Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Two Films About Journeys: Kumiko and Jauja

April 24, 2015


Recently I saw two films, each with a Herzogian story about a person who undertakes an ill-advised journey.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed and co-written by David Zellner, is, I’m told, based on a Japanese urban legend. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) has a dreary job as a personal assistant to a Tokyo businessman. Yearning to escape from her humdrum life, she dreams of becoming a treasure hunter. She finds an old VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, and she becomes convinced that it tells a true story. She believes that the money buried by one of the characters is lying in a field somewhere in Minnesota. She steals her boss’s credit card and uses it to purchase a plane ticket to Minneapolis. From there, she sets out for Fargo, convinced that she will somehow find the field she saw in the film. Along the way, she meets a number of different people who try to help her.

This film’s “happy” ending is not quite ironic and not quite cynical. Zellner is clearly aiming for a fairy tale effect here. He succeeds in this largely because of Kikuchi’s convincing and moving performance.


The trailer for Jauja gave me high hopes, but I found the film itself disappointing.

The film is set in Argentina in the 19th century. The Argentine government is waging a genocidal war against the indigenous people of Patagonia. Gunnar (Viggo Mortenson) is a Danish doctor who has been hired by the Argentine army. He has brought his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), from Denmark with him. When Ingeborg runs off into the desert with a soldier, Gunnar goes in pursuit of them. He finds the soldier murdered. While he is searching the area, an Indian steals his horse, so Gunnar is forced to continue his search on foot. He comes across an old woman who lives by herself in the desert.

Jauja‘s early scenes have a stark beauty and simplicity about them that reminds one of Herzog’s films. However, it suddenly turns into a Bergmannesque fantasy about a spooky old woman living in a cave. Like Kumiko, this film aims for a fairy tale effect, but it merely ends up being opaque. I found this disappointing, because I really wanted to see Gunnar’s quest lead to something. Instead, we have what feels like two different films stuck together. In addition, Jauja touches upon the racist attitude of the whites towards the Indians, but it doesn’t really have anything to say about this. It’s just a perplexing and unsatisfying work.


January 20, 2014


The Scientific American has posted an article debunking the story that there was a spike in infant mortality rates in the Pacific Northwest immediately following the Fukushima nuclear accident. This was the first in a series of alarmist stories that have come out about that disaster, the latest of these being that the floor of the Pacific ocean is covered with dead animals. (This has also been debunked.) An interesting question here is why do people make up these stories. The Fukushima disaster is something we should all be concerned, and outraged, about, and the people responsible for it should be held accountable, but what is accomplished by making false claims about it? Do some anti-nuclear activists think that they can advance their cause by making false claims? They are deluded if they think so.

Some people actually seem to take a perverse pleasure in the idea that the sky is falling. Consider the popularity of the patently absurd “Mayan Prophecy” hoax. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of conspiracy theories, which portray us as helpless victims of a small, secret group of individuals.

Rampo (The Mystery of Rampo)

October 20, 2012

The Japanese novelist, Edogawa Rampo, is one of my favorite writers, so I was naturally curious when I heard about a 1994 Japanese film that features him as the hero of a fictional story.

The film is set in Japan in the 1920’s. When the film begins, Rampo (Naoto Takenaka) has had one of his novels banned by the government as being too disturbing for the public. In this work, a woman kills her husband by locking him in a trunk and suffocating him. Shortly afterwards, Rampo learns of a recent murder case that resembles the one in his novel. A shop owner has been found dead in a trunk. The police suspect that his wife, Shizuka (Michiko Hada), was the one who locked him in, but they are forced to release her due to lack of evidence. Out of curiosity, Rampo goes to visit her shop. She seems to take an immediate liking to him. She gives Rampo a music box, while refusing to take any payment for it. Rampo becomes obsessed with her, tentatively beginning a romantic relationship with her. When Rampo becomes convinced that Shizuka really did murder her husband, this only deepens his attraction to her.

