Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Kappa sen'ichiya

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Kappa sen’ichiya 河童千一夜 (A kappa thousand and one nights). 1993.

To be precise, this is a 1993 bunkobun reprint. All but one of the stories were originally published in 1969 and 1970 in Action Comics アクションコミックス, then collected in 1970 under the title Kappa kô 河童膏 (Kappa ointment); this was republished under the present title in 1976, then augmented in 1986 with one more story, first published in 1980. The 1993 bunkobon edition I read is a reprint of the 1986 edition. I note all this because the 1993 edition includes none of this information: nothing to tell you that these stories weren’t new in 1993.

In the 1960s, Mizuki had a very popular series about kappa called Kappa no Sanpei 河童の三平 (Sanpei the Kappa); it was contemporary with Kitarô and (caveat: I haven’t read it) was a similar thing, sort of aimed at kids and centering around a cute/creepy monster. These stories are a little later, and they don’t feature Sanpei; they’re all about kappa but the stories themselves aren’t connected, and kappa are depicted slightly differently in each one. Moreover, the stories are a little darker, with more loose ends and rough edges; they seem to bear more or less the same relation to Kappa no Sanpei that Kitarô yawa 鬼太郎夜話 does to the main Kitarô series.

By darker, I mean a couple of things. They’re a little more horror-oriented than his kiddie monster tales. They’re closer in spirit to the stories collected in Kaiki kashihon meisakusen and Kyôfu kashihon meisakusen: bad things happen to characters, and endings are usually downbeat. The first story, “Kyûri jigoku きゅうり地獄” (Cucumber hell), has a kappa getting caught in an endless series of Sisyphean punishments. No exit. Elsewhere we have a fair kappa maiden living in eternal solitude after her fox lover is killed; kappa captured and killed and exhibited by humans; a kappa falling in love with a ghost who eventually rejects him. The style is Mizuki’s patented mix of realistic backgrounds and cartoony characters, but the fates of these humorously drawn ghoulies are as haunted as the legends that inspire them.

They’re also dark in that most of the time the kappa’s fates are sealed by their interactions with humans. There’s broad irony here, in that traditionally kappa are thought of as monsters who, if they don’t always actively prey on humans, certainly make life difficult for us. And Mizuki’s kappa are mischievous, but they always come out the losers in their encounters with people. Take the poor kappa who, overcome with a desire for a human female, hides in the latrine of a samurai’s house to peep at the samurai’s daughter (a wonderfully Tanizakian detail). Okay, this is kind of mean. But to punish him the samurai cuts off the kappa’s hand and holds it hostage, thus enslaving the kappa for years. Hardly just desserts.

In fact, in most of these stories the kappa are a version of Mizuki’s suffering Everyman: average guys victimized by forces beyond their control, plucky but incompetent. Mizuki emphasizes this by depicting several of the kappa protagonists with makeshift glasses held on with string; this is a detail he uses on some of his more hapless human characters, including the soldiers meant as a stand-in for Mizuki himself in his war tales.

Stories like these are why I love Mizuki so much. Greil Marcus writes of Bob Dylan that his treatment of folk songs and folk themes reveals the “old, weird America” that lives therein; Mizuki understands the old, weird Japan. It’s a dark, dank place of creepy-crawlies, squishy-squirmies, and heebie-jeebies.

And, occasionally, uncanny beauty, like this depiction of the kappa’s desire for a human woman. It's a disturbing image, to be sure (it's the title page to one of the stories, and depicts a mood, not a scene; it's far more sexually explicit than anything in any of the stories). Far more disturbing than it may appear at first: I think the swirl surrounding the figures is meant to suggest they're underwater, meaning the woman is either drowned or under the kappa's spell. It's horrific. But it's other things, as well. Beautiful, because of the way Mizuki (a terrific draftsman, among other things) depicts the curves of the woman's body, the arc of her back and hair, the placidity of her face. And comic, because of the imbalance in size and grace between the woman and the kappa, a small ugly monster. The horror, the beauty, and the humor all reinforce each other, making this a potent representation of a folkloric motif. (And more besides: if the kappa is Everyman, then this is a representation of Everyman's desire for Woman. Taken that way, what does it say about male desire? That it proceeds from something small, grotesque, shameful, and is directed at something great and beautiful? This image is perhaps an analog to the little Screamers Munch put in the corner of his Madonnas.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

