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.

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.

 

Things I do – Train Cab View


This will be a short post, as there’s little to say about my latest hobby. It’s very straightforward: watching train journeys on YouTube.

The trend is not new – the Japanese, of course, have been doing it for years. The Norwegians took it to mainstream, dedicating an entire TV channel to the fantastic, 7-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo, which later became the first Slow TV channel in the world:

Of course, you can hardly be a fan of Japan without turning just a little bit into a train geek – they’ve made this form of transport into a form of art, and I had always followed a few train otaku channels like AYOKOI. But on my last trip to Japan, I happened to be sitting next to one of the people making these videos, and became fascinated with the idea of simply watching the recording of a train journey on your TV. The immediate benefits are obvious: it’s calm, meditative, repetitive but not boring, and you don’t have to suffer the annoying commentary common to the documentaries like “The Great Railway Journeys“.

(this is the video from the trip we were on – I’m sitting two seats behind the camera, as it’s one of those panoramic trains with big front windows and no crew in front).

There’s also, of course, the other great enjoyment factor – you get to relive the journeys you’ve made, or imagine yourself making the journeys you wish you’d make. I can’t imagine a better way of “virtual travelling” than seeing the world through the train windows. My current favourite, for example, is this seemingly mundane journey on Haruka Express from Kansai Airport – one that tens of thousands of tourists make every single day on their way to Osaka and Kyoto. The Japanese train videos have the additional meditative element of “Pointing and calling” – the driver speaking aloud everything he’s doing in the cab.

 

Each type of train offers different sensations. Shinkansen drives are more quiet, monotonous, good for falling asleep. Subway trains, on the other hand, are fast-paced, with short, quick bursts of speed between stations:

 

There are many channels dedicated to gathering train view videos from all over YouTube – e.g. TRAINVIDEO – or you can just search for “train cab view”. I’m not sure where those videos originate, by the time I find them they’re already aggregated by somebody – I assume internet forums for train fans, or dedicated websites like TrainCentral. Most of them are from Japan, naturally, but there’s quite a lot now coming from Scandinavia, Alps and Russia, which are all equally spectacular. If you’re really into it, you can buy professionally recorded HD videos on Blu-Ray, e.g. here, but that might be a bit too obsessive…

So there you have it. Some people swear by ASMR or watching a burning campfire, but for me, train cab view videos are just the best.

Writing Inspirations: Netflix


As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.

I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.

Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.

Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.

Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.

The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.

And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.

Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.

The river flows


To the casual tourist, overwhelmed by its splendour, Kyoto may seem like an everlasting, unchanging city, with its ancient temples, regular street grid, and restaurants and guesthouses older than most countries.

In reality, it is anything but. The city had been undergoing changes since its inception; even the first ambitious, Tang-dynasty inspired plan for the Imperial Capital was never fulfilled before reality forced its gravity centre east, closer to the river. Over the following centuries, wars and politics, fires and floods had shaped the city with a constant flux, making the remains of the past all the more precious.

And it is still changing now. The changes range from subtle to dramatic, and perhaps none more so dramatic in recent years than the massive influx of tourists from East Asia. Always Japan’s busiest visitor hot-spot, Kyoto has now become Asia’s Venice, at times stifled and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of people. Not only the Chinese – though they are by far the most visible – but Koreans, and ASEANians have joined this multitude; with its 1.4 mln population, Kyoto is relatively tiny by Asian standards – a mere fraction of places like Hanoi, Seoul or Bangkok, not to mention Shanghai – so it doesn’t take much for it to feel crowded.

The most immediate effects on the tourist infrastructure are drastic, but of course not all bad. Gone are the “busy” and “quiet” seasons – the Japanese may only care about Kyoto in spring bloom and autumn leaves, but foreigners come and go as they please. The influx of money is noticeable – new ryokans, shops and restaurants spring up everywhere, old ones get a new coat of paint and some badly needed update of decor. Enriched by increase in taxes, the city splashed out on fancy new boulevards all along the Kamo River. Knowledge of English language is now properly enforced: the “old guard” of native English speakers from US or Australia may have been more tolerant of the Japanese ways, but the new tourists had to learn English themselves, and they don’t have patience for the clerks and cashiers being unable to utter anything beyond a few platitudes. In a surprising twist, it seems the locals now welcome Western faces with relief and almost joy: such is the paradox of the casual xenophobia that makes the old, familiar devil appear better than the new one. And yes, some of the new wave can be famously rude, and each such trespass of manners is widely reported in the local media, but before the Chinese it used to be the Americans who bore the brunt of all that pointing and mocking, and let’s face it, compared to the Japanese anyone will seem rude and obnoxious.

But that is not the only thing that’s changing in Kyoto. The other change is more subtle, one that needs several visits to appreciate: the skyline. The modern buildings in Japan tend to have a lifespan of about 20-30 years. That means most of the current crop, built at the threshold of the Lost Decade, is now horribly outdated: bad taste renderings of post-modernist kitsch, gaudy monstrosities in raw concrete and ceramic tile. Luckily, this era is coming to an end. One by one, the old cubes are being replaced by buildings of the new style. Gone is stained grey concrete, shaped in random protrusions, patched with plastic or ceramic to look like a bathroom turned inside out. In its place are black panels, cold steel, wood trimmings. The gaudy arrogance of the 1990s is replaced with the subdued elegance, matching the old environment rather than shouting over it. It is all very heart-warming, though it does keep me wondering if in 20-30 years these new builds won’t look just as old and out-dated?

