Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Thanks, Ray

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the August 30th, 2010

Last week at a music festival in Denmark, Ray Davies revived one of the many great unknown Kinks’ songs, “The Way Love Used To Be,” with full orchestra. The original Kinks’ version (listen here) appeared on the obscure soundtrack to the 1971 film Percy.

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Kon Satoshi

Posted in Japanese film by bourdaghs on the August 26th, 2010

I am stunned to learn of the death of anime director Kon Satoshi. He was only 46; the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Kon was for my money easily the best director in Japanese anime. Each of his remarkable films expanded the boundaries of what the medium was capable of. The first one I saw was Millennium Actress (2001), his second feature, and it knocked me out: it’s a stunning homage to the history of Japanese cinema. I immediately tracked down Perfect Blue, his debut film, and from that time on made a point of seeing everything he released. His art reached a peak with Paprika (2006), a truly mind-blowing film. Here is what I wrote about Paprika when I first saw it:

Iím convinced that Kon is the most important director of anime in the world, and Iíve been wanting to see this one since the day it was released. I wasnít disappointed: it may well be his best film yet, and that is saying something. This is after all the man who has already given us Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. Stunning visually: the first five minutes had my jaw dropping. The plot is tangled, but that is appropriate since the film is about the logic of dreams: an experimental device that allows psychotherapists to enter the dreams of their patients falls into the wrong hands, becoming a deadly tool for manipulation. Dreams are the stuff that we are made of, and Konís story unfolds an allegory about life under conditions of mass media, consumerism, and technology. It all ends with one of the main characters buying a ticket to see a film directed by Kon Satoshi. I canít wait for the directorís next film!

Kon was apparently close to finishing that next film when he passed away. I still can’t wait to see it, but will have a hard time accepting that it will be this master’s final work.

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Whither the New Consensus?

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the August 13th, 2010

He pontificates:

In retrospect, the vaunted “liberal consensus” that dominated postwar American culture began breaking down in the 1970s. Richard Nixon in many ways represented both its culmination and its collapse: the former right-wing anti-Communist ended up presiding over the last wave of Great Society projects, but Nixon also helped engineer the liberal consensus’s downfall. He was, after all, the author of the Southern Strategy, designed to exploit racial tensions to split white voters away from their century-long adherence to the Democratic Party. Reagan, of course, solidified the new conservative consensus, and it reached its pinnacle ironically with the end of the Cold War (which was the final fruit of the liberal consensus) but I think Nixon was its real author.

After all, it was in the Nixon years that Milton Friedman and others published papers that challenged the liberal orthodoxy of Keynesian economics, providing what seemed at the time a more persuasive account for the mystery of simultaneous high rates of inflation and unemployment. Market forces, deregulation, and tax cuts became the new mantra.

It seems pretty clear that we’ve come to another turning point in American culture. The conservative consensus that has dominated public and media opinion (albeit not in the realms of cultural or intellectual life) for nearly forty years is in full-blown collapse: now it is Friedman’s economic theory that suddenly seems useless to explain the current economic crisis. The Southern Strategy increasingly looks like an anchor around the neck of the Republican Party, as it alienates every group in the country except for aging white conservatives. The death throes of the Conservative Consensus are ugly, as its proponents cling to its fading guarantees and lash out in hysterical anger at those who point out its failings. And just as was the case with the liberal consensus after its loss of hegemony, the aftereffects of the conservative version will no doubt linger in public discourse for the next decade or longer.

The fast approaching end of the Conservative Consensus seems pretty clear. What isn’t so clear is the nature of the new consensus that would emerge to take its place: what we see right now is an absence of any consensus. Things could go in any direction, I think. On bad days, I am struck by the resemblance between contemporary America and 1930s Germany and Japan: widepsread economic distress, palpable loss of faith in democracy and a concomitant blind worship of the military’s supposed competence, the rise of populist demagogues fanning hatred against impoverished minority groups (Father Coughlin, meet Rush Limbaugh), their more radical supporters arming themselves and forming quasi-militia that lack only brown shirts. It’s also striking how the rhetoric of the Cold War (Communist! Socialist!) is being revived today, a recycling of the slogans that helped the liberal consensus gain traction forty years ago recycled now in a desperate attempt to plug the leaks in the sinking ship of the conservative consensus.

