Friday, 9 November 2007

FILM: I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

Director Park Chan-Wook is perhaps seen as the leading figure in the new wave of Korean cinema which has struck a chord with audiences across the world, usurping both Hong Kong and Japan as the "go-to" nation for groundbreaking cinema in East Asia. With his "Vengeance" trilogy complete, Park's venture into romantic comedy may seem a peculiar choice, but this film still carries over themes from his previous work and the style is still undeniably all his. I'm A Cyborg But That's OK focuses on two patients in a mental hospital and the relationship that develops between them. Young-Goon (Im Soo-Jeong) believes she is of cybernetic origin and spends her time talking to vending machines and licking batteries for sustinence, while Il-Soon (Rain) spends his time wearing a variety of masks and has the ability to steal other people's "powers" (or, in this case, mental handicaps).

Park is no stranger to flights of fancy and visual jiggery-pokery and such a premise as this lends itself perfectly to his aesthetic. With science-fiction elements mixing with a variety of eccentric supporting players, few scenes pass without a quirky characteristic played out to its full, often with the aid of CGI. The visualisations of the patients' delusions give the film a sense that perhaps they aren't crazy after all, even if they are exaggerated to the point of unbelievability. But in doing so, the potential darkness of such a situation is mostly avoided.

I say mostly, because it's still a rather uncomfortable watch. Much of the humour is simply derived from the fact that the people on screen are basically mental, and while there are some very funny moments, I found it hard to give myself fully to the film's lightness dealing with what's in every other essence a somewhat bleak existence. Humour always played a factor in Park's previous films in even darker areas of human nature (also when concerning the themes of entrapment and injustice that also appear here), but deriving jet black comedy from the more macabre or disturbing somehow rests easier on my mind. Perhaps that says more about me than the film.

And in much the same way as Takeshi Miike's Zebraman was his idea of a family film, Park's view of what might be suitable viewing for his young daughter (for whom he made the film) is unconventional to say the least. Before the screening at the Barbican as part of the London Korean Film Festival, he asked us to view the film from the perspective of the a 12-year-old, and while I would've probably got a kick out of this when I was 10 years younger (good God), this isn't the kind of picture you'd get from the House of Mouse. One repeated manic hallucination of Young-goon's is just about as violent as anything in Lady Vengeance.

However, there is much to like about the film. The leads are endearing and engaging, and the oddball assortment of fellow patients provide a colourful backdrop. And there is no denying the talent of Park, who appears to be just as comfortable shooting fantasy as much as reality, blurring the boundaries wherever he sees fit but not in such a way as to disorientate the audience. It's plain silly in parts, but you buy into it. What on paper sounds like a cross between Amelie and The Terminator at first is ultimately far more inspired than its intial plot summary suggests it would be. In fact, its tone is more akin to Joon-Hwan Jang's Save The Green Planet, another recent Korean film that flits between sci-fi thriller, gruesome horror and lowbrow comedy with gleeful abandon.

From a lesser director, this would be considered nothing short of their finest hour, but coming from the director of Oldboy, it's perhaps not as assured as it should be, even if it's not the kind of film he's used to making. While its failure at the domestic box-office appears to have forced Park to return to the blood-soaked tales that made his name, it would be a shame if he didn't hop genres again in his career. It's not a masterpiece, but that's OK.


> > > IMDb

Saturday, 7 July 2007

GIG: Live Earth Japan - Kyoto Toji (07.07.07)

While major cities played host to day-long mega-concerts in vast venues to alert the world's attention to Al Gore's SOS campaign to curtail global warming, the city that gave it's name to the best known climate change treaty yet devised (the Kyoto Protocol) was hosting it's own side concert. And what better setting for a smaller, more low-key affair, than the serene surrounds of the Toji, home to Japan's tallest wooden tower and a symbol of Kyoto itself. As a gig venue, it reminded me of the annual summer concerts held at Glastonbury Abbey, which dates from around the same era; the only exception being that the Toji is not in ruins and is still a functioning place of worship, some 1,200 years later.

