pray for rain

August 20, 2012

Last time turned out to be the emptiest of promises, and what can I say, I really have no excuses for not writing. For somebody who portends to have writerly aspirations, my output would make even Harper Lee snigger with condescension. The last six (or is it seven? Eight? Nine?) months have been a series of fits and starts, roller coaster mood swings and making long-term plans with only a short-term grip on the direction my life is taking.

What I haven’t been doing is watching movies. The other night (admittedly, after a six month-long streak of purely visceral recreation, I probably wasn’t in the best state of mind)  I made the deliberate effort to sit down with one of the ‘classics,’ i.e. movies that people like to bang on about in university lectures and expensive quarterly journals costing $17.95, but which few regular people have ever actually seen. Films like The 400 Blows and anything by Godard used to inspire a sense of youth, freedom and sexual energy, even when they were dealing with hefty socio-political themes. But The Rules of the Game, for all its melodrama and comedy, just grated on me. Chekov’s gun makes it’s painfully obvious appearance about halfway through the film, in the guise of a kinetic hunting sequence where our heroes and heroines go game shooting on the grounds of the chateau. Hares scatter haphazardly through the tundra as Renoir’s camera tracks them from its stationary vantage point, the objective spectator; the obvious irony is that the characters become the indelible victims of their frivolous whims, and end up turning their guns on themselves.

Is the point simply that, regardless of class, we are all subject to the same tantrums of the heart, the same irrepresible hedonistic urges, the same desire to subvert the ‘rules’ of polite society? Cause that’s what I got out of it, and beyond this pretty simplistic message, all I could see were melodramatic and immature society types geeking out on their own egos. Call it what you like, but the upper class (at least in post-WWI France) are/were some pretty unbearable people. At least with Altman’s Gosford Park (which obviously took The Rules of the Game as its primary source material), we have the added  visceral thrill of a murder mystery to spice things up.

Not enjoying movies like The Rules of the Game makes me wonder about my intellectual well-being; have I literally grown out of the stage of my life where I cared about academics? Or is it more like a muscle that needs to be trained and routinely exercised in order to be maintained? In truth, it’s probably more a case of investing too much time and energy in more immediate and temporary gratification; I’ve been looking for cheap thrills in music, sport and life. A game of football, for instance, contains all the narrative qualities of a good book (in my opinion), with its rich history of rivalries, alliances, double-crossing, defecting and corporate influences, combined with the way the games themselves ebb and flow, evolve and reach a climax. This is something I plan to go into in more detail later. But I will just say that I don’t really buy Chomsky’s idea that institutionalised sports are an opiate for the masses, satisfying our collective bloodlust, in lieu of governments not being able to get away with waging meaningless wars (at least not all of the time). People like me enjoy sports not only as a physical spectacle – which, by the way, speaks directly to our animalistic instinct to seek out the fastest, strongest, most ruthless member of the tribe – but to our simple appreciation for a good fucking story.

Those are the kinds of tangents I need to distil into more focused and specific entries into this here blog, if I’m ever gonna make it in the cut-throat world of journalism. But then again, major news corporations pay idiots to blog about weekends in Vegas, so what do I know?

If there’s one thing I am traditionally no good at, or that I will do anything to avoid, it’s admitting defeat. Those of you lucky enough to have been on the end of one of my semantic diatribes will know that in my case, logic often fails in the face of blind conviction, that tectonic unstoppable force that inevitably ends in some prolonged awkward stand-off.

But guess what, blogosphere? Today’s your lucky day, cause as of right now I’m admitting to being neglectful, tactless and lazy. My lack of regular posting has nothing to do with being busy – it is only due to being uninspired, which of course is entirely my fault. I came here expecting every single day to be a tidal wave of creative stimuli, but when the initial rush of being an utter alien on a new planet wore off, and the sensation of having my new world spin by like an infinite cascading mess of encoded computer garble became de rigeur, I simply stopped trying. My lack of output has been gnawing at my conscience lately, and as someone who deeply values creativity and an analytical edge in others, I have become somewhat ashamed of my own attitude.

So here’s to yet another e-rebirth, full of hollow promises to my stockholders and Steve Jobs-like overstatement. Boom!

It’s hard to keep up with international current affairs in a country where you do not speak the language. Of course, there is the infinite mystery and wonder of the internet, where tweets can actually premeditate the normal space-time continuum and updates filter through from the other side of the world before even the world’s most punctual news sources have time to catch up. However, nothing beats the palpable sensation of simmering along with the dissenters and antagonists and bystanders in the midst of a common language. Opinions, trends and perspectives are accumulated through a Babel fish-like osmosis, so that when the time comes to sit down at a keyboard and bash out yet another politically-charged manifesto, all the ammunition is already there.

My point is, don’t be disappointed if this blog lacks a political edge from now on. Yeah, like I was ever well-informed in the first place, but you know what I mean. The summer All-Japan High School Baseball Championship is approaching, and my school is only two games away from representing Fukushima-ken. Tomorrow I get a free day off to go and sit in the sun, read, cheer when I feel like it, or mingle with my students when they aren’t too busy shortening their skirts or complaining about the heat. Time moves a little slower in Fukushima-ken…that is, until the students graduate and realise that there’s nothing else to do here than to get pregnant at an early age and settle into a daily routine of kicking about town in old tracksuits, smoking, shaving off their eyebrows and going to Gusto. At which point time really slows down.

