Thursday, December 2, 2010

Anno Hideaki: Love & Pop (1998)

Love & Pop is a film about enjô kôsai (subsidized dating) released at the height of the public hysteria about the phenomenon (1998). I was in Japan during those years - teaching at a high school, in fact - and while I can't pretend to any specialized knowledge, I tend to lean toward the idea that the scandal was overblown: a typical case of adults freaking out about what they imagine (fantasize) their kids might be doing. The kids themselves were alright. On the aggregate, at least.

Which is not to say that this film, which depicts the phenomenon as if it were real, is sensationalist. Working from a Murakami Ryû novel, it's doing what Ryû likes to do with topics like this, which is to aim at somehow humanizing all the participants, so that you understand all their motivations and reactions, while studiously avoiding a dry sociological approach: which is to say, you manage to get an objective sense of the states of mind of the girls and their johns, while simultaneously owning up to your own subjective state of erotic excitement and moral worked-up-ness. Like, Ryû can't help but ogle, and he also can't help but smirk, but somehow he (almost?) convinces you that these responses are honest and worth including in the total picture. Ryû's a dirty old man, and has been since he was a young man, but he's also a smart social observer and critic, and he never lets you forget either.

But, all that's not what's brilliant about this film. What's brilliant about it is director Anno Hideaki's camerawork. He's shooting on DV, and from weird angles - under tables, up through dinner dishes, through the bottom of a beer mug while it's being drunk from, from beds looking up at ceilings, from ceilings looking down at beds. The camera is always moving, the point of view is always shifting, and none of the moves and shifts are dictated by the logic of the narrative. I think this creates two effects.

One is the hidden camera effect. Sometimes it's a security camera, but more often it's the hidden porn camera effect: we're constantly gazing at the high school girls protagonists from odd angles, as if we're hiding in a purse or behind a chair or in the corner, and we're constantly getting closeups of random parts of them - wrists, ankles, shoulders, lips. We're constantly circling around them, or darting under them, or sneaking up behind them. The camera is, quite forcefully, putting us in the position of the voyeuristic male obsessed with high school girls (not a rare type in Japan, a fact that fueled the whole subsidized dating scare - it was plausible because everybody knew lots of guys wanted it to happen like that). Combine that with the way guys seem to jump out of nowhere, offering these girls impossible amounts of money just to have dinner with them (literally, just that), and you get a pretty compelling depiction of what it must be like to constantly be the center of unwanted eroticizing attention. These girls are always being watched, at an age when they're still pretty innocent. How would any sane person process that kind of attention?

The other effect is the dream camera. If the hidden-camera effect in this film is, not precisely objective, but rather radically objectivizing in its view of the girls, the other thing Anno's camera does is to depict their subjectivity in an equally radical way. Often this happens when the camera is a stand-in for the gaze of the main girl, Hiromi, in extreme ways: we see through her eyes as she splashes water in her face/the lens. Once we're used to assuming her perspective, we begin to notice that when the camera is not stealing voyeuristic glances at her and her friends, it's often gazing off into space, at the sky, or at buildings, at gutters or stairwells. The city of Tokyo, specifically the environs of Shibuya, is seen with a mundane and yet somehow luminous beauty in this film, and I think it's because we're seeing it through the eyes of a (putatively) innocent and dreamy 16-year-old girl. She thinks deeply about things, but with the pure inexperienced urgency of the teenager: we know this from the voiceovers. And she herself is constantly looking - she carries her camera everywhere, and is always taking pictures. And what she sees is - peace and beauty, love and pop. Not, usually, the dangers stalking her.

Put these two perspectives together and you get, of course, an excellent correlative to Murakami's approach. More than that, you get a heartbreaking vision of vulnerability and perversion, tranquility and menace, in end-of-the-century Tokyo.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chara: Caramel Milk (2000)

Caramel Milk is a compilation of the second phase of Chara's career, after her hit "Swallowtail Butterfly" revitalized her career. That single, from a 1996 film of the same name and credited to Yen Town Band, a fictional band featured in the film (it's a great film, by the way, set in a polyglot dystopian/utopian near-future Tokyo), is the best thing on the album. A lullaby-like ballad sung by Chara in her most blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo voice, it rises to prom-night intensity on the refrain, where the singer bursts unexpectedly into soulful wailing. Add strings and sitar noises and you've got yourself a perfect late-'90s J-pop record.

