Archive for April, 2008

Behold Omitama

I learned that Ogawa-machi, Japan, the small bucolic town I lived in for two years in the mid-90s is no more. It was more of a collection of rice fields punctuated by the odd house and/or strip of vending machines. There was all of two convenience marts there when I moved there and three when I left. The whole place smelled like onions and, being poor and rural, was a hotbed for the uyoku. There was a strip of businesses down two intersecting streets — most of which were mom and pop stores that eyed me suspiciously on the rare times popped in. To be fair, there were two notable things about Ogawa: a natto museum, which illustrated the history and many varieties of natto in flashy multi-media displays (though sadly, the gift shop didn’t sell T-shirts); and Hyakuri air base, where on a few occasions I went to teach English.

So what happened to Ogawa? It was absorbed into a new franken-berg, combining adjacent towns, Minori-machi and Tamari-mura. Behold, Omitama City. If your Japanese is rusty, the English version can be seen here. Here’s a map of it in relation to the rest of Ibaraki prefecture.

Why the switch? It seems that they are converting Hyakuri from being a strictly military base into the rather unimaginatively titled Ibaraki Airport. The idea is that it will be Tokyo’s third string air hub after Narita and Haneda with domestic flights to places like Naha, Sapporo and Fukuoka. Whether this will work or not, who knows. But the sleepy backwater where I lived is going to quickly change.

This week’s links

My weekly culling from the internets:

A creepily real “untooning” of every geek’s animated wet dream.

A guide for identifying various types in a crowd at a rock concert.

Design porn: robots made out of san-serif fonts.

More design porn: a song dedicated to that annoying promo guy in a design company.

The paintings of Adolf Hitler. He’s not bad, but not brilliant either and his subject matter is pretty hokey. Given the alternative, however, I think I would have preferred that he got into art school.

This is just stooopid.

And finally, rest easy. The Congolese penis thieves have been captured. Penis panics, it turns out, seems to be a weirdly common thing.

Kumamoto Summer: The Complete Series!

Ten years ago, after graduating with a useless Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies, I panicked and fled the country for a wild and woolly trip around the world.

Five years later, after graduating with a largely useless Master’s of Fine Arts in Film and Video, I again panicked and fled the country. This time, I went to Kumamoto, to work at a Japanese production company and live with my then girlfriend and her family. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Over the three so months I was there in 2003, I shot two commercials that aired on Japanese TV (you can see them here and here), read Gravity’s Rainbow, and suffered a low level headache from speaking Japanese pretty much 24/7.

I documented my time there on my first blog Broad Spectrum Antibiotics and now I’m reposting them, cleaned up and with lots of pictures and links, on WITMOT. You can read the first entry here.

Additional material: I also posted blogs entries from my first visit to Kumamoto here. And you can look at more pics of Kumamoto that I took here.

Odds and Ends

Today Disney announced the opening of a new film label that going produce nothing but nature documentaries at a press conference I got to go to. Pretty much everyone who is anyone in the nature doc biz is attached to this label, so watch for a volley of flicks about chimps and flamingos in ’09 and ’10. As a way of saying thanks for sitting through their slick spiel, they gave me a “Disney Nature” backpack and a glossy picture book, along with a posh lunch served on bamboo plates. Sitting on Disney’s outdoor patio with the Santa Monica mountains in distance, listening world music wafting through their sound system, and watching the PR types smooze as I ate pan-fried char, I thought to myself, “This couldn’t possibly get more stereotypically SoCal.”

One rather unnerving fact that I did come away from the press conference is that, if push came to shove, humans and chimpanzees could receive and give blood and kidneys to each other, if the situation required it. What the situation might be, I don’t want to hazard a guess.

More from the Shameless Self Promotion office: I got another list posted to Yahoo!’s top page: The End of the Earth Day. If interested, I also did this one, this one, and this one.

Finally, a shout out to my associate Mr. Ted Mills who posted a shout out to WITMOT on his estimable blog Stone Cold Pimpin’. And also to my associate Mr. Heath Martin who make the above graphic.

Temp Art

A few years ago after graduating from CalArts with yet another master’s degree, I was faced with the yawning terror of making ends meet. I applied to a temporary employment agency and I landed in a mail room in the Reconstructive Loan department in a processing center for Washington Mutual in Chatsworth, California.

My job could have been performed by a well-trained chimpanzee. I was a temporary worker, replaceable at the drop of the hat. The office space was the sort of generic gray cubicled affair one usually associates with the bottom end of the white-collar employment. My co-workers seemed beaten down and tired. And though I really only had three hours worth of work, I was obliged to be there for a full eight. I had to fill the void somehow.

So I did Temp Art.

The rules of Temp Art I worked out my first day on the job and are as the follows:
1. One piece of art a day.
2. All materials used for Temp Art must be found at work.
3. All art must be created during company time. (So I would be paid to do my art.)

