Sunday, January 28, 2007

Yo! Jimbo!

On Wednesday, Amy and I took in a rare double-feature on a work night. The reason was a combo of Akira Kurosawa's two movies featuring Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro: YOJIMBO and its sequel, SANJURO. We'd seen YOJIMBO on TV before (and we have it on DVD), but not SANJURO.

Seeing YOJIMBO on a big screen gave me a chance to appreciate Kurosawa's perfect screen compositions -- before I started getting into the story and forgot about such things. I didn't, however, miss the scenes that George Lucas apparently appropriated for STAR WARS. The bit near the beginning where a bunch of thugs brag to Sanjuro about how they're wanted by the law -- and then Sanjuro slices off the arm of one of them -- is a dead giveaway.

SANJURO reminded me of those Saturday Morning TV series from the '70's and '80's where they'd take some real-life celebrity (Muhammed Ali, or Mr. T, for instance) and saddle him with a bunch of teenagers for him to guide/mentor/humiliate. Here, Sanjuro helps a bunch of young and clueless clan warriors retrieve a government official from a corrupt official. Everytime the young bucks try to do something on their own, they screw up; fortunately they have Sanjuro to save their bacon.

In addition to the shoulder-rolling, self-scratching main character, the two movies have other recurring motifs, such as Sanjuro tricking stupider opponents, Tom-Sawyer-like, into doing things for him; and Sanjuro being asked his name, whereupon he will stare out a door or window (obviously enough for others in the room to follow his gaze), see some plant or field, and give the name of the vegetation as his family name.

Although the West may see Sanjuro as the ultimate movie samurai (and the basis for John Belushi's character on Saturday Night Live), he's actually more of a western character. He's an individualist in a culture that looks down on individualism; he's rude, blunt and sarcastic in a world that values subtlety and manners; and he does not fit in, a liability in Japanese society where conformity is a virtue. Further, YOJIMBO is often described as a samurai western, since Sanjuro fills the traditional role of a cowboy hero: He comes to a society torn by chaos; restores order, through violence; and cannot fit into the now-ordered society that results. It's no wonder that Sergio Leone remade YOJIMBO as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and modeled Eastwood's Man with No Name after the samurai.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I Just Wanna Bang on the Drum All Day

My favorite game at the Japan Arcade, which we visited last weekend. No complicated rules, no jumping around -- just wacking a taiko drum when the time is right.

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Unique Anime Mythologies

Although I was a big fan of anime in the mid-eighties, when no legally-translated anime was available commercially, uncut, in America, I dropped out of anime fandom in the early nineties. That's when companies here were first selling unedited anime through the home-video market, albeit through overpriced videocassettes; and in Japan, most series were uninspired imitations of previous series. I started following it again in the late '90's, when more quality anime was (a) being made in Japan and (b) being translated and sold here -- particularly with the advent of the DVD.

Which is why I want to bring up two anime series I've finished that managed to go far off the various beaten paths most anime treads. Just as most American TV shows tend to follow set formulae, much of anime follows the giant-robot, mysterious-transfer-student, or Shonen Jump formats. (The latter -- although followed by such excellent series as BLEACH, NARUTO, and ONE PIECE -- invariably follows a young man who has unrealistically high goals; is viewed as an underdog; wins several apparently unwinnable challenges; meets some foe he cannot overcome; goes through "special training"; is locked into some kind of tournament or interminable fight where he must face off against several foes; and, well, it goes on and on . . . )

Both series are not only striking from a visual and storytelling standpoint; both create their own mythologies, and strike out on their own paths.

One of the series is HAIBANE RENMEI, a 13-episode anime which was released on DVD here but not broadcast on American TV. The series is written by artist Yoshitaka ABe, a painter trained in classical Japanese painting, and based on ABe's self-published comic book (dojinshi) series.

The best analogy I can think of for this story is a kinder, gentler, more spiritual THE PRISONER. In a village that looks vaguely 20th-Century European, people --the Haibane -- who once existed in the outside world (and who may have died young) are reborn from seed pods. They have wings like angels, but the wings gradually emerge from their backs as if the backs were giving birth. They have halos, but the halos are forged in circular molds. Their world has non-angel-like people, but they seem to exist to protect the Haibane. The world is bound by all sorts of arcane rules. The story follows Rekka, a Haibane, from her birth in the village through her struggles to expiate her guilt for some unknown sin she committed in her previous life.

It's an emotional story -- and in the central portion, where Rekka becomes depressed, the story cannot help but become depressing. But the creator intended it to reflect the process of salvation from the pits of despair; and the story resonates soulfully. Plus, it's beautiful to look at -- although other character designers worked on the anime, it reflects the watercolor look of ABe's art.

