Silence: Not Silent Enough (review)


Scorsese’s Silence is a movie naturally within my sphere of interest, so of course I knew I had to see it, but between this and that, it took me over a month before I found time for it. Was it worth it? Weeeell…. kinda.

First, the good bits: the visuals are verging on genius. Rodrigo Prieto fully deserves his second Oscar nomination for cinematography. Japan (or rather, Taiwan playing the part) hasn’t looked that bleak, cold and unwelcoming on screen in a long while. It’s a welcome change from the usual way of portraying its landscape, especially in western cinema. You can feel every lashing of the cruel ocean, every damp waft of fog; the light, the wind, the rain, all play at least as much part in the first half of the movie as the actors themselves (it did help that the weather in London these past few days was the bleakest I remember). Somewhat jarring in all this is the use of sounds associated with Japan’s hot, dry summer – cicadas, summer birds – for the ambience, but I’m guessing it’s not something most viewers would notice.

Speaking of actors: there’s no bad acting in Silence (it is a Scorsese, after all) but of the three Westerners, a woefully underused Adam Driver steals every scene he’s in – I won’t be the first reviewer to note he should’ve gotten the lead; Andrew Garfield is mostly adequate – though he comes into his own the nearer the climax we get – and Liam Neeson plays “Liam Neeson’s priestly figure” – though more Qui-gon Jinn than Father Fielding. The entire middle act of the movie hinges on the performances of the Japanese, and what performances they are! A veteran comedian Issei Ogata is ridiculously brilliant as “Inquisitor” Inoue – easily a role of his life. Tadanobu Asano, here without his trademark goatee, is almost his equal, his polite, disarming smile hiding the cold, ruthless efficiency of a government official; it’s lucky he came in to replace Ken Watanabe, whose overbearing charisma would likely imbalance the scenes with the interpreter. Yosuke Kubozuka‘s Kichijiro is a shining light of the movie, a tragically comic character of which we learn tantalizingly little: a movie with him as the main protagonist would make a much more compelling story, if not exactly the story either Endo or Scorsese wished to tell.

So in terms of pure cinema craftsmanship, from cinematography to acting, Silence is a very good movie. Where it fails is the script – a script which Scorsese and his pet writer Cocks developed for decades, but which nonetheless suffers from several major drawbacks.

The deadliest sin is the use of narration. Ironically for a movie titled “Silence”, there’s barely any silence at all, especially in the first and third act. There were moments where I prayed for Andrew Garfield to just shut up and contemplate his predicament quietly for a while. I haven’t seen a voiceover narration this pointless and distracting since the producer’s cut of Blade Runner. There is virtually nothing that the voiceover adds to what’s already shown on the screen; at times, comically so, when we are literally told what’s happening before our eyes, as in the scene where some prisoners are given sake and the narrator comments: “they were given sake”. Scorsese keeps slavishly to how Endo’s book is written – the narration follows Father Rodrigues’s letters and diaries at first, then the voiceover keeps quiet where the book is written in third person, to return to voiceover at the end, just as Endo returns again to letters. I can’t fathom what made Scorsese film it this way, as if forgetting he was making a movie, not an illustrated audio-book.

The script is too uneven to be fully enjoyed; the movie’s a little bit too long, a little too repetitive at times, and the climax falls flat due to pacing problems. Its treatment of Driver’s Father Garrpe is criminal. A potentially crucial secondary character is reduced to a few bits, and in the end, it’s not even certain why he was there in the first place. I can see why Garrpe is important in the book, but in the adaptation his role fizzles out with barely any consequence to the plot or character development. Again, it seems like a matter of slavishly following the written source: Garrpa’s in the book, so he must be in the movie, even if his presence amounts to almost nothing. (Father Ferreira is similarly underused, though his role in the plot is more clear; Liam Neeson fails to switch between two versions of his character, and if his decision has any negative consequences, they are never clearly shown. He may have wanted to play it subtle, but subtlety at this point was not necessary.)

The one moment where Scorsese decides to modify the story – the final scene – belies both the message of the source material and the movie itself. The ending is far too unambiguous, far too easy, considering the complex and multi-layered psychology of everything told before. And, I feel important to note, it is a false ending, at least as far as the history of Christianity in Japan, and the Far East in general, is concerned. The sapling did not take root in the swamp, other than in the hearts of a tiny minority whom Endo himself represented.