I miss Melbourne. I miss the sophistication, the cutting-edge fashion and music and the feeling that despite its grey exterior, there are hidden secrets and new experiences lurking around every turn. I miss the multicultural texture of the streets. I miss feeling like most people are on the same intellectual and existential level, and the unity provided by Australian Rules football and the outspoken pride in the fact something so local and yet so universally beloved is unique in the world. Of course for every snappily dressed hipster and hot Asian girlfriend, there are four or five race-going Melbourne Uni commerce undergrads, and at least the same number of toothless bogans stinking of Woodstock on the Lilydale train, but that all just serves to add yet another patch to the quilt.

In that sense, it’s timely that I’ll be going back there for a short break in September, and this time somebody else will be able to share in that sense of discovery and awakening that can be so overcoming when you first realise you are standing right in the midst of one of the world’s best-kept cultural secrets.

In anticipation of this, I’m noticing a slow trickle of ideas making their way into my day-to-day awareness, from philosophical one-liners to Escher-like short story fragments that are gonna take some serious unravelling. Perhaps it has something to do with repeated exposure to the electric Tokyo nightlife, or the fact that I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (admittedly more so to arm myself with some diabolical one-liners than for some critique of decadence and homophobia) but I’ve been wanting to try harder, to challenge and analyse my own opinions and instincts and to make more of a document of them. Full disclosure here, people.

Summer over here is oppressive to say the very least; days that aren’t spent wringing out clothes made sopping by the tropical rains are similarly wasted wringing out clothes on the brink of utter ruination due to sweat caused by the suffocating humidity. This kind of atmosphere is not usually conducive to gettin’ stuff done, which is why I accidentally-on-purpose chose to join a local gentleman’s sporting collective and had my first training with them this weekend. It was good to get the wheels turning again, despite feeling at the same time like I was pulling out from some long-since abandoned station with the accumulated weight of many a winter’s worth of undelivered freight tugging behind me. Competitive sports are cathartic pursuits, and it’s actually interesting (and not wholly useless, I might add) to take note of how people’s personalities manifest themselves on the sporting field. An attacking player is more likely to be feisty in their opinions, and a creative player is almost always going to turn out to be someone engaging. These are the curious cases where, just like in life, ambition isn’t always met with success, but the inspired spark of an idea and the jolt of effort in getting it off the ground ultimately proves to be the true reward, regardless of outcome. What’s even more interesting is seeing those work-week tensions and relationship inadequacies bubble over. If only we were allowed to bash each other on the back of the legs (heads?) with a hockey stick every time something went wrong.

Holy shit the most frightening insect just landed on my wall.

I thought it was pretty interesting how Leonardo ‘Mr. Reliable’ aka ’13 year-old to Scorcese’s Polanski’ DiCaprio’s last two major roles have been basic carbon copies of each other. And to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I liked Shutter Island or Inception better – both entertained me while I was watching, but the residual images faded from the backs of my eyelids pretty quickly after they ended. In my opinion, Rian Johnson’s criminally neglected and critically underrated The Brothers Bloom does the spiral-shaped meta-fiction thing in a much more original and entertaining way. What’s more, for a serious movie positing itself as a comedy, or vice-versa, or whatever the hell it actually is, its emotional pay-off is a lot more rewarding. With Shutter Island, I was kinda just thinking, ‘lobotomise him already.’

For a good-looking guy, Leo’s certainly got that furrowed brow, too-much-whiskey-and-cigarettes thing down to a fine art. Whatever happened to that Oliver Twist-esque adolescent who so readily convinced Kate Winslet to get her considerable tits out on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner? Now he’s chasing his own over-wrought imagination around rainy warzones and I just don’t know what to think.

As for Inception, my feelings can be pretty neatly summarised with one sentence: for a movie that tries to hard to be clever, I spent more time trying to figure out all the plot deviations than absorbing the philosophical themes of the story itself. It was just too confusing without being thought-provoking enough. With movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was left in a trance, with barely-formed yet naggingly relevant existential notions swimming about my recently-pulped brain matter. That is a movie that opens doors and windows onto all sorts of territory (or lack thereof, as it were) and leaves you thinking about the big picture (really, really big). Inception had so much potential but in the end got buried beneath an avalanche of special effects, plot layers and a score containing way too much trombone.

It comes as no surprise that the best scene in Inception features the infinitely cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a dapper suit fighting some thug in a snazzy hotel hallway that keeps tripping over itself. I mean, who could not be into that? Even when he’s drinking gin and juice for breakfast and overdosing on The Smiths in (500) Days of Summer I still wanna date that guy. Put him in zero-gravity and I go to water.

In memoriam of my addiction to David Letterman in eras past, and in homage to the quiet confidence of my former self as demonstrated in this post, here’s a list of top 10 observations made in Tokyo last time I was there.

