I finally watched Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea


I finally watched Ponyo last night. As most of you know, it’s Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, about a magical goldfish who wants to become human. The whole time I was watching, I was thinking, hey, this story is kinda like Little Mermaid! Later I found out that Miyazaki was supposedly inspired by the Little Mermaid — which makes perfect sense. Before I watched this film, some people told me it wasn’t going to be that good. I don’t agree. While it may not have been his best film to date, if we discard the high expectations we have of the prolific filmmaker, I think we’d appreciate it for what it is — a ridiculously cute, imaginative, wonderful animated movie.

Even with the magical goldfish who can metamorphose into a human, Ponyo is a little bit more “normal” compared to some of Miyazaki’s other films, like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Most of the characters are normal humans, for one thing. I instantly fell in love with the ocean scenes and the colors he used to depict the world beneath the water. I also thought Ponyo was maybe the cutest character in the world — she reminded me a bit of my childhood favorite, the purple-haired robot Arale-chan.

Ponyo also has some really interesting character depictions that are reflective of contemporary Japanese culture. For example, Ponyo’s dad is overprotective and often misunderstood by his daughter, who pushes him away the more he tries to get close to her. And Sosuke’s mom is a strong, fearless working mother who only loses her cool when her husband flakes on her, but is otherwise unfazed by anything, including the giant tsunami and a girl who used to be a goldfish. I love when she says something like: Weird things are happening, and we might not understand them now but one day they’ll make sense, and we just have to do what’s right for now. Isn’t that nice? I really enjoyed the movie and would watch it again and again if I had time.

Buy Ponyo on Amazon

National Geographic film series features fighting OL

To celebrate its 15th anniversary, National Geographic Japan has produced three short films centered around the theme “knowledge is not the end goal, but the beginning.” The second film, called Fight, Haruka!, features a pretty stereotypical OL (office lady) who fights sexual harassment and subordination at work after being inspired by Bolivia’s cholitas, indigenous wrestlers who fight for women’s rights and equality.

Link (Thanks, Kazu Y!)

Richard Aoki, the only Asian leader in the Black Panther Party

225px-RichardAokiDid you know that one of the first members of the Black Panther Party was a Japanese-American guy named Richard Aoki? I’m watching a documentary about him right now. Aoki spent 10 years of his childhood in a concentration camp during World War 2, and then he moved to West Oakland, where he quickly became a radical political activist. There were actually several Japanese-Americans in the Black Panther Party, fueled no doubt in part by the fact that they were also harshly discriminated against around the time that the civil rights movement was taking place. Aoki was appointed as Field Marshall of the Party; among other members, he was known as the mysterious man who supplied guns to Party founder Huey Newton. Such an interesting life story! The documentary follows him around on the last six years of his life and interviews friends and experts who remember him.

You can watch Aoki at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, which starts next week.

Aoki Film main page

Twilight Samurai, a romantic movie starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa


Last night I watched Twilight Samurai (たそがれ清兵衛), a Yoji Yamada film from 2002 featuring Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa. I tend to fall asleep during samurai movies, but this one was really emotionally entertaining. Sanada plays the role of a low-class widower samurai named Iguchi Seibei who takes care of his senile mother and two young daughters all by himself. His peers mock him and take pity on him, but he is in fact perfectly content. He loves watching his daughters grow up and appreciates the little things in life. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. But when his childhood friend Tomoe — played by Miyazawa — comes back into his life, he is unexpectedly thrown back into battle. I won’t spoil the plot here, but Sanada does an amazing job of portraying a man of such great honor, self-understanding, and compassion. It’s really nice.

Sanada, by the way, currently stars in the last season of Lost.

The Sun, a documentary about WW2 Emperor Hirohito

Emperor Hirohito is the subject of a new Russian film that’s showing in New York City right now, called The Sun. I have not seen it, nor do I know much about it, but it sounds it could be interesting for those who have a fascination with Japan before, during, and after WW2.

By the way, the best book that explains how Japan changed after WW2 is Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower. Read it now if you haven’t already.

My favorite movie about this era is a documentary by famed filmmaker Kazuo Hara called Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On — it chronicles the journey of one WW2 vet whose mission is to get soldiers to atone for crimes committed during the war, many years later.

