Posts Tagged 'yamaga'

Kumamoto — Sayonara

I’m in my last few days of living here in Kumamoto. On Tuesday or so, R and I are heading to the bright lights and big-city bustle of Tokyo where R is finally going to shoot the bulk of her thesis. Yesterday, before Chakko returned to Fukuoka with her mom — R’s aunt — she gave me a picture book that cataloged every weird ghost and spirit in Japanese mythology including a ghost for umbrellas that have been around too long, a disembodied horse leg that whacks unsuspecting victims in the head, and a truly bizarre ghost called a meoshiri which has a big round eye in its backside. In return, I gave her a couple tapes of my movies. Chakko also has a four-year daughter named Sakura who is the most relaxed, poised four-year old I’ve ever met. R’s mom tells me that kid’s preternaturally good disposition is because all the brown rice Chakko when she was pregnant with her.

Anyway, during some of the slow days at BIG — when everyone was planning shoots instead of doing them — I sometimes would take the company digital camera in hand and troll the city looking for things to shoot. The dangerous thing about digital cameras is that there are no worries about taking a bad picture. If you don’t like it, erase it. I ended up taking something like 400 pictures of things like street lamps, vending machines and ugly buildings. I don’t know why, but when it comes to photography I’m really not all that interested in shooting people; it’s architecture and physical space that really does it for me. I’ll spare you those pics, but I assembled a few photos that would give you, the loyal reader, a sense of my life here in Kumamoto. First the touristy stuff·

This here’s Kumamoto castle. As I noted earlier in this blog, this castle was used in Kurosawa Akira’s Kagemusha. The original burned down in 1868 during a final desperate stand against the Meiji restoration. The battle was famously bloody ending with much mirth for the victors and beheadings for the vanquished. The castle’s painstakingly detailed reconstruction in the 1960s is limited to the exterior. The inside looks like an East German municipal hall. But the really remarkable thing about this castle is that stone wall in the foreground, which is original. They were designed so that a gullible invading army might be able to scale half way up the wall before it curves up at a deceptively steep angle leaving flailing soldiers open for all sorts of missiles, boiling oil and the like. The castle apparently took 20 years to build and when it was done, warlord Kato Kiyomasa killed the architect and everyone involved with project to keep them from leaking its weaknesses to enemies. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Halliburton adopts a similar policy.

This is the international headquarters of BIG. Actually, BIG takes up only part of the second floor — next to an acupuncturist — and part of the third. The landlord lives on the fourth floor with a dog that yaps incessantly.

And here’s a shot of me that Horita took during the Anesis shoot in June. That’s Miyazaki in the background checking his cell phone and that guy in the back is Fujita, Yamano-san’s assistant. I think Yamano was off smoking a cigarette or something. We were all waiting for the sun to set. That intense expression on my face is not because of my concern for anything going on in the shoot, but rather a profound concern that I would make an ass of myself from some half-understood command.

Alas, I have no still shots of the Touro maidens from my Yamaga shoot, but I do have this reasonably scenic shot of the town. Along with hot springs and pink clad women with funny lanterns on their heads, Yamaga is famous for making shochu and most of the buildings on this stretch of road are actually old distilleries.

Closer to home, this is Hachi, the Sumi’s emotionally needy dog. R’s parents are more camera-shy than she is, if that’s possible. But I was allowed to shoot pictures of Hachi with impunity. He doesn’t really bark so much as howl as if your were removing his hind leg with a butter knife. This is especially the case when he senses the slightest whiff of abandonment, such as going to the store or the bathroom. Today, I went shooting a bit in the morning with R’s camera. When I return, Hachi wouldn’t stop smelling my feet. He wouldn’t wait until I sat down either so I kept tripping over him. Anyway, strange dog.

You can see more pics of Kumamoto, mostly of the grim architectural variety, here.

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 — 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.”


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