  1. There is a direct correlation between the severity of the blond hue of Shibuya girls’ hair and their sheer volume.
  2. Same goes for the guys.
  3. Nothing is more white than sitting in Starbucks with an iPhone.
  4. Conversely, nothing is more unbecoming on white girls than dressing up like cute Japanese girls. Just stop. That Minnie-chan bow in your hair is awful.
  5. There are more wonderful sights and sounds to be experienced in one day in Yoyogi Park than in an entire month in Fukushima.
  6. I still fail at navigating the Tokyo Metro. This is some top-serious devil labyrinth designed to lead everyone astray. I have a feeling that it’s actually protecting some magnificent unknowable secret, like the Holy Grail or the lost city of Atlantis.
  7. No matter where I am in the world, it’s comforting to be able to have a singalong to The Strokes’ ‘Last Night.’
  8. The old-school elderly Tokyoites who hobble their way from place to place must be so frightened, confused and disappointed at what has become of their once-fair city.
  9. Nowhere else in the world do business women look so damn sexy.
  10. It’s only a matter of time before I become a permanent part of the problem.

This blog has succeeded in extracting from me (like blood from a stone…or some other thing with no blood in it) a few catchy turns of phrase and points about myself that I barely realised were there. So I can only imagine the interminable disappointment it must have been for you, dear reader, to realise how selfish this whole exercise has been. But isn’t that what blogging is all about? At least, that is how it’s always been for me. And it has worked for me in the past, so I plan to keep it going as my ideas and motivation sprout, blossom, and then turn ugly. Now, to congratulate and honour your bravery and tenacity in reaching the end of this mighty quest, I shall reward you with a ‘comment’ link, with which you may do as you please.

So long, friends.

sugar high

January 24, 2010

Oh yeah. One of those moods again. Time for the best and worst of 2009! I wasn’t nearly as tuned-in this year as I have been, owing mainly to my geographical and cultural displacement, but make no mistake, everything on this list is worthy of your attention. On with the show!

best albums

Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another

Bertie Blackman – Secrets and Lies

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix (Predictable, but come on.)

Propagandhi – Supporting Caste

Built to Spill – There is no Enemy

Mariachi el Bronx

A Wilhelm Scream EP


best singles

Bag Raiders – Shooting Star (This one actually first surfaced in 2008 but was hands-down the breakout incredible single of the year. Pure euphoric pop bliss. Watch out for Bag Raiders running away with the crown of Aussie electro/pop in 2010 when their album drops.)

80kidz – Frankie

Bertie Blackman – Byrds of Prey

Perfume – Kiss and Music
(Warning: cute Japanese girls.)

Phoenix – 1901


Passion Pit – Little Secrets


Paramore – Ignorance


Polar Bear Club – Living Saints


Propagandhi – Supporting Caste
(Arguably the hardest-rockin’, smackest-talkin’ track of the year.)

A Wilhelm Scream – Bulletproof Tiger
(On second thoughts, this one is the hardest rockin’.)

Mariachi el Bronx – Litigation


Future of the Left – Arming Eritrea


The Maccabees  – Kiss and Resolve


best albums not released in 2009

The Matches – Decomposer (What an album. Bursting with wit and creativity, unlike anything else in the genre and still sounding totally fresh.)

Bodyjar – How it Works

Frank Sinatra and Count Basie – Live at The Sands (Peerless.)

The Fire Theft – S/T

I am the Avalanche – S/T


best discoveries

Bertie Blackman

Perfume (Pitch-perfect electro-charged J-pop.)

The Benevento/Russo Duo

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings


biggest disappointments

Paramore – Brand New Eyes (The best one-two opening punch of the year besides Phoenix quickly degenerates into boring, predictable soft rock a la Green Day. Snore.)

meWithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright (Supremely accomplished, sophisticated album, but after Brother/Sister, I was hoping for a punishing, challenging listen, which this definitely isn’t.)

Blakroc – S/T (Lazy rhymes and half-arsed beats from the Black Keys. Shame.)

Maxïmo Park – Quicken the Heart (A lazy album from a band that needed to step up to be counted.)

The Maccabees – Kiss and Resolve (Despite a few highlights, here’s another case of a band on the brink that played it way too safe this time around.)

The Decemberists – Her Majesty (wtf?)


i just don’t get it

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (I would rather listen to Jet than this disharmonic pretentious mess. Fuck this band.)

Ladyhawke – S/T (I’m all for Kiwis making it on the world stage, but since when did ‘lame ironic nu-disco’ become a synonym for ‘indie royalty?’)

The Wire (After hearing people go nuts about this show in the same way as The Sopranos, I thought I’d better check it out. Maybe I’m just not in tune enough with lower-class American suburbanality, heroin dealing or wharfies union struggles, but this has left me pretty cold.)


bands that should have quit in 2009

Animal Collective (Spare us. Please.)

Muse (How many albums of Matt Bellamy soothsaying in falsetto do we need?)

Rise Against (Just oh so over.)

Green Day (If I want American politics I’ll watch the Colbert Report. You’re a pop-punk band – talk to me when you feel like writing another song about masturbation.)


bands that shouldn’t have quit in 2009

Bodyjar


most anticipated

Tellison

Bag Raiders

Kimbra


best gigs

Parkway Drive @ Freeway Jam, Koriyama

80Kidz @ Fujirock

Fall Out Boy @ Fujirock (Even Pete Wentz’ idiotic babble didn’t detract from the energy of this show. Cheesy band, great set.)