Related stories:
Wings of Defeat: a documentary about kamikaze pilots
New uncensored HBO documentary on Hiroshima

The Taste of Tea, a cute-beautiful movie about a quirky family

Taste_of_tea I just watched a movie called The Taste of Tea. The director is Katsuhito Ishii, and starring actors include Tadanobu Asano from Ichi the Killer and Rinko Kikuchi from Babel. It’s about a quirky family living in rural Tochigi and their little obsessions — the dad with his hypnotherapy, the grandpa with his dance moves, the son with his teenager hormones and the adorable little daughter who is convinced that she’ll be able to rid her life of a giant spirit of herself that follows her around everywhere if she can perfect a backflip.

The Taste of Tea is full of charming little anecdotes — my favorite was the one in which an uncle recalls the story of how he pooped on a giant egg while wandering around in a haunted forest. Such a great story within a story. The film is several years old, but it got high acclaim at film fests and I recommend it as part of your Japanese movie collection.

Get The Taste of Tea on Amazon

New documentary about wacky inventor Dr. NakaMats

Dr. NakaMats, the kooky inventor whom I wrote about in my io9 column, MangoBot, in Jan 08, is the subject of a new documentary. It’s an in-depth look into the life of a guy who claims to have more patents than Edison, a recipe for Super Viagra, a lifespan of 144 years, and who has run for political office several times.

Related stories:
Japan’s wackiest inventor saves the world with super viagra
I met Dr. NakaMats in Shibuya
Dr. NakaMats’ male model debut
Crazy inventor running for mayor

Politician’s porn past raises questions of aptitude

This is a clip from a porn horror film called Blind Beast v. Killer Dwarf, based on a novel by Edogawa Ranpo (he’s kinda like the Japanese version of Edgar Allan Poe). It stars Mieko Kikuchi, aka Mieko Tanaka, a Democratic Party of Japan member. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with politicians having a porn past, but an article in the Global Post raises an interesting question of whether the contingency of female politicians in the DPJ are truly qualified to hold official positions, or if it’s just a PR stunt.

Link (via Hiroko Tabuchi’s Twitter)

White on Rice, a funny movie about an annoying uncle, is in theaters now


This morning in San Francisco, I interviewed Dave Boyle, the director of a new-ish movie called White on Rice. With him was actor Hiroshi Watanabe; he plays the part of Jimmy, a super-immature 40-year old who moves in with his sister’s family in Utah after getting a divorce in Japan. We mostly talked about how a Mormon missionary ended up making movies about Japanese culture. The interview will air on NPR sometime soon; in the meantime, you should go check out White on Rice at the movie theater. If you’re in SF, it’s playing at the Metreon now.

I thought the same when I saw Boyle’s first film, Big Dreams Little Tokyo, but Boyle always does an excellent job of depicting aspects of Japanese culture without being offensive or compromising his sense of humor.

Btw, this is a pic I took of Boyle, Watanabe, and Ruby.

White on Rice main page
My review of Big Dreams Little Tokyo

I Love Me, a film about famous OCD artist Yayoi Kusama

I just came back from watching a documentary about celebrated avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. I have always been fascinated with this woman — she’s 80 years old, but ever since she was a teenager she has been unapologetically paranoid and OCD and has driven all her obsessions into her artwork, which largely consists of dots and lines and eyeballs. The documentary follows her through the process of making a series of 50 giant black-and-white permanent marker drawings for a traveling exhibition; the film starts off a bit slow with some pretty shoddy footage but improves later as it dives into some interesting detail about a childhood full of manipulation and depression, and her middle years as an active, radical member of the NY art community. There’s a lot of great footage of her actually drawing, which is fascinating to watch, and it becomes evident through her frequent self-praise that she’s really into herself. I wouldn’t call her egocentric, exactly. It’s almost as if she isn’t able to see outside of herself and her obsessions; it’s not a choice, it’s a condition she lives with, and copes with through her art, which is indeed brilliant and original.

Related stories:
Amazing handsets designed by Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, avant-garde genius
Yayoi Deki is the new Yayoi Kusama

Taiji dolphins freed due to pressure from The Cove

I just got this information from the Oceanic Preservation Society, the organization behind the documentary The Cove about the dolphin killings in Taiji:

Fishermen in Taiji, Japan will be releasing captured dolphins this week in response to international outcry following the award-winning film “The Cove.” Some of the dolphins captured during the annual round up will be sold to aquariums, and while the rest are typically slaughtered in secret, the fishermen will be releasing them because of recent criticism.

