Here are thoughts on the anime I watched this past fall, winter, and spring. Dropped anime are not included. Some were written without a reader in mind and contain spoilers (marked).
d. and w. Sono Sion / Japan
Note: SPOILERS throughout.
From the title, image, and summary, I didn’t know what I was getting into with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui). All I knew was that Sono Sion directed it, and I’ve loved a few of his films. After watching this one, I’m going to go ahead and say he’s my favorite Japanese director, and one of my favorite directors, period. His films are demented and often fun. Even if I don’t 100% understand what’s happening, I still enjoy myself. I couldn’t explain Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, or Strange Circus, but they’re visually striking, unique, and compelling enough that I don’t care. Maybe the fact that Sono’s also a poet comes through, and that’s part of what I respond to. A graduate professor of mine who taught screenwriting once told me that poets make better first-time screenwriters because they tend to think in image rather than narrative. Sono isn’t a first-time screenwriter, but however madcap his narratives are, their images sustain you.
On the Sono comprehensibility scale, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is closer to Love Exposure and Cold Fish. (Sidebar: Comprehensible to a Westerner like me; I’ve read discussions of his films by Japanese viewers or those who know more about Japanese culture, who are able to understand elements I may not.) This means the movie is insane, but you can follow the story line. It reminded me most strongly of Love Exposure, though I recognized some actors from Cold Fish, which I’d seen more recently (for the third time). There are elements of a strange romance (Mitsuko and Koji), undercut or put in quotes as are other story elements (yakuza feuds, action movies, film making). I like the women in Sono’s films; they’re fierce. Mitsuko is loved or idolized by Koji and rival yakuza leader, Ikegami, who meets her as a child. Like Koji, Ikegami knows Mitsuko’s TV commercial (which opens the movie);he has a huge picture of the adult Mitsuko on his wall, which is comically discovered later by her father during the final, big raid. It’s Koji and Mitsuko’s “romance” which resembles that of the two leads in Love Exposure: a prickly heroine and a boy who instantly falls in love; their paths cross by chance.
WDYPiH uses some of the same music as Cold Fish and snowballs in a similar fashion. I laughed at the absurd situations and violence or put my hands to my face because I couldn’t believe or was delighted by many moments.
In addition to the Koji-Mitsuko-Ikegami “love triangle,” there’s the foundational relationship between Mitsuki’s father, Muto, and his wife (I think), Shizue. We see Shizue being replaced as boss or hostess of/at a business owned by Muto; a new, younger woman and mistress is being brought in. Shizue doesn’t take it kindly. When rival yakuza come to her home looking for Muto, she takes out her rage on them, slaughtering all but Ikegami. She’s put in jail, and Muto thinks she’s risked her life for him. As she’s about to be released from prison some years later, Muto wants to do something for her. Mitsuko’s commercial was taken off the air because of her mother’s crime, and Muto’s kept her “career” as an actress going. However, in the middle of making a movie, MItsuko ran away with a guy. Muto goes crazy trying to get his daughter back and tries to persuade the director of the movie to wait (he can’t). As Mitsuko escapes, she chances upon an adult Koji (who’d seen her commercial as a child) and pays him to be her boyfriend for the day.
Parallel to the yakuza story is that of the “Fuck Bombers” (which never failed to make me laugh when shouted). In the past we see an excitable kid named Hirata and his amateur film crew (the Fuck Bombers) come across a fight between high school boys; they film it, and though they’re initially threatened, the delinquents eventually get into being filmed, and one, Sasaki, is identified by young director Hirata as a future action star, Japan’s Bruce Lee. They also happen upon Ikegami staggering back to base after his encounter with Shizue and Mitsuko. He lets them film him stumbling along, wounded, until he rounds the corner.
In the present, not much has changed for the Fuck Bombers. Hirata is still hoping to make One Great Picture. Sasaki is less enthused, still wearing his yellow Bruce Lee outfit. The movie theater where the group meets is out of business. There are girls hanging around, but they’re not impressed until an actual fight breaks out as Sasaki quits and attempts to leave (acting like an action star has comically given him actual martial arts skills).
