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7:11 PM on 10.22.2012

Nihonjinron: Idols

Part 8: Japan’s Kawaii Culture

What is an idol?

A survey amongst the japanese would result in a lack of consensus. That is because the current template for an idol is not constrained to one sector of the entertainment industry. A successful idol releases music, photo-books, acts on TV dramas, sells gravure videos, appears on variety shows, endorses brands, blogs, writes books, promotes video games, stars in feature films and does voice acting.

It can be argued that the idol concept got distorted and abused as it gained popularity: who once were simply glamour models, became gravure idols. The pornographic business also grabbed the title, promoting their stars as Adult Video idols. Maid cafes evolved their waitresses into such status as well(1).

To understand the concept it is necessary to explore its beginnings.

Like a lot of mainstream waves, the idea for idols began as a counterculture. Unsatisfied by the male dominated Kabuki theater, Kobayashi Ichizo adventured into an all female entertainment enterprise in 1913. Just like Kabuki theater at the time, where all the roles, including female characters, were performed by men, Ichizo’s vision consisted in women being the only talent admitted. Funding the Takarazuka Revue(2), Kobayashi created a phenomenon that up to this day is one of the fundaments of the japanese culture, projecting women as the forefront of the entertainment in Japan. The motto of the Takarazuka Music School became the commandments for idols: --Purity, Honesty, Beauty--(3).

However it was not until the 60’s when the term idol was first coined. During this era, on top of the concept receiving a name, its formula started to settle. Two main influences helped the idea acquire a form: Great Britain at the time was propelling the boy band format, leaded by The Monkeys but shaped by the not boy band: The Beatles. These concocted groups would patently establish a marketing concept, where the appeal of the boys was not only manufactured and hyped, but further monetized with films and the idealization of each member of the band.

France was hosting its own current: the Yé-yé. In 1963, Sylvie Vartan, amongst the most popular Yé-yé singers, starred in a film titled --Cherchez l’idole--(4), translated as Search For The Idol, or in japanese: Idol Wo Sagase. The japanese quickly adopted the word for their own female celebrities. Ironically, Sylvie Vartan wouldn’t become the prototype for the japanese idol. That role was for the most famous and controversial exponent of the Yé-yé: France Gall(5), also known back then as the french Lolita, who was suddenly expelled from the french mainstream after her song Les Sucettes (Lollipops, in english) was exposed as shameless innuendo for oral sex.

Still with the momentum of the Takarazuka movement, Japan implemented the boy band and the Yé-yé in its own way: the idol.

Although duets like The Peanuts and other solo efforts pioneered the idol scene, it took Candies(6), the group that decisively cemented what an idol group had to be, and the TV show Star Tanjou, Japan’s American Idol of the 70’s, to make of the idol concept a proper industry. In 1976, Pink Lady arrived to the scene with Pepper Keibu, a single that would mark the trend for the following thirty years.

Pink Lady debuting its first single

Japan’s music industry can definitely be marked as one of the best examples of the japaneseness. Arranged as agencies(7), private entities gather, nurture and promote its own talent. In a way, inherited by the Takarazuka model, where Kobayashi Ichizo had complete and exclusive control of its talent, agencies form their own pools of idols, lending them to TV and radio networks on their own terms and conditions. Collaborations between talent of two different agencies are rare, changing agencies is only accepted when the bigger one is on the benefitting end. The idols are, structurally, mere employees with an unimpressive fixed salary that can only be negotiated once a year. Even idols at their peak, with multiple deals for commercials and TV appearances, and regardless of record sales, cannot brag of making more than a senior programmer analyst.

In 1985, the idol concept would transcend imitation and become something truly unique. Born from Fuji TV, hosted by the powerful label Pony Canyon, and envisioned by Akimoto Yasushi, Onyanko Club stormed Japan.

Twenty girls dominating Japan: The Onyanko Club

With a total of 52 members in its history, it introduced the idea of graduations, where members would leave, allowing new faces in. It had its own variety show. With an abundance of girls, subunits were formed to maximize exposure and profit. It intensely promoted direct contact with fans and targeted heavily the male audience. The Onyanko Club had only two rules: no smoking (as it is illegal for anyone under twenty, in Japan) and no boyfriends, marking the birth of the stigma of the wota(8).

At the end, after only three years of existence, the Onyanko Club collapsed after a series of scandals and internal disputes.

Although Onyanko Club had changed, determinately, the paradigm of the idol groups, after its dawn, the whole idol scene took a bit of a rest, mainly because of one factor: the Shibuya-kei(9) had begun its rise. However, after the Shibuya-kei, briefly a counterculture, was assimilated, and with the fundaments already set by the Onyanko Club, the absolute peak was to come, thanks to two crucial factors: a mature industrialization of the media, with the CD and DVD revolution already settled in, granting easy access to releases, but with the TV still acting as the main source of news and events; and the insurrection of the internet, allowing unsuspected people access to never before seen entertainment, while no yet stealing the predominance of the TV networks. Within those circumstances Morning Musume was formed in 1997.

Morning Musume performing its most successful song ever: Love Machine

Born already in fame, with Asayan, a talent search TV show, acting as its parent, what started as a five girl group quickly became eight, and eventually to a maximum of sixteen. At first, a collective of girls in their late teens and early twenties, quickly became territory for twelve year olds, while not disposing of its older members. It had as well its own variety show, and formed subunits to generate more merchandise.

While the Onyanko Club was more of a novelty and a fad, Morning Musume was the consecration of the industry that Kobayashi Ichizo had unknowingly started, and Pink Lady had established. Unlike Onyanko’s ephemeral life, that was plagued by rumors, questionable events, sexual lyrics(10), and fights between the members. The approach by Up-Front, the agency behind Morning Musume, was more serene, relaxed and family friendly.

It has to be specified, then, another characteristic of the japanese music industry: the mainstream is composed of a few established players (Hamasaki Ayumi, Gackt, Koda Kumi and a small army of generic, harmless adult contemporary bands and solo acts) and standouts from niches. The idol industry, on its own, is a niche, actively embraced and exploited by the big agencies. Aside from the big acts of the idol music world, of which only a handful sell a meaningful amount of records, the rest are confined to selected corners of the japanese cities with their own faithful fans, only capable of enjoying massive crowds in the various idol festivals throughout the year.

At its peak, Morning Musume broke the barrier of a niche within the mainstream, and effectively became widely established pop culture, with the general populace able to remember their names without the need for a scandal to make them stand out. Ironically, it was the “de-idolization” of Morning Musume that allowed them to transcend. Through Utaban, a variety show where the hosts had a green light to assign nicknames, mock, tease, and even flirt with the guests, watching Morning Musume every week as guests became water cooler talk(11).

Another success was Up-Front’s elimination of the shadowy, cold figure of the agency: As Up-Front expanded with more idol groups, with MoMusu at the helm, instead of identifying all of their idol ensembles as Up-Front owned groups, they were collectively identified as the Hello! Project. If Morning Musume concerts were selling out, the promotion of an all star Hello! Project concert allowed for huge venues to be filled with ease.

The entire Hello! Project in 2005

Anime has spread the japanese culture, intensely, to every corner of the world. The Hello! Project, but mainly Morning Musume, thanks to the internet, has done so as well, creating a worldwide fandom and acceptation of the idol entertainment, from France to Peru, from Finland to Mexico, idols are spreading the japaneseness, globally.

AKB48, produced by Akimoto Yasushi, the very man behind Onyanku Club, entered the scene in very different circumstances than those Morning Musume and Onyanku Club enjoyed. AKB48 is confronting an ongoing korean craze; the japanese right now prefer korean dramas, korean music and korean books. With declining ratings for original japanese TV content, on top of sporting an overwhelming amount of members, circumstances have lead the AKB48 brand to only be recognized as a whole, seeing its fan base composed mostly of teenagers, both male and female. On the other hand, it is enjoying the benefits of the internet to its fullest extent, organizing its international fandom in an unprecedented scale. Yet, it has to be contrasted with the vastly more successful propagation that K-pop has seen worldwide(12), using a westernized approach, with lots of glamour and big production displays. On the contrary, J-Pop is still very japanese, with its subgenera still appealing dedicatedly to their own niche.

