Archive for July, 2003

Kumamoto — DARPA-tastic

At work today, I was merrily reading about the myriad of corporate interests plotting again Tyrone Sloproth in Gravity’s Rainbow, when I noticed that the single aging computer that’s connected to the web was free. After briefly checking my mail, I happened upon a startlingly bizarre news story that seemed like a continuation of Pynchon’s tome. Apparently John Poindexter at the Total Information Awareness agency (recently renamed the slightly less Orwellian Terror Information Awareness agency) has unveiled the Pentagon Terror Market Program. No, it’s not a correspondence course for the School of the Americas, it’s a surreal free-marketeer attempt to make (more) money off of mayhem in the Middle East. A quote:

Traders would buy and sell futures contracts ” just like energy traders do now in betting on the future price of oil. But the contracts in this case would be based on what might happen in the Middle East in terms of economics, civil and military affairs or specific events, such as terrorist attacks. Holders of a futures contract that came true would collect the proceeds of traders who put money into the market but predicted wrong.” (Quoted from an AP news story. The links has gone dead.)

Not only does this seem like something that’s in ridiculously bad taste, but it seems largely irrelevant to, y’know, finding and capturing terrorists. That is until the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency released a statement on Monday that justified the project in pseudo-mystical terms that Pynchon would surely adore.

“DARPA said markets could reveal Îdispersed and even hidden information. Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions.” (Quoted from same dead link)

I’m gathering that DARPA is also organizing a crack team of tarot card readers too. You can read the projects strangely laconic web site here.

In other news, Oshima and I went up to Yamaga to present my promo. Three or four middle-aged men grunted their approval and that was about that. Afterwards, Oshima and I ate at one of her favorite takoyaki joints.

Also, I saw on TV the other day that there is a new freshly scrubbed pop-starlet named You. One at imagine spontaneous Abbott and Costello routines popping during the most inappropriate occasions·

A: Hello, thanks for coming to the Strom Thurmond funeral service. May I ask your name?

You: I’m You.

A: No, you’re not. I’m me. You’re you.

You: Right. I’m You

A: No·. (usw.)

Kumamoto — Shooting, Editing, and Drinking with Models.

It’s noisy here in the Sumi residence in the morning. Around five or six in the morning, these mutant-sized crows start cackling at each other. Then some other bird — R told me the name in Japanese but I haven’t a clue what’s it called in English — starts making this weird whooping sound. And then the lions, tigers and bear in the adjacent zoo start roaring and growling. In response, the dogs in the neighborhood start barking. And finally, just as I begin to adjust to the rising noise level and return to a fitful sleep, the cicadas kick in. One of these bugs makes quite a racket; a swarm of them creates a deafening wail that is routinely used in Japanese movies to depict homicidal insanity. While half-asleep this morning, I had the distinct sense this insect cry was actually the sound of my own brain being grilled over a hibachi.

I guess such gruesome imagery is fitting cuz it’s wicked hot here. Yesterday, I managed to prod Miyazaki-san into helping me with a shoot of my own. Anyone familiar with my films Tokai or Beautiful People will probably gather what I was shooting this go around — static pictures of creepily banal architecture. It also gave me the chance to play with R’s sexy new Panasonic DVX-100. For those of you who don’t wax poetic about lines of resolution or image compression, I spare you the details. But the DVX-100 is a pretty cool camera.

Perhaps it was the omnipresent whine of the cicadas that reminded me of my own cooking brain or maybe it was the fact that the back of my neck had turned beet red but two hours into the shoot I went out and bought a ¥500 hat. I don’t wear many hats. I’m not a “hat person.” But I dig this hat. One could say that the hat makes me look remarkably like Jean-Luc Goddard during his cameo in Breathless. One could also that the hat makes me look uncannily like my grandfather Crow who wore a similar hat while gardening. Whatever, the hat protected my head and looked pretty good doing it.

