Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Engaging Commodities: The Media Blitz

Posted in Film,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 18th, 2010

The Chicago Shimpo, a local bilingual weekly aimed at the Japanese-American community, has given nice front-page coverage to our recent conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” The newspaper focuses on the guest musicians who participated, The Golden Cups and Alan Merrill, including interviews with the Cups, their manager, and with three long-time fans who traveled from Japan to attend the event. The article includes many photographs, as well.

A .pdf file of the English language version of the article is here, and the Japanese language version is here.

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Engaging Commodities, Day 2

Posted in Art,Film,J-Pop,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the May 23rd, 2010

Yesterday was the second and final day of the conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” We began in the morning with a panel on “Engaging Cinematic Commodities,” with papers from Junji Yoshida (University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow) on the ways wartime memories were commemorated via jokes in 1960s popular films, Stephanie DeBoer (Indiana University) on the flows of people, technologies and forms between Tokyo and Hong Kong in the musical film genre, and Richard Davis (University of Chicago graduate student) on the depiction of advertising, both visual and aural, in 1960s film.

After lunch, we had a panel on “Radical Visual Culture in 1960s Japan” with Jonathan Hall (Pomona College) situating Okabe Michio’s remarkable 1968 film Crazy Love in dialogue with Susan Sontag’s writings on camp, William Marotti (UCLA) on the significance of early 1960s avant garde musical performances by the Group Ongaku, and Miryam Sas (University of California-Berkeley) on a variety of experimental animated films from the period.

Our last panel covered “Music in Film,” with Daniel Johnson (University of Chicago graduate student) looking at changing modes for representing romance/sex and sentiment/irony in Nikkatsu action films, Michael Raine (University of Chicago) discussing how we might rethink the practices of reading that 1960s popular films seem to suggest as their proper modes of use, and Junko Yamazaki (University of Chicago graduate student) on the use of avant garde musical forms in the film soundtracks composed by Mayuzumi Toshiro.

The conference ended with a screening of the remarkable 1964 Toho musical, Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru (You too can get ahead!, dir. Sugawa Eizo), a marvelous film that brings together many of the themes we had been talking about over the course of the conference. It was a stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting two days, and I’m grateful to all of the participants and to all of my colleagues for making it possible.

Here’s a trailer for Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru:

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“Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art”

Posted in Art,Film,J-Rock,Japanese film,Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the May 10th, 2010


On May 21-22, the University of Chicago will host “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art,” a conference focusing on the remarkable world of 1960s Japanese culture. During that turbulent decade, Japanese filmmakers, musicians and artists operated in a highly fluid environment in which boundaries between mass-culture entertainment and avant-garde art came under constant pressure. This remarkable environment gave rise to hit songs and movies that incorporated abstract experimental techniques, as well as to avant-garde art pieces that freely integrated elements from commercial culture. The conference will include new scholarly papers on experimental film, popular genre film, jazz, folk music, rock-and-roll, animation and other cultural forms from the period.

The conference will also feature special appearances by musicians who were key figures in the 1960s Japan rock scene, including Alan Merrill, an American singer/songwriter who was a member of the Group Sounds band The Lead, then a solo performer signed by the influential Watanabe Pro management agency, and subsequently the leader of the pioneering glam rock outfit Vodka Collins. (After leaving Japan in 1973, Merrill founded The Arrows, a band that had several hits in the UK, including the original version of “I Love Rock and Roll,” a Merrill composition later recorded by Joan Jett and many others).

Three original members of the legendary Group Sounds band The Golden Cups will also appear at the event — lead guitarist Eddie Ban, bassist Louise Louis Kabe, and drummer/singer Mamoru Manu — and the conference will include a screening of The Golden Cups: One More Time, an acclaimed 2004 documentary about the band.

All events are free and open to the public, but RSVP is required for the Friday evening sessions featuring Merrill and The Golden Cups. The RSVP link and a full conference schedule are available on line at:

http://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/japanatchicago/

The event is the eighth in the annual Japan@Chicago conference series and is sponsored by the Committee on Japanese Studies at the Center for East Asian Studies. Persons who may need assistance to participate should call 773-702-2715. For additional information, please contact Sarah Arehart, Outreach Coordinator for the Center for East Asian Studies (sarehart@uchicago.edu).

[Updated May 13: We have added the RSVP system for the Friday night sessions mentioned above because we anticipate a large demand for the limited number of seats available]

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All I Know is What I Read in the Papers

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Film,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the March 9th, 2010

There was an amusing editorial cartoon in the Chicago Tribune this past weekend by Scott Stantis. A mother sits at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper, and announces to her two children that the Post Office might stop delivering letters on Saturday. Her son, busy at his laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” Her daughter, texting on her cellphone, tops this by asking, “What’s a newspaper?”