So to get myself in the mood, I watched some of the live feed online from the Tokyo concert already underway, as Japanese rockers Rize thrashed about and screamed with crazy hair, outfits and tattoos. That afternoon, I took the train to Toji station (about half an hour away) and joined the queue lining up beside the temple grounds. Once inside, we gathered in groups according to our ticket number, and were sent into the inner area via the pagoda in batches (picking up a Live Earth pamphlet and tote bag along the way). While much of the seating had already been taken, I found a seat near the back but with a fine view of the stage. What was wonderful about the setting was how it wasn't just a concert within the temple grounds, but the temple building was the stage itself (well, everyone was performing in front of it, but it made for a gorgeous backdrop once the lighting was in full swing). It was just after 7pm, the sky was darkening, the humid air was thinning and a cool breeze was...erm...breezing. Then suddenly the tinkly Zen music was broken with a thump. Then another. Then another. Was Godzilla approaching? Were storm clouds looming?

No...DJ Fumiya marches across to his decks, scratches the SOS morse code (used in the interval music throughout), and is joined by the rest of his Rip Slyme cohorts decked in white jackets, different coloured hats, and shorts. The closest thing you'll get to the Beastie Boys in Japan, Rip Slyme's goofy upbeat rap is a great way to start, and the audience claps and nods to their bouncy antics. I was pretty amazed how small some of them were, but they can sure rhyme the rhyme well, and as a rap combo, Rip Slyme's dash of humour and self-deprecation (no band can take themselves seriously dancing the way they do) is fun and refreshing. Even if I didn't recognise any of their tracks.

Next up was song siren UA. Having not heard any of her material beforehand, I didn't really have high expectations, but I was blown away by her performance. With only a single guitar accompaniement, she belted out a stunning epic flowing number of incredible range and a unique singing style - while it was clearly Japanese she was singing, she managed to make it sound as un-Japanese as possible, and more like Icelandic (though that might just be the easy to lump together Sigur Rós / múm effect when it comes to strange or ethereal non-English singing). She also made little monkey noises during and after the songs. This is a good thing. And she was also the most conscious of the evening's goal in terms of saving the world, and seemed the most earnest in her appreciation of Kyoto ("日本の心", "the heart and soul of Japan" as she called), even going so far as saying thanks in local dialect.

She was followed by Kyoto-born Bonnie Pink, another well-known Japanese songstress, but also one I'd yet to hear in any shape or form. As expected, the stage turned pink, and she began her first track, entitled 'Heaven's Kitchen', which followed your typical pop-song formula, but the funkier vibe and the gutsy performance were enough to win me over. I wouldn't usually go to see this kind of music live, but I think it's safe to say that once can appreciate the talent and the quality of singing far better than just hearing it pop on the radio. However, her following songs weren't anywhere near as interesting, and the rather shameless plugging of her singles and albums offset some of my newfound appreciation.

With a sole piano now occupying the stage, it was time for Michael Nyman, and it was probably the first time I've seen a solo pianist perform live since my school recital era (actually, there were a few kids taking turns at keyboards at the Sapporo Snow Festival). As the only foreigner performing that night (I'd only seen four other gaijin at the concert, all middle-aged, 3 with Japanese wives, 1 with a camera), I wondered whether he was especially popular in Japan, or had some connection with the country. It seemed an odd choice - I'm only vaguely familiar with his work, with only his collaboration with Damon Albarn on the score to overlooked frontier cannibal thriller Ravenous I could really vouch for. As a result, I was never too sure if the odd mis-plinks and mis-plonks were intended or nerves getting the better of him (his only audience interaction, understandably, being a series of bows before and after hi set). But having checked his Wikipedia entry, it seems like his music was also frequently used in Japanese cooking competition show, Iron Chef, which would explain the connection. Perhaps it was the slow and minamilist nature of his tunes, but his segment did seem to go on longer than the others (each getting only a piffling 20 minutes), and the close proximity to the road behind meant one tune was interrupted by the motorcycle revs of some jackass bosozoku. However, everyone seemed to recognise his final tune, 'The Heart Asks Pleasure First' from his score to The Piano. And there was much applause when he took his final bow. But was this genuinely appreciative of his perfomance or were people just happy to see him go? Well, it soon became clear that everyone was here to see one act and one act alone.