There’s what I interpret as an anti-nostalgia (or anti-traditionalism) element to the movie. Hirata wants to make one movie, not a bunch made to earn money; he laments the current state of Japanese cinema. Ikegami, after his defeat in the past, orders his yakuza to eschew Western clothing; they must shave and wear kimono (plus Japanese-style sunglasses, whatever those are). No one’s exactly sane or admirable in this movie, so it may be less anti than pointing to the ridiculousness of all (or deconstructing the tropes used).
Koji tells Mitsuko he won’t run, but when her father’s men find them, he’s mistaken for the guy who Mitsuko originally ran away with that did flee (she hunts the latter down and puts beer bottle shards in his and her own mouth, kissing him). Muto is about to kill Koji, but Mitsuko saves him by saying he’s a director she wants to work with. Muto had already gotten the idea of making a movie with Mitsuko on his own for his wife and “negotiates” with Koji over the budget. As film equipment arrives at Muto’s headquarters and filming questions get more specific, Koji buckles under the pressure and runs. The yakuza catch up with him just as he reaches a place where people have tied their wishes, written on bits of paper. He vomits all over it, and a wish slips out; it’s Hirata’s wish to make a great film, from ten years before. Koji convinces the yakuza he needs this guy, and they find Hirata (on a disastrous date) and, with Mitsuko, ask him to make the movie. This is the moment Hirata’s been waiting for. They find Sasaki at work in a restaurant, and he comes along too. At first Hirata doesn’t get exactly what’s going on, but when he learns he’ll be working with real yakuza and filming a raid, he’s ecstatic. He comes up with a plan and talks with Ikegami (whom Hirata recognizes from their past encounter). It’s on.
What follows is the craziest guerilla filmmaking, with real fights (including Mitsuko, Koji, and Sasaki as participants) and deaths. Cameras, lighting, and booms are everywhere as the fighting spreads from room to room. Everyone dies (except Hirata, though he may still), either by katana at the start (Hirata says it’s more dramatic and traditional or quintessential) or gunfire when it erupts and when the police arrive. All the major characters get a moment, and in a crazy instance of meta, Mitsuko kills the yakuza surrounding her with one swing, music reminiscent of Kill Bill Vol. 1 playing. It’s a Japanese movie referencing an American movie that is itself an homage or nod to martial arts in a Japanese setting.
Koji is dealt what appear to be several deadly blows (e.g. a sword through his head), and his and Mitsuko’s tender moment is rudely interrupted by a yakuza. Koji keeps coming back, and when he’s about to do or say something dramatic, the cops shoot him down. Mitsuko’s heroic attacking stance is similarly halted.
Hirata’s “panning” cameraman literally dies in the act of filming, eye still to the camera. Hirata himself appears dead beside Sasaki, but makes his way around the scene, praising his dead crew and taking the 35mm film. He avoids the cops and escaping yakuza and runs down the streets, arms full of film, shouting, “Fuck Bombers!” ecstatically. In a final, ultra-meta gesture, we hear “cut,” and the actor playing Hirata jogs off camera, and we see crew emerging from the sidelines.
d. Henri-Georges Clouzot / w. Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi
The most tense nail-biter of all time: that’s how The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) was described in the sources I read before and after watching it myself. I first became interested in the movie after seeing it on Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer, The Host) list of top ten favorite films. Good enough for me.
I had high expectations, though the film takes its time at first. It establishes the setting–a remote village in southern Mexico–and the major characters, most of whom are foreigners who’ve made it there (or are escaping something, like jail) but have no means of leaving due to the isolated location and its destitution. There are few jobs, and they don’t pay. The foreigners often mock the locals, calling them savages, even though they themselves are low-lifes. They eat, dance, and have affairs with the locals but are lazy, bored, and eager to leave.
The version of the film originally released in the U.S. trimmed some scenes to make it less “anti-American,” but watching the complete film, I can’t say it was anti-American in particular, or only. No one’s a saint or shown in an especially positive light. However, one of the film’s best lines is: “Where there’s oil, there’s Americans.”
