Monday, June 23, 2008

The "Juno Effect" Cause For Concern in Japan

In two different contexts yesterday people asked me about the movie Juno's effect on high school kids in America. You know, the cute Academy Award-nominated flick starring Ellen Page as a smart and funny teen who gets pregnant and throws everyone's lives into comic confusion by deciding to carry the child to full-term and then give it up for adoption.

Something to do with its having fingernails.

Juno is playing here in Japan, and I'm not sure what its impression is here. Some of the humor is pop culture oriented; for example, Juno claims at one point to be Morgan Freeman and asks her friend if she has any "bones that need collecting." Actually, it was Denzel Washington who was in the film The Bone Collector, but Juno's mistake is our boon... unless you're someone who's only vaguely aware of who either Freeman or Washington are, or that there ever was a movie called The Bone Collector. And why would Juno say that in the first place?

But I do know what the impression those 17 pregnant girls at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Massachusetts and the media's inevitable (and stupid) linking of that phenomenon with what I consider a pretty innocuous and sweet little movie have made here... at least on a few people.

They have the impression that teen pregnancy is now a fashion in the United States.

You know the United States. That place where all the weird stuff happens. The gun murders; Santa Claus; the unceasing refering to a presidential candidate by his race (Black Obama?); a growing number of young comics-obsessed people who proudly refer to themselves as "otaku;" people eat enough food for three at each meal; Angelina Jolie adopting every kid in sight; the grotesquely weird and complex American football; monumentally large cars, streets and houses... and now the Juno Effect.

I didn't see it- and I wouldn't have understood much of it even if I had- but evidently some Japanese news program ran a segment on the Gloucester 17 and, if the questions I fielded yesterday (as one of the few representatives of America available to understandably curious people) are any indication, it must have used Jamie Lynn Spears and a few Juno clips to illustrate the kinds of stories and influences kids in America watch and internalize.

This is one of those common media dysfunctions. Of course local media only report on those bizarre or tragic international stories, giving the Americans Joe and Jane Lunchbox and their Japanese counterparts Hiro and Hiromi Bento some seriously skewed ideas about foreign cultures. Thus, in America, Japan is the land of sex robots and tentacle porn where salarymen never go home and their kids wear sailor suits to school; and in Japan, America is the land of never-ending gun crime, buffet dining, Beyonce songs and action flicks with steroidal monstrosities leaping in front of massive explosions.

And teen pregnancy crazes.

No one reports on the commonplace and who would watch it if they did? Even I tend to focus on things that are fun and esoteric, like the street fashions, the avant garde music and various subcultures. But you have to understand that these things aren't representative of anything but themselves and their participants. And that every culture has these undercurrents. It's a matter of perspective and normalcy is relative to familiarity.

When you think someone else is bizarre, chances are they're thinking the same thing about you. In fact, both Japan and America are pretty boring, workaday places most of the time. The vast majority of people in either country want basically the same banal, inane, comforting things. They go to work, come home, have dinner, watch TV, go to bed and do it all again the next day. We actually have a commonality of values- family, friends, law and order, doing the right thing at the right time, fitting in, being liked, being nice. Something to think about.

And while thinking about it, enjoy the tribal avant-sounds of "Umo" by OOIOO:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"The A-Team" is coming to SuperDrama TV...

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. They promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

You don't need to look that hard or be personally vetted by Mr. Lee if you live in Japan. Thanks to the on-the-ball programmers at SuperDrama TV, Hannibal, Faceman, Kong and Crazymonkey are about to drive their black GMC Vandura from Kanto to Kansai to save missing journalists from Mexican drug dealers, stop evil SWAT teams and their murder-for-hire schemes and prevent greedy ranchers from taking over small family farms. You know, all those common nuisances we face here in modern Japanese society.

Sgt. Bosco "Bad Attitude" Baracus: Waitaminute, fool! Did you say "Hannibal, Faceman... Kong and Crazymonkey?" What do you mean with all that crazy jibberjabber?