Twenty years after Onyanko Club: AKB48, Japan's musical face to the world

As Morning Musume wained around 2004 and AKB48 rose around 2007, the vacuum finalized a shift from what was traditionally known as idol music. A symbiotic relationship with anime was established, where idol music equaled anime opening music and anime opening music was only done by idols. Akihabara became the de facto center of the otaku, and inherently, of the wota. Hatsune Miku, a vocal synthesizer software, personified by a drawing of a blue haired girl, rocketed into the japanese culture, quickly acquiring virtual idol status, further expanding the term idol and what it could imply. Also, the long held motto of purity, honesty and beauty became obsolete as more gravure idols and adult video idols made it into the mainstream and the decaying music industry hesitated on introducing new groups to the market. While AKB48 is still at the helm of the idol world, further developments mark that the evolution of the concept still has a long way to go: Soft On Demand, a conglomerate of pornographic companies, launched the SOD National Idol Unit, composed only of prominent adult video idols(13).

Suicide Club [2001]

Sono Shion’s direct message to the japanese society, utilizes all sorts of idiosyncrasies and pop culture references to drive his unashamed critique of the nation.

It is, therefore, only appropriate for the focal satire of the film to be an idol group. Dessart, an “engrish” play on words, where its katakana(14) pronunciation could easily be also read as Death Art, is an idol band made of tweens, the top act of the moment, in the film’s world.

The idea of a suicide club being possible stands on the same fundaments of why idols and boy bands are so pervasive amongst the japanese. That is, understanding the idol scene as a sea of generic, pre-manufactured concepts, that never deviate from what its fans do not want, and at the same time, sell them into things they never really desired.

Harshly, Sono Shion points to an apathetical lack of individualism, as the main factor for a void, meaningless act, such as an idol group, to become the symbol of hope, positiveness and even purpose of existence. It is the utter conformity, driven by fear and loneliness, that makes idols thrive.

The film’s point is only boosted by celebrity suicides like Okada Yukiko’s death(15) and Matsumoto Hideto’s(16).

Pinch Runner [2000]

Although we have focused on the female side of the idol genre, leaving aside boy band idols, which are actually considerably more successful and recognized, with heavyweights like Arashi and SMAP; as a whole, there is an unescapable fact of the idol world: it is cheesy.

It is something hard to understand for the non-japanese. SMAP, for example: imagine the New Kids On The Block still being the best selling, most marketable group in America. Or the Backstreet Boys still storming the charts with each and every single, totally eclipsing new acts like the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber. Such is the musical industry paradigm of Japan.

...Well, within that cheesiness, Morning Musume was remarkably cheesy. In Pinch Runner, their second film, their characteristic cheesiness is more than apparent. While the movie was captured in film, the first take scenes are rather obvious, leading to some hilarious acting, the editing doesn’t do the movie any favor, either: with a strange combination of formats, frame rate speeds, laughable attempts at visual effects, odd slow motions and basic audio effects, you wonder if the producers were just being cheap or hopelessly inept.

At some point in the film, one of the characters fakes a suicide attempt, using paint to simulate blood. One of the girls discovers the can with red paint, by accident, and spills it on the floor, then tries to walk away from the spill but slips, for real, and lands, hitting bluntly her face; obviously, the shot was kept and used, which is quite a bizarre decision, as the girl looks unmistakably dazzled, and leaves you wondering why filming wasn’t immediately suspended after such a painful hit.

The climax of the film is a marathon. For some reason, the producers thought the best course of action was to have the girls of Morning Musume run a very real marathon. The odd decisions continue as the film starts to jump from a 24 frames per second, film format, for the dramatic scenes; to 30 frames per second, video, for the actual marathon. Bear in mind this was in 2000; Morning Musume were incredibly popular at the moment, nationwide, very close to their peak. Since the filming conditions for the marathon could not be controlled, as you see the girls running their cathartic race, you can also see the fans and the curious running alongside them, taking pictures and screaming in awe. Some shots of the Morning Musume suffering of side pain are included, as well, just because.

White Eyes [2010]

We won’t dig too much into television, in the Nihonjinron series, although it possesses enough peculiarities to deserve a dissection. What needs to be pointed out, though, is the nature of the japanese variety show: ad lib being its backbone. Surprising the guests and pushing them for improvisation is a constant, requiring of the TV personality a true capability of being spontaneously entertaining.

Momoiro Clover, in 2010, were still newcomers to the idol scene, albeit successful. They were told, by their management, they would be doing a piece for a variety show. The task for the girls was to go to a haunted place and ask a spirit to grant them the wish to appear at Kouhaku Uta Gassen.

Kouhaku is the ultimate musical show. It is held every year during new year’s eve. Appearing on it is the most explicit validation of the success of a singer or group.

The legend says if the wish is pure at heart, it is granted, if not, death arrives as punishment after seeing a pair of ghostly white eyes. The trick behind all of this was that, unknowingly, Momoiro Clover were filming the movie White Eyes, and not a clip for a variety show. This twist on the mockumentary concept wasn’t done by a random person either, Koji Shiraishi, the director, is pretty much Japan’s specialist on the found footage/mockumentary genre.

Nude [2010]

Sora Aoi, internationally known as a japanese pornstar, once said in an interview: “...There was also a possibility of going into TV and other parts of the entertainment industry. If there was only the AV industry, I couldn’t do it.” Her curriculum now features a vast history of appearances in mainstream shows, prominent roles in dramas and roles in serious films, like Yamasaki Yutaka’s Torso(17).

Hoshino Aki, started like every bikini model, gradually appearing in more magazines and then releasing gravure DVDs. In no time, she became one of the top gravure idols and eventually an emblem of the gravure world. Now, she is a mainstream face and powerhouse of the entertainment industry(18).

Added to the previous examples, there is Mihiro, who upon her retirement from the pornographic industry, wrote an autobiographic book, that saw its film adaptation in Nude. Mihiro’s story, and consequently the film, amongst all the morals and messages, delivered a patent note to the japanese society, as the gravure and the AV industries are more and more assimilated into the mainstream: the promise by scouters, of fame and success, stating erotic or pornographic jobs as a platform, is true in Japan.

The film, though, doesn’t let that message be delivered irresponsibly, since it underscores Mihiro’s personal struggle against japan’s society, where she is almost artificially repelled from a healthy social life: what started as casual (and even fun) bikini photo shoots, was forced by friends and family to be viewed as hideous, shameless acts, ending in self abhorrence.

As the world of casting is shown in its natural, heartless form, Nude depicts a sex entertainment industry that, once the job is obtained, enjoys a highly professional and relaxed ambient. The film leaves on the note that it wasn’t Mihiro’s beauty or branch of work that lead her to success, but her resilience that allowed her to keep on ascending, in a path where free fall was at each step; the actions of a properly strong woman.

It is, ultimately, primordial to understand Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture(19). While this specific subject warrants its own essay, for this article, its should suffice to say that in Japan, cuteness is an ideal. Although, as a trend, it rose around the 60’s and 70’s (in synchrony with the idol industrialization,) the goal for cuteness goes beyond women: from Hello Kitty to Pikachu, from Comet-San(20) to Aibon(21) to the Tamagotchi. Everything has been motivated by cuteness: mannerisms, haircuts, nail designs, food adorners and even warning signs in places like subways and constructions sites(22). And while it is inescapable, the fact that the industry of the cute is in part fueled by lust and arousal; the big picture illustrates that it is a mentality and a way of life. That would explain why female idol groups amass a significative amount of fangirls(23), but mostly, girls themselves aspire to be the idols: a symbol of cuteness.   read

4:05 PM on 10.15.2012

Nihonjinron: Tokyo

Part 7: An Introduction to Japanese Culture

Society and culture are inherently intertwined, however they are not necessarily representative of each other. While customs and religious belief do affect social structure, and an education system derives in a certain way art is handled and promoted, the mere idea of counterculture --a concept paradoxical on itself, with these movements usually resulting in a new cultural paradigm or in assimilation-- exposes culture as more than a mere projection of society, sometimes serving as an idealistic escapade from the stiffness of the social conventions.