James Bond review: License To Kill (1989)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Originally it was to be titled License Revoked. As it turns out, 007’s license was revoked, after this film; if only it had been revoked before it.

BOND, JAMES BOND: After one very good film with Timothy Dalton in the driver’s seat, the series takes a disastrous wrong turn. As an action film, it’s passable, although not state of the art for 1989; but as a Bond film, it’s awful. So bad that it killed the series.

What went wrong? Just about everything. But mainly, the producers made two bad decisions that pretty much sealed this film’s fate.

First, they involve Bond in the War on Drugs. Now, in 1989 the Cold War – an intermittently realistic engagement with which had fueled six of the last seven Bonds – was winding down. The Soviets weren’t going to be effective as the bad guys. And we have to applaud the producers for realizing that, and for opting not to go back to the Criminal Mastermind Trying to Take Over the World pattern. But pitting Bond against a drug lord just makes the whole thing feel small. It turns 007 from a spy into a cop.

Second, they send Bond on a vendetta. He resigns from MI6 to avenge the death of Felix Leiter’s wife, and Leiter’s maiming. They try to justify this through evoking On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, implying that Bond is still grieving over the assassination of his own wife. But that just raises all sorts of continuity problems that the series has wisely chosen not to engage up to this point. If this really is the same Bond that married Tracy, then why doesn’t he look twenty years older? In any case, we can’t really buy Leiter as a motivation for Bond to resign and go all rogue agent – they try to sell it by bringing David Hedison back as the only person to play Leiter twice – but in 1989 who remembered that he’d done it in 1973? The whole thing feels like an excuse to remake Bond in the image of Dirty Harry. This time it’s personal, etc. And so Bond’s license to kill is revoked, which means all the killing he does is off-license. Which is, I suppose, meant to make it feel more dangerous. Like, make my day, punk.

Not. It’s not 007. It is, in fact, the most egregious example of that scourge of the series, the Bond Film That Wishes It Were Something Else. Did Live And Let Die wish it were a blaxploitation flick? Did Moonraker wish it were Star Wars? Maybe, maybe not, but License To Kill clearly wishes it were Lethal Weapon.

What Makes Bond Bond: Not a damned thing.

What Makes Timothy Dalton Timothy Dalton: The bar fight in Bimini. This is a fish-out-of-water scene, where Bond’s weapon of choice (the Walther) is meant to look comically out-of-place next to Pam’s sawed-off shotgun. The problem is, Dalton plays it like a fish out of water. Properly, 007 should be the master of the situation in spite of being outgunned.

BAD GUYS: Robert Davi is a reasonably believable drug lord, but his Sanchez and Dalton’s Bond just don’t belong in the same movie. Sanchez, as we’ve already discussed, is just not a Bond villain. At least the last time they involved Bond in a drug war, in Live And Let Die, the kingpin had the decency to want to destabilize Western society. Yaphet Kotto’s Mr. Big had grandiosity. Sanchez is just a fifth-rate Tony Montana knockoff.

The henchman situation isn’t very clear-cut in this film. We have Milton Krest, the Miami boat-owner and cocaine distributor, slimy but not very menacing; Heller, American mercenary, whose odd tie in the casino scenes robs him of any dignity; and Dario, ex-contra, Latin stereotype of the broadest kind (but hey: that’s Benicio del Toro). The latter two characters, with their ties to American interventionism in Latin America, sound like they might have been meant for more interesting things, but the script doesn’t do anything with them.