Inspired by this, Rampo begins writing a new novel. Kogoro Akechi (Masahiro Motoki), Rampo’s detective hero and alter ego, is told to investigate Shizuko (Michiko Hada again), a wealthy widow who is rumored to have murdered her husband. She is now the mistress of the fabulously rich Duke Okawara (Mikijiro Hira), a sometime transvestite who likes to watch bondage films. (Yes, Rampo’s novels are like that.) Akechi manages to insinuate himself into Okagawa’s household, where he becomes romantically involved with Shizuko. At this point, as often happens in a Rampo story, the border between fantasy and reality starts to get blurred.

Rampo (also known as The Mystery of Rampo) is an erotic and strangely moving film. It does a very good job of capturing the dark, brooding flavor of Rampo’s writings. More than a little of the film’s power comes from Michiko Hada’s brilliant performance as Shizuko. She manages to convey an icy strength underneath her character’s seeming vulnerability.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal has died. I enjoyed reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, but I was never keen on his novels. (Although I did enjoy Julian.) Vidal’s acerbic criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and of this country’s plutocracy earned him an enthusiastic following among the left. However, Doug Henwood, who is generally an admirer of Vidal’s, reminds us that he had a “creepy nativist streak”. He recalls hearing Vidal express sympathy for the racist Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn. In the 1980’s, Vidal published an article titled The Empire Lovers Strike Back, in which he wrote:

    My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race with many well-deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

The kindest thing one can say about this is that it shows that Vidal was completely ignorant about Asia. Vidal surely must have been aware of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was common in the early twentieth century. And bear in mind that he was making this argument in a country with a history of discrimination against Asians, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In the same article, Vidal says that Norman Podhoretz is not an “assimilated American”. This comment provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. Vidal once said of Hilton Kramer that his name “sounds like a hotel in Tel-Aviv”.

Also problematic for the left are the disturbing implications of Vidal’s ham-fisted writings on population control. He once said:

    If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving… it may already be too late to save this ark of fools.

Vidal would perhaps have been pleased to know that the birth-rate in Japan has been falling.

Despite all his faults, I am saddened by Vidal’s passing. He was a public intellectual, a type of person that is becoming increasingly rare in the United States. Unfortunately, the media often saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than enlightenment. They could never get enough of his silly fight with Norman Mailer or his tiresome feud with Truman Capote. It seems the media must trivialize everything, including writers.

Chris Marker (1921-2012)

August 1, 2012

The legendary filmmaker, Chris Marker, died on July 29, which happened to be his birthday. (It also happens to be my birthday.) His real name was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve. He once said that the reason he used the name Chris Marker was because he traveled a lot and he wanted to use a name that people could easily pronounce. He served in the French resistance during World War II. After the War, Marker was one of the founders of the influential journal, Cahiers du cinéma. Marker worked in different media, but his best known work is the short film, La Jetee, in which he uses a series of black & white photographs to tell a haunting story about time travel. It is often shown in college art courses as an example of how simple images can be used to convey complex ideas and associations.

Marker’s other best known work is Sans Soleil, which is often called a documentary, although it would more accurately be called a cinematic essay, or perhaps a cinematic meditation. A woman narrator reads a series of letters sent to her by a fictitious cameraman named Sandor Krasna (presumably the letters were written by Marker himself), while film footage shot by Krasna is shown on screen. The film is structured in a non-linear, free-associative manner. It touches upon a vast array of ideas ranging from Japanese religious ideas to anti-colonial struggles in Africa to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The film seems longer than its hour and forty-four minute length. I actually mean that in a good way; one of the film’s ideas is that our perception of time can vary. Here is the full film:

Norwegian Wood

May 29, 2012

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.