That is exactly why non japanese films about Japan tend to be extravagant circuses, since these part from a cultural perspective on Japan and only touch superficially the nuances of its society.

More often than not, Japan’s culture is the extroverted side of its society. For every great artist it requires a person that rejects Japan’s homogeneity.

Adrift in Tokyo [2007]

Natural cultural center of the nation, Tokyo sets the pulse of Japan. For the vast array of japanese films set in Tokyo, there aren’t many that are about Tokyo itself.

Adrift in Tokyo is not a romantic view of the city nor a critique of its status quo. It is a deconstruction through characters that obtain meaning through location. It is also a hilarious comedy. Most crucially, the film is profoundly japanese. Its dialogue, humour, music, acting, cinematography, all of it is something that could only be created in Tokyo, Japan.

Much like the Nihonjinron series did on society, we will focus only on the contemporary cultural paradigm of the Nippon world. More specifically, on the aspects that have propelled it to global transcendency; its immense entertainment industry.



Meet Tokyo through its architecture:‘japaneseness’/

A Look At The Real Tokyo:

Dogenzaka - Land of the Love Hotels

Shibuya Station - Node of Tokyo

Chuo Street - The Fancy Stores in Ginza

12:50 AM on 10.10.2012

Nihonjinron: Poverty

Part 6: Rejected From the Japanese Dream

Having a sense of homogeneity, the japanese really consider themselves uniformly middle class. And while that was outstandingly true for many years, Japan’s economy is distorting, while not exactly deteriorating.

As corporations became the backbone of the economy and financial derivatives an open casino, Japan has suffered what other countries have experienced more sharply. With the notion of outsourcing, a slow but steady abandonment of the notion of lifetime jobs, the disparity on the distribution of the wealth has left the middle class with lower living standards, with the very unlucky ones suddenly sinking to deep poverty and even homelessness.

This scenario was lucidly presented in a film that we have already introduced: Tokyo Sonata. Still, these harsh times are within the confines of a first world nation. This suffering middle class is one that can still vacation overseas, afford gadgets and own cars.

For the purpose of this series, poverty provides the perfect conclusion to Nihonjinron, focused on society.

The notion of an homogenous middle class, a form of ishin-denshin(1), acts as the japanese version of the american dream, perfectly encapsulating the pillars of the nihonjinron theory. Poverty acts as its antithesis.

Wakaranai: Where Are You? [2009]

Being poor means standing out, dragging down the group. It is the norm to try to hide poverty as best as possible, pretending a middle class living(2), all in the name of haji (shame and embarrassment,) working, through appearances, to avoid it.

Being poor means missing on the wonders of the japanese education system: school clubs, cram schools and other extracurricular activities become a burden to the wallet. Most importantly, the highly competitive nature of said system ends up excluding the poor from high school, making college impossible, and ensuring a multigenerational cycle of unescapable impoverishment.

The family is the most crucial victim of poverty, not only dividing it, but condemning its new structures: Within single parent families, more than half live in poorness in Japan(3).

Ryo is a sixteen year old boy. His father dumped him and his mother long time ago. He lives alone, since his mother has been hospitalized for a deathly disease. Living from the meager salary his job at a convenience store provides, he sees his situation worsen as his boss stops tolerating his stealing of food.

Surviving from a reserve stash, Ryo ends up dropping out from school. After her mother dies, he is asked to pay the hospital fees, to pay for the funeral expenses, all of that while the rent for his miserable home is late and he is cut out from electricity and water.
Ryo, homeless and without family, becomes a symbol for Kobayashi Masahiro, director of the film, harshly questioning the so called group mentality that the nihonjinron dictates. Ryo’s existence becomes hopeless and useless; a forgotten. Forsaken by the cold bureaucracy of a system that apathetically failed its citizen.

Nobody Knows [2004]

Based on a true story, one that made waves internationally, although admittedly, by the film itself, manipulated to fit the intention of its director, shows us how poverty arrives in different ways, and as just exposed, stays hidden in plain sight.

I, the author, as principle have avoided relating in the first person throughout all these essays. Here, an exception has to be made: if for some reason you can or will watch only one japanese film in your entire life, this is the one. With a running time of 141 minutes, encompassing months of events in a slow paced style, Nobody Knows is a true epic of the real life. It is a character study, a social commentary, a heartfelt tale, a universal story that showcases, not only Japan and its japaneseness, within a Tokyo of the 80’s where kids could safely walk at midnight without a single worry, but also the human condition were hope dies last, when love lasts forever and also where humans find the easiest to be inhuman.

A Conclusion
To The First Half: On Japanese Society

As obvious as it might be, it has to be remarked the polar nature of films. Even with the transparent japanese style, that appeals to real life, day to day stories, it is always the outstanding ones that appeal to writers and directors, therefore it is mostly the extremes what we can see of Japan, if using cinema as the sole insight.

Masatoshi Tominaga in his dissertation on the nihonjinron argues that, ultimately, the concept of japaneseness is artificial and imagined, pointing out that its peculiarities are exaggerated, ignoring the similarities. He argues that such dismissal makes of the japaneseness a fabrication that, nevertheless, is willingly maintained.

On the other hand, Cool Japan, a talk-show/documentary series transmitted on NHK World, gathers a panel of japanese and expatriates to discuss every single bit that makes the japanese different from other societies. Taking subjects that have been explored in this series, and many other more subjects, the show, stages a discussion, dissecting the little details that are considered uniquely japanese and inquire the expatriate guests to react to the exposed peculiarities.

In its website(4), NHK explains that Cool Japan is a show designed to clearly expose all the japanese aspects to the world, that are generating more and more interest to the international community, leaded by fashion, anime, architecture and cuisine.

Therefore, for the second half of Nihonjinron, we will dig beyond sociological characteristics, as we focus now on Japan’s art, entertainment industry and folklore: on japanese culture.   read

4:31 PM on 09.09.2012

Nihonjinron: The School

Part 4: Life in the Japanese Education System

Through its entertainment, Japan has put the school life on the forefront. Particularly through manga, and thereby, anime, where even its masterpieces cannot escape a healthy dose of scenes in schools. Mental images of the protagonists in school uniforms can be easily recalled; from Neon Genesis Evangelion, to the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, to Boogiepop Phantom.

The fascination is such that it has transcended mere cosplay: designer school uniforms are sold, that are worn in schools that don’t have such requirement, and as casual clothing for after school(1). Born in Japan, diffused by anime, but propelled by the internet, the trend is not exclusive to this nation; if you have ever wanted to dress yourself (or a special one) like a japanese high schooler, here(2) is your chance. The school days cause such nostalgia that there is even an Izakaya(3) concept where school lunches are served in rooms that are adorned like classrooms(4).