There’s an oil well fire at an American drilling site (recalling There Will Be Blood for this viewer), and the Americans decide they need to transport nitroglycerin there to solve the problem. But how will they get the dangerous substance where they need it? They callously discuss hiring some drivers for the task, for twice as many trucks as needed, in case “something” happens to one. They hire four of the dozens who apply: the Frenchmen, Mario and Jo; the Italian, Luigi; and the Dutchman, Bimba. They’ll be paid $2,000 to complete the insanely dangerous job.
Once the journey begins, so does the tension, and it never lets up. The men have to drive over some rough road, and every shot of a tire or nitro in the back made my heart race. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Predictably, the first guy to start losing his shit is Jo, who’d previously established himself as a suave tough guy. Earlier in the film, he pulled a gun on Luigi; he even handed him the gun, but Luigi wouldn’t use it. Jo said it’s not enough to have a gun, you need the guts to use it. So naturally, Jo is the first to sweat bullets and later tries to run away. By the end, he’s a terrified old man.
Meanwhile, Mario becomes more ruthless; near the end, he even runs over Jo’s legs, and he dies from the injuries. Yet they still call each other friends after everything.
In addition to generally rough road, there’s a hairpin turn that forces the trucks to back onto a rickety wooden platform. Later, there’s also a boulder blocking the road (they blow it up with nitro). As a viewer you constantly think one or all of them are about to die. When one of the trucks does explode, you don’t even see how it happens; you’re with the other truck, whose driver and passenger see only smoke in the distance.
Watching, it’s clear there won’t be a happy ending. The title offers a snapshot of the story: how much fear are you willing to face for some money?
A couple of these were tough!
1. What book is on your nightstand now?
The end table by my couch is the equivalent, and right now there’s Dante’s Inferno, W.H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, my kindle, and an instructor’s edition of an essay anthology I got for free.
2. What was the last truly great book that you read?
The first book that popped into my head was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, but more recently I read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
3. If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be? And what would you want to know?
Virginia Woolf. I’d like to discuss poetry because I find her writing very lyric, but there were no real poets in the Bloomsbury Group, which I find curious.
4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
My shelves are pretty eclectic, so nothing, I’d think.
5. How do you organize your personal library?
I have two proper bookshelves and a table with shelves. One bookshelf is all poetry and writing about poetry, and the other is fiction with a stack of miscellaneous anthologies, nonfiction, and drama on top. On the floor next to it is a stack of genre books: YA, fantasy, some SF. The table has literary journals, coffee table books, manga, comics, and books on popular culture.
6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
Oh, a lot. But the one that actually embarrasses me is The Scarlet Letter, a staple of American literature. I was just never assigned it in school and haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I do like what little Hawthorne I’ve read!
7. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Hm…I DNF a biography of Bowie recently, and that’s saying a lot. There was just too much conjecture about his feelings on things.
Disappointing or overrated…I thought Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, was terribly boring and DNF. Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train didn’t grip me much either. And I couldn’t get into A Song of Ice and Fire as a series; I don’t do misery porn.
8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?
You know, I don’t know what I’m drawn to! For me it can be more about style and voice. It’s easier to describe what I don’t like. That includes stories set in posh areas of NYC, or privileged families and characters with personal problems generally. I’m not a huge reader of romance, historical fiction, memoirs, history, or dudebro books (i.e. books by dudes about dudes having midlife crises or crises of masculinity generally; this was a big thing in the 90s.).
9. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I think Obama is pretty well read, and I know we share the same opinion of Heart of Darkness (not favorable). I suppose I’d choose some contemporary poetry, because many people aren’t up on that. Let’s say Jamaal May’s Hum, gorgeous and very American. (And maybe I’d slip him my own chapbook. ;))
10. What do you plan to read next?
Probably either Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh or Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, both on my themed reading list for the year (of previously unfinished books).
