉健様:両監督とは仕事をしたことがないので答えられません。

高倉健様:東映時代のヤクザ映画に注目されているようですが、ヤクザ映画が大衆の支持を受けられたのは、時代背景抜きには考えられないでしょう。

プログラムピクチャー全盛時代、一ヶ月に4、5本撮るようなスケジュールは1本に心を入れる余裕はありませんでしたが、その中で、私が演じた役に大衆の共感が得られた背景には、不条理に立ち向かうという姿勢が貫かれたからだと思います。

ただ、切り込みに向かうのではなく、自らを犠牲にしてまでも大切な人を守り抜くということです。

東映から独立して最も異なることは、出演する作品を選べるようになったことです。出演作を選ぶ基準は、人との出逢い、脚本に書かれた一言の台詞、最も大切にしていることとは、その役の人物を好きになれるかどうかです。

 

 

Aliens Versus Yakuza: 宇宙人対極道: A Masterpiece Of Bad Genre Films

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.

AVN: Aliens Versus Ninja (エイリアンvs 忍者)released in 2010 is a camp classic for both lovers of Alien films and Ninja films. I was delighted to find that the super-deluxe release of AVN included on the second disc a 15 minute short-film エイリアン Vs 極道 (Alien Versus Yakuza), a Yuji Shinomura film . If you find the movie in the bargain bin at the local Tsutaya, it’s worth picking up. The plot is simple. Young yakuza and his older brother–in the yakuza sense–accidentally run over an Alien while on their way to late-night Karaoke in the boss’s car. They aren’t quite sure what to do with the body.  They don’t even realize it’s an alien, believing that they’ve just run over an unlucky foreigner. “Maybe half?”

Our hapless yakuza anti-heroes run over an alien and decide to get rid of the body. Not sure exactly what it is, they decide it must be a foreigner–and probably half-Japanese.

After a short debate, they decide to dismember the body and get rid of the evidence.  Young yakuza goes to scour the glove department for a big knife, buried amidst piles of trashy magazines, but when he comes back the trunk is empty and his older brother (兄貴/aniki) is acting strangely. Could it be that Older Brother realized younger brother had slept with his girlfriend or has something stranger happened?  Even when younger brother confesses and makes a peace offering; “Only once! Only slept with her once. I saved you a seat at the speed-dating thing (合コン・gokon)–can we call it even?” –Aniki’s anger is not quelled. What happens next is almost totally predictable but even after the young yakuza confronts the ousted alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (atariya), a con man who shakes people down by throwing themselves in front of a car and suing for damages–the fight isn’t quite over. Because this Alien has a driver’s license.

Young yakuza throws a cigarette at the alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (a professional con man who throws himself in front of cars to extort insurance money.)

I wouldn’t want to spoil the rest of the film for our readers but it does solve the ancient question: in a battle between an alien and a yakuza, who would win?  Note: Some may argue that this question was settled in the masterpiece Predators, where the lone Inagawa-kai member in the film faces down a Predator with an ancient samurai sword,  but  Predators are really not your standard aliens. The film is bloody, silly, and probably unrealistic* but in the short yakuza film genre, it’s in a class by itself.

*For instance, I don’t think it’s possible to catch a bullet in your teeth but I’m not a war reporter so I’ll reserve judgement.

Ghost in the Shell: The Matrix of Sci-Fi Anime

ghost

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. Coming soon, our article about the Hollywood remake. 

 

In my mind, anime can be categorized into two varieties: action-based/artistic ones, and teenage school kid soap operas. The former is what western critics typically consider to be “good”, anime like The Cat Returns or Cowboy Bebop, which contrast beautiful hand-drawn landscapes and well-trodden stories with violence and distinctively weird characters that could only be thought up in Japan. Along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the big grandfathers for sci-fi anime, and more importantly black leather-clad sci-fi such as The Matrix. Even in the ‘making of’ videos for The Matrix, creators shamelessly admit they wanted to take Ghost in the Shell‘s stylish film noir settings and fight scenes and recreate them in live action. With the newest full-length film in the Ghost series, Kōkaku Kidōtai – Shin Gekijōban, released in late June and in theaters until July 17th), and a live-action version on the horizon, it’s important to look back to see what it was about the original film that turned the manga into an international favorite.

Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 film directed by Mamoru Oshii, revolves around a group of cyborg law-enforcers in the future tracking down a hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks into the minds of unsuspecting civilians and erases their memories in the process of controlling them. One of the cops does refuse to grade-up and is 100% flesh.  The protagonist is the beautiful but coldhearted Motoko Kusunagi, a cyborg cop and one of a handful of heroic female protagonists in anime.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t cater to the male sexual fantasies many have about robo-cop girls in the future. Viewers might be a bit puzzled after one of Kasunagi’s final fight scenes in which she celebrates her victory by tearing off her clothes (the film claims it allows her to scan the room, but it doesn’t explain the two other times she fights criminals naked). It does vary from similar western sci-fi films in that Kasunagi is never treated like a damsel in distress requiring someone like Neo to save her, but it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that director Oshii is simply giving viewers that dreamlike fantasy they unknowingly coveted in Japan’s workaholic society. It’s suggested in Roger Ebert’s 1996 review of the film that Japanese salarymen become so exhausted and dehumanized by the 80-hour work weeks that they “project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters.”

Aside from the cop chases and virtual missions Kasunagi embarks on within the minds of those possessed by the Puppet Master, the deeper question the film’s moody plot somewhat attempts to ask is whether robots should start being considered human. Most of the conversations between Kasunagi and Batou (Kasunagi’s friend and fellow cyborg-cop), consist of debating whether their ability to think makes them human, think Descarte’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Thankfully Ghost in the Shell throws in a couple one-liners to make sure it never takes itself too seriously:

Motoko- “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny.”

Batou- “You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.”

Much like Akira, the draw of Ghost in the Shell is the stunning and complex drawings of the futuristic city. In daytime scenes, it looks orange and very much apocalyptic. However, when Kasunagi enters someone’s mind or tracking someone at night, the futuristic scenery seen in Gundam and Akira takes center stage. However, one thing that distracted me from the beautiful futuristic settings were the eyes of the characters. In both this and Akira, the eyes are much more akin to those in a western comic book, rather than more recent anime that give characters blocky, rectangular eyes. The more realistic character designs create the effect of each character having a certain ‘fleshiness’ to them. This is great if the main focus over the top violence and sexiness, but I believe it reduces some of its artistic merit. The extra contour lines provide more opportunities for limbs and blood to go flying in the fight scenes, but it does so at the expense of placing characters in an uncanny valley of halfway between realistic and cartoony, thereby taking viewers out of the experience. Just as we increasingly demand our fruit to lack any blemishes or obscurities, anime has come a long way in shrinking noses, rounding eyes and turning lips into straight lines for the sole purpose of immersing you in its universe. I once read a book on the history of cartooning that explained how we more easily identify emotions when complex facial details are taken away, and by the end you are left with blank dots and lines for faces (see Gudetama, for example).

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 11.50.42 AM

Aside from the characters the film succeeds in its mission to create the coolest futuristic vibe that had been seen so far in anime, something that inspired many movies after it, both anime and live action.

Several Ghost in the Shell films have been made, along with the original 1989 manga and an upcoming live action film set to release in March, 2017. This live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be featuring Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kasunagi. However, many took to social media to state their displeasure that a white actress is taking the role of a well-known Japanese heroine. Personally I don’t find much wrong with it considering the history of anime characters combining aesthetics of Asians and westerners. Porco Rosso, one of my favorite movies of all time, takes place in a fictionalized Italy with clearly white humans everywhere. But that doesn’t take away from Porco (the main character) being a distinctly Japanese character in how weird the anthropomorphic pig man is. As long as it can recapture that image of the rainy neon-lit streets with robo-cops fighting huge mech tanks, it won’t really matter who’s doing the killing.