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Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

On Talking Past Each Other and World Trade

In Specific Facts on February 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen has been hosting a labor roundtable, which has emerged as a combination of spontaneity and directed planning in the way that the blogosphere especially tends to foster.  Participants have included many of my favorite bloggers: E.D. Kain, Jason Kuznicki, Kevin Carson, Mark Thompson, Freddie deBoer, and James Hanley, among others.  At stake is the entire system of American capitalism.  For anyone with a spare afternoon or so, it’s worth visiting that London coffee house.

I’ve read through all the articles and comment threads in this labor roundtable thus far, and it seems to me that there are three general issues which have been largely or systematically taken for granted or underserved in the discussion.  I’ve brought these issues up in comments, but few people seem interested in exploring them, which (being a libertarian) I can’t really fault anyone for.  These issues are: (1) libertarianism’s historical relationship to the labor movement; (2) distortions in the ways we usually measure wealth that confuse the debate; and (3) the role of American corporations in globalization.

As for topic (1) – libertarianism’s historical relationship to the labor movement – no one has acknowledged that libertarianism more or less grew out of the union movement in Europe as that faction which proposed a return to the principles of classical liberalism (Adam Smith) in opposition to the coercively entrenched interests of state/capital at the turn of the twentieth century.  Many libertarians shifted focus after the New Deal because the Roosevelt government seemed to represent a greater threat to liberty at that time than corporate regulatory capture; but the base of the movement remains as principally an opposition to the pernicious cartel of that two-headed monster of the wealthy and powerful.

If libertarianism has been effectively subverted to corporate interests in the United States, which is the contention of Noam Chomsky and other anarchist theorists whose intellectual roots lie in the Gilded Age milieu of thoughtful bourgeois discussion, this must be because either: (a) self-described libertarian institutions have been captured by corporate special interests; (b) echoes of the New Deal excesses of central government still seem like a more serious threat to liberty than corporate power; or (c) having strong, collective labor counterbalance strong, unitary capital is no longer considered a necessary evil (due perhaps to the existence of a strong middle class).  

Cause (a) assumes bad faith or widespread indoctrination in the libertarian camp (and this assumption of bad faith has become a surprisingly mainstream position within left-wing circles after the Kochtopus New Yorker issue).  The idea that libertarian institutions are simply corporate echo-chambers strikes me as a crudely reductionist, unserious, and patently false contention.  A cursory glance at even center-right, Koch-funded libertarian institutions like the Reason Foundation shows ribald anti-corporatism. 

Causes (b) – that many libertarians now consider government to be a more serious threat to liberty than corporations – and/or (c) – that libertarians consider encouraging unionization to be relatively unimportant or ineffective given the nature of the American and global economies – make sense for a variety of reasons, such as those repeatedly articulated by libertarians themselves.  In the words of James Hanley:

…And as to free trade, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Paul Krugman all disagree with E.D. Kain. Seriously, even that ferociously libertarian-hating Paul Krugman supports free trade. Does E.D. know something that Krugman doesn’t?

“many of the gains for the corporate class in this country are due to artificial scarcities, subsidies, and rents they have captured with the help of the state.”

Where have I heard this before? Oh, yeah, it’s precisely what libertarians keep saying! I know damn well I’ve said it repeatedly. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Jason K. saying it. And I think if you make a habit of perusing Cato policy reports or Reason magazine you’ll see it as a fairly regular theme. It’s precisely one of the reasons we do rail against government–it’s government that makes these subsidies and rents possible! There is no protective regulation for businesses except regulation created by government–should we not then criticize government for that?

On to issue (2) – the structural relationship between American corporations and a globalized workforce: work (of the hammer and sickle variety) is now done disproportionately outside of the United States, under different political jurisdictions and immune from the capacity of strong labor laws to impede the progress of (amoral) American capital interests.  It’s unquestionably true that the standard of living for all Americans has been bettered by this arrangement in the form of relatively cheaper consumer products – even if this arrangement unfairly allows only one class of people to engage with global markets at the expense of the domestic manufacturing class.

Nevertheless, the structure of globalization being (disproportionately) American ownership of the means of production plus global labor pools explains away the recent numbers on income inequality reported by Mother Jones.  Income is just one metric we use to measure wealth.  That incomes for the American middle class have been stagnating while incomes for the upper echelon of the upper class have skyrocketed over the last thirty years is uncontestable, but the assumption behind the implication of these numbers as reported – that the upper class is taking a larger piece of zero-sum economic pie – is fundamentally flawed.

Money is fiat, only valuable in what it can be exchanged for.  In the last thirty years, consumer goods across the board have gotten cheaper (There are exceptions of course, such as gasoline, but the long-term price increases of these exceptions are mostly functions of scarcity.), and additional sources of wealth – such as a comprehensive healthcare plan – are usually included now in the standard benefits package that workers receive.  Much of what we would have left to individual choice thirty years ago now forms a welfare base taken for granted by crude measures of wealth-as-income.  This, coupled with considerably cheaper consumer products, makes a middle class lifestyle significantly easier to acheive in the year 2011 than in 1981. 

As for contention (3), the relationship between American corporations and globalization, the irrelevance of income inequality does not mean that inequality isn’t a problem.  In the words of E.D. Kain:

Globalization has been little more than a corporate-statist effort using pernicious institutions like the World Bank to plunder the labor and resources of developing nations at the expense of workers everywhere and to the benefit of the powerful.

And in response to my contention (2) above, Kain writes:

We benefit from the cheap consumer goods and relative material comfort. What I’m suggesting is that the middle class is excluded from the real wealth and given bread and circuses to distract them, while the developing world is exploited heavily to the benefit of the capitalist class and, by extension, those of us at the circuses.

I’m all for unions as a counterbalance to corporate power (If management can organize then labor can organize too. Rights of free-association are beyond debate as far as I’m concerned, as a libertarian.); but how are we to positively affect the formation of coffee-growers unions in Ethiopia or tech-support-service unions in India? Most of the people working in jobs that many Americans consider themselves too good for are happy simply to no longer be engaged in the war of all against all, or to finally be able to afford expired AIDS medication for their children.

Since any unfair treatment these workers may receive lies outside of the reach of American policy, unless we suddenly embrace an extremely aggressive standard of ethical consumerism – or at least stop our net-exploitative consumption – we can expect more and more outsourcing of labor followed by more of the American middle class looking the other way while purchasing blood coffee.

What we should be doing, really, is not trying to prop up failing domestic business interests at all (I agree with Messrs. Carson and Thompson that any codification of union procedure will tend to result in regulatory capture.) but crafting legislation that allows all the world’s citizens to take advantage of the economies of scale offered by relatively unfettered global markets.  

Instead of government using taxpayer dollars to prop up experienced, fifty-something manufacturers continuing to make mediocre cars that nobody wants to buy, it could be doing next to nothing to manage trade, concentrating on the enforcement of contracts, and allowing people clearer access to the crucial economic information that allows them to make rational decisions.

Perhaps one result of a freer global trade regime would be that more Americans would put their technical knowledge to work teaching people in poorer countries like Ghana or Bangladesh to manufacture high-quality consumer products for less than relatively wealthy American workers would be willing to.  Instead, the Chinese have taken the initiative in consulting to the developing world.  It seems (ironically) that it will be a red tide that lifts all boats after years of developing nations languishing in the exploitation of conglomerates of Western corporate, government, consumer, and institutional cartels.

A lot of what we all desire here – like more empowered workers, workers owning the means of production, a more equitable distribution of income, robust self-determination to gradually come to replace the welfare state, etc., could be accomplished most effectively and non-invasively by (1) at least loosening intellectual property rights laws to correspond with what seems to be an acceleration of technological advance – that way workers can more easily capitalize on their own knowledge; (2) allowing and even encouraging workers with sufficient knowledge capital to engage the new, international economy; and (3) something we can all do: embracing a more robust form of ethical consumerism.

Twelve Facts about Mt. Shinobu

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 24, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Fukushima City from Mt. Shinobu

1.  Mt. Shinobu is a large hill (about 275 meters tall) in the north-central area of Fukushima City.  It is surrounded by homes and office buildings.

2.  It is slightly smaller than Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia and no less interesting.

3.  Mt. Shinobu has four peaks, stretching from west-southwest to east-northeast: on the first peak is a round, concrete platform usually covered with cigarette butts and high school kids/DQNs necking; on the second peak is a Buddhist temple with a bell dedicated to world peace which anyone is free to ring, so long as they wait until the reverberations can no longer be heard before leaving; on the third peak is a Shinto shrine featuring a giant sandal made for the giant feet of the Gods which is paraded through the center of the city on people’s shoulders every year at Fukushima’s biggest summer festival, Waraji; on the fourth and highest peak is an ordinary tree.

4.  It takes approximately three hours to hike from the Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art on the southwest base of Mt. Shinobu up the mountain and across all four peaks and back.  There are literally hundreds of different paths to take to get to the ordinary tree at the summit, and all take almost exactly the same amount of time.

5.  I’ve completed this hike approximately 100 times.  

6.  One time I saw a toad the size of a cat.  I took a ton of pictures, but there aren’t any objects in the pictures to use in order to gauge the size of the toad, and it just looks like an ordinary toad.  In actuality, it was just like the toad from Pan’s Labyrinth.  