Polysics @ Fujirock (The only band I’ve ever seen to successfully get a festival-sized crowd pogo-ing in perfect timing. Wacky, wacky shit, with the best recorder solo in pop music.)


best movies

Up

Okuribito

The Road

District 9

Fantastic Mr. Fox (An animated film with a difference. It took Wes Anderson to do it, but finally, something that can go toe-to-toe with Pixar’s efforts.)


worst movies

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Where the Wild Things Are (I never read this as a kid, but how could anybody really get into this film? A bunch of oversized sad-sacks complaining about each other for 90 minutes.)

The Hangover (Come on, everyone. This was just so silly. And as if we needed another movie about loud Americans partying in Las Vegas.)

Sherlock Holmes (I really wanted to like this, but even despite RDJnr’s enthusiastic turn, this is nothing more than an uninspired exercise in dumb action sequences, ignoring every opportunity to turn into a thoughtful and worthwhile new franchise.)


best movies of 2009 that i haven’t seen yet

Inglorious Basterds

(500) Days of Summer

A Serious Man

Moon

Bad Lieutenant


best television shows

Breaking Bad (More times than I can count, this show made me sit up in a state of pure shock and admiration. Great writing, great dramatic timing, and the acting revelation of the year in Brian Cranston.)

Bored to Death (Finally, an American comedy that doesn’t try way too hard.)

Honourable mention: John Safran’s Race Relations (I’m not sure this classifies as a ‘good’ show, but it left me as enthralled as anything else I saw in 2009.  John Safran embarrasses, dishonours and mutilates himself (literally), all just to prove a point to himself. At turns hilarious and repulsive, I’m proud that the Australian censorship board still lets him do whatever the hell he pleases and get away with it.)


worst television shows

30 Rock (Yawn.)

Community/Parks and Recreation (Flaccid, cliched attempts to cash in on the success of The Office.)

Fringe (Halfway through the first episode, when an FBI agent allows an incarcerated mad scientist to submerge her in water and attach diodes to her head in an attempt to sync up her dreams with her catatonic lover in virtual reality – and the plan works – well, that is when I knew this show was not for me. Oh yeah, and the mad scientist said she would have to do it naked, but turns out she was wearing a black sports bra. Worst thing I have seen in ages.)


best books read in 2009

Truman Capote – In Cold Blood

Saul Bellow – The Adventure of Augie March

Stephen Pinker – The Language Instinct

George Orwell – 1984 (again)


best video games

Mario Galaxy (Wii)

New Super Mario Bros. (Wii)

Machinarium (PC) (A wordless old-school adventure with a whole lot of heart.)

GTA Chinatown Wars (DS) (Does so many things right and proves that the DS is still the handheld platform with the most versatility and potential.)


best lifestyle choice made in 2009

Shaving in the shower. Never before have I known such effortless smoothness.

Well, I guess that’s it. Until next time!

holding hands

December 22, 2009

The only things keeping me grounded at the moment are Nintendo games, Raymond Chandler and Saul Bellow. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. My tastes could be decidedly less wholesome, and no doubt they would be were I still in Melbourne, or hanging out in Tokyo with the boys. As for The Adventures of Augie March, I have rarely been so impressed by the density and scope of any work of art, and that it could be the product of a singular mind, calling upon nothing more but narrative skill and delicate observation of the intricacies of human existence just make it all the more inspiring.

It just feels so complete, as Bellow can address everything from nihilism to professional relationships to class struggles through the prism of middle American life in the 20th century with such clarity, and identifies hidden motivations, weaknesses, and agendas in every character it introduces, from lowly union foremen, the the numerous women who come and go, to the matriarchal Grandma, to Augie’s various mentors, and so on.

Not to mention that the plot and pacing are nothing short of immaculate; characters’ true intentions are only ever slightly hinted at so as not to prematurely spoil any eventual climax or create unnecessarily gratuitous tension where there need not be any. Nevertheless, through the strength of Bellow’s descriptions alone we feel like we know the characters well already, so that their actions never come as a complete surprise, either. Everyone is flawed, undoubtedly even more so than Augie himself in all his restlessness. And that’s the thing; it’s so human, it doesn’t romanticise except where absolutely necessary, life is unfair and it doesn’t shy away from this fact. Augie’s biggest struggle is between his desire to preserve his own integrity and the weight of his aspirations.

The thing felt like it lost steam over the last 100 pages or so; since Augie spends the entire first half of the book talking about Grandma Lausch and Einhorn, it seems slightly rushed when he joins the army, goes on three tours of duty, marries, and resolves with his estranged older brother within the space of a couple of chapters.

Anyway, after months of toil, I finally finished it a week ago, and I’m worried that whatever I get stuck into next will either be too lightweight or comparably far too existential and depressing. Options include Tender is the Night, Cat’s Cradle, The Trial, and Speak, Memory, something I’ve been threatening to read for years. I guess this is what happens when I try to prepare reading lists months in advance – my moods and expectations change, and then I feel like a petulant kid being forced into doing some kind of boring homework when I have to start a new book without an entire bookshop at my disposal.

I’m gonna go ahead and call this movie ‘death affirming.’ It’s almost perfectly acted and despite a fairly predictable ending, still works really well. The characters are well balanced, suitably eccentric when they need to be and yet always compelled by real and honest motivations, rooted firmly in compassion for their families and their fellow man.

