Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Akuma-kun

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Akuma-kun 悪魔くん (Devil Boy). 1991.

To be precise, this is a 1991 bunkobon reprint. It contains six stories that were originally published in 1966 and 1967 in Shônen Magazine 少年マガジン.

Akuma-kun is one of Mizuki's more durable heroes, right up there with Kitarô, which means he's appeared in just as bewildering a variety of iterations. (Here's the Japanese Wikipedia article on him.) In 1963-4 Mizuki wrote kashihon manga about Akuma-kun, then in 1966-7 he rebooted the series (to use the current lingo) in Shônen Magazine. That's what we have in the book I'm talking about here. Then in 1970, in Shônen Jump, he did a rewrite of the kashihon Akuma-kun, which was probably already getting hard to find. In 1987-8 he wrote a sequel to this in Comic BE! コミックBE! Then in 1988-90 he rebooted it again for Comic BonBon コミックボンボン. Meanwhile in 1993 and 1994 he revived the 1966-7 incarnations of Akuma-kun for a couple of newly written books.

In short, there are three versions of the character running around out there, and chronologically they all overlap. Confusing, but tantalizing. Eventually I'll read 'em all. But at the moment the only Akuma-kun I've read is this book.

In this incarnation, essentially Akuma-kun (real name Yamada Shingô) is that one boy in every ten thousand years who can master the ancient rituals for demon-summoning and control. But he can't do it alone: in the first story Dr. Faust shows up to teach him the finer points. Thereafter Akuma-kun can summon the devil Mephisto and make him do his bidding. But Akuma-kun has only the best of intentions. He wants to harness the demons' supernatural power to do good, bring world peace, etc.

As you can see right off the bat, it's a very loose take-off on the Faust myth. I'm eager to read other incarnations to see if Mizuki ever goes much farther in exploring that myth, because to tell the truth, that doesn't seem to be the point here.

Rather, I think Mizuki used this milieu as essentially an opportunity to explore Western monsters, ghosties, ghoulies, and demons. Mizuki is, as is well known, Japan's foremost artist of traditional Japanese monsters: he's made a cottage industry out of researching and imagining creepies out of Japanese folklore, of which the kappa is only the most pedestrian example. That's what his most famous series, Kitarô, is all about.

With Akuma-kun he gives himself license to explore monstrosities out of the Western traditions. Dantean demons, Boschean horrors. Witches, dapper European devils, haunted castles, etc. It is, if you will, an exercise in Occidentalism (a tendency in Japan every bit as pronounced as America's Orientalism); this extends to the kabbalah trappings Mizuki throws into Akuma-kun's demonology.

Which is not to say that Mizuki is undertaking a taxonomy of Western horrors. A lot of the most impressive spooks here seem to have sprung straight from his id. We're talking primordial, Chthulhu-like weirdness here. And at the same time, he can't entirely suppress his love for oozy Japanese monsters, and so he throws in a couple of them; and let's not forget the cameo by Enma (the judge of the dead; in Japan usually imagined as Chinese).

The stories themselves are mediocre, mostly devolving into the supernatural equivalent of kaijû battels. But the art: wow. Nightmarish and comic all at the same time, and the detail. Look at that full-page rendering of the head-monster: check out the skull mandala at the top left, floating on a swirl of bones. And then note Akuma-kun at the bottom left: "Yow!" He's right.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bob Dylan: "Heartbreak Hotel" (2009)

Dylan's summer tour just ended, and on the last night, in Tahoe, on the 32nd anniversary of Elvis's death, he played, for the first time ever, "Heartbreak Hotel."

Here it is.

It's off the cuff, to be sure. Rough and ragged and...just the way we like it. Full of love.

The musicians (Bob on shivery organ included) do a stand-up job with this song, which has little for musicians to do in it, truth be told; they really dig in. Listen to how Tony Garnier's bass sounds like a six-inch thick rubber band.

But of course it's Bob's singing we listen for, and he doesn't disappoint. He's not crooning it, he's not singing sexy like Elvis did. But listen to the way he sings the bellhop verse for the second time, after the instrumental break. The way he delivers "black," blatting it like a trumpet in a strip joint. And listen to the way he growls "die," taking it through real folk blues gospel shouting to eyebrow-raising hipster declamation in one falling syllable.

Monday, August 17, 2009

James Bond review: Die Another Day (2002)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond tries to be relevant to the post-9/11 world. Fails. This is not a bad thing.