Although the reasons of why these years are so longed are not much different to those of the rest of the world, Japan, as a first world nation, has it peculiarities that add to a richer school life:

-Second Language: In third world nations, having a class for a second language already pushes (or is often outside) the school’s budget. A current model in Japan uses the approach of having a teacher that is a native speaker (of the foreign language) and a japanese teacher, both working together, at the same time, for the same class.
-PE: Physical Education is taken seriously, it is competitive, organized and inclusive, with proper installations, that keep children close to sports and physical activities. A school without track and field premises or without volleyball/basketball court is considered lamentable.
-Cleanliness and Order: Students have to take care of their own school. They clean it, they attend their own “cafeteria,” and they “grade” themselves(5).
-Clubs, Clubs, Clubs: Although, not as extraneous to developed countries, spending your after school time in school is the norm. Whether it’s archery, judo, gardening, calligraphy... the japanese education system is enhanced by the culture of clubs. Students are encouraged to plan and organize the club themselves, to the point the participation of a teacher can be nil. Needless to say their importance in the social development of a kid, instilling concepts like the Senpai/Kohai relationship(6).
-Cram Schools: For those with the money, the school day elongates with cram school. These private schools tend to use more free form methods with a more relaxed atmosphere, although the ones specialized for entrance exams can be significantly stricter.
-Festivals: Sports and cultural festivals are a tradition. Halting studies to prepare for these festivals is intertwined with the club culture and the prominent role of P.E. in japanese education. Further extracurricular activities like marathons, parades and trips, assure that the life of a student contains as little idle time as possible.

All About Lily Chou-Chou [2001]

Yet, japanese themselves could be quick to point out that not all is flowers and sunshine.

Bullying is, evidently, global, or more precisely, human. Attempts to fix it, or the pursue of its eradication, as it is the current vogue, remarks the distance between adults, specifically parents and teachers, and the kids and adolescents. A distance from both victims and perpetrators. The problem is that being bullied in not the disease, but a symptom, just like being a bully goes beyond the act of abusing a classmate.

In All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hasumi Youichi is a high school boy that leads a pathetic life, devoid of character and impulse; his quietness ask loudly to be dismissed, abused and used. Kuno Youko, beautiful, talented, serene and smart, sparks jealousy and repudiation amongst her classmates, by just being guilty of being herself. Hoshino Shusuke, as a new student in the school, finds himself on the verge of being outcasted, however he rejects that path and casts himself in by joining the bullies, deforming himself, ending as the meanest, most sadistic of them all.

Three teenagers with different backgrounds, managing peer pressure in different ways, facing bullying with contrasting mindsets.

Linda Linda Linda [2005]

Such a shame to live the secondary/high school days like that. Without retorting to the “best time of our lives” phrase, these years are the twilight, the horizon, where kids act like adults, where youngsters get their first tastes of the adult world. Still far away from worries like debts, unemployment, jail time, taxes, prostate checks and one week only vacations.

The school becomes like some sort of self contained mini world. Smaller in size, therefore bigger impact. Every crush, every friend, every enemy, every embarrassing moment feels like it could be your demise and end your life.

The film, a heartfelt, respectful, transparent, but most importantly, lucid depiction of these years, takes us back in time, and at the same time, opens a window to the events, that ring utterly real, of other’s people life during high school. Subtly, everything is present: from the incoherent fights between friends, to awkward declarations of love, to forced interactions with the teachers, to the girl that hooks up with twenty-something year old guys, and public transport commuting with your group of friends, as well. All so nostalgic and magical.

Blue Spring [2001]

Then comes the time to be an adult.

Things quickly escalate to a point where consequences are more than mere visits to the principal’s office or three weeks without TV. On the verge of joining college, the rest of the life can be decided.

Enter Asahi High, a dropout factory (see Waiting for Superman,) where options are limited: repeat senior year indefinitely, join the yakuza, stab a classmate and go to jail, die by stabbing before graduating, or actually graduate without hope of ever joining any university.

After eighteen or so years of being forced to be constantly around other thirty or so persons every weekday, all that time in clubs and cram schools, suddenly, things loosen up. Everyone starts to go their own way, with their own job, own family, own home.

Next: films on loneliness and love.   read

5:18 PM on 08.16.2012

Nihonjinron: Family

Part 3: Family Constellations(1) in Cinema

The family is the most basic (and important) unit that composes society. It maintains or breaks the status quo, eradicates or creates traditions.

Japan, in that aspect, is under change.

The traditional concept of a family, in Japan, consists of Father (as patriarch,) Mother and children. Yet, the divorce rate is rising(2), and single parent families are becoming more common, but more crucial, marriage is decreasing, and the population is getting older(3) as births dwindle and single child families become the norm.

So, from all the facets of the Nihonjinron, this is the one that presents the clearest division between newer generations and the elder, since the traditional japanese way is not coming through the evolution in the family concept.

The current directors, still closer to the Nihonjinron, have vastly examined the subject of the family, to the point that it could be considered a whole genre in japanese cinema. When it comes to studying and reproducing the dynamics of the family, japanese filmmakers have perfected the process.

Still Walking [2008]

At the beginning of the 90s, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld astonished the american audience with a groundbreaking sitcom. Classic episodes like the Chinese Restaurant and the Parking Garage, hyped the concept of a show about “nothing,” through its realtime, idle presentation.

Koreeda Hirokazu’s approach to family drama, floats closer to a Seinfeld episode than to usual storytelling dynamics. Still Walking is a film about a single day; a day for a family reunion to commemorate the death of the primogenital son.

As we see them arrive, eat, sleep, laugh, fight, bathe and leave, we observe the familiarity, and the bond. And precisely thanks to this, we see the distance, the tedium, the antagonism. Individuals that by kin or civil binds, are supposed to harmoniously interact and tie.

Tokyo Sonata [2008]

If Still Walking is a natural and transparent depiction of a family, Tokyo Sonata is a melodramatic one. Presented in a (bit) more conventional fashion, the movie is a story about a family of four.

Having talked in the previous article about haji, which is a preoccupation for appearances, in the sense of never losing face, by avoiding shame and embarrassment; in the patriarchal Japan, the leader of a family losing his job stands high in the ranking of shameful events in a father’s life.

Even in the current model of outsourcing, with Japan seeing the chinese and the south koreans as the culprits, the japanese corporate culture still dictates an expectation to work for a company, at least for a long time, ideally, for life.

An interface between marriage and work is formed, affecting each member of the family. Depending on the shape and state of the family and the reputation of the company the patriarch is working for, a grant for an apartment can be denied or conceded, the entrance to a private school can also depend on this, regardless of economic power.

In Tokyo Sonata, Sasaki Ryuuhei, is fired from the company he has been serving for a long time. Instead of sharing with his family the unfortunate news, he remains quiet, and pretends he is still employed. From here a decomposition of the whole family erupts.

Loosely, and irrevocably, bound by blood, each member of the family goes, individually, through their own cathartic arc. Yet, what makes of Tokyo Sonata an outstanding (even if not a remarkably good) film is the way the arc develops:

Taking Hollywood as the standard, since its the most watched cinema around the globe, the normal storytelling in movies is set by the Cinderella Arc(4), where a roller coaster leads the protagonists to a better state of life or a point of accomplishment.

In japanese cinema, or at the very least, most of the films that will be mentioned in the Nihonjinron series, follow either a truly “arc-less” story, as exemplified in Still Walking, attempting a pristine portrayal of real life, where incidents are minor and sparse and the evolution of the protagonists, if any, is subtle; or, interestingly, follow the Common Disaster Story Arc, where the characters, after a series of huge incidents, show little change, and most often, return to normality after the commotion ends.

Noriko’s Dinner Table [2005]

When introducing this series, we talked about uniquely japanese experiences.

Sono Shion, in his 159 minute family drama, plays around concepts like suicide clubs and family rental services, presented in a style that evokes more a grindhouse film than the sorrowful play on the implosion of a family that got disconnected in every sense possible.

The movie borrows heavily from Coin Locker Babies, a novel written by literary reference Murakami Ryuu. It, cruelly and meticulously, examines the detachment between parents and children, between siblings, between husband and wife, father and daughter, mother and daughter, and how via this disconnection due to a lack of communication, each family member creates their own idea of the state of the family and the personality of the other members.