7.  Gold was discovered inside Mt. Shinobu during the Meiji Period, and there are old, abandoned mineshafts inside the mountain.

8.  During World War II, Korean slave labor was used at a secret factory which was converted from the mines.  Here engines for Japanese Zeros were made.  

9.  Middle school and high school students used to explore the abandoned mineshaft/factory in the years following World War II to clarify alpha status.  One middle school student fell down a vertical shaft thirty years ago and died.  The entrance to the mines/abandoned Zero engine factory was sealed with a giant boulder.

10.  There are myriad eye-witness reports of ghost-sightings on Mt. Shinobu, which is covered with cemetaries.

11.  There was a wildfire started by a cigarette butt callously disposed on the first peak five or ten years ago that burned down all the vegetation on one face.  This appears as a huge, gaping hole in the mountain, viewable from Fukushima Station.

12.  I’ve been planning the “Shinobu Challenge” for the last three or four years as a charity event to finally take place in late May this year.  The rules are simple: (1) the race is from Gokoku-jinja at the southern base to the platform in the west-southwest to the bell on the second peak and then back down to Gokoku-jinja; (2) any path is acceptable – including directly through the woods; and (3) competitors may use any non-motorized means to go up and back down the mountain, provided they take only pictures and leave only footprints; i.e. no stashing secret skateboards on the mountain.  If you think skateboarding down the mountain is a winning strategy, you must carry the skateboard from Gokoku-jinja.  

Computers are Tools for Humans

In Empires of the Mind on February 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Watson competes on Jeopardy.I’d like to introduce a new theme that I will explore over the coming weeks: personificationism.  This first post will relate to personificationism in discussions of artifical intelligence; future posts will discuss notions of personificationism in theology, ecology, economics, and astrobiology.  

This idea grows from the Shinto wedding I attended two weekends ago.  I divided my discussion of the wedding into three posts: the first part was a brief analysis of Shinto; the second was a description of the procedural details of the traditional wedding ceremony; and the third discussed the very different procedure of the reception.  

As a rule, I try to avoid constructing meta-narratives of my own arguments as this can only limit what I hope is a broad and personally diverse set of interpretations, but the general theme of the first part is the nature and history of the received practices that we call Shinto.  The second part follows from this by describing a ritual that readers of this magazine should find utterly foreign and inexplicable but with which Japanese are intimately familiar (increasingly less so, but, as Kevin pointed out in the comments to the part one, Shinto being the wide base of Japanese culture explains a lot of what the outside observer might find uncanny about Japan).  The third part compares this foreign and inexplicable ritual to a more familiar one.  

When read in this light, the overall effect of the series should be to make the reader deeply self-conscious of elements of his own culture that he takes as true and objective properties of the world: these “true and objective” properties may seem just as uncanny to a Japanese person as a Shinto wedding would to a Westerner.    

Since this kind of cultural difference clearly exists, it follows that there is a set of received assumptions which are common to the human race and of which we are as unaware as the Japanese were unaware of Shinto until the importation of Buddhism from China.  The tendency to overlook these assumptions in argument has been called “humanism” by some and “chauvinism” by others; but both of these terms have alternative, unrelated, or confusing common usage.  I will refrain from discussing the general phenomenon and instead focus on a sub-set of this phenomenon which I will call “personificationism”.

In the light of notions of personificationism, prevailing discussions of artificial intelligence are shown to be incoherent (like almost all mass-media science and technology reporting).  

Recently, Watson, an IBM-designed supercomputer, received much positive press coverage for defeating super humans Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy.  It is this entire conceptualization that is problematic.  After the match, Jennings famously referenced the Simpsons: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”  Although this was a (pretty funny) joke, it reveals a major hole in received conceptualization of artifical intelligence.  The line should be more like, “I for one welcome faster and more efficient versions of our long-time computer slaves”.

We anthropomorphize machines both in popular culture and in media when really we should be seeing them as tools qualitatively no different than a hammer, a saw, or an Acheulian hand axe, albeit several orders of magnitude more sophisticated.  Most of the time this conceptual error is harmless, but in the world of scholarship such personificationism leads us to dead-end “ethical conundrums” like those implicated in Kurzweilianism and transhumanism.  Discussions of Facebook and Twitter revolutions are similarly confused.  Just as reason is the slave of the passions, so too will technology – no matter how sophisticated – forever be the slave of human desire.

As a corrolary: Watson and Deep Blue defeating exceptional human players at particular, predetermined games should not reflect the abilities of these machines-as-individual-entities so much as it should reflect the more-efficiently-applied aggregate knowledge base of a massive number of fairly intelligent human programmers for whom Watson is a tool.  The real meta-narrative in media coverage of advances in artificial intelligence should be that widely disseminated technology allows cooperatives of reasonably intelligent and motivated people to pool their resources and defeat previously untouchable intellectual outliers on specific, predetermined terms.

An Hour in Japanese TV Land

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm

The following account of my Saturday evening is completely true and totally uncensored.

The clock on the wall was ticking toward 10:30. I had just finished hanging the laundry in the living room. (Just go with it, this is Japan remember.) A familiar snoring reverberated from the bedroom, an unintentional but unmistakable message from the wife that I could go ahead and play Lone Ranger again tonight. Twenty-four hours ago I had sketchy plans to meet up with a buddy for that ever-elusive beer; unfortunately on this day, like most recent days, I had been deep into my work and the fascination of how slow my microchips can operate, and I forgot to get back to him. So there I stood, all alone, between two racks of wet clothes and my sleeping family. It was 10:25 on a Saturday night.

This, by the way, is not the bad part.

The bad part is, I decided to turn on the TV.

I stepped on train tracks and tripped over dinosaurs as I scrounged around for the remote. Then I fell onto the couch and clicked that baby, hoping for…well, anything. I’m still optimistic after nine and a half years. After a moment staring at a blank screen I got up and walked over to our TV with built-in VCR, which you have to turn on manually if that’s how your son turned it off. Then I plopped back down as the picture warmed up.

First thing I saw were three walking, singing pollen spores getting their lights punched out by a psychotic football player spray-painted the color of aluminum foil. After a pleasant jingle someone breathed easier, and the scene switched to a computer-generated garden. A woman in red smiled as she walked along, seemingly unfazed by the line of grinning red birds following her. They had a conversation and sang a song before another woman came on, marching down the street in front of a row of levitating tubes of some kind of crème.

At this I went downstairs and dug desperately for the last two cans of beer in the house. Settling back onto the couch again I swore to never forget to call another friend.

Now on was a commercial not for a sweet bread factory but for an upcoming program about a sweet bread factory. Stainless steel robots squirted caramel and icing everywhere as canned voices went ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Wow!’ Meanwhile a narrator with a voice that made Alvin and the Chipmunks sound like the three tenors squeaked on about how much fun it would be to make bread together so join her at 6:55pm Sunday evening, right there, for a loaf of excitement. Yes, that’s right. 6:55pm. Sharp.

Switch channels.

Two women in power suits are having a dire conversation while standing on a beach and looking at a photo; right away I know someone has died. This is because in a Japanese drama if someone dies two women have to go talk about it on a beach. (If someone has been murdered, on the other hand, they have to go talk about it on top of a cliff overlooking the beach.) One of the women has a flashback; she once saved the boy in the photo from a nosebleed.

Cut to half a dozen penguins with backpacks on.

The Japanese school year begins in April, so now is the time for all the proud parents out there to equip their kids with new backpacks. These hard shell suckers are shaped like mailboxes without legs and are going this year for 9,900 yen, or about a hundred bucks. Outrageous, maybe, but well worth it to avoid the shame of being the only one in school not looking like a penguin.

The follow-up was a commercial featuring a desk and two matching bookcases, moving around of their own free will, showing all the different configurations four hundred dollars could get me.

Switch channels.

Two commercials of girls having an inordinate amount of fun, first with cell phones, then with a squeeze bottle of black sugar ice cream sauce. Next, a guy dressed all in white experiences an emotional catharsis as he prepares an elaborate dinner with what must be the most amazing cooking oil known to man – and sits down to eat it by himself, between two lemon trees.

Switch back to the drama.

The woman on the beach who wasn’t holding the picture is now in the home of a man who is pretending to listen as he pours two cups of sake. The woman refuses; the man takes a loud sip as the woman continues her story. Then to scenes of nosebleed boy wearing a certain necklace, a mystery woman wearing the same necklace, then nosebleed boy in a coffin followed by a quick street shot that someone seemed to have forgotten to edit out. Back to the woman talking at the man drinking her sake but I have a hard time getting a handle on the connection between nosebleed boy, the necklace and that street.

Switch channels.

Figure skating sweetheart Mao Asada takes a bite out of a circular chocolate crunch thing and smiles at me. I don’t want to risk becoming a figure skater and I reach for my beer instead. Next up is a Nissan commercial featuring some kick-ass computer graphics and something called ‘Drive Life’. Then we go live to the figure skating competition going on right down the road in Tokyo. The next group of skaters is out on the ice warming up, most of the cameras following Daisuke Takahashi, Japan’s most recent idol of home-spun glory. Interspersed among replays of Daisuke’s practice jumps and close-ups of his styled yet loosely rebellious hair are shots of a white guy going through his final triple toe loopy-loops and a young Japanese kid wearing something that I can only adequately describe as double chiffon. I know it’s part of the deal for these guys to drape themselves in sparkles and silk, but I think even a couple of the other skaters were laughing.