That's right, B.A. In Japan, you're called Kong and that crazy fool "Howling Mad" Murdock is known as Crazymonkey. I'm not sure why the name change, but there you have it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indy Jones Mania is Peaking in Japan!

In Japan, he's known as "Indy."

You call him Dr. Jones, doll!

Nope, sorry, Short Round. Just Indy. Occasionally, Indy Jones. But much like Capt. Jack Sparrow is affectionately referred to simply as "Jack" and Billy Blanks is likewise called "Billy," most people know the man with the hat and the whip without any qualifiers. Either it's a cultural thing where people here tend to shorten names or phrases into easily pronounced cuteness, or else people are getting lazy in their old age. Or my old age. Or Indiana Jones' old age.

One week before the Japan-wide release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the merchandise is ubiquitous. Actually, it has been for more than a month. The Zaza Toys-R-Us even has a special display near the store's front, near the video games and (more importantly) the cash registers.

At first it was fully stocked with dozens of those wall-eyed Indiana Jones 3 3/4" figures. I don't understand why Hasbro would send out millions of toys sculpted in the shape of renowned archaeologist Henry Jones, Jr. and allow every single one of them to sport goofy eyes, as if he'd been crossbred with a flounder or a chameleon. But they did. It's universal... even the dozens I saw in a famous Ginza toy shop over Golden Week shared this trait. The ol' wandering iris.

Matt Groening reportedly won't let his Simpsons characters be depicted cross-eyed, preferring a slight wall-eyed expression, imparting them with an existentially alienated appearance. So too George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with their intrepid adventurer. A wall-eyed Dr. Jones is a globetrotting Dr. Jones, I guess. And his peripheral vision is off the charts. But poor Sallah doesn't know what eye to look at when speaking to his old friend.

Now the toy pickings are slim. Shoppers made off with the picks of the lot, mostly the younger Indy despite his funked-up eyes. The nifty Hasbro 12-inch figures (I pre-ordered the more deluxe and costly 1/6th scales Indy's from Sideshow Toys and Medicom because they are works of mother-lovin' art, baby!) are still plentiful, but if you want any of the smaller ones you have to choose between some seedy characters in robes, a couple of Nazi soldiers wearing what appear to be Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker caps, old Indy... and Mutt Williams. There are a ton of Mutt Williams figures to be had. So many, they will probably still be available this time next year. Sorry, Shia.

Up the escalator you'll find Toho Cinemas (known as Virgin Cinemas until it got laid) which is incredibly tricked out Indiana Jones and the Various Movies of Doom-style. There are massive decals for the new flick on the windows, a display featuring a fake crate with a familiar-looking brown fedora lying on top of it and a widescreen TV monitor on which trailers for all 4 movies play on an endless loop, and The Store is fully stocked with action figures, books, posters, the soundtrack CD... and that amazing Japanese movie souvenir, the program.

Called a "brochure" in Japanese-English, these are colorful photo-filled booklets. The Crystal Skull program is a glossy, oversized example. Lots of artwork- stills, storyboards, set and character designs. An overview of the film series and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show. If only I could read Japanese!

Two weeks ago, on a whim I bought a few packs of Topps Indiana Jones Heritage cards in hopes of pulling a hidden treasure... like Indy himself, I came in search of fortune and glory. The set contains photo cards of various scenes from all the films, plus some randomly-inserted autograph cards and hand-drawn "sketch" cards featuring actual art by professional illustrators. I got a sketch of Sean Connery as Professor Henry Jones, Sr. signed by "MB," who I'm guessing is Mark Brooks.

Actually, it looks a little tight for a "sketch," but not as resolved as a finished piece. Somewhere in between, what one of my old graphic design teachers might have called a "semi-comp." It's a good, instantly recognizable likeness, and I was very pleased with finding it. It gave me a little thrill, actually.