Family is not a sociological term, it is not a mere fragment of society, it is not something invented by religion or government. It is the ultimate and most reliable connection a person can hope for. When that connection is absent it rots the individual. But when it is there...

The Taste of Tea [2004]

How to make a film about a happy family, then? Is it with shots of hugs and kisses? A dinner scene where everybody helps in its preparation? What is a happy family in the first place?

According to The Taste of Tea, it is when the circumstances allow each family member to focus on their individual problems, without worrying about home being a place of a sick atmosphere that inflames one’s own troubles, rather than being a source of comfort and advice.

In essence, there is no certain trait that evidently differentiates the japanese family from that of the rest of the world. Therefore an appeal is made to language, where customs are created early on, for children to adopt: with every itadakimasu(5), ittekimasu, itterashai, tadaima(6), that you'll be constantly hearing in nippon films and anime, it permeates "japaneseness," that by Nihonjinron reasoning, culture is maintained and proliferated through language.

Koinu Dan no Monogatari [2002]

Since this essay focuses on family, as a plus, this film is included. It is a movie about the family, apt for the whole family to watch. So, if you are watching the recommended films in these articles, this is one to keep discovering Japan, while bringing up an excellent excuse to spent some good corny time with your kids or little siblings.

Based on a true story, Koinu Dan tells the story of Mao, an elementary school student, that abruptly sees her world change.

With both of her parents working full time jobs, little Mao has become independent, self sufficient and strong since a very young age. Her father, having received a job offer in a distant city from their current home place, and her mother leading a very successful business, the family as a whole has become distant, to the point a divorce has been decided. When being offered the choice to live with either of them, Mao refuses to choose and instead decides to live at the grandparent’s house.

With an innate harsh personality, when she arrives to her grandparent’s town, in school, she makes enemies before friends.

Chika, Mao’s classmate, finds an abandoned puppy inside a box. Against her better judgement, she adopts the dog without telling her mother, or anyone at all, since pets are not allowed in her apartment community. Mao catches Chika stealing milk for the puppy, and offers to pay for the milk. When asking why she was trying to shoplift, Chika mentions Dan, as she named the dog, as the reason.

While feeding Dan the milk, they discover it is blind.

As shown in Koinu Dan no Monogatari, complementary to family, friends are important support and fundamental in the development of a kid. Since 99% of the children in Japan are enrolled in school(7), there is where a lot of the friendships surge; therefore, it is only appropriate for the next entry to tackle the life in japanese schools.   read

3:51 PM on 08.16.2012

Nihonjinron: Idiosyncrasy

Part 2: On the Japanese Mindset

As a nation and as a society, the japanese consider themselves homogeneous, classless, prioritizing the group above the individual; and only as a collective, the real efforts for distinction and differentiation begin. The pre WWII discourse of the elite floated around the japanese customs, manners and tastes being the most sophisticated, the most polite, the most civilized; and so the philosophical banner for their asian domination ambition was set(1).

After failing, not only their original goals were missed, but the American occupation, preceded by two atomic bombs, left the nation with two huge tasks: the rethinking and rebuilding of its economic strategy and the reorganization of its political apparatus.

Without a sovereign emperor, source of pride and uniqueness, Japan lost its identity. It is during this era that the Nihonjinron evolved closer to sociology than to intellectual discourse, as the related writings became more about reaffirming and sustaining the japanese mentality, rather than just explaining it.

Hula Girls [2006]

It has been proposed that the value of uniqueness has become intertwined with, if not solely about a pursue of separation and dismissal of American values(2), for the post war japanese society; a thing that has collided with globalization.

In Iwaki, Fukushima, in 1965, the small town, sustained by a coal mine, found itself in trouble as the company in charge planned to close the mine permanently. In its place, an ambitious project was defined: in a land know for chilly winters, a place for permanent summer was to be erected, and so a hawaiian concept was set.

The project not only involved indoor pools and a heating system, but also a hula dancing group to serve as entertainment. In theory the plan was simple: to recruit local women that were to be taught by an experienced dancer from Tokyo. However, reluctance was quick; hula dancing was seen as foreign and sleazy, and as an abnormal hobby, and not something that could be a job.

Only a few were not scared away, and through them, the reinvigoration of a whole town was triggered. Not only reimagining its identity, but moving it forward with diversity: of jobs, cultures and people(3).

Hula Girls, as a film, although indeed a traditional success story, transcends as an unashamed depiction of the retrograde mentality, depicting how the rural is dragged by the evolution in the moral and ethical status quo of the city.

One Million Yen Girl [2008]

Yet, within the city, the progressive mentality lead is mostly superficial; psychological, rather than practical, where respective boundaries exist, accommodated to the lineaments of the city life. Social responsibilities and confinements are set, where scholar grades act as the earliest burden, and the possible deviations from social correctness increase with age and their consequences become more damning.

The premise for One Million Yen Girl is as straight forward as complex: after the bureaucracy of the system curses a harmless girl with a criminal record, the stains of its consequences spread all around her: risking her little brother’s academical chances, inundating her home with an unbearable unease, becoming the center of a relentless bashing through gossip and bullying.

In a culture where the edges are defined by embarrassment and shame(4), reputation is a thing that is protected with pride and panic. And when the reputation is lost, a particular desire emerges: to escape, to get lost, to become anonymous and unknown. This is exactly what Suzuko, the protagonist, does; triggering a journey around Japan.

It is a paradox: the society of the group, in practice, can easily make the slightly outcast an utter outcast. As shown in its most radical examples:

Bashing [2005]

Rather than rehabilitate and reinstate, it is easier to simply expel.

In Bashing, not only we find the most curious, most radical, incomprehensible display of the Nihonjinron; it is in fact, the film that gave birth to the idea behind this series.

Iraq, 2004, five japanese were abducted and held hostages by local militants.

This triggered an uncommon reaction in the japanese population: A serious, proactive questioning and critique of the government emerged, where a common sentiment of rejection of any involvement in the US invasion to Iraq revived, after the government got Japan involved despite the initial refusal of the people.

Then, with the government in an uncomfortable position, a plot was conceived to alleviate the outcry of the citizens. The strategy: to reverse the roles of victim and irresponsible, by appealing to the Nihonjinron.

“When you get back, no matter what, just be sure to apologize” was the advice given to the now rescued japanese. Days prior to their return, a campaign aided by the media, had already been launched. The berating consisted in signaling the former hostages as irresponsible citizens for disobeying official caution concerning the dangers of traveling to Iraq.

The government proudly announced they would bill the rescued japanese for the airplane tickets. At the airport, hate messages on handwritten signs, greeted them(5). Tabloids even dismissed them as attention seekers, speculating the hostage situation was a hoax. A nation wide bashing was unloaded on the former hostages, leading them to hide from society, and withstand, while simultaneously apologizing, the rejection and disapproval of the media, the government and the japanese people(6). They thought, “selfishly,” to do something greater than the rest, the normal people; but ultimately, embarrassingly, put the entire nation in the worldwide spotlight. They dared to stand out in the middle of reckless circumstances.

Deru kui wa utareru: The stake that sticks out gets hammered down(7).

Three films, that stand as intimate, naked insights; each increasing the severity of the critique; denotative of a self awareness, where contemporary filmmakers and writers question the current social paradigm, like artistic dissertations.

As spectators, conclusions have to be drawn carefully. While Hula Girls could be easily (but wrongly) dismissed as a corny comedy, One Million Yen Girl and Bashing cannot be discarded as flamboyant dramas.

Stereotypes of the japanese appear to be systematically embraced, and with pride, by the japanese themselves; and their filmmakers seem to be on a mission to constantly depict the idiosyncrasy and reality lived in Japan with a transparency that bares flaws and wonders(8), indiscriminately.