This may have been the reason they went back to commercials so soon.

On came a series of short clips of people from all over, from San Fran to New Orleans to Nigeria, playing whatever instrument and singing ‘Stand By Me’. Before I could figure out why, I was transported to a convenience store where I could witness first hand the sharp quality of Mitsubishi’s security cameras. I wondered how many people sitting at home watching TV right then might be in the market for a higher quality security camera. Next up was a cell phone commercial where the members of SMAP, Japan’s most annoyingly ubiquitous gods of pseudo-talent, are flying through the lower atmosphere on one of a dozen brightly-colored airborne freight containers. That song ‘Come on baby, do the locomotion’ is playing, which makes SMAP’s fake antics even cooler if that is possible.

Before returning to the skating I was treated to twenty seconds of the most voluptuous cartoon women I have ever seen. They were frolicking in a tropical paradise in their cartoon bikinis when a guy with chiseled muscles and green hair rode a massive cartoon wave to shore. They celebrated something, overlaid with the name and logo of one of Japan’s pachinko chains.

Pachinko, in case you are not aware, is a sort of pinball game that has taken Japan’s chain-smoking male population by storm. Maruhan, Dynam, Niraku and Jumbo are some of the biggies; they build huge cement boxes and fill them with rows upon rows of these machines and blare this uniquely obnoxious music which evidently has the capacity to drive out of people’s heads every thought but one: god, more pachinko please.

Back to the skating, and the white guy is already into his routine and wiping out.

Switch channels.

With no Super Bowl, slam dunk contests or hockey fights to ward off the winter blues, and now with the spring sumo tournament on the chopping block, Japan looks eagerly toward the beginning of baseball season. This means fifteen minutes of spring training highlights, thirteen of them devoted to rookie Yuki ‘Yu-chan’ Saito, brightest new member of the Nippon Ham Fighters starting rotation. Yu-chan didn’t pitch on Saturday due to a tummy ache, but earned some quality media attention for standing out on the field talking to his teammates before the game and, later, ignoring hundreds of adoring fans as he walked out of a building and got onto the team bus.

I switched channels when they went to Japan League soccer highlights. I like soccer, quite a bit actually, but J-League is painful to watch with some of the uniform color schemes they come up with.

TV personality ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is dressed in a red and white bathrobe, baring his belly, a samurai wig on his head as he…ugh, forget it.

Switch channels.

It’s 10:55, which means the weather report. There is a weather report five minutes before every hour all day long in Japan. They will even interrupt a special report about the weather to show the weather report, usually sponsored by an eyeglass store but today we are getting the forecast along with a view of a car dealership in Koriyama, accompanied in the background by the inimitable voice of Steve Perry.

Spring looks to be on the way. Until Tuesday.

Switch channels.

A guy who looks a lot like Orlando Bloom is taking himself much too seriously as he walks in a circle, sporting some of UniQlo’s latest fashions (if that isn’t too incongruous an assertment). Another guy, then a girl, looking as intense as Orlando, walk in their own circles before we get back to – Yes! It is Orlando Bloom. And you can bet he shops at UniQlo, just like Michael Jordan used to eat Big Macs even when he wasn’t being paid $8 million for it. Another pachinko commercial (a cheap rip-off of the Matrix) and suddenly it’s time to crack my other beer.

In my fridge, by the way: soy milk, noodles (two kinds), miso, some really long and skinny leafy green, pickled vegetables (three kinds) and a little plastic tub filled with sour bite-size plums called umeboshi. No wonder I’ve lost twenty pounds over the last year and a half.

Back in the living room a well-known female TV personality is screaming the praises of another pachinko parlor. She seems to think she can put a little James Brown in her step. Finally she shuts up, only so I can listen to a black guy and a dog sitting at a sushi bar having a conversation about a cell phone deal. Then five seconds of this dancing egg singing a jingle about FTV, the station I didn’t know I was watching, followed by two young boys dressed like color-blind golfers talking about how much fun they had at Tokyo Disney Resort.

Next, an actual program: A show called ‘Everyone’s Opinion’ – which tells me I may see people expressing themselves, perhaps even publicly disagreeing. This is exciting. Until a cartoon drawing of a flower-laden city park appears, a gentle pop song playing in the background as a woman with a voice like warm honey begins reading from the cartooned postcards that appear on screen one by one, sent in by people who are very politely against something or other.

The show is soon over – not many people willing to have their anonymous opinions read tonight – and I get two more pachinko commercials sandwiching a cartoon alien taking a five-second stroll across the screen.

Switch channels.

A show with two extremely dolled-up girls going gaga over a website about Tokyo life, written by and featuring some fake-face female blogger. On the home page, under the apropos title ‘東京大好き!’ is the English translation, in big bold letters for the entire nationwide viewing audience to see: ‘I fucking love Tokyo!’

Switch back to the skating. Daisuke Takahashi is in the middle of his routine. Seriously, just once I want to see a skater come out in jeans and a t-shirt. Among the advertisements lining the rink is a sign that reads ‘The Four Continents Championships’. At least they’re honest. Major League Baseball should take the hint on this one. Daisuke finishes and skates off, looking none too pleased. Ah yes, an immediate replay of a spectacular wipeout. And yet he’s still in first place. On his team warm-up jacket is the name and logo of one of his sponsors, a cosmetic company.

Cut to commercials. A girl is passed out on her pile of schoolbooks, woken up by a marching band of yellow people parading across the top of her desk. She drinks something yellow and feels much better. Then two consecutive pachinko commercials.

Switch to a normally-dressed Beat Takeshi, who is speaking with a panel of guests about a woman who died just that day in Kyushu, her accident involving a big hole in the ground and some nearby construction equipment. Everyone is standing around the hole, looking down into it. No one is doing anything. Then Beat and Company move on to a story that, as far as I can tell, centers on a pair of girls who stole some soy sauce.

Cut to a commercial of a 50-something guy getting the once-over by a perky young girl walking her dog. He smiles and runs his hand over his hair, then suddenly he’s in the barber’s chair, then a close-up of his rich scalp, then a very confident nod of his head as he talks to someone on the phone.

11:15 seems like a good time for the national weather report.

Switch to a drama, or maybe a movie, featuring three white women speaking Japanese in a nice home. Cut to three men having a very serious conversation, also in Japanese, in a dank warehouse. Back in the nice house there are only two women now; one of them hands the other a pad of paper and a pencil. ‘Draw a picture,’ she says in perfect Japanese. ‘Okay,’ the other one says, and starts slamming the pencil point against the page as the first woman watches, blank-faced. Back to the warehouse.

Switch channels.

Commercial of two guys running through a snowy forest, brazenly jumping over fallen logs and sliding fearlessly down three-foot embankments before suddenly throwing themselves across a ten-meter-wide ravine, river rushing by a hundred feet below. One guy slips and begins to fall, the other catches his hand and they start screaming ‘FIGHT-OH!’ as death is harrowingly averted. They finish by letting me know the taurine shots disguised as the vitamin drinks they are chugging are what kept them on the happy side of disaster.

Commercial for Dynam Pachinko.

A mountain goat and an unidentifiable rodent are talking on a mountaintop about a loan.

100 people in pajamas have taken to the street to adore their joint medication.

Jumbo Pachinko.

Line of grinning red birds following the woman again.

Commercial for iPhone 4, starring a grumpy cartoon man.

Niraku Pachinko.

Back around to the fake-face blogger girl with the potty mouth. She’s in screeching hysterics with a small group of fake-face friends, first out in a city plaza then in her apartment. They can barely shut up long enough for blogger girl’s white boyfriend to comment about how ‘It’s great she has an outlet for her creativity.’ Then a shot of a computer screen and someone’s comment of ‘I think Maiko’s eye make-up is really pretty.’ Cut to fake-face Maiko with a dozen other girls, all in a line, their arms interlocked, none of them with real hair or real lashes or real skin on their faces.

Switch.

To a Dynam Pachinko commercial.

A commercial for a show about a wedding.

A herd of talking reindeer; three guys still in the warehouse; talking reindeer again on a different channel; a show featuring Yu-chan’s fans, who are all wearing pink neck warmers because Yu-chan wears one and it makes him look so much cooler than those silky sparkly figure skaters.

With this I down the last of my beer and turn the TV off.

I swear I will never again forget to call my friend.

The Way of the Gods – Part III

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm

tsubaki flowersThis is part three of a three-part series.  Part one can be found here.  Part two can be found here.

A shrine official told us five friends of the bride that we had to wait in the chrysanthemum lobby again, as the shrine would be sponsoring family pictures.  My wife and I thought it was an appropriate time to put the required monetary gift in the pink, frilly envelope that I had bought at a twenty-four hour convenience store for 310 yen at 5:45 that morning after I had finished my hellish night-bus ride to Yokohama.  Before making the trip down to Kanto, we had scoured the Internet for guidelines on how much to give as this was the first time we had been to a wedding as a couple.  

Just as I was about to stick the correct amount of money in the envelope, the rest of the procession returned to the room with the pink carpet where we were waiting, which made us look like assholes; I panicked, and the envelope and cash fell to the floor and flew around comically in the wind created by the door opening.  I had to scramble around on all fours to grab all the cash and put it in the envelope – and I had to do this without creasing the bills (Money with wrinkles is considered in poor taste for a wedding gift, and appropriate for a funerary offering.) – before any more people came into the room.  