The election of Obama seemed to promise the rise of a new progressive, or perhaps technocratic, consensus, but he has mostly weasled away from that (yes, that statement apparently makes me a member of the “professional left”). As a result, there seems no clear candidate on hand from the left or the center for replacing the failing conservative consensus. The U.S. currently faces enormous problems–rampant poverty and an increasingly immoral economic system that steers wealth into the hands of a tiny elite; environmental and infrastructural meltdown; simultaneous decay of our primary, secondary, and tertiary educational systems; the rise of a plutocracy in which corporations and wealthy individuals blatantly buy up elections and branches of government, to name just a few–and effective solutions will require a new consensus. The great American experiment with democracy has muddled through crises in the past; does it have the ability to pull off one more revival?

The Autumn Concert Season

Posted in Classical,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the August 12th, 2010

Well, our upcoming fall concert-going season is pretty well set, and I’m looking forward to some exciting live music. Here are the events we’re planning to attend. How about you?

September 4-5: Chicago Jazz Festival (one of the nation’s premiere jazz events, and it’s all free!)

September 19: Aimee Mann (Old Town School of Folk Music)

September 25: Hyde Park Jazz Festival (Almost as good as the Chicago Jazz Festival, and it’s all free, too)

September 30: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Center; Riccardo Muti conducts Mozart and Haydn)

October 1: Eels (Metro)

October 26: Sakamoto Ryuichi (Vic Theatre)

November 13: Stew and The Negro Problem, featuring Heidi Rodewald (Museum of Contemporary Art)

December 2: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Center; Pierre Boulez conducts Schoenberg and JanŠ??ek)

World Happiness 2010

Posted in J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the August 9th, 2010

Yesterday, we braved the heat and humidity here in Tokyo to attend World Happiness 2010, the annual musical festival organized by the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra. Luckily, the sun stayed behind the clouds all day, making it almost bearable to be outside the whole afternoon and evening.

We arrived around 2:00, just as punksters Mongol800 were finishing up their set. This meant that we missed Love Psychedelico, who I’d really hoped to catch. Maybe next year. Arriving late meant we also had to set up our “leisure sheets” on the grass far, far back from the stage, so that we mostly watched the performers via the giant video screen.

At any rate, the first band we saw were Ohashi Trio (?????), who played a tidy set of country-rock, including a mandolin and an upright bass. They remind one a bit of Happy End back in the day. Worth exploring more in the future, I thought. They were followed by Okinawan singer Cocco, whose stage patter is a tad overly precious. But she delivered some solid J-Pop with a rock edge: imagine Bruce Springsteen as a girl raised in the Ryukyu islands. (Granted, this requires a particularly vivid imagination).

Kahimi Karie (???????) followed, doing her Brigitte Bardot imitation — in fact, the first tune she sang came complete with French lyrics. She did a set of slow-tempo chanson numbers, and was the only lead performer to sit down while singing. I like Kahimi’s breathy style and soft, melancholic songs, but on the whole, she would work better in a jazz club than in a mass outdoor setting like this.

The energy level leaped back up with the next act, Rhymester. They got the crowd going, with jokes about being the only authentic hiphop act on the bill and having to follow Kahimi Karie. They performed “Choudo Ii” and several other numbers with energy and verve. They were followed by ??? (I still don’t know how to pronounce the name of the band), another group grounded in hiphop, albeit with live instruments. Leader Ito Seiko had a terrific stage presence as they performed “Everyday is a Symphony” and other tunes.

Next up were pupa, one of the bands I really wanted to see. Formed by Takahashi Yukihiro from YMO and featuring Harada Tomoyo on vocals, pupa have released two terrific albums. Yesterday they did a fine job of reproducing their sound live: their mid-tempo melodies weave together electronic and acoustic musical instruments, male and female vocals, to produce a lush, beautiful sound. Takahashi looks more and more like the older Groucho Marx every time I see him….

Ando Yuko (??????) followed with a set of her original numbers that, I confess, I mostly sat out. A fellow has to make difficult choices, after all. But I’ve just picked up one of her CDs to make up for it.