Having recently reformed for a beer commercial (what do you expect in Japan), the legendary trio of Haruomi Hasono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, aka Yellow Magic Orchestra, were taking to the stage for the first time together in 14 years (at least under the YMO name). It only took the stage crew to move on their individual mini-stages to get the crowd to stand, applauding and whooping. But when they appeared, the crowd were esctatic, as was I. Undeniably greyer, but also, undeniably cooler in their older age, they began with a stirring rendition of 'Ishin Denshin (You've Got to Help Yourself)', which fitted in well with the nature of proceedings. This was followed by two tracks I hadn't heard before, and I have a feeling at least one may have come from Hasano and Takahashi's Sketch Show project (which also sometimes featured Sakamoto, all three appearing under the guise of Human Audio Sponge). Whatever the case may be, they were both typical of their distinctive sound. Their final tune was their new remix of the classic 'Rydeen', which sounded so very good live, and had the audience humming the melody as they departed. While there was a wait for an encore (such a tease - waiting over a decade to play four tracks - what about all the guys who came in their YMO shirts?), when the equipment was being removed and the stage dismantled, it became clear that was that. Too short it may have been, but it was worth it, and for what will most likely be my last gig in Japan, I couldn't think of any domestic act I'd have rather seen.

But did all this really get its message across? Who knows...unlike most of the other concerts, the attendees here were mostly plus 30 years old, who may not be as clued up in green issues as their younger counterparts. But Japan already has a pretty good record when it comes to recycling and the like, though it could probably improve on it's 'burn everything' mentality, as well as the amount of unnecessary packaging used for most everyday shopping purchases. I guess the problem with the Live Earth concerts as a whole is that there isn't really a clear goal or sense of unity or ultimate progress or achievement or influence being created. Especially as there has been little publicity made about them at all. Only two or three people I told about the event had a vague idea of what it was, and I haven't read or seen anything about the concerts in Kyoto or Tokyo in the run-up to the day (okay, so I don't read the newspapers or have a TV, but these things are meant to seep through somehow). At least I can be thankful for not having it's omnipresence rammed into my brain - I can imagine in London there's probably a bit of big important concert apathy, considering there's one held in Hyde Park or Wembley Stadium seemingly every weekend. While I indeed have concerns about global warming, at least I got to see YMO. Regardless of whether the day's objectives are achieved or not in the long run, for now, that's good enough for me.


You can view videos of Rip Slyme and YMO perfoming, plus photos of all the acts, taken by yours truly, at my special Live Earth Kyoto YouTube Playlist and my Live Earth Kyoto Flickr Set.

> > > Live Earth Japan

Monday, 25 June 2007

FILM: Kantoku · Banzai!

Takeshi Kitano's latest offering continues the self-reflexive dissection of his persona and his career that was kick-started by Takeshis'. Kantoku · Banzai! (basically put, 'Glory to the Filmmaker!') is also his first all-out comedy feature in over a decade, but it is perhaps the most unconventional comedy I've ever seen. There are sights contained within I never imagined I would ever see in my most fevered dreams, let alone in a motion picture. And I'm pretty certain that even if I had had the pleasure of subtitles, it still wouldn't have made a lot of sense. But still, does the man behind Violent Cop and Takeshi's Castle pull it off, or crumble under his own introspective analysis? And what's more, is it even funny?

Prefixed by an amusing short film (as part of Cannes 60th anniversary "To Each His Cinema" celebration), the feature film itself is very much a picture of two halves. We are first introduced to 'Beat' Takeshi's papier mâché doll replica, which both accompanies and replaces him throughout the movie, undergoing a medical check-up to determine the state of it's health, and, by that token, Kitano's career. With the help of a narrator, Takeshi ponders what his next film should be, and what follows is a series of 'false starts' covering various genres, both ones he's accustomed to and ones he's never tried, complete with fake titles. So there's the gangster segment, the romance, the coming-of-age story, the 50's drama...My personal favourites would have to be the horror section (which manages to be surprisingly scary before it descends into farce), and the samurai section, which even tops Zatoichi for blade-swishing thrills.