Then we have Wayne Newton in a cameo as Professor Joe Butcher, the guru running the meditation retreat that Sanchez is using as a front for his cocaine processing plant. As a plot device, this is inexplicable. But Newton steals the show. Bless his heart.

Then there’s Sanchez’s financial guy Truman Lodge. An economics whiz-kid with a baby face and absolutely no morals, he’s Gordon Gecko filtered through Alex P. Keaton. Which means as an ‘80s archetype he’s not particularly original, but still, he’s a nice touch.

Special mention here should go to Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., who plays El Presidente Hector Lopez: Pedro, Sr., played Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. Nice to see that, like Bey’s, Armendáriz’s son is in the family business.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2. That’s Talisa Soto as Lupe and Cary Lowell as Pam Bouvier (alias Kennedy – cute).

Not a bad lineup of Bond girls. Soto is by turns vulnerable and fiery, when the script calls for it; she’s striking enough for this film, even if she’s not a Bond girl for the ages. Lowell is one for the ages as Bond’s sidekick; she’s stunning, and shows hints of authority as an action heroine. It’s a pity the script keeps neutralizing her, through Bond’s combination of sexism and lone-wolf attitude.

AND VIOLENCE: Ninjas from Hong Kong? Are they kidding?

BOYS WITH TOYS: The cigarette-pack detonator has always stood out to me as one of the more interesting product placements in the series. Lark has such a low profile in the US that it may not immediately be apparent that it is a product placement, but the brand’s huge in Japan, and in fact their ad campaigns have long featured secret-agent type men in glamorous adventures. Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and Timothy Dalton have all pitched for them. In fact, Dalton’s ’95 spot may have been his best turn as Bond. For once, his hair was behaving. Makes you wonder if he would have grown into the role, had he been given the opportunity to make Bonds as regularly scheduled in ’91 and ’93.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The previous film’s globetrotting is balanced by the limited geography of this installment. Miami, then the fictional Isthmus City. The fact that they made up a city, rather than just set the film in Panama, severely undercuts the gritty realism the film seems to be striving for in the War on Drugs plotline. In short, it’s a cop-out. But it is another connection to Live And Let Die.

ETC.: Gladys Knight’s title song is one of the best in the series. A well-chosen “Goldfinger” quote, and Gladys is all gut-wrenching soul, even in this context: there’s nothing campy or cartoony about her. The song is far too good for the movie it’s in. The closing theme goes to Patti Labelle, and “If You Asked Me Too.” But it’s forgettable: Diane Warren… This was Maurice Binder’s last title sequence, and it’s a nicely retro one, classier than his last few efforts. In fact it was the last go-round for everybody: not just Dalton, but this incarnation of M, the new Moneypenny (alas), and Felix Leiter. It’s a shame they couldn’t have gone out on a higher note…

RATING: 002.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thelonious Monk: "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (1971)

Monk's cover of this Gershwin standard comes from his last studio sessions, in 1971. It's a solo rendition; on a thing called The London Collection, Vol. 1, although I have it on the Monk volume of the Ken Burns Jazz series.

I love Monk. Don't claim to know a whole lot, musicologically speaking, but I know enough to know he's brilliant. Unfailingly melodic. What's more, he's - and here's a word I don't see applied to him, but it fits better than any other I can think of - funky. I mean, he has so solid a sense of the beat that he can make you feel it even harder by avoiding it: by skipping it entirely, or slipping off the edge of it, or coming down precisely three-quarters of an inch to the left of dead center of it. I hear a lot of New Orleans in Monk. Don't know why that should be.

Anyway, his version of "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is all that, plus a sweet take on a pretty melody. He usually played his own compositions, and with good reason, but what he does with this...