…An anonymous Taiji fisheries official said that it’s not clear whether the town will stop killing dolphins permanently. Taiji residents see the dolphin hunt as a tradition that is no different than killing other animals for food. However, the dolphins that are killed and sold as food, often as mislabeled whale meat, contain toxic levels of mercury and are potentially poisoning Japanese consumers.

…The fishermen in Taiji captured about 100 bottlenose dolphins and 50 pilot whales on Wednesday, with plans to sell some of their catch to aquariums for up to $150,000 per animal.

The Taiji government hasn’t confirmed yet whether the killings will be halted permanently, but the fact that they’re on hold means that they’re listening.

Related stories:
The Cove, an upcoming documentary about dolphins in Taiji
Dolphin slaughter: horrible injustice, or just another meal?

Big Man Japan, a movie about a giant ex-superhero

Big Man Japan is a new-ish movie about an unappreciated, outdated superhero &mdash a giant Japanese man who used to be part of a tribe of protectors but is now just seen as a menace to society. If you like Japan and men in diapers and mutant alien creatures destroying cities, you should definitely check it out. I just put it on my Netflix queue.

(Thanks, Vagrant!)

The Cove, an upcoming documentary about dolphins in Taiji

The Cove, a new documentary on dolphin killings in the Japanese town of Taiji, comes out at the end of August. I personally love dolphins, and I used to enjoy watching them swim at hotels and aquariums in Hawaii when I was a kid. Then again, if I knew the story behind their capture back then, maybe I would have become a dolphin activist too. Some people are opposed to the eating of dolphins. I would never eat a dolphin, but I eat other meat and think that’s fine, so I’m not conceptually opposed to people eating stuff they want to eat. I’m not sure how I’ll feel after seeing this documentary, but I’ll let you guys know.

Interestingly, dolphins were not considered worthy of captivity by humans until the 1960s &mdash that’s when the American TV show Flipper came out.

Related story:
Dolphin slaughter: horrible injustice, or just another meal?

(Thanks, Ken!)

Children Full of Life, a moving documentary about kids sharing emotions in school

My friend Alyssa sent me a link to a 2003 documentary called Children Full of Life, now viewable in its entirety on YouTube (also embedded in this post). The film features a very unique 4th grade class in Kanazawa, where the teacher encourages students to keep journals, read them out loud in class, and then share deep, ordinarily inaccessible emotions with the rest of the students. For example, in the first section, they talk about death. Most teachers would shy away from talking about such subjects in class &mdash they might deem it inappropriate, or opt to spend the time doing other stuff, or maybe it’s just not customary to talk openly about such deep emotions in school. I certainly don’t know that many classrooms, even in the US, where this is actively encouraged. But this teacher, one Mr. Kanamori, tells the children that their primary goal is to be happy, and that sharing feelings is part of the path to happiness.

Continue reading

Harry Potter fangirl’s hilarious interviews with Ron and Harry

A popular variety TV show called Sanma no Karakuri TV had a contest where 10,000 Japanese Harry Potter fans competed for a chance to fly to the UK, visit the set of the HP movies, and interview Ron and Harry. The winner was a high school girl named Kana Matsuda. Here’s a hilarious clip of her interviewing Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley. Watch it! It has subtitles. I’m personally a bigger fan of Ron than Harry, but if you want to watch the video of her interviewing Daniel Radcliffe, it’s here.

I just watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at the theater on Friday, btw. It was fun!

via Japan Probe

Hula Girls, a wonderful movie about Hawaiian dance in a 60s coal mining town


Last night, I finally watched Hula Girls, the 2006 film about a coal mining town in northern Japan that won a bunch of awards and was a big hit in film festival circuits a couple years ago. It’s about a coal mining town in northern Japan where nothing ever changes &mdash until one day, the owner of the mine announces that he has to fire 2000 people because people are starting to rely on oil, not coal. Instead, the town has decided to open a Hawaiian-themed entertainment resort, and as part of that effort, the project manager recruits a hula teacher from Tokyo to teach some of the coal miners’ daughters how to wear bikinis and shake their hips and dance. A lot of interesting issues are addressed in the film, which is based in 1960s &mdash old Japan vs new, changing views of women and work, stigmas about sexiness, etc. But it’s a fun, feel-good movie (like Honey and Clover and Tampopo).

Did I tell you it’s based on a true story? The Hawaiian resort really exists in Iwaki City, and has since 1966. It’s released in the US by Viz Pictures with subtitles. Highly recommended!

Hula Girls on Amazon