Finally, we arrive at what's to be the main narrative thread, but even then, it's a nonsensical mish-mash of crazy characters, loopy sketches, and referential wackiness. As far as I gathered, against a backdrop of a meteorite heading towards Earth, a skint mother and daughter duo's attempts at getting rich quick our failing miserably, until they run into Kichijogi ('Beat' Takeshi). Mistaking him for the son of a rich and powerful political leader (when he is merely his secretary), they embark on a mission of marriage to swipe his wealth. But the plot is of little relevance, as we are treated to scene after scene of the kind of humour that manages to be both broad and surreal at the same time. To reveal any of the jokes would spoil the surprise, not because they are especially clever, but because much of the film's humour comes from the unexpected.

The tone is wildly inconsistent, thanks to the constant genre-hopping, and not all the humour works - there's far too much anime-style 'pratfall in disbelief' for my tastes. And sometimes it's just plain embarassing - does the world really need another Matrix spoof sequence? Actually, when it's 'Beat' Takeshi doing it, a lot can be forgiven, and that's why I probably enjoyed this film a lot more than if I hadn't grown to respect and appreciate his ouevre. Cameos and nods abound for the initiated, but even then, there's still things non-fans can enjoy in a Kentucky Fried Movie sort of way. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it made me rather gigglesome. If there's one thing that is undeniably a success, it would be the Takeshi doll - used as co-star, stunt double, and stand-in, there's something both thought-provokingly existential and wonderfully quaint about the idea, and it works beautifully on screen.

Overall, it's perhaps not going to sit comfortably next to your copies of Sonatine or Hana-bi, and while play-time is fun, nothing beats Kitano in his serious reflective mode as opposed to his silly one, especially when this is more filler material than genuine progression. As you'd expect, certain segments work a lot better than others, and the second half does drag from time to time. Even then, there's no guarantee it will please all the Kitano fanbase, to whom it is mostly directed. Nevertheless, Kitano has earned the right to indulge himself in some crazy experimentation, and if there are people willing to enjoy the ride, such as myself, then so be it. Only question is, what kind of film does he make from here?


> > > Official Site, IMDb

Saturday, 19 May 2007

CD: Zongamin - Zongamin

UK-based Japanese artist and musician Susumu Mukai released his debut album under the moniker Zongamin back in 2003, but, bar a couple of exhibitions and the odd remix, has done little else since. Which is a shame, as his first effort is a fiendishly unique adventure spanning numerous musical genres, yet rendered in his own inimitable style that can only be described as Zongamin-esque.

From the short sparky choral-driven opener (Make Love Not War) onwards, Zongamin crafts a strange concoction of mysterious music that feels like a trip into the unknown. Much of it sounds like backing music to a 70's documentary on jungle exploration or unearthing mystical tombs of Ancient Egypt, especially Street Surgery, Tresspasser and Mummies (of course, judging by the track names and album artwork, this is no happy accident). It's all a rather strange, sometimes even sinister, atmosphere for what would otherwise be pigeonholed as a dance or electronic or even rock album, but even then, it's the kind of dance music that refuses to make a song and dance about it; and muterock, if you will. With the clipped beats, tiny blips and mumbling bass, it's both raw and restrained, with a lo-fi charm that can be attributed to Susumu playing his own instruments and then editing and mixing his own created samples. Only the two-minute rock-burst of Whiplash, also the only track with vocals (guess what the lyric is?), pushes Zongamin to a state of mild mania.

But that's not to say the rest of the album is too understated - indeed, it's exactly that which makes the upbeat funkier tracks that bit more interesting. Both Spiral and Painless are exciting expeditions into minimalistic disco, and J. Shivers Theme is a whistle-led bongo bop of the highest caliber (and was used in a recent Orange mobile ad campaign with narration from Stephen Fry), but it's the grimy grooves of Serious Trouble and Tunnel Music that are the album's real treats. Unconventional certainly, but undeniably compelling in a way that makes you want to pop limbs and twist appendages. And the Japanese bonus tracks aren't half bad either.