Unfortunately, it's, as I say, the best thing on the disc. In fact, it might be the only listenable thing on the disc. Chara's one of those artists whose look and sound are memorable enough that if you spent enough time in Japan in the '90s and early '00s you'd know who she was even if you were as half-hearted in your interest in J-pop as I was. Meaning, I knew who she was, and liked the aforementioned song well enough to, eventually, getting around to buying a compilation that included it. And, eventually, listening to it with full attention.

The other songs on here were recorded in the wake of "Swallowtail Butterfly," and they sound like it: similarly intricate musical settings, gesturing toward sunshine pop, soul, dance music, and the typical Sunday-morning chiffon-curtain J-pop ballad. But whereas "Swallowtail Butterfly" sounds effortless and inevitable, the rest here sound overthought: every sound is not just carefully chosen, but intricately shaped and processed and spun. The recordings are full of detail, and no doubt a full connoisseurial accounting of them would prove the good taste of artist and producer - but this kind of thing can be awfully tiring. And here it's not balanced by particularly memorable melodies.

Above all, it turns out that I find Chara's singing style positively irritating. It turns out I have very little patience for blissed-out baby-doll goo-goo vocals.

So why write about it? Why, out of the blue, pick on poor Chara? Because listening to the dozen or so really unbearable songs on this record gave me a new appreciation for just how good the good song is. Like, suddenly the effortlessness of it sounds like a massive achievement; suddenly I understand that the producer, Kobayashi Takeshi, about whom I know nothing, did wonders in coaxing that kind of a vocal out of Chara. I'm not quite a poptimist, but I do try to cultivate a healthy appreciation for what goes into making a good pop record, to balance out my reflexive rockism.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Contemporary American literature: MFA vs. NYC

Note to self: if you ever get interested, even slightly, in the contemporary American literary scene, Chad Harbach is at Slate to tell you all about it. It's a long-ass article, and full of that trademark Slate snark, but even if only half of it is true, it explains a lot about what you've inadvertently absorbed about modern lit without really understanding: the place of New York, the place of not-New York, the importance of Raymond Carver. It's good enough to almost make you feel guilty about not having read anybody mentioned in the article except Nabokov, Faulkner, Carver, Pynchon, Auster, O'Brien, and Diaz. Remember that feeling.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (1994)

I saw this for the first time in Tokyo in '96 or so, and now it mostly brings back memories of the go-go '90s, of burgeoning Asian chic, of night in the world's biggest cities, and oh yes of my 20s, of innocence bruised but not yet broken, of that particular ennui that comes from spending too much time in both discos and used bookstores.

Or something like that. Another way to say it might be that at the time I was (probably) in love with Faye Wong, and it was a love that seemed both real and realistic; now I'm in love with someone flesh and blood, and Faye Wong in this movie strikes me as (duh) a cute cinematic construct: the kind of girl a young man might fall in love with. Tony Leung? Not so much...

But then, what do I know from Tony Leung? His character is largely a cipher in this movie. He's a policeman.

What's a policeman to Wong Kar-Wai? Here and in Days of Being Wild they seem to have a kind of iconic significance. Is it the anonymity - the tendency he gives them to hide in the shadows of their caps, and to identify themselves by their badge numbers? Is it that the authority makes them a shorthand for masculinity, of a particularly repressed variety? Is it something as simple and universal as the allure of a man in uniform - even when, like Kaneshiro Takeshi here, he doesn't wear a uniform?

(As with As Tears Go By, I find that the original Chinese title of this film, 重慶森林 or Chungking Jungle, gives it a specificity of place that the English version lacks. The outdoor escalator that provides such memorable visuals in the second half also dates the film - that is, it would have been a signifier of up-to-dateness in 1994.)