Personally, I had no idea these kinds of professions were so scorned in Japan, and really, you would think that someone with such responsibility would at least be quietly respected, but apparently not. The movie’s greatest success is how it frames the deceased body as a vessel for transgression, as much for the living as for the dead. It really ends up being quite reverential, and some of the embalming (is that the right word?) scenes are painfully, wonderfully emotional, without any dialogue being necessary.

I wasn’t ever really sure where the cello-playing aspect was supposed to fit in, other than as a showcase for the lead actor’s obvious cello-shredding skills. But that’s OK, as it lent a nice subtle soundtrack to the proceedings.

All in all, a pretty good movie.

Haneke is a director who really matters. This guy makes films that are not only deeply disturbing, but very relevant. Think you know what a scary movie is? Go watch Hidden and get back to me.

Anyway, his new one The White Ribbon is quite a departure from his other films. For a start, it’s much broader in scope, is set eighty years ago and is shot in black and white. I guess many of the themes are familiar: guilt and shame, violence and repression; but given it’s historical context I think this film is even more salient than his other works, even if perhaps it’s not as purely entertaining or thrilling. Haneke has insisted that we’re not supposed to see the movie as simply a foreboding prelude to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and World War 2, but as a snapshot of ignorance, intolerance and terrorism in all it’s forms.

The acting is top-shelf, production values are through the roof, and to be fair there are some truly gripping scenes, but overall I just wasn’t as engaged for the whole duration, like I was with Hidden. This is serious, formal film making, and I fear it’s just too cool, too self-aware, too detached to ever really penetrate. Nevertheless, definitely not for the weak of heart or short of patience.

Also, it became clear to me as I watched The White Ribbon that the only German phrase I have remembered from my high school days is keine ahnung. That figures.

OK, enough of the heavy stuff. Raymond Chandler has been keeping me entertained and rescuing me from the depths of being-foreign-and-alone-at-Christmastime-related despair through the strength of his biting dialogue alone. Here are a few choice cuts from the first fifty or so pages of Farewell, My Lovely:

“His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap.”

“Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully.”

“She was as cute as a washtub.”

“It was Malloy all right, taken in strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.”

“Dames lie about anything – just for practise.”

And, arguably my favourite so far:

“She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she has washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.”

Man, people just aren’t as eloquent (or as charming, apparently) as they were seventy years ago. I seriously believe that our tendency towards email, in all its benevolent, automated glory, is hampering not only our literacy, but the very stuff of our interpersonal relationships. In the past, a scorned lover would compose page upon tear-stained page of hateful yet poetic hand-written prose in order to purge him or herself of heartache. Nowadays, retribution is as easy as uploading a photo to Facebook. Yikes! The sad thing is, even the retorts are borderline unintelligible.

But seriously. As recently as ten years ago, flirting with a girl involved carefully synchronised ‘chance’ meetings, a delicate dance of hints dropped here and there at measured intervals, and a whole lot of good timing and luck. These days, it’s as easy as dropping a text message: ‘hey. i wna ride u like a black mercedes.’ Charming, no?

Yes, my eloquence is slowly dying, and with it, my patience and tact. I only have myself to blame for this, and I feel the only proper remedy would be self-imposed exile from the internet, and more time spent with the likes of Chandler, Bellow, Nabokov and those countless others who express so much with so (comparatively) little.

I bought a snazzy little netbook computer! It’s an Eee PC 1005HA.

Inluded with the iPhone to give a proper sense of scale.

In fact, I’m using it right now. The rad silver colour is not available outside Japan, so TAKE THAT, WESTERN CONSUMER MARKET! What’s more, the construction feels way more solid than my pricey elite Dell machine. It’s running Windows 7, effortlessly installed off a 4GB SDHC card, and does everything I need, like typing, and wasting my life on stupid websites. Also, with the strengthening of the Aussie dollar, this stuff has become ludicrously cheap. Like $350 kind of cheap. Party!

On a more personal note. I’ve resolved to spend the winter break seriously improving my Japanese. The last couple of months (and in particular, the last month itself) have seen my conversation skills increase significantly, and although I still have more than my fair share of furrowed-brow, panicky ‘wtf was that word again!?’ moments, at least I can keep a conversation more or less going now. I mean, that is, as long as the person I’m talking to doesn’t get bored and give up. To them, it must be like talking to a toddler with learning disabilities.

I did learn something interesting lately though; according to one of my supervisors who studied linguistics at university, dyslexia is far less prevalent in Japan (and presumably also in China and Korea) than in the Western world. This must be something to do with both the form of their characters and their grammatical constructions. After all, it’s hard for most English speakers to imagine a first language where each ‘letter’ corresponds to an entire syllable; where words can be pronounced phonetically without any danger of misplacing stress or timing, and where an entire universe of meaning can be contained within one simple symbol, such as 空, or 人. The Japanese and Chinese don’t learn to spell, so much as they learn to paint pictures of the world through language. Likewise, reading isn’t a constant deconstruction of bunches of letters, or educated guessing at the appropriate phoneme; everything is there as it’s written, except in the case of an unfamiliar kanji character, where, upon encountering these new characters, a Japanese person will simply ask their neighbour,  どういう読むの? or この漢字の読み方は何ですか? (“How the fsk do you read this?”).

Furthermore, owing to the grammatical hierarchy of the language, the relevant reading for any given kanji is immediately apparent to any native speaker of Japanese; there is no guess work necessary. It’s pretty remarkable.