Maybe five or six relatives of the groom witnessed me rolling around on the floor grasping for loose cash before I managed to conceal my activity under one of the many brown, industrial folding tables and surreptitiously hand the envelope and cash to my wife so she could go to the bathroom and prepare everything in polite privacy.  

While she was in the bathroom, the shrine baba came and told everybody to head outside and start boarding the microbus.  I obviously couldn’t go yet, since I was waiting for my wife.  There was an awkward moment where the shrine baba visibly wondered whether or not to approach me and ask why I wasn’t boarding the microbus, but then she decided that the risk was too great for her – me being a foreigner and common knowledge being that Japanese is too difficult for foreigners to understand; she instead just pretended I didn’t exist.  After about ten minutes, my wife came out of the bathroom and whispered, “you would not believe how small that envelope is!”  The shrine baba informed her – of course – about the microbus waiting for us outside.  We put on the airs of embarrassment that etiquette demands for taking so long, and pretended to kind-of-run all the way to the microbus parked twenty feet away.

The reception was at another facility, Meiji Kinenkan, which was where the Imperial Constitution of Japan had been hammered out some one hundred and forty years before in the presence of the Meiji Emperor himself.  After a ten-minute, meandering microbus ride through the crowded streets around Harajuku Station, we entered the drive of a very ostentatious building which managed to retain the general architectural theme of Meiji Jingu while simultaneously looking thoroughly Modernist.  

We followed the rest of the group inside and gathered in a massive waiting area, where we passed our pink, frilly envelope with the proper amount of unwrinkled cash to two of the five friends of the bride manning a table at the far end of the room.  Here we received a seating chart for the reception and sat at some secluded chairs at the edge of the room to gossip and people-watch.  A waitress dressed in black brought us refreshing orange juice and oolong tea.

We opened the seating chart to realize that the reception would have close to 300 people, 250 or so of which were priest/salarymen from Meiji and Yasukuni Shrines.  Then we were escorted outside to have pictures taken with the bride and groom (still wearing the same elegant yet seemingly uncomfortable, formal wedding attire) in a giant courtyard surrounded by heavily-groomed cherry and tsubaki trees.  Even though it was only mid-February, the tsubaki flowers were almost in bloom, and I began to realize why Japan celebrates the arrival of spring at the beginning of February.

Next we entered a large hall at the top of a wide, sweeping staircase and took our assigned seats at the table closest to the door.  There was a seat reserved for my one-year-old daughter, but we had left her with my mother-in-law and brother-in-law, and this made us miss her a lot.  I looked at my place: there was a personalized note wishing us luck in Boston, and I wondered whether the bride and groom had gone through the painstaking trouble to write personalized notes to each and every guest.  This note lay on top of two plates, with six sets of silverware arranged on all sides.  Five glasses of various shapes lay in the direction of the unassuming flower arrangement at the center of the table, beyond what I assumed by virtue of their small and intricate cuteness could only be the dessert utensils.  And this was not ostentatious: a card written in French and Japanese originally underneath my personalized note revealed that we would be treated to a twelve-course French meal.  More silverware and plates would accompany later courses.  I’ll try to translate throughout when necessary.  Please forgive my myriad mistakes. 

I looked around the room, at the baroque chandeliers and the other suits, the elegant bouquets of flowers and the gilded screens, and felt slightly underdressed.  The officials from Meiji and Yasukuni Shrines were all wearing matching suits – reifuku, my wife called it – appropriate for both weddings and funerals, doubtlessly paid for and provided by their respective Tokyo mega-institutions.  This uniform consisted of a plain, black suit, eggshell-like white shirt, and shiny white tie.  I, on the other hand, was a virtual beacon of color, sporting a navy blue blazer, a light blue shirt, a thick, royal blue tie, royal blue socks, gray pants, a dark burgundy belt, and dark burgundy leather Oxfords.  

A tuxedo-clad waiter brought me a muffin of some sorts – actually an escargot, coquille Saint-Jacques et crevette aux fines herbes en croute (snails, scallops, shrimp and Jacques Herb crusted) muffin of some sorts.  I had to resort to the iPhone Google search to confirm that one takes silverware from the outside-in at these sorts of events.  It had been a long time since I had frequented any nice restaurants, and iPhone Google has been a reliable crutch for poor short-term memory skills for the past two years or so…

I’m a slow eater; and I like to savor what high-quality food I consume, so the slow pace of the course was much to my liking.  Along with the muffin-like thing, we were brought Japanese sake – poured into the smallest of the five glasses nearly to the brim – and a light champagne for a tall, thin glass.  After dipping in to our snail muffins, everyone toasted to the new couple, pounded booze and was given immediate refills, which some of us learned to sip more slowly as an ubiquitous, corny, facility-provided M.C. introduced himself.

The respective employers of the bride and groom talked about what good and faithful servants they were, and the second course came.  This entailed salade de foie gras grille et de homard (salad of foie gras and lobster grill).  This wedding was my first time to eat both escargot and foie gras, and I must say that I greatly enjoyed the snails (they tasted like my favorite shellfish: mussels), but I could have done without the fattened goose liver paste.  Luckily, Kirin beer was poured into the third of five glasses around this time, and it seems no beverage can complement foie gras like a nice, cold lager.  

Various shrine officials took turns speaking.  Many of their compatriots were already drunk and leering by this point; and a few of the speakers stammered, stuttered, and stumbled over their words red-faced.  These speakers, about five in number, bestowed their own no-doubt experienced and wise counsel on the new couple, imparting timeless gems like: marriage is about love; marriage is important; don’t forget to take marriage seriously; and have babies.  Towards the end of this round of speeches from colleagues of the groom, we were treated to the third course: consommé Théodora, a light, asparagusy chicken broth.

It was at this point that I began to pay more attention to the front of the large room.  There were probably ten or fifteen tables between us and the bride and groom, who were sitting in front of a golden screen identical to that of before, but three or four times as large to fit a much larger room.  To their right was the podium from which the various speakers broadcasted blessings and words of wisdom, and to their left was a string quartet.  Up to this point I had assumed that the Vivaldi and Mozart I had been hearing was coming from speakers lost somewhere in the electronically complicated, be-chandeliered ceiling of the room, but sitting up a bit allowed me to perceive two violinists, a cellist, and a bassist, to the left and slightly below the couple’s elevated stage.  The fourth course arrived: gelette de sole et de crabe avec sauce au safran (gelete sole and crab with saffron sauce) accompanied by white wine.

I loved everything about this course.  I tend to order fish at nice restaurants, since I find cheap fish generally to taste poorly but can easily tolerate cheap beef, mutton, pork, or chicken.  I also greatly enjoy the taste of sole or flounder, but find it hard to find boneless sole in Japan, a nation which scorns eating fish without bones the same way Westerners look down upon taking the crust off a sandwich.  

The M.C. announced that the bride and groom were going to take a break to change clothes.  Finally! I thought, they deserve some comfort after being so formally dressed all day!  A spotlight followed the bride as she exited past our table to applause, and the same showmanship accompanied the groom’s temporary departure ten minutes later.  While they were out, we were served granité au champagne rose, as a palate-refresher before the second entree.  This was a boozy and sophisticated kakigoori.

The bride and groom returned twenty minutes later, this time wearing an expensive-looking Western style wedding dress and a tuxedo respectively – not comfortable at all I think, although I have never worn a wedding dress, nor a tuxedo.  We were served the sixth course: filet de boeuf en croute, farai de champignons et de fines herbes avec légumes chauds (crusted beef tenderloin, Farai mushrooms and herbs with warm vegetables).  I have no idea what a Farai mushroom is, but they were delicious: pure white, unadorned, light, and fresh.  The warm vegetables consisted of broccoli and asparagus, which went nicely with the filet.  The beef was tender, red, bloody, and delicious.  The crust was good too, but unnecessary, I thought.  This was all served with a heavy red wine.  I usually don’t go for red wine, but this was excellent.  I had a few glasses.  The bride and groom cut the wedding cake in the Western style, and the groom fed a small piece to the bride.

It was both disheartening and invigorating to think that we were only half-way through the course, numerically speaking.  My wife and I, as well as the other guests at the table, now our chatty friends, were already quite full, and the room had descended into a sort of chaos.  No one was paying any attention to whomever was speaking.  Drunken priests/salarymen were stumbling all over the room like toddlers at play.  Several tables were completely empty: lonely plates piled up before being tragically taken away, to be put out of their misery back in the kitchen.  Other tables had thirty or forty chums gathered around them, laughing and cavorting loudly.  I took a break to use the bathroom and found a long line and a scene: four or five younger priests/salarymen were babysitting an older priest/salaryman who was lying on the floor vomiting.  As I walked back to my table, I crossed paths with a waiter on his way to the bathroom to bring the puking priest some water – situated tastefully on a platter with lemon slices and an elegantly folded warm towelette.     