During my three months there, I produced about 60 drawings of varying size. I worked in private, and as far as I know my superiors never caught on to my strange project. You can see more pics of temp art here at Flickr.

This Week’s Links

My weekly culling from the internets:

Super cool video filled with 80static logos.

This news story is just three shades of wrong.

And speaking of wrong, a conceptual artist in Yale is making “art” out of her own self-induced miscarriages. My first thought was “Ick.” My second was “ick.” My third was “I’m surprised she didn’t go to CalArts.” I’m so bored of this kind of shock identity politics art. It’s suffocating dead end that art still hasn’t found its way out of. Besides, it’s totally a rip off of my portrait of McGeorge Bundy done with my own snot.

[UPDATE] Turns out this whole thing was (thankfully) a hoax. Rest assured, if she went to CalArts, she would have done it for real.

[UPDATE 2] Or maybe Yale’s statement is a hoax. This whole thing is giving me a headache. Where’s Stabby when you need him?

And speaking of conceptual artists, in the 90s a couple of Russian conceptual artists decided to make the most unappealing music possible based on polls. The results you can read more about and listen to here.

More about conceptual artists or a sort: Jenna Jameson declares that her upcoming flick Zombie Strippers, is an anti-Bush movie. That might sway me to see it. Y’know, for the political subtext.

Tattooed Flower Vase (1976)

In the 1970s, Japanese studios, faced with mounting pressure from television and Hollywood, surrendered and just gave what the teaming masses what they wanted — softcore. And thus, the pink eiga (pink movie) was born. What followed could either be viewed as the beginning of a golden age of Japanese cinema or its ignoble demise. It definitely seemed like a bizarro-world version of Japanese cinema popularized by the likes of Donald Richie. Movies like Wife to be Sacrificed — featuring sadomasochism, enema use, and hints of necrophilia — became blockbuster hits while Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima were forced to go abroad to find funding. Pink eiga were first vilified by scandalized Western critics (like Richie) as being little more than exploitation flicks. And sure, they are exploitation flicks with all the lurid sex and sexism that the genre dictates. It doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting.

The other day I watched Tattooed Flower Vase directed by Masaru Konuma (who also directed Wife to be Sacrificed). Michiyo (played by Naomi Tani) is a kimono-clad widow who makes traditional Japanese paper dolls in an old fashion corner of Tokyo that has no doubt been since paved over to make condos. Her nubile, thoroughly modern, daughter Takako (Takako Kitagawa) comes home from college and promptly the two take a bath together in a traditional Japanese wooden tub. As Takako soaps up her mom’s ample breasts, she admonishes her to go out date. The sweaty middle-aged guy who sells Michiyo’s dolls has the same idea, and with the charm and aplomb typical to sweaty middle-aged men in these sort of movies, he drugs and violates her. The rape begins a sexual awakening in Michiyo — a particularly loathsome, if common, cliche in pink eiga — that is intensified by the presence of Hideo, the son of the kabuki performer who loved/raped her when she was young. She falls completely and utterly for the lad, even though she keeps calling him by his father’s name. The problem is that Hideo has already shacked up with Takako. When Michiyo witnesses — while tearfully masturbating — Hideo doinking her daughter, she snaps and, um, gets a full body tattoo. Her transformation from being a prim upstanding matron to being a sex-crazed tattooed hellcat is complete. She ravishes the youth as if she were in heat. When Takako bursts in upon the copulating couple, Michiyo snaps out of her frenzy and either through anguish, remorse or sheer embarrassment proceeds to disembowel herself on a shard of glass.

Michiyo is the ideal of the “traditional” woman. She wears a kimono, lives in an old beams and tatami style house, and surrounds herself with traditional arts. She’s also demur and at least initially, chaste. And when her libido finally comes to a rolling boiling, it is something deep, elemental and frightening. Takako, who spends much of the movie either listening to pop music, demanding sex from Hideo, and/or pouting, seems vapid and superficial by comparison. Hideo, the clear stand-in for the male audience, is callow, passive and, well, dull. The character and his masculinity seem overwhelmed by the Takako’s bluntness on the one hand and Michiyo’s Krakatoa-like fount of feminine sexuality on the other.

This fault line between modernity and gender relations is something that runs through most of modern Japanese art. Or rather, Japan’s sudden and disorienting modernization is frequently seen through the prism of gender relations. Japan’s first novel Ukigumo by Futabatei Shimei is about one hapless schmuck trying desperately to understand a beautiful and thoroughly modern young lass. The tropes in the this film — modern girl vs. traditional girl, rape as sexual awakening, passive reserved male, a woman the slave to her passions — are so pervasive that I’m inclined to think that pink eiga is a churning reservoir for Japan’s collective unconscious. I need to think this through some more, but I think there’s something there.

Konuma direction is spare and elegant. Naomi Tani — whose beauty only really becomes apparent when she’s either writhing in pain or sexual esctasy — gives a memorable performance. But what I find really interesting about Tattooed Flower Vase is not what makes it remarkable; it’s what makes it typical.