Two Films about Japanese Artists

April 28, 2012

A scene from Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Eugene’s Bijou Art Cinemas just hosted the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, which is devoted to films from Asia and from the Pacific Northwest. This annual festival is just one of the many benefits of living in Eugene. (If I seem to be on a civic boosterism kick, it’s because of a recent ESPN article that portrays Eugene as a warren of zonked-out hippies with questionable grooming habits.) I regret that because of previous commitments I was not able to attend all of the films. Based on the ones I did see, however, I was impressed by the selection job that the festival organizers did. I found every film I saw interesting in some way. Two that particularly stood out for me were documentaries about two artists in Japan.

Jiro Ono is Japan’s most famous sushi chef. He runs a sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station. The Michelin guides have given the place a three star rating. People make reservations months ahead of time just to eat there. David Gelb’s film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi examines the life and work of this cook who, at the age of 85, says he will never retire. He dislikes taking days off. He is assisted by his son, Yoshikazu, and by a small, hard-working staff that he trained himself. An apprentice at Jiro’s restaurant has to train for ten years before he is considered a shokunin (chef).

Yoshikazu is destined to take over the restaurant after his father’s death. However, a sushi chef tells us that because of his father’s reputation, Yoshikazu would have to be twice as good just to be considered his equal.

Jiro tells us that he arranges his meals like music. He starts with light, subtle flavors and gradually works his way to heavier ones. Gelb builds upon this idea with a shrewdly constructed musical soundtrack. As we watch Jiro and his assistants, they at times almost seem to be moving in sync with the music.

On a somber note, both Jiro and Yoshikazu report that they have seen both the quality and quantity of fish sold in markets decline over the years. Yoshikazu blames this on over-fishing. He is particularly critical of the way tuna are caught, saying that many of these fish are captured before they are mature.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It made me hungry for sushi.

I watched Astro Boy on TV when I was growing up. This show would likely strike contemporary children as crude (it was in black & white, for one thing), but to me it was magical. I remember I was puzzled at how his feet would suddenly disappear and flames would shoot out of his legs when he would fly through the air.

So my curiosity was piqued when I heard that the festival was showing a film titled The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps. This movie is about Matsuo Ohno, who did the sound effects for Astro Boy. Actually, he was the sound designer. He would actually get mad at people if they said that he did sound effects. Instead of trying to imitate noises, he would create whole new sounds. The title refers to the curious sound for Astro Boy’s footsteps, which he created by manipulating recording tape.

Ohno became interested in electronic music in the 1950’s, when he heard a Stockhausen recording. He continues to compose and perform to this day, trying to create what he calls “ethereal music”. A traditionalist, he continues to use reel-to-reel tape players and oscillators, instead of computer programs.

Ohno has a reputation for being irascible and difficult. Yet he devotes a large part of his time to teaching music to mentally disabled persons. He says that we can all learn from such people. However, this film will not dispel the stereotype of artists as eccentric people. A friend of Ohno’s tells us that when the latter was young, he preferred to enter buildings by climbing through windows.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

The Secret World of Arrietty

February 20, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese anime film that is loosely based on Mary Norton’s popular children’s book, The Borrowers. The screenplay was written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. It was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The credits list Miyazaki as a “developing planner” for the film. Not surprisingly it has a look and feel similar to his earlier works.

Sean is a sickly boy who is sent to stay with his great-aunt, Jessica, in the house his mother grew up in. He eventually learns that there is a family of little people, who are 10 cm tall, living under the floorboards of the house. They call themselves “Borrowers”, since they live by “borrowing” things from the humans (who they call “beings”) who live in the house. They believe themselves to be members of a dying race. The family consists of fourteen-year-old Arrietty, her father, Pod, and her mother, Homily. Sean sees Arrietty’s on a couple of occasions, and he eventually succeeds in communicating with her. When Pod learns of this, he tells the family they will have to leave, for it isn’t safe for Borrowers to remain in a house after “beings” have discovered them. They begin preparing to leave. Meanwhile, Sean tries to help them by giving them furniture from a doll’s house, but this only leads to the family servant, Hara, learning of the Borrowers’ existence. She begins plotting to capture them (although the film never makes clear what she plans to do with them). She captures Homily and puts her in a jar. Sean then helps Arrietty to rescue her mother.