It was time for salade melangée aux fines herbes (Mixed salad with herbs).  This was delightfully bland after the aforementioned richness of crusted beef, red wine, and vomit.  A waitress approached with Suntory whiskey, which I declined.  She refilled my red wine and Japanese sake glasses.  Around this time, the room went dark – perhaps a shrewed way to reel in the party-goers for the event’s grand conclusion.  We were treated to an already-spliced-and-edited digital video version of the day’s events followed by a projection of photos from the bride and groom’s respective youthful days, free from the procedural expectations and burdens and joys of obligation that mark adulthood.  My wife was in a few of the bride’s pictures.  I expected Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel to accompany the slideshow, but we got a more tasteful, less cliched Beatles acoustic melody instead.  Sorbet aux framboises et glace aux pistou en mille-feuilles (raspberry sorbet and ice cream pesto mille-feuilles) were gently brought to the table.

Shortly after this, we were served melon et fruits de saison plus wedding cake.  I normally don’t care for melon, but ate all of it in the spirit of enjoying myself.  The wedding cake was light and creamy, with strawberries and other cut fruits mixed in with three-layered frosting.  The seasonal fruits in question were blackberries and raspberries; but – this being February – I was curious where these seasonal fruits were coming from.  Were they imported?  I asked a waiter, which my wife seemed to disapprove of.  He disappeared for a few minutes and came back to tell me the blackberries and raspberries were from Shizuoka Prefecture, at the base of Mt. Fuji.   

Coffee came, and, after consuming much booze, having sat in a dark room for a while, and being so full from good food, I was grateful for a caffeine pick-me-up.  Shortly afterwards came an assortment of petit fours.  These were of white chocolate, heart-shaped variety, dark chocolate squares, and a crusty type.  We took one of each and split them as best we could in order to maximize variety while minimizing stomach explosion.  When I had first glanced at the card upon arriving, I had been looking forward to mini eclairs and Napoleons, but at this point I was glad there would be no more temptations.  As we nibbled on these sweets and sipped our coffee, the M.C. performed a few corny magic tricks with giant cards and linking rings which everyone was too drunk and listless to appreciate.

The reception was over.  The couple lined up right next to our table by the door with their respective parents; tears flowing freely, each said thank you and goodbye to all the guests.  We lined up one by one and thanked the relevant parties before departing individually into the wild Tokyo night just outside Meiji Kinenkan.  It was now close to seven o’clock.  The whole event, from the time we had arrived at Meiji Jingu, to the time we left, had comprised more than eight hours, every single moment of it unimaginably enjoyable.  Compared to the austerity of the ceremony and the elegance of the reception, traveling back through Harajuku and eventually to my wife’s brother’s apartment in Yokohama first by foot and then by train was like the final scene from a zombie movie where it’s all reached critical mass and the house can no longer be defended.  Back in Yokohama, safe inside my brother-in-law’s apartment, I hugged my daughters and immediately fell asleep.

The Best of State Tax Expenditure Disclosure

In Specific Facts on February 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm

President Obama proposed comprehensive corporate tax reform in the State of the Union.  An crucial first step is disclosing who benefits from expenditures.  Currently the federal government offers no insight into where an estimated $1 trillion in tax breaks go every year.  Some states are beginning to provide information about which corporations benefit from local tax spending programs. None of their state websites are perfect, but their strong suits could be combined to create a powerful tool for disclosing federal corporate tax expenditures. Here are some highlights from state tax expenditure websites:


The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Project website literally shows users where their tax dollars are going. They can zoom in on their community and see who got what. As beautiful as the site is, it would be nice to have a database mode for easy access to the raw data. Besides, showing private investments on the front page, while requiring a click through to see how much in taxes a company avoided is burying the lead.
 
While it is important to disclose which tax expenditure program costs a state the most revenue, grouping tax expenditures by acronyms (Kentucky’s categories include unintelligible acronyms like: KJDA, KEDFA, KREDA, LGEDF and KEOZ. Informative, huh?) makes a site impenetrable to the general public. Wisconsin’s site allows you to sort by the type of corporate benefit and then gives you lots of useful information based on what you think is important. How many jobs did they say they were going to make if they didn’t have to pay a several million dollars in taxes? How many did they actually create?
 

Oklahoma’s site lacks a robust search functions and does not allow users to sort, but it does allow you to find $20 million in tax breaks to Koch Industries in 2007 and 2008. (Nice to see such government largess to billionaires the year before Oklahoma had the largest budget deficit in the country.
 

Sometimes you get so bogged down looking at who gets what tax breaks that you forget the big picture.  Iowa’s tax expenditure site features a tab at the bottom of the page that sums up tax expenditures in a category. Wait, they gave a hundred million dollars away? I thought Iowa had a $700 million budget deficit?
 
Supposedly corporate tax breaks create jobs. Unfortunately, assessing whether and to what extent there was real job creation is next to impossible, because without proper disclosure most companies are free to fire people after they pocket prospective state revenues. Illinois gives you all of the standard information about who received a tax break on the front page. If you really want to see what happened you can click on a details link and find out exactly how many jobs were supposed to be created or retained, how many were and how much they pay (the average refinery employee makes almost 100K?).
 
The federal government should take a page from the states and let us know what corporations receive tax spending. A good tax expenditure site should be allow search flexibility while retaining legibility, show the total amount of spending by category and provide additional details upon request. Michigan shows it is possible to get creative and make disclosure fun. If a company feels it is doing so much good that it should not have to pay its full tax bill, all we ask is that they let the public know why. Fair enough?
 

This post is also posted at OMB Watch.org.  Valuable information comes from Good Jobs First. For more on the issues raised here, see Good Jobs First’s study Show Us the Subsidies

The Way of the Gods – Part II

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm

This is part two of a three-part series.  Part one can be found here.

After fighting through crowds of tourists laughing childishly at the “Takeshita Street” sign, Nigerians hawking hip-hop wear and shouting “YoGenki!?” at passersby, and the strangely-coiffed, various in-groups of pre-teens clustered around Harajuku Station, my be-dressed wife and a be-suited I made our way past scattered, camera-wielding foreigners and Japanese alike down the long, wide paths beginning at the quiet and stately entrance to Meiji Jingu.  Fifteen minutes later we arrived at a boring administrative building near the honden (main hall) of Japan’s largest shrine.  

We entered a lobby of sorts that would have been indistinguishable from a hotel reception area but for the giant chrysanthemum seals ostentatiously displayed everywhere.  After simmering for fifteen minutes or so, we were escorted by a high shrine baba to a modern-looking, pink-carpeted room with ordinary chairs placed flush against all four walls.  Shallow, white china teacups were arranged on brown industrial folding tables set in front of these chairs; a gold-leaf folded screen lay auspiciously at the far end of the room.  At a table in front of the gilded screen sat the couple to be married, with the groom’s guests trailing off to the left and the bride’s guests stretching to the right.  My wife and I sat at the terminus next to the door in the exact middle of the far wall directly facing the couple.

There were about forty people in the room altogether, almost all of whom were family members, including the younger sister of the bride, who was also our friend and had recently given birth to an apparently quiet, well-behaved baby.  Of the forty allowed to attend the ceremony, there were five non-Shinto priest non-family members: my wife, me, and three other friends of the bride.  The groom, who grew up at Yasukuni Shrine, had no friends who were not also Shinto priests.  My wife had never met him, despite the fact that one of her best friends had dated him for ten tumultuous years; my wife’s friend had deferred to all-encompassing heiwa in consciously choosing to never introduced them to each other.  Go figure.

The groom wore a navy blue and black, unobtrusive kimono, versions of which all other male family members wore.  There were some kind of insignia attached to various kimono, the meanings of which lie beyond my knowledge of Japan’s sacred practices.  I imagined the insignia connoted rank or concentration or something.  I will admit I’m projecting my understandings of the high ceremonial attire of ancient Western institutions – specifically military, university, and Catholic – but the differences may have been simply coincidental or left to okonomi – the insignia were, perhaps, the traditional Japanese equivalent of the necktie.  

The bride wore the brightest, largest in terms of total cloth area (especially the “tail”), and most intricately adorned and folded kimono I have ever seen: this was bright red and covered with flowers of all colors.  Various attendants obsessively adjusted and readjusted its nooks and crannies.  The bride’s hair was up and back in the traditional style but set slightly to the side, and she wore ample yet refined opaque white makeup and bright, shimmering rouge on her lips.  Her face held a blank expression: I couldn’t tell whether she was annoyed at having to stamp and sign so much paperwork, whether her copious base had rendered the movement of facial muscles near-impossible, whether she was making every last effort to embody prevailing Japanese notions of expressionless beauty, or all of the above.

I cautiously took my camera out of its vulgar orange case, winked and grimaced awkwardly at the baba presiding over the ceremonial signing and stamping, and whispered to my wife “Is it okay to take pictures?”  I learned that there would be a ten-minute window where it might be moderately acceptable to take shots from certain angles and that where I was sitting just happened to fall into the acceptable range.  After making sure I was not violating any ceremonial stipulations (Cameras were not around when Shinto was codified, so generally their use in recording Shinto ceremony is okay; but sometimes it inexplicably isn’t.  I’m sure there’s a whole body of philosophical literature on the topic – it being Japan, and the likelihood of ritual and cameras meeting approaching one.), I set up my garishly electric-blue mini-tripod on the brown industrial table in front of me, and got about fifty or so shots of the bride and groom signing and stamping paperwork before I was told that pictures were no longer pleasing to the gods.  The whole thing was over in thirty minutes or so.  I had been served cherry blossom tea (or maybe cherry blossom sake?), but I was too busy taking pictures, consciously trying to be culturally sensitive, and letting my mind wander at the profundity of it all to consider drinking this undoubtedly delicious beverage.  