The shoot itself proved to be less than successful, thanks to the heat coupled with some less than satisfactory light. Basically, Miyazaki and I shot for a couple hours then cooled off for a bit, usually at one of Kumamoto’s fine eating establishments. First we stopped by Mister Donuts (which was in an American-sized mall called You Me Town where incidentally I also bought my cool new hat); later we ate soba at a local noodle shop; then around three or so we ate at Mos Burger, which is probably the tastiest fast food joint I’ve ever eaten at; and then finally weary and sunburned, we ate yakiniku in one of Miyazaki favorite haunts which was packed full for some reason with spastic toddlers.

Basically, yakuniku is a platter of raw meat that you grill yourself. Miyazaki, who I think goes to this place something like every week, didn’t even look at the menu when he ordered for the two of us. Soon after, plate upon plate of meat arrived at our table, each more gruesome-looking than the last. When a plate full of raw tripe, intestines, kidneys, and livers arrived, I was dreading that next plate might have nothing but eyeballs and testicles. Though Miyazaki gently mocked my American culinary prudery, I was too tired to rise to the challenge. I stuck with the cuts of meat found on the exterior of the cow and ordered another beer as he merrily munched on charred tripe.

Anyway, most of the week was spent edited that promo for Yamaga. I managed to dredge up some taiko music that not only perfectly fit the length of the piece but also gave it a sense of drama and mystery. Once the timing was set, which took some doing, I had a blast trying out all these effects and techniques I’ve never had reason to use before. I’ll spare the grizzly details, but by Thursday I felt I had edited together a pretty hip little piece. Of course, on Friday after three days of editing, Oshima finally managed to get a hold of the TV station that was going to air the promo and was told that the promo had to be 42 seconds and not 45 as we were originally told. After uttering a number of curses in two languages, I rearranged some shots, tossed a few more and managed to pull something together that was pretty good but not as kick-ass as the 45-second directors cut.

You can see the director’s cut here:

Fortunately, the day ended with me pleasantly inebriated and chatting with models. Yamano-san, who was the cameraman for a shoot I was on in June, was throwing his famous annual summer festival party and all attendants were required to sport festival wear — either yukatas or happi coats. Oshima, who was the other representative for BIG, managed to dig up a shockingly gaudy happi for me to wear — it looked more like a soccer uniform than a piece of traditional Japanese garb. As we were driving to the party, she told me that Yamano’s wife was a hairdresser so I would be able rub elbows with both film and fashion related people. Basically, the beautiful people of Kumamoto, as such. Oshima and Yamano whisked me around and introduced me to lots people including a commercial director who lived in Australia and who spoke pretty good English, a film enthusiast with a moustache whose name I never really caught, and a pair of models named Misa and Maki. Unlike their American counterparts, these models weren’t tall, gaunt or hollow-cheeked. Instead, they looked like Japanese versions of the girl-next-door albeit with preternaturally good skin. They both thought it was cool that I lived in Los Angeles (compared to the blank stares I got when I said I was from Ohio eight years ago in Ibaraki) and they complained about modeling in Kyushu. I hoped that they would dish out about a seedy-side of Kumamoto filled with drugs, violence and red velour but sadly none was forth coming. Later, I talked to local TV reporter about New York City. She later proceeded to get rip-roarin’ drunk and talk on and on to Yamano-san’s wife about hair care tips. Of course, I was enjoying a bit of the drink myself. Eager to rid myself of the day’s stresses and annoyances, I made a beeline for the beer tap and made several return visits while stuffing myself with yakitori, grilled shrimp and edamame. Yamano soon started filling my glass with Shoju – a rice alcohol somewhere between sake and kerosene. Around midnight, when I spotted Oshima looking bored — she doesn’t drink because of migraines — I bayed the models and all farewell and went home in my happi coat.

Kumamoto –the Yamaga Shoot

It’s Monday and I’m not at work. Today is a holiday in honor of the ocean. In America, all our holidays are either political or religious — we honor dead presidents, dead soldiers, and the all-but-dead labor movement. In Japan, they natural cycles of life such as a holiday for the spring equinox, the autumn equinox and old people.