I have read and enjoyed Gluck before–my favorite book of hers is The Wild Iris–but as I’ve mentioned in previous poetry reviews, my tastes can change, or I can become antsy if it feels like a poet is treading familiar ground stylistically. This collection won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2014, so I began it hopefully.
The book of Gluck’s I was most immediately reminded of was A Village Life, my least favorite for its strangely nostalgic pastoralism whose tone I’m not sure I ever grasped. It’s hard to pinpoint what similarities I’m feeling; I can only say that Faithful and Virtuous Night was a decidedly better experience for me as a reader. Nature, spirituality, family–these are recurring themes in Gluck’s work. Here there’s also much to do with creativity, and the creative person’s life, especially as that life nears its end. The poems are often tender, but never maudlin; there are moments of great beauty, lines that stunned me right where I long for all poems to do.
The poems are lucid and narrative, and together it appears a larger story is being told, with possibly recurring personae (another book that popped into my head while reading: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). There are also fable-like stories or mythologies throughout; together with the mentions of writing and (personal) history, the act of narrative or storytelling makes another significant theme.
Familiar themes like losing time and aging can be hard to make new for a reader; on one side there’s sentimentality, on the other, despair or cynicism. Gluck treads a careful path between the two, not exactly pining, not exactly comforting, but the poems’ beauty is its own comfort. I admire her, too, for writing narratively and clearly in a way that’s never boring or limp (I’ve come to value the lyric over the narrative; I would call these highly lyric narratives).
If you’re less familiar with poetry, Gluck is another great poet to begin with. If you’re in a contemplative space (mentally or physically), this would be a lovely companion.
I wish I’d been able to read this book when I was assigned it for a graduate class on speculative fiction and utopias/dystopias. It’s a rich novel with so much to discuss. As it is, I can imagine I’ll only touch on some of the issues the book explores (see my long list of tags) and my reactions as I read.
First, this is the only speculative novel I’ve read with a Jewish protagonist and characters, steeped in Jewish culture. Woven together with Shira’s story and her evolving relationship with Yod, the cyborg, is a story Shira’s grandmother, Malkah, tells to Yod about the Jewish ghetto in Prague circa 1600, and the Golem created to defend those living there. At first I was thrown by the story and how it was being told, but after the first such chapter I got it. Obviously, Yod’s and the Golem’s stories parallel one another in essential ways. Primarily, both explore the question of “humanity” and personhood often raised by SF when androids or cyborgs are involved. I never get tired of this topic.
The novel was published in the early ’90s, and so much is dead-on when it comes to our present and probable future–corporations running the world and determining culture; poverty and violence; the role of the internet; the destruction of the environment. The only “futuristic” bit that feels dated (if that makes sense) is the virtual reality-style raid, and that’s only because people have been trying to make VR a thing for so long, and predicting it will be, despite it never catching on.
I loved the novel’s representations of sexuality and gender, and it’s clearly feminist, without being polemic. In its depiction of Tikva, the Jewish “free town” that exists beyond the corporate enclaves and “Glop” (megalopolis), socialism rises as the more humane and diverse system as compared to the rampant capitalism that rules most of the world.
Malkah and the Golem, Joseph, are the most interesting characters to me, and Nili grew on me as well, as she does with Shira. I sometimes struggled with Shira; she can be self-pitying and not always self-aware, though her journey involves coming into her own as a thinker and worker (however, she only comes to trust in herself when she learns she was deliberately not promoted; her stasis had nothing to do with a lack of skill–in other words, validation from others plays a strong role in her own sense of self, which is natural but dangerous). I also never liked Gadi, Shira’s childhood love, which made it tougher for me to in turn like Shira.
My only other issue was with the pacing at the end, where for a moment it seems Shira is about to make a disastrous mistake before she quickly comes to her senses. I suppose this is meant as a contrast to the Maharal’s way of dealing with Joseph, and a final show of growth for Shira. However, it comes and goes so fast, it felt melodramatic or heavy-handed.
If you like SF at all, or are eager for interesting female characters, or, like me, are maybe developing a deep fascination with A.I., this is a different and engrossing novel.