What other problems I have with Silence are problems with both Shusaku Endo’s narrative and Christianity in general, so they don’t belong in this review. Despite these criticisms, it’s still a good movie – and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if at all; I really can’t praise the visuals enough. It’s just a pity that it falls short of the brilliance it could have been if only Scorsese had more faith in his own skill as a cinematic storyteller (I mean, come on! You’re Martin Fuckin’ Scorsese!) and less devotion to the source material; although judging by that change to the last few seconds of Rodrigues’s story, even that’s not certain.

The Year of the Dragon: Second Bundle (vols. 5-8) Release!


This is, most likely, the last solid bit of publishing news regarding The Year of the Dragon* series.

After finishing the series with The Last Dragon King, we’re now releasing the second bundled volume of the entire saga, containing Books 5-8:

5. The Chrysanthemum Seal

6. The Withering Flame

7. The Shattering Waves

8. The Last Dragon King

As with Bundle bundle2_thumbI (1-4), this one also contains some additional exclusive content, all the maps from the four books, and an exclusive new cover created by the same artist, the brilliant Collette J. Ellis. Fittingly, like my very first cover, this one also shows Bran himself, but for the first time with his faithful dragon, Emrys!

So this is it, friends. The final, final book. One day I might return to this world for another story, but for now I’m focused on a whole new, completely different project, of which I might start telling you in a few months.

HERE ARE THE PURCHASE LINKS:

Kindle Edition:
Amazon US |UK | DE | IT | FR | ES | JPCA | BR | AU
Also:
iBooks (coming soon) | Nook | Smashwords | Kobo 

*) ebooks. There will be paperbacks soon, I promise!

The Top 10 Teenage Albums meme


So this has been doing the rounds around the internet recently: ten albums that mattered to you the most in your teenage years.

My teenage years, as defined by the meme, fall between 1991 and 1997, which is not an all too shabby period to have grown up to. I mean, it starts with Nevermind and ends with OK Computer: what more could you ask for? It’s certainly the last time music was any good, if you ask me, but then, that’s what everyone says about the music from their youth.

It was also a period of transformation from tapes to CD, so these first albums I’ve consciously listened to were also the first CDs I ever bought… although by the end I would switch again, to downloading mp3s (1998 – Audiogalaxy!) I admit, my memory being what it is, I had to google a bit to find out when the albums I remember best were released, and it turned out that some of my all-time favourites either haven’t been around until 1998 or were already released before 1991, so don’t fall into this meme’s remit. With this in mind, here’s the list (I’d say feel free to add your favourites in the comments, but nobody ever comments on this blog 😉 :

  • Sting – Soul Cages (1991)

A toss up between this and George Michael’s “Listen Without Prejudice“: two final pop albums of the 1980s, released the same year as Nevermind, both marking a change in the air. A definite ending of an era in music.

  • Bjork – Debut (1993)

    This is such a powerful album, still! There’s not a single song here that’s not a timeless work of genius. Not much to say, except that, through Post and Homogenic, Bjork was always a key presence in my soundtrack all through the 90s.

  • Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dreams (1993)

    Like most people, I missed Smashing Pumpkins first album, and only heard of them when they released “Today” video, but it was only when I started exploring their back catalogue after Mellon Collie that I got hooked up on Siamese Dreams. As you can tell from this and the next few selections, 1994-96 was definitely the culmination of my Emo Teenage phase.

  • Nirvana – Unplugged (1993)

No, I wasn’t that unaware of contemporary music to not notice the fucking Nirvana until 1993. It’s just that, somehow, I was more of a Pearl Jam kid for the first couple of years. It wasn’t until In Utero that I began switching my allegiance, and of course, Unplugged was the one that finally made me see the light – just a little bit too late.

  • Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)

 

Yeah, it doesn’t really get any happier, does it? This is the “Hurt” one. For a moment this was my most-listened to album of all time. I actually had this in a double CD, with “Further Down the Spiral” remixes, most of which I vastly preferred to the original. This version of Piggy is from the remix album:

 

  •  Body Count – Born Dead (1994)

Ice-T‘s Body Count was a gateway drug to hip-hop for all the white kids hooked on grunge and metal. If you liked Rage Against the Machine or Atari Teenage Riot (and who didn’t?), Body Count was the next thing to bang your head to. And then you’d start to wonder, what else did this guy record? Wait, you mean there’s more?