WOLF'S RAIN is a 30-episode SF-Fantasy series that is much more violent and story-oriented than HAIBANE RENMEI. It was broadcast in Japan in 2003 and 2004; and on America's Cartoon Network during 2004. Yet like HR, it invents its own rich mythology, one influenced by Eastern, European, and Native American beliefs.

In a future (?) where "Nobles" govern, hording technology, and wolves are vitally important, a Noble sets out to exterminate wolves. The wolves escape oblivion by adopting the ultimate disguise: They hypnotize the human eye into seeing them as humans. The illusion is complete to the extent that the wolves are able to talk to people. The anime constantly shifts between showing the main pack as wolves and as a group of inhumanly graceful teenage boys. In one particularly interesting storyline, a wolf-hunter's dog discovers she is part wolf; and as soon as she does, people see her as a stylishly-dressed, tousled-haired young woman. The story (which may be more complicated than it has to be) deals with the possible end of this future, and the wolves' search for "Paradise," guided by a girl who has seemingly been cloned from a flower (one of the impossibilities that the plot glides over without much explanation.)

As with HR, the story gets emotional -- particularly near the end -- and manages to lead the viewer down paths that steer around cliche.

The above images are copyrighted by the respective copyright holders.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Torture: The Forgiveable Sin

There was a time when the U.S. pushed for democratic reforms in its Middle-East ally, Egypt. But distracted by that whole Iraq thing (a U.S. attempt to bring democratic reform to the Middle-East -- or was it to find WMDS?), the U.S. has decided to turn a blind eye to Egypt's systematic torture of arrestees and detainees, including those suspected of such heinous crimes as insulting civil servants and blogging about the government.

This LA Times article talks about a bus driver arrestee who was sodomized while in police custody. He alleges police officers performed the torture -- a fairly easy allegation to believe, since the cops videotaped the attack and then broadcast it in the driver's neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Connie Rice passed through Cairo without a word of criticism for the government -- where the president, Hosni Mubarak, who recently made a show of running for reelection, now "implie[s] that he intend[s] to head the country 'as long as a heart beats in my chest and I draw breath.'"

After all, it's just torture. Now, if they were pursuing stem cell research . . . .

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Marathon Man, Marathon Man, Doin' the Things a Marathon Can

A couple of weeks ago, I started watching MARATHON MAN on cable, and got a third of the way through it before I had to leave and do something else. So I naturally rented the dvd and watched the whole thing.

When I was a kid in the '70's, our house had a premium movie channel (it fluctuated between HBO and Showtime, depending on who our local cable company had a contract with); and so I saw the first few minutes of MM a few times. But I wasn't interested in watching the rest; a thriller that starts out deliberately-paced but gets gradually nastier was not my thing.

But now I seem to be catching up on my '70's paranoid political thrillers. Early last year I watched ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, which has several aspects in common with MM: Both were released in the Bicentennial year (oh, the irony!); both deal with our government doing nasty things; both are written by William Goldman; both star Dustin Hoffman; and the gang burglary of Hoffman's apartment in MM plays like a parody of the Watergate burglary as depicted in ATPM.

As anyone who's watched it can attest, MM does the paranoid thriller bit about as well as it's been done since Hitchcock. It takes a fantastic story of spies and Nazi war criminals, and makes us feel it's plausible by tying the events into common fears --like the unease of taking a bath by yourself in a dark apartment; or (naturally) the dread of dentistry. It features one of my favorite types of heroes: The thinking man, who's not a man of action but who is pressed into having to use his abilities to survive. And it manages amazing swings in its point of view: Laurence Olivier's character seems omnipotent when he's torturing Hoffman; yet he becomes believably anxious, high-strung and vunerable when he ventures into the jewelry district (and by the way, why couldn't he just look up the value of diamonds in the financial pages? Or telephone a jeweler? Oh well . . . .)

Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest . . . .

Sometimes, the Barer Cave opens to admit visitors . . . .

This past weekend, we were delighted to host at our home three anime fans from Utah -- Christie, Natalie, and Sarah -- whom Amy met online, and who we met in person at the Anime Vegas convention in September. We introduced the trio to some of the joys of Los Angeles anime stuff, including Power Anime at the Westside Pavilion; Kinchan Ramen and Volcano Tea on Sawtelle; and Kinokuniya Bookstore, Anime Jungle and Japan Arcade in Little Tokyo. Not to mention such gastronomical wonders as Junior's Deli. Thanks to our ever-cheerful and upbeat guests, we had a blast.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mr. Monk and the Best Episode Ever

You'll have to forgive my shamelessness in bragging about my family's accomplishments. It's just that my work-related accomplishments are usually either confidential or deadly boring (as I'm reminded when I try to share them with non-lawyers).