Next came one of the acts I was most looking forward to: Moonriders (????????). Formed by Suzuki Keiichi and other former members of the band Hachimitsu Pie in the mid 1970s, they’ve been an innovative collective who’ve changed styles repeatedly. What would they look like in 2010? Unfortunately, they turned in a confused, confusing set–and perhaps were having technical problems with the sound equipment. They opened with a long drone-style jam, even before they were introduced. After about ten minutes, this morphed into the song “Kurenai futo,” complete with a vuvuzela. This was followed by “Tabula Rasa” and “I Hate You and I Love You,” among others. Kojima Mayumi joined them to performed the ending theme for the forthcoming film version of “Gegege no nyobo,” a psycho-rockabilly-ska number that is kind of a mess. Kojima stayed on to perform an updated cover version of “Never on a Sunday,” and they closed with the classic “Muscat Coconut Banana Melon.” The band seemed a bit out of it throughout their set and never really connected with the audience: disappointing.

Things picked up with Sakanaction (???????), who immediately grabbed the crowd by opening with some tribal drumming, followed by a playful allusion to YMO’s “Rydeen,” before launching into a set of their own terrific material. This was in fact their second show of the day: they’d played several hours earlier just a few train stops away at the “Summer Sonic” festival. It’s great to see a young band perform just as they are cresting, overflowing with energy and creative ideas, and they had the crowd up again. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra then followed with one of their typical joyful, high octane sets (albeit with some technical difficulties at the start). Terrific.

Next up were one of the rarities: the veteran punk group Plastics. Their set started off a bit rough, with their minimalistic new wave sound (think B-52s or Devo) not quite connecting. But then they hit a powerful No Wave groove that carried me back to CBGB’s circa 1977, grooving to the likes of James Chance and the Contortions. A really powerful noise that had me dancing — but most of the young ‘uns didn’t seem to get it, I’m afraid.

Finally, it was the headliners, Yellow Magic Orchestra, backed by Oyamada Keigo (Cornelius) on lead guitar, with a full horn section (augmented for a few numbers by the guys from Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra). They opened with one of my favorite YMO numbers: their deconstructive take on the Beatles’ “Daytripper.” For me, the highlight of the whole day was finally getting to see Hosono Haruomi live: there is basically a whole chapter about him in my forthcoming book on Japanese popular music. He sang the opener and played bass, keyboards, and even some nifty xylophone as the evening wore on. All in all, YMO gave a fine performance, although their Sly Stone cover (“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa”) with guest vocalist Crystal Kaye was surprisingly unfunky. The encore was another Beatles’ tune: the very appropriate “Hello Goodbye.”

The full set list:
Lotus Love (Hosono on vocals)
TAISO (Sakamoto Ryuichi sang through a loudspeaker, issuing orders to two male dancers who joined the band onstage for this number)
Thousand Knives
Behind The Mask
Tibetan Dance
Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa (with Crystal Kaye on vocals)
Fire Cracker
Encore: Hello Goodbye (Takahashi Yukihiro on vocals)

I’ll leave you with some fan videos of YMO’s performance from yesterday:

The Birth of a Scholar

Posted in Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the August 7th, 2010

Greetings again from Tokyo, where we continue to melt in the heat and humidity.

At the party following our workshop on early postwar Japanese literary criticism at Waseda University last week, one of the graduate student participants asked the professors attending an interesting question: at what point in your career did you start feeling like you were an actual scholar (she used the Japanese phrase ????????????) as opposed to a mere student?

I enjoyed listening to everyone’s responses. For me, I flashed back to 1994, when I was doing my dissertation research in Japan. I was interested in the connection between novelist Shimazaki Toson and the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Toson owned a couple of books by or about Bergson, and when I visited the Toson Kinenkan museum in Magome, they were kind enough to let me examine his copies. When I opened one (the 1936 Japanese translation of Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion), I was shocked when a handwritten letter dropped out from between its pages. I wasn’t the only one to be surprised: the museum curator who was helping me nearly jumped out of her shoes.

It turned out to be nothing of major importance. A simple one-page note, it was from the book’s publisher and addressed to Toson, a cover letter sent along with the complimentary review copy of the volume. But until I came across it on my scholarly quest, no one even knew of the letter’s existence. In fact, probably the last hand to touch that letter before mine was that of Toson himself, who had tucked it away into the pages of the book (which I bet he never actually read) more than half a century before.

In sum, it was about as minor an archival discovery as there could be. Yet it was undeniably an archival discovery, one that I had made and one that seemed to verify my credentials as an actual scholar of literature–at least in my own mind.

I doubt I’ll turn up anything quite as interesting on this pass through Japan, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

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