However, it's all a bit too much to take in on one sitting. All the tracks have their merits, but after two minutes or so, many of them suffer from repetition and lack of direction, and it's not long before impatience turns to skipping tracks altogether. There's a lot of talent on show, but it seems that many ideas run out of steam before the crucial point at which they can be stepped up that extra gear to turn what is simply a good tune into a great one. Much of this review has been spent building up the wonders of the Zongamin-iverse, and it's still an album to recommend, but it all just lacks a certain something to keep the ears from wandering elsewhere. Regardless, I hope we see another offering from Susumu soon - there's still a lot of potential on the music-front to be realised.


> > > Official Site

Friday, 4 May 2007

FILM: Spider-Man 3

Sam Raimi's love affair with the iconic web-slinger continues as the third installment in the mega-franchise arrives, with Peter Parker yet again beset with all his usual problems - love pentangles, super-villains and conflicting feelings. In fact, the film is so jam-packed that, despite it being one of the most expensive ever made, it looks like it was all put to good use. Spider-Man 3 delivers such a ludicrous amount of action, drama and goofy comedy, your brain rarely has time to stop spinning. There are so many plot threads that a synopsis would involve an unhealthy use of the word 'meanwhile', but Raimi does a fine job of holding it all together, joining the dots where applicable, a bit like a spider's web if you think about it. Fnar.

With three separate baddies to contend with, there's no denying that this is the most action-packed of the trilogy, and all the set-pieces are rather wonderful, each using their setting and the relationship between those involved to their fullest. Of course, there's a certain amount of CG whizz-bang overload, and there are a few 'seen-it-before' moments, but there's still a great energy to the fighting/rescuing that a superhero like Spider-Man allows. And, just as in the previous two, the core of the film is the emotional roller-coaster our protagonists ride, with love, loss, revenge, fear, happiness, sadness, and anger experienced by one or more characters at some point. Only the film tries to do too much, and while it all remains coherent, there are certainly a few casualties pushed to the side-lines.

Of course, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco do their usual thing. But James Cromwell is distracting being a well-known actor in a minor role, Dylan Baker is literally ignored, and Rosemary Harris only seems to pop up to offer self-help nuggets and worry a bit like some strange spiritual guide (to be honest though, a little Aunt May goes a long way). Where the film perhaps doesn't go far enough is in exploring some of the more interesting ideas the themes hint at but little else. The supposed darkness that envelop's Peter seems to manifest itself in little more than making him a bit cocky and giving him an emo fringe. And by the time Venom arrives on the scene, there's little of the movie left to examine the parallels between him and Spidey. However, the plot does take a few different directions that kind of compensate, with Peter and MJ's relationship troubles hitting some quite unexpected snags.

Indeed, even with all the action already on offer, just as Doc Ock was shafted before them, more Venom and more Sandman would have been welcome. Even if they are both a little too fantastical for my tastes (sure, space symbiotic ooze is too far out, when genetical spider transformation isn't?), both Topher Grace and Thomas Haden Church really sold their roles, so it would have been good to see them do a little more than just be superbad. The shifting friend/mortal enemy relationship between Peter and Harry did offer some good fisticuffs in their place, but, after so many big battles, the grand finale doesn't deliver quite the knock-out punch it should have, leaving the ending feel more lacklustre than it would have done had there been a greater climax.

Nevertheless, kudos must also go to Raimi for continuing to keep the tone and style consistent throughout the three films. As seen previously with the Batman and X-Men series, when the original director jumps ship, so seemingly does all sense of logic and good taste. The most enjoyable sequences are those which play to his strengths, notably his kinetic camera-work and also his love of daft broad humour, in particular Bruce Campbell's hilarious cameo (as well as yet another Stan Lee appearance, seemingly on some kind of mission to break Hitchcock's record), the return of J. Jonah Jameson, and an alternative reprise of Peter Parker's 'changed man montage' from the previous film, courtesy of his new black suit. Many of the goofy gags can probably be attributed to the fact that this is the first time Sam actually co-wrote the screenplay, with brother Ivan Raimi, who co-wrote Army of Darkness, and, returning from #2, Alvin Sargent.