And then there’s yet another change – the cars. For some unfathomable reason – whether it’s the newly found confidence in Abenomics, prevalence of hybrid engines or changes in road tax – or all of the above – the Kyotoites ditch their fun and practical, colourful, small kei cars, in favour of massive, tank-like people movers, all shining chrome and black steel. Once cars like these would have been the domain of mobsters and celebrities, now they’re parked everywhere, sometimes dwarfing the houses they’re “attached” to. Quite what anyone may need these monsters for in the streets that are barely wide enough for two mopeds to pass, is anyone’s guess.

The smallest scale of change is also the most personal. Of the ancient couple making red bean paste sweets in Tominokoji street, only the husband remains fit enough to serve customers – the wife is now too frail and ridden with diseases of old age. Since they don’t seem to have any apprentices, inevitably one day we’ll find their small shop closed forever. And they’re not the only ones in Shimogyo-ku – these are the streets filled with tiny old shops run by tiny old men and women. Their passing marks the passage of time in the most poignant way. But despite all of this, the Kyoto – our Kyoto – remains, and, against the odds, thrives.

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Gentle Happiness


One summer weekend
I wrote a lot of haiku
Now they’re in a book.


This is probably my weirdest project to date. 70 haiku inspired by Japanese sweets and snacks, an effect of a sudden bout of creativity a few weekends ago. I haven’t written any poetry since that mad age when everyone thinks they’re a poet, so this was rather sudden. The main theme combines my two main pursuits in life – Japan and food 🙂 I added some personal notes to each haiku, then my wife made a few illustrations, and now the little book of poems is on Amazon, because hey, why not.

If for some reason you feel like buying “Gentle Happiness”, it’s available exclusively on Amazon Kindle for the moment, for a mere $0.99

 

熊本 がんばって !Stay strong, Kumamoto!


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At the foot of Kumamoto Castle, reportedly damaged by yesterday’s tremors

Devastated to hear the news from Kumamoto Prefecture.

The few days we spent there in 2012 – especially around Aso – was some of the best time we’ve ever had in Japan. The people there are disarmingly friendly and helpful, the landscapes overwhelm in scale and beauty, and the food – strawberries and milk from Aso! Kumamoto fish! – haunts my tastebuds to these days. And of course, as my readers will know, it’s the land that inspired Chinzei, the main setting of The Year of the Dragon.

So the news of the series of earthquakes that brought so much sorrow to the area is heart-breaking. My thoughts go out to the people of Kumamoto Prefecture. Hopefully yesterday’s shock was the last one of such strength, and the casualty count will stay relatively low. I know people of Kyushu will recover in no time, and I hope we can visit them again in a not too distant future.

You can find information of donating to the earthquake relief here.

 

The Year That Passed


Well, 2015 happened.

Farewell, Orca I

It was very much the year of two halves. By the time the calendar struck June, we’ve been to Poland, Japan, Germany, Luxembourg and France. We’ve sold the van, ended the journey (for now!), moved back to London, returned to regular office work…

Oh, and I published “Withering Flame”.

The Withering Flame

The second half was very much six months of winding down, settling down and slowing down. Not much happened as we returned to a settled, “normal” life. I put this blog on more or less of a hiatus, and I hadn’t picked up on “Shattering Waves” almost until NaNoWriMo. It was the first time I voted in national elections in UK, and the first time I didn’t vote in said elections in Poland. I joined the Lib-Dems out of pity… Plus, we helped some friends move to London – and got rid of an old sofa 🙂 Oh! And, we went to the States in October, for the first time ever.

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Times Square! No Photoshop!

As the year comes to an end, I’m starting to pick up the pace again. “Shattering Waves” manuscript is finished – a couple of months of editing from now, it will be ready for a Spring release. What’s more, for the first time since finishing Volumes 1-4, I’m working on two books at the same time – I’ve started drafting Volume 8, albeit at the stately pace of 500 words per day.

That means that even if nothing else happens in 2016, at least this will be the year I finally end The Year of the Dragon saga. Now THAT is certainly something to look forward to!

Happy New Year 2016 everyone!

 

 

Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world


Speaking loudly
Speaking loudly

We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.

As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.

Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.

The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.

This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.

Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.

Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.

Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.

Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.

Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of  independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.

Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.

Reblog: Last night, a fast food delivery guy gave me 10 yen and it made my day


Yup. That’s Japan, alright: where the waiter tips YOU.

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After living here for any decent length of time, it’s easy to grow tired of the seemingly endless slew of blogs either singing Japan’s praises or celebrating its weirdness. But the thing is, there’s a reason so many of them exist. While many of the claims bloggers in Japan make are somewhat exaggerated or simply rehashes of the same experiences foreigners arriving in the country decades earlier had, there are nevertheless times when living in Japan can make you realise that the country is actually quite special.

Just last night, for example, I found myself the recipient of a tiny but powerful gesture that made me feel – after more than eight years of living here – that Japan is pretty damn cool sometimes.

Last night, dear reader, a fast food company gave me 10 yen. That’s about US$0.09.

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