Monday, June 15, 2009

James Bond review: The Living Daylights (1987)

CUT TO THE CHASE: A very good Bond; not a great Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: If I may be allowed a personal note, when this came out I was a teenager. I didn’t know the Bond movies very well, but I knew even then what I thought they should be like, what kind of man Bond should be: just like Remington Steele. So when NBC, in its moment of infamy, kept Pierce Brosnan from his rightful inheritance, I was more than disappointed. I refused to see this movie when it came out. In fact, I didn’t get around to seeing either of Dalton’s outings until after Brosnan got the role and Everything was Right with the World.

Which is not to say I had anything against Timothy Dalton. And once I got around to seeing this movie, I regretted not seeing it earlier. It is, as I’ve noted, a very good Bond. And Dalton – well, he’s a fair Bond.

He tries to take the character to a darker place. Dalton’s Bond is by turns bitter and disaffected: the way he handles his colleague Saunders in the defection scene is perfect. He’s rather humorless – he looks particularly uncomfortable delivering the lame one-liners the writers give him here - but after seven Moore films that’s not a bad thing. Mainly he looks like he’d rather be a spy than a playboy, and the producers, wisely, oblige, putting him in the most realistic Bond plot in many a year. (Realistic being, of course, a relative term in 007’s world.) The Bratislava and Vienna sequences are convincingly suspenseful and even affecting, in a Gorky Park/The Russia House sort of way.

The problem is, Bond has to be something of a playboy, or he ceases to be Bond. And Dalton is unconvincing at that. How can I put this delicately? He’s just not that sexy. His hair does weird things. His shoulders are too narrow for his face. He’s not believable as a seducer; fine for this film, because they don’t have him seducing anybody. But even so, Dalton’s Bond is all but devoid of glamor, and that’s a serious flaw.

Fortunately, this time around, the movie surrounding him is good enough that it doesn’t really matter. The producers hadn’t quite figured their way out of the malaise that had ruined three of the last four Moore outings – rather than a wholesale rejuvenation of the series they hedge their bets, changing only the elements they absolutely have to – but they do their damnedest to make The Living Daylights work as an adventure movie, and it does. This film succeeds, mostly, and where it doesn’t succeed, it isn’t Dalton’s fault.

What Makes Bond Bond: He’s got a lethal wolf-whistle.

What Makes Timothy Dalton Timothy Dalton: The way he says, “Are you calling me a horse’s ass?” A genuine niceness and humor shine through in Dalton’s expression here. I’m not sure it’s Bond, but it’s real.

BAD GUYS: TLD’s strengths and weaknesses are both on full display in the villains department. The plot revolves around a defecting Russian general, Georgi Koskov; Bond helps him get out of Czechoslovakia, but he’s soon nabbed again from the MI6 safehouse in England, presumably by the KGB. Of course things aren’t that simple. Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) is a great ambiguous villain, charming at first, slimy in the end. The defection plot, and the double-crosses that inevitably ensue, are a high point.

Unfortunately, these double-crosses lead us to Koskov’s ally, an American arms merchant named Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, who would later show up as the CIA liaison in the Brosnan films). The producers have their heart in the right place, making the villain an American arms dealer – but it’s never clear why we should care about what he’s doing. What is he doing? Running some sort of scam on the Russian government? In short, he’s not menacing, just ridiculous.

And the evil henchman, Necros, is similarly lacking in oomph. In his first appearance, as a killer milkman complete with exploding milk bottles and a headphone-cord garrote, he’s great. But after that he’s always in a Member’s Only jacket, tight jeans, and white sneakers: he looks like the bullies in my high school in 1987. Hardly a worthy opponent for Bond, in other words.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2, because of the girl on the yacht near Gibraltar in the pre-credit sequence.

But really, this is a one-woman Bond. Maryam d’Abo, as Kara Milovy, is left to handle all the Bond babe duties this time around. No doubt this was simply part of the producers’ decision to give Dalton a real spy story to work with, but it has the ancillary benefit of keeping him out of the kind of playboy situations he had trouble pulling off. (The amount of charisma he puts into seducing the Gibraltar girl, for example, might equal the charisma of Sean Connery’s big toe…)

Instead, Bond is isolated with one innocent girl for the whole film, and we get to watch their relationship develop so that in the end her attraction to him is plainly based on more than lust. In other words, for the first time in the series, the sex is not gratuitous. Even when Bond got married, in OHMSS, he spent half the film bed-hopping. Was this a reaction to the AIDS era, or just a more serious 007? Either way, because of the way it allows both actors to develop characters, we’ll tentatively call it a good thing. But you know what they say about too much of those.