The state of the newspaper industry in Japan isn’t quite so grim as in America, but the numbers are still tumbling. The hard-right Sankei newspaper is taking the biggest hit, report Peter Alford and David McNeill in a very interesting article up this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Daily circulation figures for Japan’s major newspapers still dwarf those in other countries.

Slowly, however, the gravity-defying circulations appear to be heading for earth. ABC statistics on the main morning-edition circulation for 2006 to 2009 show that every Japanese newspaper recorded a loss of sales, except the business-oriented Nikkei. In relative terms, the declines are tiny: the world’s best-selling newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri is down from 10,042,075 to 10,018,117; the liberal-left Asahi from 8,093,885 to 8,031,579; the liberal Mainichi has taken a more substantial hit, from just under 4 million to 3.8 million. The Nikkei is up slightly from 3,034,481 to 3,052,929. Perhaps more indicative, and worrying, for the industry is the sharp drop in advertising revenues: from one trillion yen in 2007 to an estimated 600 billion in 2009, a year in which online advertisements continued to grow.

Those same newspapers are reporting just now (so far Japanese-language only, but I’m sure the English papers will be carrying this in a few hours) that film director Kitano Takeshi has just been awarded France’s highest cultural honor. This all coincides with a film festival and art show in Paris featuring his works.

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Passing Strange: The Movie

Posted in Film,Music by bourdaghs on the January 29th, 2010

I’ve been a big fan of musician Stew for more than a decade, since I first stumbled across his band The Negro Problem back in the late 1990s. He takes the sound of 1960s sophisticated California pop (think Arthur Lee and Love or Jimmy Webb) and updates it with lyrics that shimmer with wit, intelligence, and poetry. Throw in a remarkable gift for composing haunting melodies and you have a singer-songwriter who I think is a living national treasure. The best gift I ever gave Satoko was for Valentine’s Day 2006, when I was able to get Stew to record a personalized song for her commemorating the holiday. Satoko said it almost made up for all the other crummy presents I’d given her over the years.

So I was delighted when Stew’s musical, Passing Strange, won him some much deserved attention, including a Tony Award for its 2008 Broadway engagement. I thought about flying out to New York to see the show during its two runs there, but never made it. I did snap up the original cast recording CD when it was issued and fell in love with many of the songs on it.

In the end, though, I never saw the show live. Last night, I got to see Spike Lee’s film version, which records the final Broadway performance at the Belasco Theater. I was prepared to like this film, needless to say. But I wasn’t fully prepared for how powerful the experience was. It had me in tears more than once–that is, when I wasn’t laughing or tapping my foot in time to the music.

It’s a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man narrative combined with an electrifying rock show: Stew, his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, and band are on stage the whole time, frequently interacting with the actors. The cast is astonishingly good. Many of the players take up multiple roles during the course of the evening, and it is sheer pleasure to watch them inhabit the bodies of radically different sorts of characters. Through it all, Stew serves as the avuncular narrator, stepping up to centerstage whenever the need arises for a rock-and-roll explosion. Spike Lee’s direction is lean but creative: he even gets a cast member to carry a video camera on stage to film one sequence (watch the Special Features section on the DVD for more about this).

I can only guess how much more powerful the show must have been live. It’s difficult to imagine another cast ever taking it on, so probably this filmed version is the best I’ll get. I hate to set you up with excessive expectations that no movie could ever satisfy; undoubtedly, the best way to encounter this would be to stumble across it unexpectedly and be blown away. But I’d hate for anyone to miss this one: do yourself a favor and watch the thing. It’s a work of art, and to paraphrase Stew, life is full of mistakes, but art is where we go to correct them.

How I Spent My Winter Break

Posted in Current Events,Film,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 3rd, 2010

504 pieces in all, it took Sonia and me four days to complete. I love doing jigsaw puzzles over the holidays: it gives me this luxurious feeling of burning time, like a millionaire torching twenty-dollar bills to light his cigars.

But do I really have to go back to work tomorrow? I love teaching, but would another week of winter break really cripple the university? My biggest complaint about the quarter system (as opposed to the morally superior semester system) is the short winter break. Sigh.

In the meanwhile, the NY Times reports that even old decrepit types like myself can learn new tricks, if we approach our neurons and synapses from the proper angle. “Disorienting dilemma” is the trick, they tell us. That should be a snap, since I spend most of my time in that state these days anyhow.

Anime god Miyazaki Hayao has granted a rare interview, prior to the opening of his latest work, Ponyo, in the UK next month.

Finally, a ray of hope from Kichijoji, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo: a new campaign to save the neighborhood sento (public bath) by way of rock music. It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it, and you can get your back scrubbed at the same time. Brilliant!

(Image source)

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