The Garfield Factor: President James A. Garfield would no doubt dismiss the whole genre as ungodly smut and return to his beloved ancient Greek.

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

One of the perks of working at my current job is that I get to watch free advanced movie screenings. The other day I watched Erroll MorrisStandard Operating Procedure. While his last film Fog of War, which I think is a masterpiece, examines a failed American war from the point of view of its architect, Robert McNamara, this film looks at one of the most embarrassing moments of this current failed American war — Abu Ghraib. Morris essentially allows the US Servicemen and women involved to give the context (and often rationalization) for each of the famed pictures. In his typical modernist way, Morris gives the viewer few objective handles to judge the interviewees stories.

What worked brilliantly in Fog of War falters here. The music (Danny Elfman channeling Philip Glass) is too bombastic, the graphics (done by my former employer Kyle Cooper) are too slick, and Morris’ trademark reenactments are too beautiful for the subject matter. The pictures are horrific and the servicemen and women are too raw and conflicted to justify such an overblown approach.

That being said, Standard Operating Procedure raises some very uncomfortable questions. Primarily, there’s one of guilt. Sure, most of the interviewees are guilty of mistreating prisoners. And their defense is something along the lines of “I was just following orders.” Nuremberg declared that such an argument doesn’t hold water. And while I agree with that in principle, I came away from the film feeling sorry for the poor schmucks, most straight out high school, who were put into a morally gray if not contradictory situation with intentionally vague instructions. (I wonder how my opinion would have changed if the movie interviewed the Iraqi prisoners in those pictures.

All of them draw a line between abuse and standard operating procedure. Making some guy jerk off or piling prisoners in a human pyramid is abuse, while stripping some guy naked, putting panties on his head and handcuffing him in an uncomfortable position is standard operating procedure. It strikes me, as a civilian, that that’s a very subtle and easily crossed distinction.

The film argues that Lynndie England and the others were punished more because they embarrassed the Pentagon that for an crime. One poor guy was sentenced to a year in the brig. Why? Because he appeared in an Abu Ghraib video cutting of the flex cuffs of a prisoner whose hands were turning purple. Though this torture strategy originated at the highest levels of government , no one above Staff Sargent was criminally punished. Guilt, according to the government, is not based on what you do, but whether or not you’re caught. That sort of mindset, that like an amoral seven-year old, has been the standard operating procedure for this administration. And as the years pass, Abu Ghraib might seem quaint compared to the horrors that Bush Co. have for now managed to hide away. That’s the thing about guilt, and nationhood. Just like the German people bare responsibility for Hitler and the Japanese bare (still officially unacknowledged) responsibility for Hirohito’s crimes in China, so does the American people share guilt about Bush’s crimes. And it drives me crazy.

The Garfield Factor: James A. Garfield, 20th president of the US, would have been largely baffled by the modernist sensibilities, finding it too disjointed and morally fuzzy. He would have undoubtedly found the Abu Ghraib pictures unsettling, not for their brutality, Pres. Garfield was a general in the Union army, but for their near pornographic unseemliness. Most likely, we would have poured himself a glass of whiskey and tried to blot the whole thing out of his mind by studying his beloved ancient Greek texts.

This week’s links

My weekly culling from the internets:

-Quite possibly the best movie trailer ever.

-A Chinese company uses Red Guard imagery to sell fertilizer. A lot of people thought that Mao was selling the Chinese a load of fertilizer during the Cultural Revolution. Now here’s the real thing.

-Finally, Wesley Willis‘ doppelganger is running for president. One of his platforms: “To Prove the United States Government killed my sex life, my wife sex life, my daughter-in –laws sex life both may [sic] sons and other of my family members sex life… “

-If you happen to be in Pennsylvania, take advantage of this opportunity to take a ‘make your own gorilla suit costume’ workshop.

-And here’s Cory McAbee‘s latest short Reno. The music is by his band The Billy Nayer Show and it features dancing cowboys.

Existential World Tour: the Complete Series!

Back in 1998, after I graduated from U of Michigan with a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies that I knew would prove to be worthless, I panicked. I wanted to go back to Japan, but I really did not want to teach English again. I taught it for two years between 1994 and ’96 and I felt my brain softening a little more with each day I worked there. The few job leads that I had in Japan fell through and suddenly I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. The future looked confusing and uncertain and I was overwhelmed. So I did what any red-blooded lad hailing from the stout state of Ohio might: I sold my car and traveled around the world. Along the way, I wrote a series of mass emails detailing my adventures with included climbing Himalayas, getting chased by a Rhino and getting naked with a room full of Russians. I thought of them as a sort of proto-blog though blogs were at that point a good five years away. So now, ten years later, I finally have these missives in a blog format. You can read the first entry here.

I also have pictures from my Existential World Tour to Taiwan, Nepal, Russia, and Berlin.


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