  • Tricky & co. – Nearly God (1996)

The ultimate trip-hop album, and possibly the weirdest thing to listen to in the mid-90s. I was deep, deep into trip-hop at the time, but this one was definitely my favourite one of the lot. A bizarre project led by Tricky off of Massive Attack, but with co-singers like Terry Hall of the Specials, Siouxie Sioux or Alison Moyet. Trippy and dark as fuck.

  • Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

The greatest album of the 90s? Yeah, I believe so. 2nd most acclaimed of the decade after Nevermind, apparently (and no other than these two in top 30 of all time). Nothing was ever the same after OK Computer. This is where the 90s end the 2000s begin in music.

  • Yoko Kanno – Vision of Escaflowne OST (1996)

1996-97 is when I start to listen to anime soundtracks and J-Pop/J-Rock, downloaded from primitive early internet. By chance, it’s also the time when some of the best anime soundtracks of all time become available: Kenji Kawai‘s Ghost in the Shell and Yoko Kanno’s Vision of Escaflowne. Later on, I’ll start discovering the classical influences behind this music, while Yoko Kanno would go on to produce the masterpiece that was Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, but at the time, as far as I was concerned, this was as good as music got:

  • Genesis – Selling England by the Pound (1974)

I have to mention this one, or my story of the 90s music wouldn’t be complete: it’s also the time when I was introduced (by my then gf) to progressive rock, in the form of the first four Genesis albums (FGtR doesn’t count!). Unlike our relationship, this was the love affair that would last for the rest of my life.

#2016 – summary & playlist


(header image (c) Chris Barker)

Not exactly a New Year‘s Eve party playlist, but then again, it didn’t exactly feel like a party year, for all sorts of reason. Rather than celebrate its passing, we breathe a sigh of relief and hope that 2017 at least won’t get much worse…

gettyimages-591717242_custom-2b1934dac188b7266281132abf838e0c4c8aa8fcIt’s not going to surprise anyone reading this blog how I felt about the political developments since January, and frankly there’s little cause for optimism for the near future. But hey, at least we’re still here (well, most of us), and who knows, maybe 2017 will surprise us. At first, let’s see how long that ceasefire in Syria is going to hold…

KingFor me personally, it was a fairly mixed year. Artistically – very successful, considering I wrote and published two full novels which ended the Year of the Dragon saga, and even found the time for a collection of haiku. I hope to keep this pace up going into next year, although I’ll be starting my new novel from scratch – something I hadn’t done in over five years. AN ENTIRELY NEW BOOK! Every time I realize this, I get terrified at the very thought.

 
KamogawaIn the more mundane part of my life, very little happened. I stayed and worked in London all year, excepting the summer trip to the Hokuriku region of Japan, which was predictably awesome. I changed jobs in the summer, I started listening to comedy podcasts and… that’s about it. This is the first time in a long time that I’ll be spending two consecutive New Year’s Eves in the same place and circumstances. Feels weird!

Haiku2017, though – well, I don’t do New Year resolutions, I do New Year plans, and I have some big plans for this year. Definitely should be more interesting, but for now it’s all secret. I’ll let you know once it all comes to fruition.

wave_250Until then, here’s the playlist. As you’d probably have guessed, it’s a morbid one – a list of all those artists we said goodbye to this year (I include Lemmy, since I’ve learned of his death in the very beginning of 2016). Bowie, Prince and George Michael are the giants that loom large over the list, though as I’ve mentioned before, there are some lesser known names that have made an equally great impact on me – and some others which have been far less noticeable than they deserved in this year’s onslaught.

The passage of time is remorseless, and we are just at the beginning of the age of the dying celebrities. I expect 2017 list will be at least as full of famous names as this year, and 2018, and so on… but 2016 was definitely the first when the mortality of our childhood idols became such an integral part of reality. No matter who else will perish in the future, there will never again be a year like this – the first year of the mass idol death.

Oh well. Here’s to hope, tenacity and Keith Richard’s good health!

The Last Dragon King – full release!