Well itâs still raining here. Like a bad case of the clap or the Strom Thurmond, the rainy season just won’t die. This weekend we’ve been drenched with such a massive amount of rain that the train system was shut down and 16 people died south of here from a freak mudslide. It’s probably too soon to start gathering pairs of animals in a houseboat but it feels like that time is near. One of joys of rainy season is the fact that mold seems to grow on every flat surface. There’s a corner in the tatami room I’m living in that seems to grow little civilizations of mold every two or three days, only to fall to the apocalypse of a damp rag and the Japanese equivalent of Windex.

I learned this week that I am susceptible to “Kourabyou” or AC Sickness. Electricity being insanely expensive and all here, they have these little tiny air con units that only outfitted to cool a single room and they are only used a few hours a day when the heat becomes so unbearably awful that everyone threatens to dissolve into great puddles of sweat. The problem is that these little AC things are great breeding grounds for all sorts of nasties and when the units are turned on these little nasties get spewed out into the air. Because of Ma Sumi’s mostly macrobiotic home cookin’ and a regular regime of nose washing (warm tea, add a pinch salt, then snort the concoct up your nose like you were Margot Kidder in a 1970s beach party), I’ve been remarkably free of allergies in spite of the presence of an emotionally needy dog named Hachi. That was until this week when while plowing through Pynchon at work, I started feeling all dizzy and phlegmy. Later while driving out to location scout in Yamaga with Horita-san, I complained that I felt like crap. He casually mentioned that everyone who sat at my desk developed some form of “Kourabyou.” The building manager is not especially fussy about duct cleanliness and my desk in fact directly faces the main vent. When I mentioned my problem to R’s mom, who is a fellow sufferer, she immediately made a big steaming macrobiotic potion of daikon radish and ginger — which tastes about as good as it sounds — and an extra round of nose washing. For now, it seems to be doing the trick.

On Tuesday, R and I had a rather ludicrous argument about post-structural theory. I accused her of not understanding Barthesian theory; she argued that I was not articulating myself clearly (a fair complaint, but you try to discuss Barthes in Japanese) and that I was a big poophead. We’ve more or less resolved the Barthesian theory issue, but the poophead issue remains a topic of debate.

But the big news of the week was that I directed with relative success that promo bit for the resort town of Yamaga. While the budget for this shoot was small and the crew limited to the staff of BIG, this marks the first time that I shot in a location where I wasn’t looking over my shoulder for the police. In fact, at one point I had the banners of a famous local kabuki house rearranged and the street in front wetted down by a band of city officials.

My big concern was whether or not Oshima, my producer for the shoot and a native of Yamaga, could cough up a cute girl. Yamaga was famous for its monochromatic traditional architecture and its touro festival featuring young maidens sporting pink kimonos and gold colored paper lanterns atop their heads. Horita-san said that the promo bit should be like an exotic fantasy directed towards the jaded city-folk of Fukuoka. Right, I thought, I’ll contrast the recto-linear lines of the architecture with the curvy pinkness of the touro maidens, culminating with a reasonably attractive lass flashing an enigmatic smile at the camera. Early this week, Oshima told me that the city government couldn’t find any cute girls with their own head lanterns, but they did find three who were “kinda ugly.” Christ, I thought, there has to be one or two girls per generation born with the gift of beauty in the town. My mind raced back to a painful conversation at the town hall in Ogawa-machi some nine years ago with a pair of civil servants who sat near my desk. They pointed out one woman after the next who worked at the city hall who they at one point or another had boinked. Most had crooked gold teeth, weather-beaten skin and that unfortunate frizzy hair-do that women pushing 40 inevitably get in some countries. If guys like that are calling the only three touro maidens available in the whole friggin’ town “kinda ugly”, I’m screwed. Fortunately, the guys at the Yamaga city hall not only proved to be harsh judges of beauty — the three women looked just fine — but they managed to dredge up a real babe for the close up.