According to The Language Instinct, Japanese (and to an extent, Korean) are something like language orphans which have evolved separately, leaving behind little grammatical resemblance to other East Asian languages. This isn’t so hard for me to believe, because as I’ve said before, Japanese more or less resembles the exact grammatical inverse of something like English, and I’m sure this has a considerable impact on the structure of society over here, especially when compared with our own.

The main point I wanted to make when I started this huge theoretical rant, however, was that I’m at a point where Japanese people no longer feel comfortable gossiping about me in my presence, because they fear I might just be able to understand them. Pretty satisfying in one sense, although I was kinda enjoying being able to eavesdrop as I pleased.

Well, on that note, it looks like I’m gonna be all too alone for Christmas, and unless I get my act together and ask for paid leave, I’ll be sat at my office all day without any other kindred spirit (ie. lost soul) in sight to share the holiday with. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I am a pretty sentimental one, and despite all my misgivings about Christmas and the sham that it is, I do feel an unwelcome sense of isolation as the year draws to an end. It’s not that I’m depressed. There’ll be plenty of time for that come 2010. But I just kinda wish I had stayed in contact with more of you this year. So I’m sorry. I guess that’s it.

Stay tuned for my best and worst of 2009, along with the usual solemn reflections and empty promises, in the next edition!

So long.

it’s a jungle out there

October 16, 2009

This blog is rapidly turning into a place where I can air my identity crises. The crucial difference between this blog and real life, though, is that around here I can’t be interrupted. In their past lives, my blogs were forums for confidence issues and (barely) veiled jabs at various girls who had gon’ up and don’ me wrong, but I guess these days my problems are more existential in nature, and are probably, in the long run, better off for it.

My desk is a hideous mess of Australiana (dig that rad kookaburra), lollies I use to bribe minors, Japanese textbooks that I have skimmed, not read, and a variety of teaching materials that, surprisingly, have been getting a pretty solid workout of late. While it is true that at times I may have been something of a lazy ALT, that trend has definitely been reversed as I’ve been able to identify the more bothersome areas of my job and work on improving those, rather than the aimless stressing of eras past. I’m steadily realising that bored, unmotivated students aren’t the problem; it’s disorganised co-workers. I am repeatedly inundated by inconsiderate and illogical requests for help with classes that aren’t mine, translations of things of a singularly personal nature, and so on. I believe the thought process resembles something like this: Darren is an ALT, and ALTs aren’t busy or just don’t work very hard. だから、Darren mustn’t be busy. It’s beautifully Socratic.

Anyway, in light of these revelations, job satisfaction is at an unusual high, as I have adopted an even more nihilistic approach to my job: I chat with students whenever I feel like it, and about whatever I please. I play DS with them and snap unflattering photos of them. I ask them about their boyfriends and girlfriends and point out cute girls in magazines. So when it comes to classes, most of them are comfortable enough with me by now to play along with whatever I come up with. However, I think the main thing that has improved my working life is that, as the months have rolled by of late, I have become increasingly willing to strike up a conversation in punctuated Japanese, and the kids have started to realise that I am actually a living organism of equal or greater intellectual capability, one who has thoughts and feelings of his own and the gift of self-expression. Who would have thought – a foreigner!

I’m definitely beyond repair. When I start visiting – and enjoying – websites such as this (a cute girl appears in the day!) there seems to be little chance of redemption. To make things even worse, this link was sent to me by a female Japanese friend of mine. There’s just something irresistible about homely girls posing for coy photos and bashfully describing their personal traits.

The longer I spend observing other cultures, the more convinced I become that the world we inhabit is governed primarily by sex and money. The sex industry in Japan is omnipresent and, as a young woman, there is no better way to make easy money than to become a hostess or waitress in a fancy bar. Middle-aged men pay through the nose to merely be in the company of these creatures, and while prostitution itself is outwardly frowned upon, its no secret that money can buy everything, the porn industry is rampant, and the vast majority of establishments fronting as pleasant, classy lady bars are little more than extortionately-priced brothels. On a more personal level, it seems that wherever I go in the world, the thing that impresses the majority of girls with the most boring regularity is a boy with money and the willingness to flaunt it, both on himself and on his girl. The extravagance that passes for class and style in Japan can be truly sickening, especially when a dude in parachute pants can be considered cool just because they cost hundreds of dollars. Oh, and on that note: fuck you, Ed Hardy. I hate you and everything you create.

I always misspell the word ‘opinion’ and it comes out looking something like ‘onion.’ Perhaps there’s something in that.

Dudes. I’ve been all over this new Paramore single for a week now. How is it better than anything they have done in the past? Let me count the ways: Hayley’s voice isn’t as pitch-perfectly auto-tuned as the last album, and, moreover, she sounds way more pissed off on this track. Whilst ‘Misery Business’ was definitely a catchy (dare I say good?) song, it always seemed a little trite and forced to me. On this one, she simply spits out the lyrics in a much more natural meter, and the whole song is better off for it. Next, this song plays with time signatures and syncopation in a way that would make even the most capable metal bands envious. Its structure consists of multiple layered elements and constantly blurs the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge distinction. The arpeggios in the pre-chorus and breakdown are simply insane. Paramore’s drummer is awesome and is clearly the most impressive thing about the band besides Hayley’s voice. Listen carefully next time!