All in all, Spider-Man 3 is a reasonably satisfying package; a little less of this and a little more of that would have made it ideal, but it's hard to make a threequel for a much-loved comic book character that pleases everyone. Perhaps it's problem is that it tried too hard to do so, resulting in something that felt like a dark chocolate cake, with plenty of tasty layers, but just a tad too rich. Or maybe like a Chinese takeaway, in that there's so much stuff, you try and have some of everything, and in the end feel a bit bloated and it all looks a bit messy, but you're quite happy anyway. You could easily remove one dish, and it wouldn't have ruined the rest of the meal. Or something.

But as more of a Raimi fan, I was just happy to see a new film that he directed. Is there much left to be said about Spider-Man? Probably not. Should they do another sequel with or without Raimi? Don't know. My personal view is perhaps to give the character a rest for a decade or so, and see if anyone is then willing to give the franchise a reboot a la Batman Begins or Casino Royale. But for now, we're left with three pretty entertaining, occasionally cheesy, rather well-made crash bang wallop superhero movies. Mr. Raimi, you may now take a break. And then go shoot some low-budget funny bloody nonsense with Mr. Campbell. Come on - you know you want to!


> > > Official Site, IMDb

Saturday, 21 April 2007

FILM: Sunshine

Having turned down Alien: Ressurection a decade earlier, Danny Boyle finally takes command of his own space adventure thriller, collaborating once again with The Beach and 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland. But instead of dealing with acid-blooded star beasts, our intrepid crew have a greater mission on their hands - the Sun is dying, so they have been sent to deliver a stellar bomb in the hope it gives it the kickstart required to save life on Earth. And, of course, this being the movies, not everything goes according to plan.

A great deal of this expectation comes from just how incredibly derivative it all is, with very clear references to Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dark Star. As a result, it feels very much in the same vein as the recent Doctor Who two-parter "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit", which also drew heavily from similar source material. But it is perhaps Event Horizon that has the most distinct similarities (interesting that both Boyle and Paul Anderson's careers seem to interesect in such a way). Regardless, when you name your space-ship Icarus II - with the original mission having gone mysteriously missing - you're kind of asking for trouble.

However, despite all this space malarkey cliche box-ticking (Ominous mythological ship-name? Check. Inter-crew tensions and rivalries? Check. Calm lady computer voice? Check), Sunshine has an undeniably unique atmosphere. There's a constant sense of impending doom and some truly nerve-shredding set-pieces as the success of their mission becomes compromised. For a start, space has rarely felt quite as terrifying or isolating on screen; you know full well that if anything goes tits-up, you're well and truly stranded and, in this case, the whole human race will also be up a certain creek without a certain item of rowing equipment. As you'd expect from a film all about the Sun, it's omnipresence and absolute power, as both giver of life and enormous dangerous fiery flame-ball, is captured magnificently by the stunning special effects work for a film of such a budget. While the precise scientifics of the film may be disputed, both the near-fautless CG and set-design go a long way to creating a sense of utter believability in the situation. And the score ain't bad either.

The international ensemble cast is a collection of varyingly well-known faces, but no bona fide mega-stars, leaving the fates of the crew members very much hanging in the balance. This generates some genuinely emotionally powerful scenes between the characters, with Chris Evans (not that one) and Hiroyuki Sanada particularly impressive. With little time for back-story or set-up, many of the characters on board initially fit into rather obvious cookie-cutter stereotypes we've seen before, but as the story moves on in interesting directions, so does the character development. But come the third act, it all goes rather obtuse. It's not that it loses the plot so much as kind of changes it, which doesn't ruin the film per se, but it felt a little unneccessary and leaves you so busy pondering what exactly happened that you forget all the good that went before. It was a bit like The Descent in that the central concept was chilling and tense enough (lady pot-holers get trapped) that it would have made a better film if they had had the balls not to go down the silly cave creature route.

So Sunshine is not exactly perfect, but it is rare to see a solid and inventive space adventure of its ilk, and a British one at that. See it at the cinema to fully appreciate just how visually arresting it is, and even if you care not for the plot, it's a treat for the eyes worth burning into the back of your retinas.