Up until four or so in the afternoon, things were going swimmingly, most of my storyboard was shot, and Oshima came through with the touro maidens. Then disaster struck. We were shooting in a public hot spa of sorts where you can wile away the time soaking your feet in spring water. We had set up the camera just the way I liked it, when about two dozen Chinese tourists came in and camped out. In spite of the camera, the lights, and me glowering at them, the group ignored us and had a grand old time. While I would have been happy to forcibly remove them from the site, Horita seemed inclined to wait them out. Then the camera crapped out.

And then it rained. Hard. Since the touro lanterns are made of paper, shooting seemed impossible. Things worked out fine in the end. We gave up on the foot spa place when the Chinese tourists started breaking out picnic lunches, and went to the next location. We dug up a substitute camera and a stunt touro that could brave the rain. I saw the footage on Friday and it looks all pretty good. The stuff we shot in the rain looks great. Now I’ve got to edit it all.

Kumamoto — Fun with Editing

If I wrote this missive yesterday, I would have said something like the rainy season is basically over and I’m spending most of the day feeling my sweat pool in my socks. My sweat may be still pooling in my socks, but it’s raining outside something fierce. The backyard, as such, of the Sumi’s is flooded and the tram has shut down. It seems that R and I are stuck in the house for the day. Despite the rain, there’s some sort of awful karaoke contest going on right now in the neighboring zoo. Someone is doing his best to bludgeon “Let It Be.” I’m trying to ignore it, listening to The Red Hot Chili Peppers of all things. Yesterday, R and her cousin’s daughter and I were rooting around in Sumi’s storage room, where I discovered R’s college CD collection. Apparently, she listened to exactly the same stuff I did back then. There are lots of Dinosaur Jr., Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth albums here, and even a Nirvana disc too. Of course, after our respective college careers our musical tastes radically diverged. I started listening to Japanese neo-lounge and she started listening to stuff that sounds like surgery without anesthetic.

R’s mom just brought in a slice of melon. Yesterday, we started an English conversation class with Mrs. Sumi and one of her old friends. Even though the lesson seemed painfully self-conscious at the time, both women seemed to really enjoy learning English. Mrs. Sumi is now waltzing about the house tossing out English phrases to me and to R, who’s really embarrassed about the whole thing.

Anyway, the week started off slowly. Most of the planned shoots have been done for the immediate short term and most of the staff at BIG was busying themselves for the next spate of shoots next week. On top of that, Ruriko was off for a few days with her aunt and her cousin Chakko to the dubiously named Jigoku Onsen (Hell Hot Spring) over by Mt. Aso.

I had little to do but study Kanji and read Pynchon. I just got up to the part where Tyrone Slothrop pied a racist US army major from a hot air balloon when R’s dad called me up to go hang out. When I arrived at his office, there was a guy with a punch perm and lots of gold jewelry, sucking on a toothpick seated on the couch. I forgot his name but apparently he was the event coordinator for a traveling comedy show that Mr. Sumi was promoting for Kumamoto. When we were introduced he almost immediately asked me where my ancestors were from. When I responded, “England and Scotland mostly.”

He said, “Good. Like Bush.” When we went out to eat yakitori together, he talked about the wonders of his hometown Osaka, how he would never visit America because there are too many guns, and how the Chinese were always dishonest. He asked me what I thought of Bush, I said that he was an idiot and only interested in helping the rich (which, by the way, is not a particularly controversial opinion in Japan) he seemed vaguely disappointed. When I refused to agree with him that the Hispanics were mucking up America, he seemed more disappointed. Then, as we were all getting chummy, he mentioned that he would never let his daughter marry a foreigner. Later, Mr. Sumi and I parted ways with Mr. Punchperm guy and obliquely ridiculed the guy at a bar with only six seats and wall full of expensive bourbon. As I think about that night, I sort of think that Mr. Sumi intentionally invited me along that night to rile up Mr. Punchperm, who he spent three long nights wining and dining and listening to his racist platitudes.