This movie was rad. The first half of District 9, in particular, takes the now-familiar mockumentary style into pretty interesting and challenging territory, offering a charicature of bureaucracy that is comical, satirical and confrontingly honest. Its themes are superficially obvious, and its a kind of wonder that it has taken so long for sci-fi films to come up with this idea. But the allegory extends further that just ‘how should governments deal with illegal immigrants,’ into far more personal territory: how do we overcome language barriers with foreigners? Is there any way to deal with the issue whilst retaining personal sensitivities? Indeed, can there even be a non-violent resolution to these kinds of problems? It nods towards the pervasive racism issues with a handful of ingenious quips, the kinds of slips-of-tongue usually reserved for mid-level politicians that are likely to see their superiors caught up in some heated PR backpedalling:

“I mean, you can’t say they don’t look like that, that’s what they look like, right? They look like prawns.”

It is amazingly well-acted, particularly by Sharlto Copley, who carries the second half of the film single-handedly and prevents it from ultimately becoming little more than a gruesome FPS-inspired alien blastfest, although even Copley can’t save it from crashing and bashing its way to a somewhat underwhelming end. District 9 combines some of the cinematic elements of Independence Day, Children of Men, The Host and…well, Starship Troopers, but its South African orientation gives it a pretty unique feel overall. Definitely see this movie!

Well, there was going to be more, but now there isn’t. ‘Til next time!

paris syndrome

August 17, 2009

I don’t know what to do! It’s 3pm, I’ll be heading home reasonably soon, but literally nothing awaits me there besides a living room that requires vacuuming. That’s right, I’m so lonely in this tiny little country town attached to my job that I would rather stay at school than go home. At least my workplace has the tell-tale signs of human life in it. I’ve already been for a run today. Last week, I upped my distance from around 6km to around 12km, out of sheer boredom. I was halfway through when I thought to myself, ‘I have nothing to do after I stop.’ So I just kept going.

The last handful of weekends have consisted of some truly devastating nights out, whether measured in terms of financial strain, magnitude of hangovers or accumulated emotional baggage. The cure? Repeating the whole procedure the following weekend (or, ocassionally, during the week). But we won’t get into that now.

For the sake of a yardstick you may use to measure my boredom, I’ve read every book I have with me except one. One of the things I’m most looking forwards to when I visit Melbourne in September is to replace these books with others from my library back home. However my impending trip back hasn’t stopped me from abusing Japanese Amazon and buying copies of books that I already own. Like this one:

Not for some time have I been so captivated by a book. Since living overseas, I have tried to broaden my literary horizons by sampling some of the most well-respected works that those countries and cultures have to offer, from ultra-modern stuff to classics from bygone eras, etc. Along the way I have subjected myself to some real crap, but also to some true diamonds in the rough. Rarely has anything compelled me to (gasp!) blog about it.

I have been reluctant to even open In Cold Blood, simply because I want to savour the whole experience as long as possible and I am scared of taking too big a bite out of it. This might seem like a strange thing to say about a book that is basically a true story, especially one of which everyone knows the ending. But it’s the writing, the pacing…the narrative switches between the reckless road story of two outlaws to a grotesque painting of a once-peaceful town that has been frozen stiff by tragedy and fear. Capote deftly weaves the two together until their numerous inevitable convergences, which, when they finally happen, he treats with simplicity, economy and cool-headedness – the closest he ever gets to plain journalism. There is no fanfare, no cheap page-turning tactics at play here.

The rest of the time, it is so lifelike, so tender, so human that you can often forget that you’re dealing with two murderers. You want to know Perry’s backstory, you want to empathise with him, you want to see him…well, succeed. If there was one failing of the novel, I guess that would be it. But Capote was never trying to pass judgment or condemn anybody; he was only guilty of trying to manipulate his readers, to paint a picture and to bring his characters to life, which every writer invariably strives to do, and in this sense he succeeds completely.

I’m enjoying this so much, especially since the last couple of books I have read have either gone way over my head or just been flat-out not very good.

This one made its Australian debut at the Melbourne Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I took notice because one day at work the girl who sits opposite me asked if I knew the book she was reading – The Sky Crawlers. I asked her what it was about and got a typically vague Japanese type of answer; I think she said something about ‘romance’ (but let’s be honest – everything in Japan can be classified as roomansu or dorama, usually a combination of the two). She said it was sugoi kanashii, and naturally I was skeptical. But when I saw that it was selected at the film fest, and did a bit of follow-up research, it seemed pretty cool, and it is. The CG animation used for the dogfights is simply astounding, as kinetic as any war film but with just the right amount of artifice and artistry. Anyone who knows me well knows that when it comes to anime, I value art design and mood more than the story itself, and this one is no different.

The one that has really grabbed my attention, though, and subsequently the frontrunner for being the first film I see in general release in Japanese cinemas, is the upcoming Studio 4°C work, First-Squad. International anime collaborations really interest me, and Studio 4°C has a pretty good track record. Monster was, of course, set in Germany, and its strongest attribute in my mind was its representation of Germany in the 1980s. The atmosphere of political suppression and its cultural side-effects permeated every episode/issue. So, long story short, I’m really keen to see First-Squad when it comes out.