> > > Official Site, IMDb

Sunday, 8 April 2007

CD: Supercar - Highvision

When I first listened to Supercar's 2002 follow-up to Futurama, because it retained so many of the elements one would expect from an album of theirs, my immediate reactions were rather dismissive, as I'd go through each track thinking "God, this is such a Supercar song". But the more I listened, the more I realised "Wait, I LOVE Supercar - that's surely a good thing". And it is a good thing indeed, as the charging guitar-rock Supercar of old is virtually non-existent here, with the experimentation of Futurama expanded upon, refined and, ultimately, bettered.

Beginning with the stirring strings-led Starline, the sound crafted on their sixth (and penultimate) album is a wonderfully dreamy mix of ambient rock and electronica, ten tracks in all that sit together beautifully. While there are characteristics of their earlier sound (most noticeable in the pop-rock stylings of Otogi Nation), this feels like Supercar at their most free, which translates into the airy quality of much of the album. Futhermore, the zippy electronic triumvirate of Strobolights (which contains no guitar whatsoever, unusual for a typically guitar-based band), I (with high-pitched vocals a-plenty) and Yumegiwa Last Boy (featured prominently in quirky Japanese comedy-drama Ping Pong) sees the band almost enter dance music territory.

Even with these upbeat tracks, there is still room for their more moody side to be released, particularly the soaring Aoharu Youth, and Nijiro Darkness, which manages to be both haunting and hopeful, poignant and pretty. At just ten tracks, the quality remains near consistently high, though there are minor dips in the shape of Silent Yaritori, a perfectly decent track that feels like a lacklustre coda after the brilliance of Nijiro Darkness, and, Warning Bell, which, when taken out of the context of the rest of the album, sounds a little ordinary.

But as a whole, Highvision represents Supercar at their peak of creativity and genius (well, I've yet to listen to their final album, Answer, due to stupid Sony copyright protection), making their break-up even more upsetting. Two years later, and interest is still high, with the recent release of a 10th anniversary music video DVD and a re-release of their first album Three Out Change. None of this will convert naysayers, but if you've yet to sample their unique sound, Highvision is a wonderful place to begin. And then return to again and again.


> > > Supercar (Official Site)

Monday, 8 January 2007

SPECIAL: Bowie at 60

It was David Bowie's 60th birthday today, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to celebrate my idol in some shape or form. It's a shame I wasn't in Tokyo to attend David Bowie Night, but I've been listening to tracks of his all day, and I've picked out my 15 favourites - why 15? Well, I couldn't whittle it down to 10 and 20 is too long (though it could have been easily filled). Or something. Several of the words in the following appraisal may be made-up.
  • Life on Mars? - the immortal question of stirring epictudicity. "It's on America's tortured brow/That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow"
  • Slow Burn - in my mind, Heathen's just as good as Low, but this is the stand-out track, and the best of his work this decade
  • Space Oddity - Major Tom gets lost in space, but still the BBC used it for coverage of the moon landings, and the legend was born
  • Oh! You Pretty Things - great piano opening and wake-up call before catchy jaunty Hunky Dory rock-pop. "Make way for the Homo Superior!", declares the Sovereign in The Venture Bros.
  • Queen Bitch - Bowie's tribute to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground is glamrocktacular
  • "Heroes" - forget the crappy cover versions (I'm looking at you, Kasabian), and hark at the triumphant, if ironic, wonderment of it all
  • Under Pressure - a fantabulous collaboration with Queen, and lovingly ripped off by Vanilla Ice - who is no Mr. Cool Ice, I assure you
  • Breaking Glass - it's less than two minutes long, but what a strutting, pumping burst of head-bobbing energy. "Don't the carpet/I drew something awful on it!"
  • Ashes to Ashes - incoming message from Major Tom! And of course, that video...
  • Rock 'n' Roll Suicide - the fall of Ziggy Stardust encapsulated and the end of an icon (sort of)
  • 1984 - Orwellian funkathon and the best exclamation of any year in the history of...years
  • Moonage Daydream - that guitar, "I'm an alligator!" - yes! Freak out space trip or what!
  • Jump They Say - a great video and a great track that sounds remarkably fresh, pushing Bowie to the brink of who knows what
  • Magic Dance - of course, being from Labyrinth, it features muppets on backing vocals. Make of that what you will by its inclusion here...
  • Seven Years in Tibet - I wanted to include something from Outside, but this track from Earthling just pipped it, thanks to its NIN's 'Closer'-esque opening beat, and the super-rock explosions contained within. And hey, why not try the version in Mandarin?
> > > BowieNet