“Now off to the reception?” I asked my wife.  “No, first we have the ceremony,” she answered matter-of-factly.  “Wasn’t that the ceremony?” I asked.  “No, that was a pre-ceremony.”… Everyone stood up and began to form two parallel lines – one for the bride and one for the groom.  We got in the back of the bride’s train and proceeded to follow the procession through the sunny courtyard of Meiji Jingu, past hundreds of aggressive tourists taking aggressive pictures aggressively.

Leading the procession were several Shinto priests holding various ceremonial artifacts such as a club-like object and a broom-like object. (I was a Catholic altar boy for like ten years, and I have no idea what the bell-thingy and the candle-snuffer-thingy are technically called, so lay off.)  These high priests were followed by the bride and groom richly protected in the shadows beneath the kind of big, red, paper umbrella that just screams Japan.  The bride’s kimono was held by three or four diligent attendants.  After the bride and groom came family members in order of decreasing immediacy; finally, friends made up the rear.  

Shinto priestWalking in ceremonial procession in front of so many tourists made me feel more than a little self-conscious, like I was outside myself looking at myself.  Most of the foreign tourists were either puzzled at why the Lonely Planet guide didn’t have a section on how to participate in Japanese Shinto weddings or pissed off at me for ruining their authentic Japanese experience.  I felt like I had travelled back in time to when I was a altar boy, where every detail of procession was codified down to hand placement and walking style.  

I remembered specifically when I was around ten years old a Pentecostal friend of mine had accompanied us to mass.  When it came time to receive the Eucharist, we just didn’t have the heart to tell him he was not welcome to consume the real, non-metaphorical, transubstantiated flesh-and-blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (nor that he would go to Hell-where-there-is-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth for being a shameless heretic).  When it was my friend’s turn to receive the Eucharist, he totally mucked it up, snatching the flesh of God from the flabbergasted priest with his left hand like a greedy vulture.  The local crazy church lady’s jaw dropped at his insolence, and this was all in liberal, godless Massachusetts.  

I didn’t want the same shameful fate to befall me here in Japan, so when I noticed my hands automatically folded in the good Catholic manner, I began searching the other procession members to ascertain the correct hand-placement for Shinto procession.  I found no clear answers and so had to rely on my own atomist intuition: it couldn’t be that I was supposed to put my hands in my pockets, since there were no pockets when Shinto ritual was first codified.  The Sand People always walk in single-file to hide their numbers.  I tried a sort of default, minimalist stiffening, like Sam from accounting always does, and then switched to a cool-guy, dip-cum-arm-swinging style.  I wondered whether I should look at some of the other foreigners in the crowd and smile or wink or something, but I eventually decided it’d be better to just look vaguely at the ground and be solemn.  I tried putting my hands behind my back like Morpheus before finally just giving up entirely on the very notion of posturing and choosing to put aside my neurotic cultural sensitivity concerns to take in the moment by contemplating the shrine architecture.  My awkward dance had been videotaped by hundreds of people and probably looked like a Mr. Bean sketch

I was brought back into the concrete human world by the sound of a taiko being beaten progressively louder and faster over the course of about ten or fifteen seconds, and then I saw the same directly in front of me as the procession entered the sacred matrimonial chamber.  We fanned out along the sides of this heavily-pillared, noticeably claustrophobic room and took our seats on canvas stools to either side of a column of tables facing a tiny altar at the top of a steep staircase.

The next twenty or so minutes comprised a ceremony which has been performed without alteration for thousands of years.  The bride, being a professor of Shinto, and the groom, being a Shinto priest, went through it with aplomb.  Failure to observe correct protocol might mean an evil stamp on the marriage.  I hope my presence didn’t mess anything up.

The ceremony started with a general cleansing of the room.  A Shinto priest shook a white paper broom-like thing at the couple and then at us; there was a blessing of the married couple with a golden, shaky-bell thing that generally defies description, but it looked like a small, hand-held Christmas tree.  Shaky sound emerged via one ninety-degree turn of the wrist, followed exactly four seconds later and after a stout bodily swaying to the side by a ninety-degree turn of the wrist in the exact opposite direction.  This blessing was repeated over the reverently bowed heads of the guests – including us – and then again over the couple, by two Shinto priests in perfect temporal concert.

After a variety of readings from Shinto scripture, which required repeated standing, sitting, bowing, and more standing, sitting, and bowing before standing, sitting, and bowing some more, the high priest ascended the steep staircase slowly and right-foot-first on the extreme right-hand side of each stair to the high altar in order to communicate with the gods in ritual form beyond our powers of contemplation, our vantage point being that or mere mortals.

Next it was time to drink Nihonshu, or Japanese sake (“sake” literally means “alcohol”).  Red and black, lacquerware saucers were placed in front of everyone, and from a golden kettle priestesses poured small amounts of Nihonshu into each cup with prescribed ritualistic precision.  As musical instruments – including a taiko (drum), koto (like a classical banjo plus harp), and fue (small, wooden flute) – began to connote pleasant chords, first the bride and groom and then all drank small saucers of Nihonshu reverently using both hands.  The still ceremony closed to minimalist, traditional Japanese music in D-minor, with the aforementioned musical instruments accompanied by throat-singing.   

It was time for another procession back to the place where we had the pre-ceremony.  I don’t really remember this one so well; my mind was lost in D-minor.

The Way of the Gods – Part I

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm

It’s fortuitous that Kevin wrote about love rules in Japan vis-a-vis Valentine’s Day, because I attended a wedding over the weekend that I have been meaning to write about all week.  This wedding was one of if not the most profound cultural experience I have had in Japan.  I will try in vain to convey some of this profundity in the words that follow.  This post is the first of a meandering and exhaustive three-part series on the event.

Kevin used the word “neo-tradition” at the beginning of his post.  Perhaps because I am familiar with the pejorative usage of the terms “neo-liberal” and “neo-conservative”, I immediately perceive the destructive power of the term “neo-tradition”.  In the metaphorical parlor rooms of the blogosphere that I haunt, the term “postmodern conservative” is used to denote the conscious choice to revive lost tradition – the rational judgment that blind adherence to tradition is essentially superior to the cerebral uncertainties of fractured modernity’s all-consuming void of purposelessness.  

I for one see such a dichotomy as false; tradition is necessarily a yoke – whether benevolent or malevolent – and it is for this reason that neo-traditions will ultimately be nothing but baseless human attempts at coercion.  I wrote in the comments to Kevin’s post:

…”neo-tradition” embodies all the scorn I think hiding behind the word “tradition” to force unfounded and absurd obligation on other people really, really deserves…I have no problem with “neo-traditions” that everyone agrees on observing; nor do I have much of a problem with restrictive “paleo-traditions”. It’s obligatory neo-traditions that must be destroyed. These are like nationwide hazing.

For all the goofy neo-tradition one encounters in Japan (Don’t think the U.S. is exempt from widely-observed neo-tradition.), paleo-tradition still abounds.  It is trying to understand some of this paleo-tradition and to filter it from vulgar neo-tradition that gives purpose to the expatriate intellectual mission.  For me, the most interesting, most difficult to understand, darkest (in a good way), and most quintessentially Japanese tradition is Shinto.

Shinto torii at the summit of Mt. ZaōDepending on one’s definition of the word “religion”, Shinto may or may not qualify.  Shinto is best described as an aggregate of received practices; it is not necessarily a belief system.  Shinto is the indigenous cultural system of Japan, and was likely practiced in some form when Jomon peoples were first cultivating chestnuts.  In the Shinto cosmos, kami (essences) exist in all things, and humans and other animals become kami after they die.  Shrines, unusual natural elements, and other designated places are interfaces to the world of the kami; shrines, artifacts, and amulets act as conduits to the spirit realm.  Shinto has been described as an optimistic system: people are good, and evil is caused by only evil kami.  Protection from evil requires diligent adherence to correct ritual, the logistics of which have been handed down as cultural treasure through the generations.  These rituals connect modern Japan to its prehistoric past, to the vague darkness which pervaded all existence before the intellectual upheaval which accompanied the light of letters that came from the continent.

(Anyone who has considerable experience with Japanese pop cultural elements – such as films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away or role-playing games like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, the Secret of Mana, and the Legend of Zelda – will recognize essential thematic elements as rooted in Shinto.  It is possible that many American members of the Information Generation are unwittingly more familiar with Shinto than they are with any other national system.)

An articulated form of “Shinto” exists only because of a dialectical relationship with Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan shortly after agriculture and letters.  The first written explications of Shinto ritual and mythology date from the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki of the seventh and eight centuries.  Buddhism – unlike Shinto, which evolved spontaneously – was already heavily systematized upon reception in Japan, and the various provinces of spiritual life needed to be divided between the new, fashionable religion of the Sinophilic nobility and the old ways.  Rites of life such as summer festivals, marriages, and births are now usually done in Shinto style, while matters of death and conscience are left to Buddhism.

Emperor MeijiThroughout most of Japanese history, Shinto was decentralized and prone to folk permutation.  During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), Buddhism was favored by the upper nobility, with disparate and distinct forms of Shinto relegated to the politically neutered Imperial household and common people respectively.  