The final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga, the Last Dragon King, is now available at all retailers.
So if you haven’t yet made a pre-order, now is the time! (and if you have, you should be receiving the book today).

This is the end of this story – and the beginning of another. Starting next year, I’ll be posting updates on my brand new project, The Superb Tyrant! Until then, it’s time for:

THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, BOOK 8: THE LAST DRAGON KING

 

How will Bran save himself from a cave full of hungry, feral dragons? Who’s the mysterious man Gwen and Nagomi meet at the Gates of Otherworld? Will they be able to rescue Sato from the Serpent’s claws? And will the Southern Imperial Army manage to defeat the Taikun’s forces in their march on Edo?

All these questions – and more – will be answered in the thrilling, double-length conclusion to the Year of the Dragon saga, the eighth and final volume: The Last Dragon King!

Kindle Edition:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | DE | IT | FR | ES | JP | CA | BR | AU
Also:
iTunes | Nook Smashwords Kobo 

Kobo, Smashwords, Nook Preorders for Last Dragon King


It’s a week to go before the launch of The Last Dragon King, and now the pre-orders are also available on Kobo, iTunes and Smashwords .

And if you’re one of the few remaining Nook users, you can get the book already, exclusively from Barnes&Noble‘s store. Here are all the retail links:

Kindle Edition:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | DE | IT | FR | ES | JP | CA | BR | AU
Also:
iTunesNook | Smashwords Kobo 

Don’t forget – December 27th is when the book is officially launched, and all your preorders get delivered to your e-readers!

“The Vanished” review: disappointingly cliche.


I first noticed this book because of the traffic it was bringing to my old post about Tokyo’s Sanya district. “The Vanished” seems to be making a lot of noise in the Japanophile, and not only, circles – and the premise of the book is promising: telling the stories of the “Evaporated People” – johatsu –  the deliberately missing people of Japan, those who have fallen through the cracks of the system and ran away to start a new life in a different part of the country.

But from the start, there are a few problems with the premise. For example, is Japan really a place with unique numbers (and categories) of disappearances? The book quotes the number of the missing, for any reason, at 120-180,000 a year. But in UK, with half of Japan’s population and with no natural disasters, there are 200-300,000 people going missing every year. It would seem the French author might find a more interesting story across the Channel, rather than traipsing half-way across the globe…

Another problem I notice early on is that, although the book was published in France just two years ago, there is already a sense of it being out of date. Most of the interviewees “evaporated” during the Lost Decade of the 1990s, out of fear of debt collectors and the mafia, or because of economic hardships their companies had suffered – which is hardly a uniquely Japanese experience. The Sanya as described in the book is not the Sanya I know today, with the slums and “extended stay” hotels being torn down to make place for trendy backpacker hostels, boutique cafes and art galleries. Abenomics may be controversial, but it’s changing the surface of the places described in the book at a pace that’s difficult to keep up with, and it would perhaps be more interesting to read about how the forces of gentrification and a flood of cheap yen tourists impacts the local population, rather than slog through another cliched description of the homeless sleeping at the train station (as they do all over the world), or a woeful tale of the author getting lost in the meandering, narrow streets of suburban Japan (it’s the 2010s, don’t you have a GPS in your phone?).

andon.png
Shining future: one of the trendy new hotels in Sanya

The one unique aspect of the Japanese “evaporation” that is, indeed, worth exploring and reading about – and which is the supposed main topic of the book – is the organized and efficient manner in which it is happening. Instead of the government or the NGOs dealing with the scale of the problem, everything is left in private hands. The stories of the secretive companies engaged in the “night escapes“, which provide everything from unmarked removal trucks to cash-in-hand jobs in remote parts of the country, make for a good, intriguing read, but they are too sparse and too few to make up for the rest of the book, petering out after a few chapters. The authors seem to be aware of it, spending far too long explaining how difficult it was for them to find enough contacts to fill out the 200 something pages.

Half-way through, the narrative degenerates into a rambling sequence of non-sequiturs, brief essays only vaguely connected to the theme of “vanishing” or escaping, and veering dangerously at times into the “wacky Japan” or “mysterious Orient” territory: the seclusion of the hikikomorithe suicide cliffs, maid cafes, the Tohoku earthquake, the North Korean abductees; these are all topics worthy of separate research, and having them thrown in among the other stories only compounds the feeling of not having enough proper material for what is, for the price (£12 in half-price e-book deal) a fairly short collection of words and photos.