The analysis of a society, though, lends itself to generalizations that turn harsh when sourced from a critique. Therefore, the next view, rather than on the society as a whole, will be on its most basic unit: the family.   read

10:58 AM on 05.17.2011

The Low Art Gloominati: Camp Rock [2008]

[Spoiler Alert]

Payola promoted, Disney-produced, beautified trio, also known as The Jonas Brothers star along with Demi Lovato in this General Audience, all ages admitted, TV movie: Camp Rock.

Camp Rock as a film explores shyness and creative honesty, pompous egotistical personalities and profit driven compromises in art or the actual result of that process, plain entertainment.

Demi Lovato wakes from bed to a dream where Disney’s intellectual properties combine Cinderella with the Little Mermaid within a musical universe where things only go wrong when there is a lesson to be learnt. Youngsters certainly unaware that Raise Your Voice, released only four years before, tells basically the same story with a different skin.

Joe Jonas plays as the Prince, a spoiled rockstar on a downward spiral away from happiness. Demi Lovato, from now on known as Mermerella, for illustrative purposes, and the Prince have something in common even if their lives are far away from each other.

The Camp Rock, a summer course specialized in music, all disciplines accepted, is a hub and platform for future stars of the musical scene; its students, flamboyant by nature, accurate depiction of their real life counterparts, dedicate their weeks on the camp to spread their plumages as the peacocks they are.

But even amongst a swarm of peacocks there is always a dominant one. Picture perfect, white and blond, Meaghan Martin plays as Ursula, queen bee, daughter of a music star, is the concocted character to antagonize our innocent and pure Mermerella.

The Prince, intervened right at the start of his path to self-destruction, pushed by his bandmates, two mere carcasses of characters, that we will call the doppelgangers, is sent to Camp Rock to rediscover his roots away from the cosmopolitan doped greed of the Holy Wood.

Hiding from a group of crazed idolizers, the Prince camouflaged with the bushes hears a divine voice filled with inspiration and sentiment that will haunt him from now on. When he enters the building to discover the source of the charming chant, it is too late as the source of the voice is gone.

Mermerella, insecure, self conscious and with low self esteem, is ashamed of the fact that her incursion to Camp Rock is only possible because of her mom, MILF extraordinaire and cook that received a discount for serving the food to all the Camp Rockers. On this train of thought, Mermerella has her first encounter with Ursula, pressured by self loathing, she invents a fake persona, built around her superficial desires, and tells Ursula she is rich and powerful and hence a ticket is handed to her to join the plastics. Yet not everything is pink within this clique, Ursula, ignored by her mother, irradiates this pain as anger towards her lemmings.

Gradually, Ursula considers Mermerella a threat as our innocent girl shares her talent with the camp and also enchants the guest rock star. As a result, in the middle of the arch of our protagonists, where the Prince once a demigod, now rencountered with humbleness and artistic purpose, Mermerella, slowly detaching herself from the queen bee after realizing the ridiculousness of the facade, Ursula, now aware of her secret, attacks after a musical presentation from Prince and the Doppelgangers, by exposing her in front of everyone, the Prince, listening behind her, suffers a melodramatic outburst after hearing the truth as betrayal and deception overwhelm him.

Climax comes with the Final Jam, an extravagant contest inside a full-fledged stage, public in full hysteria. Behind the stage, the plastics melt, disruption strikes between them ending with the dissolution of the group, forcing Ursula to perform without them, yet during the actual concert, Ursula’s mother makes an appearance only to ignore her spawn in the middle of her performance, the daughter, distracted and crushed, is rendered incapable of completing the song and escapes from the spotlight to find a dark and lonely corner to cry out the sensation of emptiness as her existence was not validated by the only person that really mattered to her.

The story is interrupted when a former member of the plastics takes the spotlight and the viewer is awarded with two minutes of awkwardness by a singer with little stage presence that ultimately wins the Final Jam.

An encore then comes with a special presentation by Demi Lovato, the Prince turn his head excited by the revelation of the angelic voice that through her lyrics shares her naked soul, a thing our Prince wanted to do since the beginning, an intent that got lost with the corruption of the ego that fame brings to every person.

Ursula gone through the catharsis, is enlightened, so now cleansed, seeks redemption with apologies and by finally recognizing her friends. The End.

Technically, the movie hides its budget with a dark and muddy picture and its inherent over-saturated colors, cinematography is merely functional, the acting, passable with some dreadful exceptions, specially the travesty of the doppelgangers not giving one convincing line. Demi Lovato, irrefutable outstanding singer, as an actress lacks a proper range casting her mad-magazine-like grin for every situation.

However this is not for us the Flixists, cinema curious, film explorers; this is a simple movie for kids, about music, that tries to deliver a simple message and also seeks to hype its own products, and as that, it is everything it can be.   read

1:39 PM on 05.14.2011

The Low Art Gloominati: Xiang Ri Kui (Sunflower) [2005]

[Spoiler Alert]

Sure the time where Mao Zedong ruled China has spawned an infinite number of intriguing books, films, paintings, etc. But also, China’s quick transformation to a capitalist life and its inherent uneven execution and application with such a vast territory and population has inspired profound art.

Sunflower, tells us the story of a man that was born during the decay of the dictatorship and that has lived throughout all the modernization of the country. And while the film attempts a somewhat subtle political commentary, its main point dictates that regardless of economical or political situation, through poverty or war, democracy or dictatorship, for us the commoners, the people, life will always go on and at the end the problems that will truly affect us on the long term and on a day to day basis are the ones related to family, friends and love.

Let’s get it out of the way and say that technically the film is flawless: intense acting that strikes as genuine, subtle and engaging photography, superb editing that not once confuses the viewer, music that makes emotions flourish; everything presented in a coherent and focused way thanks to the excellent direction by Yang Zhang.

The story revolves around, primarily, Zhang Xiangyang and his father Zhang Gengnian. The father, a painter, faced imprisonment shortly after his son was born; upon his return he found a mischievous child that rejected him as a father instantly and thus he decided to take the posture of the figure of authority and discipline in the family. Even if on principle the father’s attitude was sincerely concerned, his strict control over his child resulted in oppression.

Determined for his son to be a painter as well, he restricts his son from the company of the other child in the neighborhood, forcing him to learn to draw instead. Naturally, Xiangyang rebels, making the father feel forced to punish him.

A turning point comes with the massive earthquake of 1976. Gengnian becomes a prominent figure in the provisional shelter thanks to the manual labor he learnt in prison, he also succeeds in making drawing exciting for his son with some flip-book animation, leading Xiangyang to acknowledge Gengnian as his father.

However, the father unable to devise another method to raise his child, he continues with aggressive discipline, depriving his son from a healthy social life, causing in the son an ever increasing anger towards the parents; the mother, passive, unquestionable accomplice of the depression that torments her son as he gets older, and the father alienating him on every chance he gets, drives Xiangyang in his late teens to disassociate himself emotionally and socially from his parents, at least in his mind, making it easy for him to lie to them, to not share thoughts or feelings with them and ultimately to decide to leave them and the town altogether.

Unsurprisingly, the father hopelessly convinced he can manipulate, control and direct the life of his son prevents Xiangyang’s escape.

Fast forward to 1999, the city in full modern splendor, the suburbs with countless apartment buildings with only the vestiges of what feels a lifetime ago yet only like yesterday at the same time, with the old housing style, mostly abandoned and soon to be demolished.

The mother divorced as a strategy to get an apartment from the government as soon as possible, and the son now married with a woman as inexpressive and timid as he is, but the father stays in the old house on his eternal path to loneliness, visiting from time to time his wife and his son.

It is not until the death of Old Liu, an old friend that Gengnian chose to ignore since he found out he was the one to tell the authorities that he was a painter, while actually throughout the years they played xiangqi (chinese chess,) even after the rupture, although each one made their move when the other was not around the public table, that he realized how lonely he was and all because of his own fault.