I rarely buy bubblegum cards of any kind (not since the baseball card bug bit me in the early 1990s and I recovered when things became too collector-oriented and speculative and plain nasty... just like comic book collecting before the market collapse!) and so have little experience with these things. Anyway, Mark Brooks or whoever drew this... my fedora is off to you.

Thanks, brother! Your color cards look especially nice!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Quake-Filled Weekend...

Around 10 or 11 Friday morning, as I surfed the Net from the comfort of my bed, I felt a vibration. My bed seems made to rock, so I assumed at first it was caused by my body having shifted. But it continued for maybe 10 seconds, stopped, then began again. Or course, quakes are common here in Japan. That was just one of many I've experienced, and not even a spectacular example.

But the quake that struck northeastern Japan around 8:43am Saturday? The big one that brought down a highway bridge, sent mud and rocks cascading down hillsides and killed at least 6 people (including one man who ran outside his home for safety only to have a car run him down)? The one that caused 15 liters of radioactive wastewater to spill from a nuclear power plant holding pool?

That one I didn't even feel. A friend had to tell me about it later that day. My mom knew more about it than I did.

According to the Japan Times Online, there are hundreds of stranded tourists in several mountain resort areas around the area, and three foreigners and a Japanese camper unaccounted for in one camping area hit by mudslides. We can only hope they're okay and soon to emerge with nothing more than a more thrilling vacation story.

I need to put some serious thought into making an earthquake preparedness kit. Every household in Japan should have one. A change of clothes, bottled water, canned food, towels and more. Yeah, I need to get on that!

And Now It's Time For...

... Name That Tune, starring everyone's favorite rock band, Melt-Banana. Take it away, rockers!

For those of you playing along at home who said "Heart of Glass" by Blondie... you win! In-studio contestants guessing correctly and those who sent in their replies by August 4th are in luck! Tell them what they won, Don!

Don: A neeeewwwwwww tattoo! Courtesy Black Lion Tattoo Parlor and Piercery in lovely downtown Burbank, Cali... FORNIA!

Thanks, Don! Agata shreds this song to tiny quivering pieces with the fur still attached and at 1:30 Rika loses her pick and gropes on the stage floor to find it. Yasuko boards an interstellar rocket and waves bye-bye to Debbie Harry.

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

Wolf and cat.

Through the Magic of Ryoko's Sudsy Time Machine, You Can Relive Japan's Decadent "Bubble" Era!

This is a trailer for Hirosue Ryoko's Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, a science fic... er... fantasy flick that came out in 2007. A researcher creates a time machine inside a washer, rather than a sexy DeLorean with its shiny stainless steel body and gull-wing doors. I suppose a washer is more economical and practical. The DeLorean would use increasingly expensive gasoline and require difficult-to-acquire plutonium, while the washer not only provides temporal shifts but also covers the traveler in a pleasantly aromatic detergent foam.

When the scientist doesn't return from her trip to 1990, the government does what any responsible group of leaders would do- it sends the woman's frivolous club hostess daughter (Hirosue) back to rescue her mother... and also Japan's national finances.

The subtitles at one point have Ryoko raising a glass of champagne and screaming that she loves the bubble, but my translation is closer to, "The bubble is so cool!"

And, indeed, it was.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Japan's overheated economy was the envy of the world, especially in the United States where every day we had news reports of Japanese corporations buying choice commercial real estate in New York City and Putney, Georgia. Cell phones were roughly the size of Greyhound Scenicruisers and required users to wear nuclear-powered mechanical exoskeletons in order to carry them about, an aging Arthur Fonzarelli gave up his Harley for a Suzuki dirt bike, Mothra became CEO of Levi Strauss and started shipping weathered jeans back to the mother country where newly affluent Japanese teens paid thousands of yen for them only to grind them into a fine powder and snort them off mirrors in nightclub bathrooms.

Yes (according to the film trailer), the bubble years were a time of "exuberance and over-indulgence, ruled by lust and decadence!" And also dangly earrings and old guy lechery. How very different from Japan today where we've successfully eliminated dangly earrings.