These cliches accumulate until, at last, I am almost forced to give up reading further, as Mauger begins quoting from the antiquated and often discredited Chrysanthemum and the Sword“. This only confirms my suspicions that her understanding of Japan is merely skin-deep and full of preconceived opinions. It is a pity: a better author could take the subject and go into some really interesting places with it. Perhaps somebody having more sympathy to Japan and the Japanese way of life might notice that the “evaporations” seem, after all, a better way of dealing with the hardships of modern urbanized life than suicide or turning to a life of crime. That even though places like Sanya or Kamagasaki are considered “slums” in Japan, life there is still infinitely easier, and safer, than that in actual slums of Africa or South America. And finally, perhaps somebody would find a way to write an entire book about this single topic, one more deserving of the hype and raving reviews than this jumble of random, forcefully cobbled-together stories.

japan-maid-cafe1
Apparently, these girls also count as “evaporated”.

Kamagasaki: Japan’s biggest slum


Kamagasaki, Home to approximately 25,000 people — absolutely dwarfing Tokyo’s equivalent, Sanya — the area is a far cry from the neon-lit, modern image of Japan’s sprawling urban centres. Although as a cruel reminder, Abenobashi Terminal Building, the country’s tallest, now looks down on the district and its residents with cold, unseeing eyes. Just like the city that sanctioned it. A nameless place, with faceless people.

I just stumbled on this article about Osaka’s equivalent of Sanya, which I wrote about before a couple of years ago. Go read the rest of it here.

From what I hear, like San’ya, Kamagasaki has become a backpacker destination due to cheap hostels. It would probably be my choice of accommodation as well, had I ever needed to stay the night in Osaka… I can only expect it to eventually gentrify, again like San’ya, though where will its current inhabitants go when that happens is anyone’s guess.

 

The Year the Music Died #ripgreglake


Come share of my breath and my substance
And mingle our streams and our times
In bright infinite moments
Our reasons are lost in our rhymes.

In a year that started with the death of David Bowie, and went downhill from there, I didn’t think anything else would have the power to affect me this much so near the end. We’re still three weeks off, and who knows who else will join the super-group in the sky (Fripp? Wakeman?), but, like the straw on camel’s back, what finally broke for me how horribly awful this year was for all my music heroes was the news of the death of Greg Lake.

Maybe it’s because of the double whammy of Keith Emerson dying in March – you rarely get two sets of #rips under one band’s YouTube videos in one year. Or maybe because Greg Lake was the first actual prog rock singer I’ve listened to consciously – long before I discovered the likes of Genesis and Yes – though back then I didn’t even know his name.

That song was “The Lucky Man” by ELP, taped from a late night radio show to a blue Stilon cassette, and played incessantly until I knew every glissando in Emerson’s mad final Moog solo by heart.

Greg Lake was the Galahad of the prog rock Round Table, with his baby face and an angelic voice. Possibly the only vocalist to match a mellotron’s rising cadence, he was the man without whom King Crimson would probably remain just Robert Fripp’s niche experimental fusion jazz combo – and the history of rock as we know it would never happen. On the 21st Century Schizoid Man he sounded less like the cherubim, and more like a wrathful archangel, come down to fight Satan’s hordes. In those pre-internet days of music copied from radio, it took me a while to realize the same man sang the Schizoid Man and Epitaph. You could always easily recognize Ian Anderson’s shrill or Peter Gabriel’s hoarse bellow, but Lake’s voice was always the most surprising.

In ELP, Lake brought poetic calmness and medieval whimsy to counter Emerson’s feral virtuosity. Like Galahad and Percival, with Palmer’s help, they searched for prog rock’s Holy Grail, and, admittedly, got lost along the way in the end – but before they did, they produced some of the finest music this side of the Beatles, like this little Yes-like ditty from the Trilogy album:

2016 was a bitch of a year, and considering nobody’s getting any younger, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better going forward. Eventually everyone we knew and thought great will die – such is the passage of time… At least their work remains with us forever.

Confusion will be my Epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh.
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying,
Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.