BOND, JAMES BOND: In conception, this seems to have been a further attempt to deconstruct Bond by making him appear vulnerable (while still maintaining his essential invincibility). TND gave us an emotionally vulnerable Bond, TWINE gave us a physically vulnerable Bond, and DAD gives us a strategically vulnerable Bond. He’s captured in the opening sequence, and then tortured. He’s discredited in the eyes of MI6 and as a result basically fired. Bold moves on the producers’ part, but they pull it off. It is very disconcerting to see a dirty, bearded, scraggly Bond crawl up onto the shore in Hong Kong - but it’s all worth it to see the hotel manager immediately recognize him and give him his usual suite. A priceless Bond moment.

Aside from this, I think they’re trying to do two things in this Bond that don’t quite work. First, with the use of slow-motion in action sequences, it’s clear that this is a post-Matrix film. They don’t quite overdo it, but it’s never a good thing when you start to notice 007 aping other action films.

Second, it’s trying, half-heartedly, to fit into the post-9/11 world. The last third of the movie does this especially, putting Bond and Jinx in commando gear and in general preparing to call in the cavalry. And as a result, the last third of the movie is rather lame. Luckily, as I say, they’re not prepared (yet) to go all the way in reinventing the series, and as a result most of the movie is not just classic Brosnan-era Bond, but actually groovy in a way the series hasn’t been since the late ‘60s.

Nobody knew it at the time, but this was Brosnan’s last Bond. Damn if he doesn’t look as good here as he did seven years earlier.

What Makes Bond Bond: He threw away his cyanide capsule years ago. Whether that means he planned never to get caught, or intended never to give up trying to find a way to escape, it’s the right choice.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: Even in ragged PJs, dripping wet, barefoot, with long hair and a Jesus beard, Brosnan still convinces us he’s Bond.

BAD GUYS: This is a Bond for the War on Terrorism. Colonel Moon/Gustave Graves doesn’t want to take over the world, he just wants to further the cause of his Fatherland.

It is, I grant, a neat trick to see a North Korean psycho transformed into a British psycho, and it’s a great idea to make Graves a young, snotty Cool Brittania type. The kicker is when he says he modeled himself after Bond: it confirms what we’ve always felt about how the villain needs to be in some important way parallel to Bond, a Worthy Enemy.

The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to believe Graves and Moon are the same person. Partly this might be because Will Yun Lee and Toby Stephens, as actors, don’t do much to convince us that they’re playing the same character. Their personalities don’t mesh, and the writers haven’t given the character/s any real distinctive tics or traits for the actors to exploit. Meanwhile, Stephens is so persuasive as a playboy that it’s impossible to believe his real motive isn’t world domination.

Case in point: his Ice Palace in Iceland. The whole place and all the furniture made out of ice, balanced on top of a frozen lake. Now: this is groovy with a capital Zowie. I mean, it’s worthy of Blofeld. We get to see Bond sidling up to a bar made of ice and ordering a martini. How can you not love it? And Stephens’ Graves skates through his scenes there with aplomb: when he christens his killer satellite he looks for all the world like he’s kicking off a rave. This guy ought to be trying to take over the world, not just South Korea.

Henchmen. Zao is visually striking, but kind of boring. Once Miranda Frost shows her true colors, she’s a much more memorable henchman. Especially with the backstory the script gives her and Moon; like in TWINE, but unlike most of the rest of the series, we understand why the villain and henchman are together.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2 here, as Peaceful Fountains of Desire didn’t quite work out. Which leaves us Halle Berry as Jinx and Rosamunde Pike as Miranda Frost.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Halle Berry’s role in this film. The first Oscar-winner Bond girl, etc. etc. I was really looking forward to it: in 2002, she was one of the two or three sexiest women in Hollywood. She was mouthwatering in Swordfish, which is what I think the producers wanted from her here. Unfortunately, she’s a near-miss. Her hairdo is awful, so bad it takes away a lot of her charm. And the writers try, clumsily, too hard to make her street. They actually have her say “yo mama.” In 2002. Sure, she looks great in the Ursula Andress entrance, and the Catwoman suit, but in all she’s not quite the intoxicating presence the movie wants her to be.

Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost, however, is fantastic, utterly delectable. Convincing right up until the moment we realize she’s a double-agent, and beyond. Looks great as a mousy British spy, and great as a fencer at the end.

The best, most erotic moment in the movie, though, comes with Miss Moneypenny’s fantasy about Bond. It’s wonderful and fitting that, in this fortieth anniversary movie, Moneypenny finally gets it on with Bond - and then entirely appropriate that it turn out to be only a fantasy.

I suppose we should mention Madonna’s cameo here. I think a lot of Bond fans would say she’s all wrong for 007, but I don’t think she was fated to be a disaster. Xenia Onatopp showed that there’s a way to present aggressive, combative female sexuality in a Bond film, even to allow it to challenge James. I find the thought of Madonna squaring off with James Bond – two very different icons of sexuality going head to head, or head to something – intriguing. Unfortunately Madonna wasn’t doing sexy in the early ‘00s. Instead she was doing British, badly. There’s a brief frisson when she and Brosnan first address each other, but her delivery is so stiff that their scene really doesn’t work up any sexual tension.