This post has succeeded in wasting my time, and yours. Til next time!

the paper chase

January 20, 2009

This is madness! Two blog posts in one night?! Note: like last year, this stuff didn’t necessarily come out in 2008, but let’s just pretend.

favourite albums of 2008:

mewithoutYou – Brother, Sister
Twin Vickers – Demo

These two recordings were so far beyond anything else I heard in 2008 that I feel the need to break up the list in order to point out this fact. The rest can be considered more or less equal.

Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
Muscles  – Guns Babes Lemonade
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife/Picaresque
Smoking Popes – Stay Down
Bayside – Shudder
The Benevento/Russo Duo – Play Pause Stop
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
The Black Keys – Magic Potion
The Maccabees – Colour It In
Annuals – Such Fun
Judy and Mary – The Great Escape
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
Crystal Castles – S/T
Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Foals – Antidotes
The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
New Order – Substance
Ratatat – Classics
Justice – †
Kanye West – Graduation
Louis Jordan – Greatest Hits
Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
Oh Mercy – Priviliged Woes
The Bronx – III
The Presets – Apocalypso

favourite songs by bands/off albums i may or may not necessarily give a shit about:

Twin Vickers – The Way To Walk Out Of Here
mewithoutYou – O Porcupine/The Dryness and the Rain/Wolf Am I!
Oh Mercy – Can’t Fight It
The Greasers – Shelley
The Bronx – Past Lives
Annuals – The Tape
Cut Copy – Feel The Love
Death Cab For Cutie – I Will Possess Your Heart/Cath…
Common – Be (still probably my favourite hiphop track)
Kanye West – Robocop
Bayside – The Ghost of St. Valentine
MGMT – Time To Pretend (I liked this when everyone was still obsessed with ‘Kids’)
Muscles – Jerk
Hot Chip – Ready For The Floor
Driving Music – Demo (all five tracks)

bands that should have quit in 2008:

Fall Out Boy
Jimmy Eat World
Saves The Day (hurts me to mention these last two)
Bloc Party
Kaiser Chiefs
Coldplay (still)
Metallica (still)
The Getaway Plan

bands that shouldn’t have quit in 2008:

Blueline Medic…

best new bands/new to me:

The Paints
Kimbra
The Benevento/Russo Duo

biggest disappointments:

Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreaks
Common – Universal Mind Control
Lagwagon – I Think My Older Brother Used To Listen To Lagwagon

best gigs:

The Paints @ Noise Bar
mewithoutYou @ Soundwave Festival
Saosin @ Soundwave Festival
The Matches @ Soundwave Festival
Ratatat @ The Espy
Kimbra @ The Toff
Twin Vickers @ The Old Bar
Justice @ Ganban Night ’08
Lagwagon @ Club Quattro Tokyo

i just don’t get it:

MGMT
Deerhunter
The Gaslight Anthem
Vampire Weekend

biggest surprises:

Local artists outshine just about everything else regardless of genre
After shockingly saccharine Plans album, Death Cab release scary good song with ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’
I develop a nasty affinity for nasty electro (although I can pinpoint this to one very particular night)…
Sum 41 most popular pop-punk band in Japan (not really surprising actually)
Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, mental

best movies:

Let The Right One In
Wall-E
The Dark Knight
The Killing
Tekkonkinkreet
Burn After Reading (Coen-lite but still hilarious)
Battle Royale
Hidden
5 Centimetres per Second
Tokyo Story
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (why are there so many thrillers on this list?)

worst movies:

I didn’t watch anywhere near as many movies this year so thankfully I didn’t see many bad ones. Let me think…

Babylon A.D. (stumbled across this on the plane to Cambodia, I couldn’t look away it was so appalling)
The Orphanage (not bad by any means but just a bit of a disappointment)
Ghost In The Shell (so overrated)
Pineapple Express (had its moments but ehhh)
My Blueberry Nights (ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh)

best television shows:

The Colbert Report
Monster
Death Note

worst television shows:

The Office (quit while you’re ahead!)
Heroes
Lost

best games:

The World Ends With You (DS)
Space Invaders Extreme (DS)
Kirby Canvas Curse (DS)
Jump! Ultimate Stars (DS)
Geometry Wars (DS/PC/360)/Grid Wars (PC)
Everyday Shooter (PC)
N+ (DS)

best books read in 2008:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Name of the Rose (it took me like four months, it must be good…I think…)
Red Dust
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

best book read in 2008 that i didn’t really care for:

Slaughterhouse-Five

most anticipated/fingers crossed/predictions for 2009:

New Decemberists album redefines indie rock, tops both Pitchfork’s best albums chart and the New York Times book review
Fabled second Postal Service album finally drops
Kimbra becomes the next Björk sans the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof act
Blueline Medic reunite and finally get the recognition they deserve
Hacking the Wii becomes even cheaper and easier
Nonetheless, Nintendo continue their march towards total world domination
Barack Obama launches rocket full of conservatives into the sun
Kevin Rudd’s internet filter blocks every website except tubgirl
Electric cars
People start talking about how many Yen gold can buy, not the other way around

That’s a whole year’s worth of pop culture right there! Sadly I can’t even remember half of the stuff I read and watched in 2008. The first half was spent in a warbly daze and the second half swimming in neon and smokey karaoke bars. Consider my lesson learned.

よろしく。