The recent abortion Xiangyang’s wife had, both arguing they were not ready to be parents, signified the last straw to his father for the “selfish” decision to private him from a grandson, but after the cat and its offspring that Gengnian was feeding disappeared and with Old Liu’s death, a tragic truth was crystal clear: his stubbornness that drew away his only son and his only friend, his utter incapability to demonstrate any kind of love or care for Xiangyang, the “discipline” that was mere abuse, the forced profession on his son. He wasn’t just a bad father, plainly, he was not one.

A very myopic and simple-minded analysis would be to think that is the way things are in China, that all of this is a direct result of living under a dictatorship in a communist country... Throughout the last years of Mao in a controlled society, within the poorest, a community was alive, the neighborhood serving as some sort of bigger family, that is where Xiangyang was born, as he grew older, the comfort and benefits of the modern world reached him, yet the change of the times did not affect the real human struggle, of father and son, love and family, just as anywhere else around the world.


11:11 PM on 03.17.2011

The Low Art Gloominati: Silent Hill [2006]

[Spoiler Alert]

Films are not an inferior or superior media compared to literature and vice-versa, each has its strengths and downfalls, the conversion or as often called: adaptation, from one to the other can enhance or complement the source and coexist without conflicts. The same applies to video games, as these have their own set of tools to involve the person, but unavoidably some of its characteristics will have to be compromised when the experience is converted to film, to gain another set of characteristics that will give a new life to the work.

The source: Once upon in 1999...

Silent Hill, baptized under the umbrella term “Survival Horror,” as a commercial response to the success of Resident Evil, saw Konami gather a team to profit around the formula provided by the zombie franchise, however, Team Silent, an all japanese group, created an amalgam containing avant-garde and revered ingredients, such as the disturbing film Jacob’s Ladder, the surreal works of David Lynch, the psychomagic of Alexandro Jodorowsky, the symbolism of Jan Svankmajer, the ethereal imagery of Chris Cunningham; all of it spiced with the unique treatment that the Japanese give to horror, effectively making a Sigismondi photography interactive and explorable.

The four games Team Silent made, were received with mixed reactions, often criticized for awkward gameplay, over-emphasis on atmosphere and an unintelligible plot, commonly compared against contemporary survival games, with Resident Evil cited as more enjoyable to play and a scarier competitor in Fatal Frame. However, a cult following, specially surrounding Silent Hill 2, got stronger and stronger throughout the years to the current point where the second entry is often mentioned as one of the best video games ever created. Whether its current status is more of a factual, rationalized and analyzed conclusion instead of plain bandwagon jumping, now instilled in the status-quo of the gamer connoisseur, or so called, it’s the subject for another study.


The concept: In my restless dreams, I see that town...

A resort town, inexplicably barren, paranormally calling individuals, that upon arrival, they get hopelessly trapped in the town; roads trimmed, architectural absurdities, a dense fog, ambiguous in time, nothing too old, nothing too new. The apparently deserted town only hosts a horde of repulsive humanoid monsters, and when finally encountering a person, a psychotic diatribe is the only real interaction.

Between a fanatic cult and personal guilt, Silent Hill becomes a physical manifestation of inner repressions and nightmares.

The substance: A World of Madness

What gave depth and body to this concept was a layered composition of freudian psychology and metaphysical ideas brought to life by delicately setting a specific atmosphere and mood with its music, sound, furniture, cinematography, dialogue, lighting. The attention to detail, the myriad of information displayed with subtlety, its eloquent convoluted exposition as if a horror version of 8 1/2, with heavy and extravagant scenes attacking the senses followed by almost soothing and fine sections attaching themselves to the subconscious of the viewer; Team Silent exhibiting as spiritual pupils of Federico Fellini.


The Film: Nightmarish Waltz

Subtleness, an indispensable ingredient for a great film. A concept propelling the execution; a substance colouring its style.

Director Christophe Gans and writer Roger Avary, partners in crime, living testament of the fact that even if Tommy Wiseau’s The Room were made with a fifty million dollar budget, a professional crew and a reputable cast, it would still be a shitty film. The uncanny similarity between their flaws, rooted in the incompetence by Gans and the obliviousness of Avary, inspires sorrow but not of the empathic kind.

Boasting faithfulness to the source, the filmmakers immediately betray the concept by unnecessarily invoking the real life town, Centralia, as the foundation of the adaptation. Avary, incapable of recreating the self-sustained perceptual limbo each of the Team Silent’s creations provide, the film’s prologue shallowly wanders around MILFs in underwear, painful child acting, courtesy of Jodelle Ferland, a scene next to a tree more appropriate for a Winnie The Pooh live action movie, and an overly casual visit to a small town diner.

When the film finally gets to the town, Gans shows almost procedurally, how to misinterpret the video game. The hollow smoke on the streets, ashes falling from the sky, the squeamish blue filter, CGI creatures void of any fear factor, the idiotic faux-occultist rambling by Dahlia, her appearance dissonant to both the film and the spirit of the source, the insignificant character that Anna is.

Christophe Gans not only misunderstands what Silent Hill is, on top of that, he tries to adapt the characteristics of video games that are worthless to cinema: remembering maps, finding keys, running around; our heroine, Rose, does all these things while the spectator can only sit still until something really happens. At some point, Rose takes a knife from Anna and puts it in her boot, moments later, she is looking for a room hidden behind a painting, Rose takes the knife and cuts the canvas, only to lose the knife after it served its purpose. Wasted time for a reference to inventory management. It is not only that these references are substanceless, but like the riddles in the film, they are formed on the spot and solved on the fly, while character and plot development are treated superficially and sporadically; the plot, practically compressed into one single scene, the character introspection, nonexistent, where the bond between mother and daughter, arguably, the main focus of the movie, is portrayed plainly by Rose and her daughter meowing each other.


In the spirit of the film, I will only say that Sean Bean appears in the movie and does things...

Usually, the visual style is commented as the film’s strong point, yet it only amounts to pretty cinematography, a frivolous pantomime of the video game’s look, where a more accurate description would be a bastard spawn from Delicatessen after stealing the scraps of the sets from City of Lost Children, as the visual reminiscence of Silent Hill, the movie, to the games, is spotty at the best.

Silent Hill, as a film, or the result of the conversion done by Christophe Gans and Roger Avary, is not bad, it is horrible. Set aside the goofy treatment on the town’s cult and witchery, the stupid, regurgitative dialogue, the juvenile gore during the last part of the film, the ill-timed use of Akira Yamaoka’s exquisite compositions, breaking all of their impact and the useless additional arrangement on the music by Jeff Danna. Indeed, the ultimate downfall of Silent Hill, the movie, is that the filmmakers had on their hands one of the most unique approaches to psychological horror, only to produce another mindless unfrightening horror flick, that, worst of all, dares to take itself seriously. But to be fair, how does it stand on its own? You may ask. Outside of a video game to film adaptation, this film is limbless.

Top 3 WTF moments:

These stand as the absolute proofs of the failed and lame execution. If only these were intentionally ridiculous... only marks a lack of vision.

3. H.E.L.L. S.W.A.T.

Not scary, not intimidating, not useful, with no real purpose, randomly placed, unintentionally hilarious because they feel so out of context.

2. Sassy Nurses

The grotesque burlesque, ill-envisioned, thrilleresque display by the raunchy nurses, just like Pyramid Head’s appearance, exudes misconception, but mostly, plain fan service.

1. Orgasmic Rape of the Death


Because everyone likes their tentacle porn in their psychologic horror.

All media under fair use.   read

4:27 PM on 03.08.2011

The Low Art Gloominati: Fucking Ă…mĂĄl [1998]

[Spoiler Alert]

It doesn’t matter how poor Africa is, how many people died in the latest natural disaster or how many elderly are abandoned throughout the year, there is just one simple truth: when it is your problem it will always be the worst. Add to that the naivety and hormonal fluctuation of those teenage years and all of the sudden a weekend with no interesting parties, not having a boyfriend or a birthday party where no one shows up can feel like your life is doomed to be a tragic and dreadful existence full of shame. There is also another universal truth: no matter where you live you will always aspire to go somewhere better... a better town, a better city, a better country.