AND VIOLENCE: Hovercrafts. Ice-mobiles. Bombers. Hoo boy. Lots of big bangs here, and it’s all pretty cool, even though the CG isn’t quite where it needs to be to make it all work.

But every other action sequence in the movie pales next to the swordfight. It’s one of the best fights in the series. The setting is perfect – a fencing club, with lots of old weapons and armor and expensive wooden panelling and patrician people sitting at elegant tables, i.e. lots of stuff to break. And the choreography is brilliant - escalating steadily from slightly tense sport with foils through angered bashing with dueling blades to desperate whacking away with broadswords to a knock-down drag-out brawl. All of it with Brosnan and Stephens in those white fencing outfits, very visually effective. Kudos, lads.

BOYS WITH TOYS: The most gadget-happy Bond in ages, fitting for Cleese’s first (and, incomprehensibly, last) outing as head of Q Division. And there are some nice gadgets indeed, such as the glass-shattering ring. And some rather lame ones, like the holodeck training room (Bond imitates Star Trek?).

And then there's the car. This is one of the very few Bond films in which we get a good long look at his car and what it can do. After three films in which his BMW was underutilized, the Aston-Martin gets a thorough workout here, and it’s a lot of fun to see it and Zao’s Jag trading missiles and skids. Plus – dude, the car is invisible. Which, to be fair, is mostly fun because it gives us one of John Cleese’s patented Silly Walks.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: North Korea. Iceland. They’re either getting really adventurous or really desperate. But: Cuba. Excellent. We needed to see Bond chomping on a big Havana, and driving along in a vintage Ford Fairlane with the top down. And, above all, London: most of the films have 007 spend a little time in London, but this time it’s as part of the mission. And when “London Calling” comes on as he’s touching down in England – well it shouldn’t work, because last we checked Bond didn’t even like the Beatles, and “London Calling” never seemed to me particularly sanguine about the city – but it does.

ETC.: Madonna’s title song is the worst Bond title song since “The Living Daylights.” Listen to “Take A Bow” to hear an erotic, dramatic Madonna ballad that could have worked in a Bond context. But instead, she turns in a tuneless glob of techno that misses the point musically, and lyrically seems to be trying to undermine the whole project. Which is fine – but do it on your own time, Madge. …But the title sequence has a much more serious problem. The visuals are alright, the ice and fire girls. But the producers break the cardinal rule of Bond title sequences, which is that they are not allowed to advance the plot. They’re to be for pure visual gratification. Here the ice maidens are interspersed and intermeshed with scenes of Bond being tortured in the North Korean prison, poisoned with scorpions and whatnot. So not only are we distracted from the sensual visuals by trying to follow the plot, but when we do follow the plot we end up having this incredibly jarring combination of the sexual tease of the non-narrative visuals and the torture of the narrative visuals. Not what was called for. It’s as if whoever was in charge of the title sequence really didn’t approve of James Bond. …As the 40th anniversary Bond, this one works in lots of in-jokes and references to Bonds past. Halle Berry in her Ursula Andress costume is only the most obvious; there’s also the ornithologist cover Bond uses in Cuba, the Connery-era gadgets on display in Q’s workshop, Graves’ Union Jack parachute, etc. etc. All very clever and amusing, and if you want a complete list you can look elsewhere. …In the end Die Another Day is an inconsistent film. Parts of it are as fun as anything they did in the Brosnan era, and other parts are the worst thing they ever did in the Brosnan era. The second of those observations makes it not a very fitting end to the Brosnan era, while the first makes you wonder why the Brosnan era had to end at all…

RATING: 005.

Note: with this, my series of James Bond reviews is complete. Click on the "James Bond 007" tag for all of them, plus an explanation of the project. Check in again when Bond 23 is released, which looks to be 2011.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Silmarillion

So if Tolkien's literature is essentially anthropocentric, if I'm right that his biggest overarching goal was to create in the reader this sense of doomy fatalism that he saw as characterizing the Nordic mythoi and worldview in the dawn of Northern European Christianity, if his most basic project was (as I suspect it might have been) to imagine what it must have felt like to be a seventh-century Finn or Icelander, then why does he spend so much time on the Elves, and not the Men? Why Elves at all?

I don't know if I have a complete answer to this (again, the History of Middle Earth still looms on my horizon). I don't know if I know how it all fits together. But here's my stab at it.