On Wednesday after a fair amount of prodding, Horita-san let me take a crack at editing that Gambaru Zo ad that I shot last week. Aside from Horita, there are two other BIG directors I deal with regularly. One is Miyazaki-san, who is really sharp. When he mentioned that his favorite author was Abe Kobo and that he was looking to read some American books, I recommended Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. He immediately bought it and then lent me the first volume from his favorite comic book series 20th Century Boys. I’ve read about half of it and in spite of the fact that’s it’s peppered with Tokyo slang I’m finding it really addictive.

The other director is Oshima-san, who I think is still a bit cowed by my foreign presence. She was assigned to help me with the editing. When I banged out a version of the 15-spot that I thought was pretty good, she didnât say anything but clearly she thought that something was wrong. When Horita saw it, he said that the version was decently edited but wrong for the concept of the campaign and offered a few suggestions. The following day, I re-edited the spot and Oshima was quiet in that something’s-wrong-but-I’m-too-shy-to-tell-you-what sort of way. After about a half hour, she gets Miyazaki who tells me that there’s supposed to be text in the spot too. OK, that’s the first I’ve heard of that. Together with Miyazaki and Oshima, we eventually hashed together a commercial that not only features most of my editing choices, and a lot of my photography, but also a half-second shot of the back of my head. Anyway, assuming the TV high mucky-mucks like the piece, it should be airing in the next week or so.

It’s a little sobering to think that after all the pain, effort, and money that I spent on my films while in Cal Arts, this 15 second piece that took two and a half days to throw together will be seen by more people than all the others combined.

You can watch the final result here: .

Kumamoto — The Film Geek

Boy, it’s hot and humid today. I think that the rainy season is beginning to loosen it death-grip on the skies. Yesterday, R and I did what we usually do during the weekends — take the tram into town and hang out. Last week, we bought a book listing all of Kumamoto’s numerous coffee shops and have since been exploring. There’s a few Japanese-themed shops, complete with tatami mats and green tea; several generically hip shops featuring Ikea-esque furniture and some tastefully displayed artifacts from the 1970s; numerous really dull shops catering to housewives with sweet-toothes (sweet teeth?); and at least one Chinese coffee shop; not to mention the dozen or so Starbucks and Starbucks-clones dotting the town.

Yesterday, I suppose I was in sort of a pissy mood, largely because it took R and hour and half to get ready to go out. After I needled R a bit, her mom burst in with some brown rice muffins and a can of organic apple juice. Whenever men get grumpy, Mrs. Sumi later told R, give them food. As much as I’d like to dispute her logic, I must admit I did shut up and gobble down the muffins. And I was less grumpy afterwards. I’m somewhat appalled at my own complete lack of guile.

Anyway, we spent much of the time in Shimotori, one of two shopping streets downtown. R bought a book on Zen, and I bought a compilation CD of old Stax soul tunes. We were hanging out at a coffee shop called Hands talking about kanji when the cell phone went off. (Oh yeah, it’s really easy to rent a cell phone here. Of course, my cell is about as basic as you can get, with none of the cool extras like net access, MP3 players or video players.) R’s parents were in the neighborhood and asked us over to her dad’s office. Soon afterwards we went to another coffee shop run by a friend of her dad. Did I mention that R’s dad knows everyone in this town?