The best thing about this film is the detailed and convincing fantasy world it creates. The insides of the walls of the house are a fantastic landscape through which the Borrowers travel, walking on enormous nails and using tiny ropes to haul themselves up. The house that the Borrowers live in is put together from scraps and odds and ends that they find, including postage stamps as wall decorations. And when they go outside the house, the lawn is like a jungle, where they< have to avoid deadly creatures, such as cats and crows

The Secret World of Arrietty lacks the haunting, dream-like quality of Spirited Away, but it is nonetheless an entertaining fantasy adventure.

13 Assassins

June 11, 2011

Takashi Miike is a prolific Japanese director whose work has acquired something of a cult following. I have previously only seen two of Miike’s films. The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical comedy with grisly elements in it. Yatterman is a superhero fantasy with CGI effects, musical numbers, and cheesy low-budget sets and costumes. One thing the two films have in common is a very dark sense of humor. The comedic high point – or low point, if you will – in the first film comes when a 500-pound sumo wrestler suffers a fatal heart attack and crushes his underage girlfriend to death.

13 Assassins is a very different film from these two. For one thing, there’s not much humor in it – which is perhaps a good thing. There are no musical numbers – which is definitely a good thing. It is an example of what the Japanese call a jidaigeki, a historical film that (so far as I could tell) is very accurate in its period detail. It is reportedly based on a real incident.

In the early nineteenth century, the Shogun’s brother, Lord Naritsugu, is a depraved murderer and rapist. His sadistic crimes threaten to provoke a rebellion from the people. Lord Doi, a high government official, decides that Naritsugu must be assassinated before he tears the country apart. He calls upon a respected samurai, Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho) to carry out the deed. Shinzaemon recruits the best fighters he can find to help him. They hide out in a village, where they plan to ambush Naritsugu, who is traveling with a small army.

With its story about a small group of samurai fighting against a much larger force, 13 Assassins invites comparison with Seven Samurai. While this film is bloodier and more graphic than Kurosawa’s masterpiece, the characters are not as complex or as interesting as the ones in the latter. It also lacks Kurosawa’s narrative skill: the sword fighting scenes start to get a bit repetitive after a while. Still, if you just like an entertaining samurai film, you will surely enjoy this.

Spirited Away

February 11, 2011

Spirited Away, by the Japanese director, Hayao Miyazaki, is a 2001 anime film. It tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. On the way, they get lost and stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. They find a food stand with hot food but no one around. Chihiro’s parents start eating, but Chihiro is frightened and runs away. When night falls, it becomes clear that the place is populated by spirits. Chihiro finds that her parent have been transformed into pigs. She runs into a boy, Haku. With his help, she gets a job working at a bath house that serves 8 million gods. It is presided over by a sorceress named Yubaba. She renames Chihiro Sen. By taking away her name, Yubaba makes it impossible for Chihiro to return to the human world. Chihiro is determined to rescue her parents and escape from Yubaba.

Spirited Away is a fantasy that touches upon themes of environmental degradation, the corrupting influence of consumerism, and the malleability of identity. In one scene, for example, Chihiro has to prepare a bath for a spirit who is covered with filth. She notices a thorn in his side. When she removes it, a stream of discarded trash (old tires, washing machines, etc.) comes pouring out. The spirit is then revealed to a river god who has been purified of the human waste that has built up in his river.

The characters are complex, none of them are completely bad or completely good, unlike your typical Disney movie. The result is that this film offers a richer and more satisfying experience than your typical fantasy adventure. Spirited Away is beautifully made. Some of the scenes are just gorgeous. At the end of it, one feels as though one has emerged from a dream.