Archive for June, 2003

Kumamoto — Film Shoots

It’s raining here again . When I first came to Japan last week from Los Angeles, I thought, “Oh hey rain.” Now the novelty has worn off and like every other person in Japan, I’m griping about the weather.

Anyway, it’s been a busy week. On Tuesday, I went to location scout in a resort town north of Kumamoto called Yamaga. It’s primarily famous for a massive festival it holds in August where over a thousand young women don pink kimonos and strapped golden lanterns to their heads. It used to be stipulated that the participants must be virgins, but in recent years that rule has apparently been quietly dropped. Another attraction is that unlike much of Japan, which looks like a bad stretch of East Berlin meets a bad stretch of Van Nuys, Yamaga has kept much of its original charm — traditional kura buildings line the main streets and a famed kabuki theater has been resorted to its original luster. I was being taken there by Oshima-san, a fellow BIG employee and Yamaga resident, who the previous day matter-of-factly informed me that their were going to shoot a 45 promo bit for the town and that I’d be directing it. In spite of the crappy weather (rain again), we scouted the town and I took notes.

When we got to Hachisendaiza — the kabuki theater — we learned that the local government was holding an anti-bosozoku event. Bosozoku are largely thuggish orange-haired high-school dropouts who annoy everyone with their improbably loud motorbikes, and who like the Hell’s Angels in the States have been associated with all sorts of deviant and criminal behavior. Anyway, we were ushered into the theater toting a bunch of free anti-bosozoku, where I noticed that the audience consisted of a) old people b) cops c) glassy-eyed high school students who were dragged to this event for Their Own Good. The event opened with a Cops-style video of bosozoku terrorizing the streets of Kumamoto. A couple minutes into it, the video feed went out, and the audience was left listening to a cacophony of roaring motorcycling, police sirens, screams, and at least one heart-rending dog yelp with no idea what was going on. We decided that it was a good time to leave.

When I got home, my head throbbed from excessive Japanese-use, so I vegged out in front of the TV. I saw a “rap contest” on one show, which had about as much funk as your average Christmas office party. It would have been better described as a make-the-lyrics-up-as-you-go-along karaoke contest. One memorable contestant simply issued forth a string of rude words set to John Lennon’s Imagine. Ex.: “She’s ugly. Big tits. Fart.” Later on the news, there was a news story where a jilted lover doused his hostess ex-girlfriend with gasoline, and set the entire hostess bar where she worked alight. Parts of downtown Kumamoto still smell a bit acrid. In other news, “The Great Sasuke”, the Mexican-wrestling mask wearing member of the Diet hailing from Iwate prefecture, vehemently denied that he was a male porn star before taking a turn into politics. Who could tell, I thought, he was wearing a mask.

The next day was a rare break in the gloom of the rainy season. Horita-san, my boss, leapt at the opportunity and scheduled a shoot TV commercial for a land development company. After driving hither and yon to collect needed equipment, the employees of BIG along with a cameraman named Yamano (and who was classmates with Miike Takashi at Imamura Shohei‘s film school), gathered in the parking lot of the company’s headquarters. The main task of the day was a time-lapse shot of the building — an over-designed Ando Tadao knock-off — as the sun set. I struggled for most of the shoot to trying fight the haze of brain fatigue and look like I understood what was going on. Overall, the shoot went fine until the area was beset by bats that were hunting for bugs in the adjacent rice fields.

Call time for the next day (Thursday) was at 4:15 am, which considering that I managed to drag myself home for the previous night’s shoot at 10:30 or so at night, was pretty brutal. Bleary-eyed, we all choked down some horribly artificial tasting convenience store sandwiches and prepared for another time-lapse shot of the building as dawn broke. After a few more shots, including one where the camera swept over the employee’s of the company on a crane, we packed up and headed for the hills in search of a lonely stretch of mountain road.

With the camera set up on the yellow line, we waited for the clouds to line up in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. The crew talked at length about the merits of Tora! Tora! Tora! over Pearl Harbor. Horita regaled us with a story about working with Kurosawa. One day, Kurosawa had Horita corral 5,000 extras in full costume for six hours atop Mt. Aso before canceling the day’s shoot because he didn’t like the shape of the clouds. Fortunately, Horita wasn’t as stubborn at that great master, and we wrapped by noon.

On the way back from shoot, we ate the curiously named Ringer Hut, a sit-down fast-food establishment that reportedly sells Nagasaki style noodles. The first thing I noticed about the place was the pitchers of water on each table, presumably to counteract the mouth-scalding amount of MSG in the food. The restaurant puts the patron in an American style war of attrition with his or her meal, a rarity for Japan. In this case, my foes included a tub of noodles, a bucket of fried rice and a dozen very nasty fried dumplings. In the end, it turned into a pyrrhic victory for me, as I felt like crap for the rest of the day.

Yesterday, everyone looked haggard at the office and Horita let me leave at noon. I spent much of the day reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which after spending a week struggling to read office memos and to understand Kumamoto’s thick dialect, zipped by like a dream. That night, R and I saw Shinoda Masahiro‘s latest Spy Sorge, a flawed but well-meaning flick that unfortunately coarsened to a muddleheaded pacifist yarn that seemed more naive that profound. When John Lennon’s Imagine faded in over the credits, I sort of hoped it was the version I saw on TV earlier in the week. “Have more tea, sir. Vomit.”