The Tokugawa Shogunate, the clan of nobles which held power throughout the Edo Period, prescribed tight social controls and minimal interaction with other civilizations.  As the Shogunate collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century, Shinto was standardized, systematized, and politicized by the new Meiji Emperor and his allies as a means to power.  From 1868 to 1912, Emperor Meiji combined the rapid importation of Western industrial technologies with a new form of Shinto Nationalism to restore the imperial throne to real political leadership.  This culminated in the slogan “wakon yosei” (“Western techniques, Japanese spirit”): an explicit reference to Shinto.  (This is also the socio-polical context for that crappy movie The Last Samurai.)  

Eventually, Shinto was made official state religion with the Japanese Emperor as a living god at its head; and Shinto priests became state bureaucrats in service of the Emperor.  Only under a unifying Shinto aegis, it was believed, could Japan modernize quickly and efficiently enough to avoid being taken by Western colonial powers.

In 1912, when Emperor Meiji died, Meiji Jingu was built for his and Empress Shoken’s kami.  When the shrine was finished in 1920, it was designated as being of first order of importance to the Empire of Japan, a category in which it remained until 1946 when it was destroyed by allied fire bombing.  Meiji Jingu was rebuilt shortly after the war and remains an island of nature in the middle of busy Harajuku.  Today, the complex comprises about 175 acres of forest with approximately 120,000 trees.  The various buildings are massive, cutting, natural forms of brown and green with bright red and gold features inside.  The torii at Meji Jingu are not vermillion, but earth-toned, and gigantic like the cedars that surround them.    

It was at Meiji Jingu last Sunday that I participated in as traditional a wedding as Japanese weddings can get: the bride grew up at her father’s Buddhist temple; she is my wife’s good friend and a Shinto Professor at a prominent Tokyo university.  The groom was a Shinto priest from a family of Shinto priests spread throughout Meiji and Yasukuni Shrines.  He normally worked at Meiji Jingu, so he would be getting married at his place of business; the presiding clergy were nothing less than his co-workers.

Love Rules in Japan

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on February 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I managed to get this post written on Monday despite the tidewaters of passion rising all around me. But as the afternoon gave way to evening I was subsumed by the tsunami of emotion that is Valentine’s Day in Japan and I am only now recovered enough to put forth (as a warning for anyone wrapped up in the throes of this love-loving land come next February 14th) this thesis on the many layers of Japan’s amorous neo-traditions. 

It’s the start of another English class; I’m pretending to jot something in my notebook when I toss the question out. ‘What day is it, guys?…’

My students enjoy the easy back-and-forth, to get their minds and mouths into English mode. For me, it’s nice they play along since I usually don’t know what day it is. As far as I’m concerned, that we’ve shown up on the same day at the same time at all is cause enough to celebrate, by cancelling class and going out for ramen and beer I always say – to no avail as I’ve yet to be blessed with a student who doesn’t see this as a breach of some vague rule system.

This morning too I asked, then found myself squinting at the calendar across the room trying to figure it out before my student did. ‘Oh!’ she says, in an authentic show of surprise; this starts me thinking that maybe she forgot about a hair appointment and is going to cancel class on the spot, or at least step out into the hall for ten minutes to apologize profusely into her cell phone, which will allow me to hang out and down an extra cup of coffee while I figure out what day it is.

But instead she turned to me, wide-eyed. And then it hit me too. And a wave of guilt washed through me, knowing what was going through my now equally guilt-ridden student’s head.

In Japan, where passion ranks on the common social agenda just below understanding football, there is only one possible explanation for why Valentine’s Day is met with such enthusiasm: it is because a thorough set of guidelines has been established so everyone knows exactly how they are supposed to express their unbridled love. By no means as I about to poo-poo Japan’s idea of Valentine’s Day, when the women (and only the women) traditionally give chocolate to men (all the men, at least those they can expect to come in contact with, like bosses, co-workers and English teachers). I think every country I live in should have such a Man’s Day – called something else of course so the general female population goes along with it. But it makes me scratch my head – and in Japan one does a lot of head-scratching – because I can not find anywhere in the bowels of the Internet an explanation as to how this Valentine’s Day women-give-the-men-chocolate-or-be-shamed-out-of-societal-existence phenomenon has come about. Asking any actual Japanese person only gets me the standard answer for every question that begins with the word why: ‘Because that is how it has always been.’ It’s maddening, but if that person is simultaneously handing me a box of bon-bons I forgive them.

It is widely accepted that the confectionery company Mozoroff began the whole Valentine’s Day craze in Japan, though at the time (1936) they were targeting foreigners who apparently, mired in a climate of muted self-expression, had themselves become unable to show any outward affection without a little prodding. The wider Japanese population were only able to enjoy the emotional effluvium years later, after rules for doing so had been developed and disseminated and committed to memory to avoid any spontaneous, unregulated and unsightly leaking of emotion. 

On Valentine’s Day in Japan, the mark of true love is known as hon-mei, the highest form of chocolate in the land. The rule states that hon-mei should be handmade; the required effort and labor proves a woman’s true love for a man (who would otherwise never recognize it, making the concept of hon-mei crucial for any woman who wants to have children). Some women attempt to pass off expensive and elaborately-wrapped store-bought chocolate as hon-mei, but this sort of side-door attempt at love has traditionally only been met with suspicion. Recently, however, to the relief of countless women and the delight of many a confectioner, the taboo of such false affection has received official governmental mitigation – proffered case-by-case in correlation to how expensive and elaborately-wrapped the chocolate is.

Kind of gives the expression ‘a yen for love’ new meaning.

Beyond the custom of hon-mei, in any Japanese office every woman is expected to give Valentine’s Day chocolate to all male co-workers in a specified desk-radius. Failure to do so results in punishment, the swiftness and severity of which is largely unknown as Japanese women are warned (by powers no one has ever actually seen) not to test the system. In addition, they are advised in a memo circulated on February 4th (or that following Monday if the 4th falls on a weekend) to bring a stash of emergency chocolates for the men who show up to work early on the 14th and reposition their desks to maximize their intake.

To counterbalance the risk of the women turning this flood of giving into a heartfelt event, as well as to prevent the men from unduly appreciating any gesture of kindness, a term has been created for this Valentine’s Day duty: giri-choco, or ‘obligation chocolate’. Everyone gives, everyone gets. We are all the same. The Powers keep people’s feelings in further order with the added protection and comfort of an acceptable price range for this level of intimacy. This index of regulated generosity is invaluable to any woman, for if she goes too high-end with her truffled obligations she risks the embarrassment of appearing to be whoring out multiple hon-mei – to men who will then look at her store-bought sweets and shame her for low-balling them. On the other hand, if a woman tries to get by on the Valentine’s Day cheap she’ll be accused and scorned for handing out cho-giri-choco, designated in the ‘No Co-Worker Left Behind Act’ of 1991 as the ‘very obligatory chocolate’ reserved specifically for the accounting department and any other geeks normally outside the social desk-radius who, until 1991, got nothing.

Despite the seemingly over-riding adherence to the rules of love and affection, there are those in Japan who are simply hell-bent on bucking the system. Over recent years an officially non-estimated number of men were suspected of giving their female hon-mei chocolates and other tokens of affection on ‘Barentine’s Deh’, and in an unreported response to this hushed revolt the Japanese Diet handed down the state-sponsored concept of gyaku-choco, or ‘reverse chocolate’. With this the courage of all men was unleashed and they openly stormed the supermarkets and confection shops with their newfound governmental permission. In contrast, some young girls had already outwardly rebelled, swapping sweets and treats with their female schoolmates; recognizing the unstoppable nature of this wave of unrest the Diet quickly instituted the term tomo-choco, or ‘friend chocolate’, and order returned to Japan’s emotional landscape.

Most recently, subsequent to the Kyoto Agreement, the Japanese government encouraged the practice of giving boxes of eco-choco, which came with an average of 2.4 kilos less packaging, ribbons and stickers with misspelled English terms of endearment. This of course sent the packaging, ribbon and sticker industries into a tizzy of ‘Change?’ while upending the ability of the general populace to determine the proper level of suspicion for store-bought hon-mei. Thus eco-choco was slow to catch on.

For years Japanese men reveled in their lack of mandated responsibility to return the affection and expense that women, through negative reinforcement, were highly encouraged to extend. Then in 1977 the National Confectionery Industry Association decided that men should pay back the women for all their pure, heartfelt generosity and instituted ‘White Day’, which takes place on the hard-to-forget date of March 14th (a particular bonus for me as this also happens to be my wife’s birthday). Thus since 1978 men in Japan have dutifully fulfilled their heart-shaped responsibilities by reciprocating on every hon-mei, giri-choco and cho-giri-choco. (In a strange twist, eco-choco was not repaid on grounds it would double the packaging, ribbon and sticker waste; women thus quickly abandoned the idea, putting the final nail in the eco-choco coffin.)

To make sure the men were not just responding robotically to the profound emotional foundation of Barentine’s Deh, the Industry created the term ‘sanbai-gaeshi’, or ‘three times the return’. With this the men are obliged to spend three times what the women spent, in a show of raw and honest gratitude confirmed by an elaborate system of bar code technology and comparison guidelines.