Tolkien was a Romantic. Generationally, he was too late; he was, in point of fact, a Modern; then too of course his Romanticism was more than tempered by his Medievalist temperament. But I think it's plain to see that his sense of beauty is straight out of the post-Romantic fairy stories and illustrations of the nineteenth century. His is a pre-Raphaelite sensibility, if you like. I probably can't characterize it more exactly than that, but I'm sure somebody has.

I think his Elves, and by extension The Silmarillion as a whole, are his attempt to imagine as fully as possible a world and a race of Beauty, as perceived by a pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Elves are, above all else, beautiful. At every turn in Tolkien, they're held up as the standard of beauty; even their flaws are above reproach, really, because of their beauty. And there's really no split in Tolkien between truth and beauty. Truth=beauty, beauty=truth, as much in Tolkien as in Keats. At least as far as Elves are concerned. Elves' bodies, their songs, their homes, their language, their eyes, their trees, their armor, their everything is beauty itself. And so is, thanks to the Silmarillion, their creation story: it's like Genesis rewritten by a pre-Raphaelite, all song and twilight and glowing trees and whatnot.

So Tolkien is all about trying to capture this beauty that, in his day, was really out of fashion. But in a sense, what could be more Modernist (and at the same time medieval) than his decision to locate that beauty so determinedly not in Men? Once Tolkien has grasped beauty, it's like he can't bring himself to imagine locating that beauty in Men. Men are too weak - if the 20th century taught us anything, it was that. If beauty is going to be in the world, it has to be in another race. A race that Men can't hope to emulate, and are usually too dull to want to.

This is Tolkien's aesthetic: mankind quaking in the presence of beauty, as much as basking in it. It's the ability to perceive beauty but the inability to join with it. It's Man being fundamentally cut off from beauty, isolated, whether by nature or (as I thought here) by age. It's not quite loss, although Tolkien's literature is permeated by a sense of loss; it's not truly loss because Man never actually possessed beauty, was never in communion with it; that's the province of the Elves.

Again, it's a commentary upon the human condition. I keep coming back to that. Most of his literary energies were spent on trying to capture this beauty, but I think it was essentially in an effort to show us humans what we're not and can never be. That that is our lot.

Akallabêth, continued

So of course Men eventually sail West and find Valinor, and must be punished. This punishment takes the form of a great cataclysm that sinks the island of Numenor. But the Valar go farther: they remove Valinor from the physical world altogether. This is a peculiar thing: if you're an Elf, or are invited, you can still sail there - this is what Frodo does at the end of LOTR. But most people can't. Why?

Because the world is round.

In Tolkien, the world was originally flat. It was only made round in the cataclysm that sinks Numenor. Ever after...well, let's let Tolkien tell it:
And those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said: 'All roads are now bent.'

Thus in after days, what by the voyages of ships, what by lore and star-craft, the kings of Men knew that the world was indeed made round, and yet the Eldar were permitted still to depart and to come to the Ancient West and to Avallónë, if they would. Therefore the loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it. And they taught that, while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent), and traversed Ilmen which flesh unaided cannot endure, until it came to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, and maybe even beyond, to Valinor... (pp. 281-2)
I find this fascinating. If we're going to discuss symbolic geometry, then I'd have to say I normally associate circles, spheres, with infiniteness, but here the sphere is the measure of finiteness. The mariners who return "weary at last to the place of their beginning" - what a sense of futility that phrase carries.

I can't think of a better thumbnail image of Tolkien's stance toward modernity on the one hand and the mythological past on the other than this Flat-Earthism. We moderns can't help but think of the discovery (or gradually realization) that the earth is round as an advance, but Tolkien is telling us that it's really a loss for humanity, a huge and definitive Closing of the Frontier. The moment we realize the earth is round, we experience a loss.

But it's what he does next that is so intriguing. He proceeds to imagine the period before we realize the earth is round, not as one of ignorance, but as one in which the earth really wasn't round. The earth's flatness in Tolkien is key: it means that those on earth, Elves and Men, are in lands that are contiguous with those of the Angels. All you have to do get there is sail far enough.

Until the cataclysm, and the rounding of the earth. After that, you can't get there by sailing. Not unless you're permitted to find the Straight Road, and that now takes - well, not exactly faith, not in Tolkien. Permission. Which certainly implies a kind of moral Straightness, although sin in Tolkien isn't very well-defined.

Again with that symbolic geometry. The spherical nature of the world does not connote wholeness (see Cat's comment on an earlier Tolkien post here for what wholeness meant to Tolkien and his generation), but brokenness - bentness, to be precise. Straightness is still possible, but it's no longer natural: now it involves transcendence, superhuman heroism or virtue or perception or favor. Something as simple as a straight line is no longer part of the natural inheritance of Men.

A sorry lot indeed.