Anyway, cousin Lee Goldberg has revealed on his blog that fifty thousand USA Network viewers voted on their favorite episodes of MONK -- and the episode voted Best Ever is MR. MONK GOES TO MEXICO, co-written by Lee. Massive props and kudos to Mr. Goldberg.

Apple's Other Shoe Drops

The big news story today was not the US bombing Somalia (albeit with Somalia's permission) -- it was the wait for Steve Jobs's keynote address at Macworld. So here are his revelations: A new smartphone; a device for streaming video from computers to TVs; and a new name for the company -- it's no longer "Apple Computers," it's "Apple, Inc."

There. Don't we all feel better?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Spa of Tea

When Amy and I visited Japan in 2004, we spent a pleasant evening in the resort town of Hakone, in the mountains near Tokyo. While there, I visited a Japanese-style public bath (which was surprisingly shallow -- it was apparently meant for shorter men than I). We did not, however, stay at this place, Yunessun (though I believe we may have visited it for dinner). This combination resort and water park has an astounding variety of spas -- including, according to the Website, a sake spa, a green tea spa, a wine spa, and a coffee spa! I wonder what they drink there . . . .

Buy a Ford for Peanuts!

From Mark Evanier's blog comes a curiosity: An ad for the 1960 models of the Ford Fairlane and Ford Falcon, featuring early color animation of the Peanuts gang. This was a good five years before the first Peanuts special, and shows the characters drawn in their 1950's style, when Charlie Brown's round head was a lot more round and Snoopy actually looked like a dog. Interestingly, the animation big has almost nothing to do with the commercial -- it could be used to advertise almost any product.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Kids Off the Couch

This cool Website was profiled in the LA Times yesterday. It provides parents with ideas for videos to show their kids, and then culturally-interesting locations in the LA area to take the rugrats that are related in some way to the film.

This pairing is after my own heart: Hayao Miyazaki's anime film "SPIRITED AWAY," and our favorite West LA Japanese neighborhood, on Sawtelle.


This pairing, on the other hand, seems bizarre: showing the kids another Miyazaki movie, "PRINCESS MONONOKE" and then taking them for a forest hike. The Website does suggest that Mononoke not be shown to kids younger than nine; but frankly I wouldn't show it to anyone younger than a teenager. Mononoke is a morally-complex fantasy story that is the most violent film Miyazaki has created; it features beheadings, dismemberment, pools of blood pouring from freshly-opened wounds, etc. Plus, there's the character Lady Eboshi, a noblewoman who has created a workforce for her iron foundry/armorer business by buying the contracts of prostitutes from brothels and using the women to run her forges; and by hiring lepers to fabricate rifles. Try explaining all that to your nine-year-old -- and then taking her for a forest hike.

Monday, January 01, 2007

As the Year Turns

There are advantages to living in a big city, and we enjoyed one of them last night: We rang in the new year at the Walt Disney Concert Hall watching Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. Lovett is a singer-songwriter who has escaped genre boundaries; he plays and sings country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, standards, and rock -- sometimes all in the same song. The experience was delightful, and marred by only one problem: We had the "Terrace" seats, which are balcony seats that overhang the edge of the stage. That meant we were extremely close to the stage; but Lovett, apparently not used to "theater in the round," faced forward throughout the performance. The only time we got to see his face was when he turned to thank the backup singers to his right. The folks sitting to his left, and behind him, probably had it worse.

We opted out of trying to attend the Rose Bowl Parade in person this year, and instead watched it on KTLA. This was the first broadcast in years where Bob Eubanks' traditional sparring partner Stephanie Edwards was absent. Last year, when it rained on the parade, Edwards was exiled to the precipitation-soaked streetside while Eubanks luxuriated in broadcasting pavilion with his new (younger) female co-host. Apparently, she was on her way out, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Eubanks, meanwhile, was as crotchety as ever. He waxed enthusiastic whenever horses were mentioned, but snarled random imprecations, Tourettes-like, at other attractions. His most noteable attack came when a cadre of Star Wars fans from around the world marched in perfect formation as the "501st Legion,"clad in Storm Trooper armor. He first snapped, "They're groupies!" as his co-host explained who they were; then shouted, "There's a bunch of guys who need to get jobs!" He finished the broadcast by announcing that his contract was up, in an apparent bid to renegotiate it. I liked him better on "The Newlywed Game."