Lukas Moodysson, however, does something so rare and unique that makes of Fucking Ă…mĂĄl a rare jewel. It successfully treats adolescency with such a depth and seriousness, with an astonishing accuracy, completely genuine (specially with the acting,) while still portraying all the quirkiness and silliness of it.

Agnes, a social retard unable to make friends except for a “better than nothing” relationship with a girl on a wheelchair that she considers childish and boring, spends her friday nights at home, reading or writing. Her parents, confusing figures of authority, roles inverted, the mother strict and vigilant, always pushing her to be socially adept; the father comprehensive, showing care and trying to lend a supportive ear at all times.

Unfortunately Agnes realizes that her mother simply does not accept her the way she is, her mother wants her to become a different person. She also realizes her father denies to himself the reality of her social incapability, and when trying to address it, he only provides hopeless advice as he relates to Agnes he was also socially inadequate, promising her things will get better in around 15 years. It certainly doesn’t help to her situation her full awareness of her homosexuality; if things were not lamentable enough, she is in love with Elin, one of the most popular girls in school, where even if Elin were a lesbian, a relationship with her would still be out of the question. Overwhelmed by the truth, Agnes finds comfort in cutting herself.

Elin, a person with big goals: becoming a model, have an Italian man as a boyfriend, but mainly, leaving the fucking boring town she was born in and go to a glamourous metropolis instead. Sadly, she is reminded constantly of her despairful truth, she is stuck in Åmål, her mother does not let her go to raves, what is worse, raves are already “out” according to a magazine, yet they just have arrived to Åmål. Far from a handsome intriguing italian man, she has to deal with her immature schoolmates that act like stupids at all times. Unexcited by her life, she looks for the rush of a new boyfriend, alcohol and drugs, sadly, the only drugs she can find cause everything but hallucinations.

Jessica, Elin’s sister has a long-time relationship with a macho boy that gets in fights all the time, diminishes women and takes Jessica for granted. On Jessica’s admission, there is no real meaning or purpose behind the relationship. Elin herself gets involved with Johan, a pretty boy with little personality that lets himself be controlled by his girlfriend, his friend or whoever in the room that has just a tad more presence than him. Both boys exasperate Elin and since her mother finds easy to live without a man, a husband, a father for her daughters, Elin thinks she just might do without them as well.

At the end, Elin finds out that it’s not about escaping Åmål, getting the best boyfriend or being at the best parties, but about having a special person to share those special moments with, the little moments, the ones that matter. After some time worrying about social perception and what the ones close to her would think, it is just too clear that Agnes is that person.


11:08 AM on 03.07.2011

The Low Art Gloominati: Dare [2009]

[Spoiler Alert][This is not a review]

It is not a casual or a recurrent proposal to film or write your first feature film, even less for an independent work to cast a starlet of the Holy Wood that will, irrefutably, expand your potential audience. Director Adam Salky and writer David Brind, oblivious and unprepared, create Dare around all the compromises a bigger, mainstream film would have to oblige.

Dawson casted, the film revolves around the lives of three specific characters, a third of its length dedicated to each. It starts with Alexa, played by Emmy Rossum, an unimaginative and uninspired character, the traditional straight A student, currently in high school, she plays by the rules and likes everything predictable, yet she aspires to be an actress. Affected by her low social status, she is intimidated by her co-protagonist in the soon to be premiered school play, the popular and hot Johnny. When she finds out that some random, apparently revered actor is going to visit her school, Alexa juggles her way into a private session with him, only for this typical, cartoonish representation of an actor, to destroy her by telling why she is no acting material, pointing out a lack of fire, an aversion to adventure and the unknown and the very important factor that she is still a virgin. In reaction to this, Alexa spawns at the coolest party of the weekend in a sassy dress where she meets again with Johnny, and has sex with him and inherently, as it happens in real life, they instantly become a couple.

Then the attention shifts to Ben, Alexa’s best friend, who would have no social contact if it were not for Alexa, worth mentioning that he hasn’t even kissed anyone and, shockingly, turns out to be a homosexual. All of the sudden, in a completely forced situation, a carbon copy of Alexa’s delightful loss of virginity, Ben manages to hang out with Johnny; they arrive at Johnny’s house where Ben drinks some alcohol, their clothes dissipate and both end up swimming at the pool, where an awkward, almost incoherent chat takes place where Ben challenges Johnny to allow him to moist his pole, Johnny answers he is not like that, not fooling anyone, including the viewer, grossly announcing the fellatio will take place; then Ben persuades him by hugging him and kissing him on the neck, getting Johnny in the mood, allowing Ben to finally taste his lollipop.

Naturally, after you perform oral sex on the boyfriend of your best friend, you can only proceed to tell her about the event, triggering a sick competition between the two to see who he likes the most.

This is when Johnny’s part comes in, in the matter of two minutes we are told how rich and lonely he is, by watching his hugh house, fancy cars and a brief interaction with his step-mom, mean as expected. If that is not three-dimensional, I do not know what it is.

Here the film exposes one of its few if not only redeeming features: Johnny visits Ben’s house where Alexa is also staying because her mom is somewhere else. Johnny stumbles upon Ben’s mother, graciously acted by Ana Gasteyer, an upper middle class mom, full of sweetness, generous and tolerant, but as a psychologist she just cannot avoid analyzing people. She offers Johnny some snacks, chocolates, marshmallows and the possibility to watch a documentary later, offer that he accepts. The fugal magic of the situation resides in Johnny’s alien perspective, overwhelmed and moved by the warmness and community of Ben’s house, a true family, something that he has not experienced, specially touched by the protective and preoccupied nature of the mother. Before he leaves the house, a profound and symbolic metaphor takes place, Ben’s mother gives him some breakfast for the road: a penis and a vagina, representing his sexual predicament between bananas and bagels.

It is worth a parenthesis here, regarding to the next scene, and explore what makes of Dare a two-dimensional, cliched, flat drama. One can assume the original intention is to portray a loss of innocence through rushed self imposed dares for teenagers that are about to face the important decision of how to form the beginning of their adult lives, be it by choosing a career or by defining their sexuality and objectives in life. But the film first succumbs to an inadequate cast, evidently too old thus missing the appropriate innocence and frailty we are supposed to see, specially with Johnny, that looks closer to his thirties. That sums with the total lack of direction from Adam Salky, consistently delivering a bland cinematography and aesthetic. But where the movie definitely falls from grace is the writing: poorly relying on cliches to provide a base for the characters, only to put them in a sandbox so the queer and ambiguous (and I do not mean it sexually) developments can happen, blatantly ignoring any kind of external factors, made obvious by the barren and desolated depiction of the high school life, mostly with Johnny, in theory popular, in practice, arbitrarily put in that positions for pseudo-cathartic needs. A fourth friend exist in the circle, named Courtney, limited to repeat the word bitch and making contorted facial expressions. It’s as if the characters were disconnected from the world, not antisocially but actually as mere overlays.

That is why, after Johnny’s encounter with Ben’s family, a psychologist is suddenly casted in so that we can know some of Johnny’s reactions as there is simply no context for a more natural or casual way to portray this. The immediate scene shows a confrontation between Johnny and one of his popular friends, where he becomes an avatar for the writer by loudly repudiating the shallow behavior of the status-quo.

The conclusion comes with a party of four, where Courtney just gets drunk and Ben and Alexa compete for Johnny’s attention, leading him to sadly realize both of them are using him, unlike Johnny, that is looking for a deep and meaningful connection as explained and foreseen by his psychologist.

Ultimately ,Johnny becomes an actor, pursuing his dreams and Alexa goes the safe route joining college.   read

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