The proprietor who is named Sonomura-san not only owns the shop — decorated with various items of film memorabilia — and is a film history lecturer at Kumamoto University, but is also a film critic who shows up on TV now and then. Soon after we ordered, he came right over to us and launched into a discussion about how he recently visited Ozu‘s and Mizoguchi‘s graves located in Kamakura and Kyoto respectively. We talked some and I mentioned that I was not only a fan of Ozu and Mizoguchi but also of Naruse Mikio (at least what I’ve seen a little of his work). Sonomura nearly wept with delight that a foreigner — and a relatively young one at that — heard of Naruse. The conversation quickly descended into an all out geek-fest. He knew the names all of the characters in Seven Samurai, the names and years of all the movies Hara Setsuko appeared in, and intimate details of director Keisuke Kinoshita‘s life story. The whole time he was unrelentingly staring at me. Ruriko and her family might as well as not have existed. Fortunately, I knew enough about Japanese cinema to sound somewhat intelligent. After an hour or so, we managed to disengage. While I respect and admire his passion for Japanese cinema (I’m sure I’ve bored people with my interest in the same) I did sort of feel like I was on the receiving end of a fire hose for an hour. Later that night, we went to a video store and rented one of the Kinoshita films that Sonomura recommended.

Kumamoto — Gambaru Zo

I realized the other day that I haven’t had a conversation in English in about two weeks.

Most of this week has been pretty quiet here. On Monday, I aided a shoot for a documentary about working mothers in Kumamoto prefecture. We interviewed a few people in Kumamoto proper and then packed up our gear and drove to a mountain village called Yabe, which is famous for an ancient stone bridge and for its tea, where we interviewed the volunteers at a sort of daycare establishment. One young girl was deathly afraid of facial hair, which proved to be a problem because half of our crew was bearded.

On Wednesday, after a slow day where I spent much of it trying valiantly to read Haruki Murakami‘s South of the Border, West of the Sun in Japanese (and after a week and a half, I’ve gotten all of five pages into the book), R’s dad called me up and told me to drop his office. I’ve been told by Horita-san that Mr. Sumi is probably the biggest freelance producer in Kumamoto, which was a huge surprise to R who tends to think of him as just “dad.” He favors flashy suits (by Japanese standards) and bears a freakish resemblance to Japanese television comedian Tamori. His office is a former bar and he still plies his clients with drinks. When I got there, I was met by Mr. Sumi and two executives with a local radio station who look like they’ve knocked back more than a few beers. Later, Mr. Sumi took me to his favorite Curry Rice joint. He called everyone working there by their first name, bummed cigarettes off the main chef, and poured himself and me a beer from the restaurant’s tap. Clearly, I thought, he’s a regular. We bonded in a manly fashion over beer and gyoza and curry.

On Thursday, I was the cameraman for a TV commercial. One of the local TV stations is sponsoring a vaguely desperate sounding spot called “Kumamoto Gambette zo” which exhorts the denizens of the prefecture to continue to struggle on in spite of the grim economy that has harried the country for the past decade. In this go around, the ad focuses on the manly exploits of a river rafting outfit. Horita-san approached me about this last week saying:

“Do you want to man a camera for a shoot?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Can you swim?”
“Yeah, sure.” (Which is a lie.)
“OK, you’re going to shoot in the boat. It’s really dangerous. Lots of people have died.”

Not being familiar with Horita-san’s mordant sense of humor, I was thinking that I might have signed on to a Deliverance-style trip of raging white rapids, jagged rocks, and amorous hillbillies. But when he showed me the brochure showing pictures of old people and toddlers beaming with good cheer, I figured that it was pretty safe. A bigger worry, it turns out was the weather, which has been generally miserable for the whole week. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m lucky. It has never rained during one of my shoots.” True to his word, during the hour or so of the boat ride not only did it not rain, but the sun peaked out of the clouds. When I returned I realized that I had a very incongruous-looking sunburn on my nose and back of my neck. Though the scenery was beautiful and rapids thrilling, I really couldn’t pay attention to it because trying to get a good shot while not to getting the camera wet. Which proved to me something of a feat. I spent most of the time in the front of the ship sitting with a rather bemused family wondering why there was foreigner pointing an expensive looking camera at them. While that spot afforded a good point of view to shoot, it was also a prime place to get soused by the rapids. I came off the boat, wet and burned at the same time.


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