In the States, those bubble years were characterized by Michael J. Fox films, acid washed denim, white high-top Reeboks and brightly colored t-shirts. As the era wore on, these increasingly gave way to pocketfuls of kryptonite and attempts by two or more princes to kneel before various young women and demand they choose a proper mate. Eventually it all collapsed both in Japan and America in an orgy of flannel and Timberland hiking boots. This led to a period of retrenchment in the late 1990s in which groups of self-styled "neos" experienced bullet time while still others became ill with some sort of "bug," from which untold millions of Beanie Babies perished.

All of this will be addressed in the sequel film, entitled Millenium Fantasy: No Scrubs.

Napoleon of the Stump...

This has nothing to do with Japan, but it's an election year back home and this song tells the story of a man who accomplished everything he set out to do, then removed himself from public life and promptly died.

While the man himself was from perfect and perhaps can be harshly judged from a modern perspective- an aggressive expansionist, he confronted Great Britain and negotiated the purchase of the Oregan Territories, waged war with Mexico (inspiring Henry David Thoreau's night in jail and brilliantly conceived literary work Civil Disobedience) and also was a lifelong slaveholder who supported extending the Missouri Compromise into the newly-acquired western territories- there's no denying James K. Polk's presidency was incredibly successful.

James K. Polk, little-celebrated 11th President of the United States.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Akihabara Knife Attack...

On Sundays, the main street in Akihabara is closed to traffic so the shopping throngs can walk freely, safe from danger, buy duty-free electronics and the latest computer games, visit maid cafes and shop for manga and cosplay goods. Yet last Sunday, June 8th, suddenly a white rental truck came driving along, plowing into people, and then a man with a knife stabbing passersby. When a cop tried to talk to him, the man stabbed the officer repeatedly. When he was finished the man had killed 7 and injured 10 more.

Why? People who work there are trying to understand it. Akihabara attracts tourists and geeks alike. And evidently, one twisted, unhappy individual with mayhem on his mind. A 25-year-old from right here in Shizuoka prefecture, a temp worker with more problems than solutions.

I'm not really an Akihabara kind of person, prefering Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku. But on my last trip to Tokyo I decided to explore there and spent two fun, rain-splashed afternoons strolling around, looking for hardcore otaku and akiba-kei (fanboy/girl and Akihabara fanboy/girl) sites, checking out the maids in sexy-cute Victorian costumes outside the station as they shilled for their cafes, finding toy and model shops chock full of colorful plastic toys. I've been planning a big photo essay post about Akihabara...

Before it just seemed frivolous and fun. Maybe even harmlessly creepy in some respects. Now it seems a little haunted, tainted. Despite having so frequently lost friends and family (including someone very close recently to something so stupid as to be almost incomprehensible), I can only imagine how the victims' families must feel. In some cases they must have actually watched the murders taking place in broad daylight, amid the same sights and sounds I drank in so recently and thoroughly enjoyed. What a horrific disconnect from reality that must have been. For them, those buildings and signs forever have a different meaning. Something sinister, I suppose.

I don't think there are any broad trends at work here; analyzing Japan and making absolutist statements tends to be a favorite pastime of ex-pats living here. But this is a personal tragedy for real human beings. Whatever external causes you might name, there are almost certainly many more internalized ones, dark places inside this young man that are his and his alone and universal at the same time.

My heart goes out to those left behind.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Onion Discovers "Battle Royale"

The Onion AV Club has a fascinating regular feature called "The New Cult Canon," about films the cinema cognoscenti are into these days. They finally got around to covering that ultimate in cool cult flicks, Battle Royale.

And you can read it here.

The article neatly sums up all that is good and bad about Battle Royale, so I won't rehash it here. Suffice it to say, if you don't like violence, don't see this movie. I find it less disturbing than Suicide Circle, but others may have a lower threshold of nausea than I do. On the other hand, where else can you see Kuriyama Chiaki, Shibasaki Kou and Maeda Aki together in one all-singing, all-dancing, all-shooting movie?