Kumamoto –TV and ¥100 Shops

I just spent the last two or so hours watching Japanese TV. One program featured a segment that pulled drunken salarymen off the street after the bars closed and put them in a sort of ad hoc quiz show. At one point an announcer drilled a fat guy who had downed eight beers that night about the origin of turmeric. The fat guy retorted that his house burned down a few days before and he didn’t have a place to sleep.

On the news, the big story was that family of four in Fukuoka was mysterious murdered and their bodies were dumped in the ocean. The other big story was that soccer player and Sting impersonator David Beckham stopped by Japan to shoot a commercial where he was beset upon by half the female population of Tokyo. The announcers all clucked about how cool he looked and about how much then looked forward to watching his commercial. The other day, on an Entertainment Tonight like show I saw a PR puff piece about a Canon digital camera commercial that was in production. It strikes me as depressingly inevitable that there would be hype about something that is supposed to hype something else.

Today was another low-key sort of day. The highpoint was probably going to a massive ¥100 (85 cents) shop. I when there to pick up a Japanese style notebook so I could practice Kanji but they sold everything there: Potato chips, photo albums, underwear, plush toys, Halloween masks, ashtrays, cocktail glasses, electrical cords, Japanese-English dictionaries, soda and (Japan being Japan) cheesecake DVDs all for ¥100.

Then R and I went to a Starbucks knockoff downtown (there are, by the way, three — count ’em three — Starbucks in a two block radius of downtown) where I read an article about the parallels between the Iraq war and Frank Herbert’s Dune in the latest issue of The Believer. As I looked up from my magazine, I realized that every single table in the shop was populated with women in their early 30s who were either studying English or composing email messages on their cell phones.

Kumamoto — First Days

It’s a lazy Saturday morning here in Kumamoto. I’m sitting on a tatami mat next to a shoji screen. It’s hot and cloyingly humid and the smell of soumen is emanating from the kitchen. It would all feel very Japanese if it weren’t for the sound of lion roars and monkey squeals. R’s house abuts the Kumamoto zoo.

Anyway, I started work at a small production company that in spite of (or perhaps because of) its size is called BIG. It’s located on two floors of a narrow office building adjacent from the Kumamoto city central police station, which looks less like an example of municipal architecture and more like it ought to be ferrying Darth Vader to the Death Star. Down the street is a store called “Sweet Camel” which advertises that it sells “Jeans for Aggressive Women.” On Thursday, the day I started working at BIG, a typhoon blew in from the Sea of China. My boss, Horita san, who looks vaguely like Beat Takeshi and who worked on the set of Kurosawa Akira‘s Ran when it was shot near Kumamoto, seemed eager to show me off to his business associates. As I struggled to follow one guy, who was discussing in heavily accented Japanese his plans to hire the handicapped, I became increasingly worried that the building would blow over from the gusts of wind. The floor shook, the windows rattled and stuff (hopefully not asbestos) rained down from the tiles above. And everyone largely ignored the whole thing. I tried to look attentive, by staring at the guy’s lips and not at the trees branches, bits of garage and small children flying past the window.

Beautiful People — RIP

Well, it’s the end of an era. The other day, I lit a few candles, places some fake flowers a few polaroids around my computer, bought some champagne and invited a few friends over. Yes, I was holding a funeral of sorts for all the footage of my thesis film Beautiful People, which with a few mouse clicks, I flushed from my hard drives. 100 gigs now gone and my film, now completely finished after a year and half’s worth of labor and way too much money, is on a half dozen mini DVs, 2 DV-CAM masters, and 1 DigiBeta tape. A certain poignancy lingered in the air for a moment, but then when drank some of the cheap champagne and watched Jackie Chan‘s Police Story.

In other news, I’m going back to Japan for a few months to be with R in Kumamoto and work in a production house there. Stay tuned to this blog for more ranting, complaining, and witty cultural insights.

Burma, Bush, and Baby Heads

Yesterday, when I was driving on the 405, traffic started to mysterious slow down. An accident? No. Someone dumped a box full of doll heads onto the road, giving the highway a sort of surreal apocalypse-in-kiddyland sort of feel.

Though not widely reported in the US though widely documented by Amnesty, real life apocalypse is going on in Burma where death camp thugs are enslaving villagers and forcing then to build an oil pipeline on behalf of Unocal. When a few of the villagers managed to sue Unocal in US courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Justice department not-surprisingly sides with the corporate as you can read
here. The crimes these corporate nazis are accused of are truly horrific:

“Jane Doe I, one of the plaintiffs in the case, testified that when her husband tried to escape the forced labor program, he was shot at by soldiers, and that, in retaliation for his attempted escape, she and her baby were thrown into a fire. Her child died and she was badly injured….Other villagers described the summary execution of people who refused to work, or who became too weak to work effectively.”

In somewhat more hopeful news, the stink of Bush’s lies (it’s not “hype”, it’s not “over-exaggeration” as most US media outlets are describing it as, they are lies) is becoming to great to cover over with Ari Fleischer’s usual misinformation or bald-faced stonewalling. World opinion and even Republican senators are starting to question the veracity of the Bush administrations cocksure statements that Saddam was an imminent threat. Paul Krugman, as usual, has a interesting taking on this whole thing which can be read here. If the accusations of falsehood, bare out to be true this means that justification for the war is almost nil. They wanted a war and they bullied the world into letting them have their war. The meaning of this is staggering and much as it is frightening. George W. Bush killed thousands of Iraqi and dozens of American and British troops to bolster his political standing. I sincerely hope that this gets exposed and reported as the war crime it is.

And in other news, a representative of the Nebraska state legislator threatened to declare war (dead link, sadly) on Iowa for lost gambling revenue.

June 2003

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