So there’s really only one Bond girl here, but she’s a doozy. Maryam d’Abo is easily luminous enough to cast a warm glow over the whole movie. Her look is perfect, if indelibly ‘80s, and she has real chemistry with Dalton.

We should also mention the new Moneypenny, Caroline Bliss. A long overdue replacement, and a great choice. She’s easily the best thing about the short Dalton era. With her sexy-secretary look and her hopeless love for Bond, she suddenly reminds us of what this character was supposed to do, but hadn’t since about 1967. Plus, she’s funny. Barry Manilow records, indeed.

AND VIOLENCE: The scene with the Aston-Martin on the frozen lake, where it cuts a hole in the ice and sinks the Czech police, is a classic. One of those 007 action sequences that just sticks in your mind.

The final aerial fight, with Bond and Necros hanging on to a net full of opium suspended from the back of a Russian cargo plane, is possibly my favorite airplane scene in the series (although it has close competition in the wingwalking fight in Octopussy – “go out and get him”). It’s got everything: height, movement, precarious handholds, a bomb, an out-of-control airplane, furious fighting, and it still all comes down to a knife and bootlaces.

Those aside, this isn’t really a stunt Bond. Nor, as we’ll see below, is it the other side of that yin-yang dichotomy, a gadget Bond. It’s an espionage Bond. More skulking than punching. Nice. Well, until he gets all chummy with the mujahedeen.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Not too much here, and what they do include is nicely understated: the wolf-whistle keychain.

So Moneypenny has been replaced, but not Q. Fair enough: he’s not there to be a sex symbol, so his advanced age isn’t the problem that Moneypenny’s was. But still it’s worth remarking that Desmond wasn’t replaced at this point, because it shows the extent to which the producers were hedging their bets at this point. They didn’t invest in a complete 007 redesign. In fact, they never had. When Lazenby replaced Connery, everything else stayed the same; when Moore came in, the only other thing that changed was that rock music was (sort of) accepted. By that token, the surprise is not that the producers didn’t re-cast Q and M in 1987, but that they replaced both Bond and Moneypenny at the same time.

Gives one a new appreciation for what happened in 1995, doesn’t it?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, Vienna, Morocco, and Afghanistan. The travel agents were working over time for this one.

The interlude in Afghanistan is worth savoring. By showing 007 riding with the mujahedeen, this film goes deeper into contemporary geopolitics than any Bond had before. But they still have the right instincts: they bring him back to posher surroundings to wrap things up.

ETC.: Binder’s credit visuals are a bit of been-there-done-that… The biggest flaw in the film, and it’s emblematic of the problems with the Dalton films, is the theme song. The producers had available to them two Pretenders songs – two very 007-y songs performed by a ballsy rock band fronted by a sexy female singer. One, “If There Was A Man,” they put over the final credits, and use as the Love Theme; fair enough. The other, with that soaring spy-noir horn theme, would have been the perfect raucous, raunchy opening theme, but they relegate it to snippets leaking from the assassin’s headphones. Instead, as a theme song, they give us a bland, innocuous synth-pop song by the bland, innocuous a-ha. I don’t even say that synth-pop can’t make a good Bond theme: I’d love to hear what the Pet Shop Boys could come up with. But a-ha? They’re so sexless… The film has its flaws, and they’re not inconsiderable, but I tend to go a bit easy on it in my rating, because it’s so entertaining, and because it’s so much better than License To Kill. I hate for Dalton not to have achieved at least one Very Good Bond…

RATING: 006.