Thursday, 4 January 2007

PLAY: Godzilla

Performed at Doshisha University's 小劇場 (Little Theatre) by the Taiyaki Theatre Group (as far as I can make out) from December 1st-3rd 2006, I could not turn down the opportunity to see a stage production of Godzilla. I had no idea what it would entail - would it be a version of the original film or an accumulation of all the films in the franchise? Would it be straight theatre, comedy, maybe a musical? When they posted the above image on a giant board outside the university's entrance, I was even more perplexed. So, on a cold, quiet Sunday afternoon, I made my way to the tiny theatre round the back of the Shinmachi campus, took off my shoes, took my seat and prepared myself for my first Japanese play. And while I didn't understand everything that went on, I got enough of the gist to make an informed opinion of it. And what a suprise it was.

It's a simple tale of finding love in the most unsuspecting places and a family's reaction to said romantic entanglement. Essentially it's Romeo and Juliet and Meet the Parents - except this time with everyone's favourite kaiju. So, closer to Beauty and the Beast or King Kong then. That's right - a young girl falls in love with Godzilla and brings him back home to meet her relatives where they both explain how they came to meet and seek permission to wed. Of course, the family are not best pleased. Running on hard times as it is, they are understandably hesitant to give their blessing when Godzilla destroys their neighbour's house. And Godzilla's short temper isn't really boosting their confidence.

Godzilla is dealing with his own criticism from friends Mothra and Pigmon (from Ultraman), and when the issue of Godzilla's own son, Minilla, is brought up, even more complications arise. Can Godzilla ever be with his one true love in a nation of people determined to destroy him once and for all? Well, chances are you're never going to see it, so the answer

I don't know who wrote this or came up with the idea, so I assume this is an original (non-sanctioned by Toho) work. In which case, kudos must go to all involved for putting together such a spirited and clever production. Obviously, creating a giant monster would be a struggle for even the biggest budgeted West End musical, so the team made some simple but effective decisions. Godzilla himself is simply a man in a suit (not MAN IN SUIT!!!! monster costume, but a business suit) on a slightly raised podium, only getting off for the odd rampage (complete with trademark roar). When in conversation with the humans at ground level, their eyes never meet but are in roughly the same direction, which works pretty well in that it allows for immediate interaction between the two parties. Also included is a reporter, complete with hard hat and microphone, who takes the place as narrator, whilst also broadcasting the destruction as much as the developing love story.

As you'd expect in a comedy drama about Godzilla, there are stacks of references, and because of the nature of the tale, the unenlightened would probably find the whole show equally baffling and boring. The appearance of Mothra (complete with cast singing his theme song alonside the tiny twins) is a highlight. Portrayed as a disshevelled and washed-up movie star prone to spraying his goo over anyone he dislikes, he's convinced Godzilla's romance is a bad idea from the get-go, reminding him that he will become even more unpopular than after his last film. And then there's the climatic battle with Ultraman. All delivered with the utmost enthusiasm from the cast and some very pretty lighting.

Of course, there are flaws as with any amateur stage production. Certain scenes are overlong and drawn out, particularly concering the family members' multiple concerns and complaints, even before Godzilla has shown up (the whole play lasted about 90 minutes if I recall correctly). And two thirds they way through, it becomes rather emotionally overwrought, turning into the soppy melodrama that it initially parodied, relying merely on the absurdity of the situation for comedic effect.

Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experience. And as you leave, the entire cast line up to bow and say their thanks, which was nice. With fine tuning and translating, maybe Godzilla will one day light up Broadway! But not in a smouldering radioactive breath way.


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