In the spirit of patriotic animosity South Koreans have not only adopted Valentine’s Day and White Day and proceeded to spend, by official accounts, ‘a rot more’ than their Japanese counterparts, they’ve also set aside April 14th as ‘Black Day’. This is when everyone who got the shaft on Valentine’s Day and White Day (or didn’t, as it were) goes down to their local Chinese restaurant for a dinner of black noodles. The Korean Confectionery Group is looking for ways to introduce the concept of cho-giri-choco to the common workforce but the Black Noodle Underground has so far been able to stymie their efforts.

Male English teachers too benefit from the love-law; as long as we have female students we are guaranteed at least a bit of giri-choco. Plus as foreigners we are automatically assumed to be completely ignorant of and unable to follow the complexities of the Japanese culture and are let off the White Day hook before ever being on it. We are held in such high esteem, in fact (and for no ascertainable reason to anyone with a western mindset), that for some women – usually the slightly older and more traditionally attuned – neglecting to give their male teacher at least a Snickers is unforgivable. This is why I felt so guilty this morning when I asked Reiko what day it was.

But to wind up the matter at hand, please don’t be misled by Japan’s seeming inability to let their emotions flow rampant. After all the rules and regulations regarding the various levels of choco have been adhered to and one’s affections have been properly displayed and officially received, Japanese people, like all wind-swept lovers, do take to the bedroom. 

According to reports submitted by the Japan Love Hotel Conglomerate, this fiery release of passion takes place every year on society’s self-administered day of consummation: Christmas Eve.

 

Note: Personally I do not subscribe to the one-way protocol of Valentine’s Day in Japan. That is why, as I sat on the couch Monday evening, waiting for my wife to finish changing my screaming kid’s stinking diaper, I saved the last two chocolate-covered strawberries she made for me so she could try them. Then we cuddled up to watch the movie I rented: Fight Club.

Oscar Preview 2011: The Best of the Best Pictures

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Last year I wrote an Oscar preview for Best Picture and outlined my reasons for doing so. This year I have done the same, and I’m glad to say that this year it was a much more pleasurable experience. The films are reviewed in the order they appear on the official nomination list.

 

1 – Black Swan – Black Swan started off combined with The Wrestler as one film; director Darren Aronofsky brings us the tale of young ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and her transformation from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. Black Swan is told from Nina’s point of view: she is cast as the lead in a production of Swan Lake, and must portray the White Swan and the Black Swan. She is a perfectionist, and can play the White with ease, but she is criticised for her lack of passion when it comes to the Black. Portman puts in a truly Oscar-worthy performance as Nina, and her depiction of a young shy woman’s descent into insanity is heartbreaking to watch. Mila Kunis plays Nina’s main rival, Lily, whose motives are unclear, as paranoia is a huge part of our unreliable narrator’s personality. Lily could be a conniving little bitch, or she could be a genuinely nice woman who is really happy for Nina’s achievements. Kunis plays this ambiguity to a tee. Vincent Cassel plays what is unfortunately a clichéd character – the director of the play. He actually spouts off lines like “The only person standing in your way is you” and “you could be brilliant, but you are a coward.” Cassel’s convincing pomposity is what ultimately saves his character from becoming a caricature. Barbara Hershey also adds realism to a character we’ve all seen many times before – the overbearing mother. Aronofsky in this film creates a tense atmosphere that just doesn’t let up, even when Nina spends a night out with Lily, trying to let herself go. His use of CGI in this film – whether the viewer is aware of it or not – is quite simply amazing (video contains spoilers). Black Swan is an intense experience, with a slow build up to an interesting if not ultimately satisfying climax.

 

2 – The Fighter – Mark Wahlberg stars in this boxing drama as a kid from the streets trying to make it big the only way he knows how: with his fists. A cynic would read this synopsis and dismiss the film as a cliché. However, clichés done well still make for good films, and this is a damn good film. Where Inception is driven by its director, The Fighter is driven by its cast. Our point of entry into the film is Wahlberg’s stoic Micky Ward, a man who along with his training, must somehow put up with his dysfunctional family; there is a manager/mother (Melissa Leo) who only sees dollar signs when she looks at him, an army of loudmouth sisters, and a crack-addicted trainer/older brother, who is beloved by everyone he meets, played by Christian Bale. Both Leo and Amy Adams as Wahlberg’s love interest are nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and both put in performances as the opposing female aspects of Micky’s life that are equally worthy of winning the award. However, this is Bale’s film. The character of Dickie Eklund marks the return of Bale’s true talent after functional performances in the Batman films, a cash-in with Terminator Salvation, and a bland turn in Public Enemies. Dickie has a magnetic personality and frenetic atmosphere about him that almost steals the film, which is a testament to Bale’s ability: a too outlandish performance would have shifted the focus from the subject of the film on to him, but he plays it just right. It is also worth noting, that as even Bale himself humbly mentioned in his Golden Globes Best Supporting Actor Award acceptance speech, his performance just wouldn’t have worked without Wahlberg’s quiet and reserved character as his foil. The main (and quite possibly only) problem with the film is the actual boxing scenes. They are shown in the same picture quality as the fights would have been shown on HBO in the 1990s; and by doing this, director David O Russell removes the viewer from the film by making him and her notice the difference. The use of television cameras is a technique used to much greater effect in Rocky Balboa, because they used a contemporary camera as opposed to an outdated one.

 

3. Inception – Director Christopher Nolan earns top billing in this action thriller about professional thieves who are hired by a shady Japanese businessman for a particularly difficult job. The twist? The thievery takes place inside one’s dreams. There isn’t much to be said about this film that I didn’t already say. Inception is a standout technical piece; Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and their editing team do a very good job making a potentially complicated viewing experience relatively simple. For most of the latter half of the film, there are things going on on 5 different plains of consciousness, and yet the viewer is never lost. However, on this list of nominees, Inception is one of the most flawed. The originality of the film lies within the premise, not within its execution. What we are given is a generic heist movie with few developed characters, a story with its true potential not fully explored, and a misplaced air of ‘I’m awesome, I am’. As Christopher Nolan is conspicuously absent from the directing nomination list, it is clear that this film’s role on the Best Picture list is as a space filler and appeaser to The Academy’s critics. Pfister, on the other hand, has rightfully received a nomination for Cinematography.

 

 

 

4. The Kids Are All Right – This is a film about two teenagers who make contact with their sperm-donor father, and the resulting affair that he has with one of their lesbian mothers. Mark Ruffalo puts in a turn as the father, and convinces as an amoral organic farmer-slash-restaurant owner with an inflated sense of self worth. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are the same-sex couple, the former a borderline alcoholic doctor and the latter a breeze-through-life flake. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson star as the kids, both from the same sperm but each carried by a different mother. Got all that? There is no way to describe this film other than half-assed. It starts with so much potential, about two kids from an unorthodox family meeting their father and the creation of their relationships with him. However, halfway through our focus is shifted away from the kids to all three of their parents and the aforesaid affair. The result is a film that isn’t quite sure what it is. Neither story is given enough time, and neither is brought to a satisfying conclusion. What the viewer is left with is the familiar disappointing thought of ‘This was nominated for Best Picture?’ Easily the worst film on the list.

 

 

 

5. The King’s Speech – A critical darling, this is a 1930’s-set drama based on the stammering Prince-cum-King George VI and his relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, in the decade leading up to World War Two. This is a truly compelling film, filled with incredibly strong performances by all involved. Director Tom Hooper’s set design is impeccable, capturing the regal atmosphere of Royal homes and contrasting it with Logue’s office, the interior of which wouldn’t look out of place on Paper Street. The cinematography is wonderfully constructed, especially when our hero’s inevitable montage appears. Colin Firth plays the king in question, and his is a performance that stands head and shoulders above any other leads from the last year. To paraphrase Superman: The Movie’s tagline, You’ll believe this man actually stammers. His supporting cast members also deliver very strong performances. Geoffery Rush stars as unorthodox therapist Mr Logue. He’s a maverick, but, Christ, he gets results! Helena Botham Carter puts in a strong effort as George’s wife, Elizabeth, though probably not one worthy of the Best Supporting Actress nomination she’s received. Guy Pearce is excellent as King-for-a-bit Edward VIII, but being seven years Firth’s junior, is inexplicably cast as his older brother. One can only suspend one’s disbelief so far. Like a few other films on the list, this is a film about the triumph of the human spirit. Here, the spirit in question must fight against himself as opposed to exterior forces. The battle is internal, the victory bittersweet, and film stupendous.

 

6. 127 Hours – Based on a true story, this is a film about a young canyoneer who gets his arm trapped underneath a rock in a narrow hole for 127 hours and must cut it off with a knife in order to escape. James Franco puts in a powerful performance as the young man, Aron Ralston, and carries the film as the only character on screen for most of its duration. His portrayal of a man full of self-confidence to the point where he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s off hiking, and his transformation into a man more sensitive to and appreciative of his loved ones, is quite simply spellbinding. It is not this character’s strength of will that saves him, but his connections to his family and friends, as displayed in a series of effective flashbacks and fantasies. These scenes are presented brilliantly by director Danny Boyle – they show us previous scenes from Ralston’s life, but always with Ralston at the outside looking in, wearing the same clothes, never making the viewer forget that he is still trapped. The fact that we know the conclusion is the loss of the arm must have provided Boyle and Franco with quite a challenge – we already know the ending, which makes the build up much more important. Both men rise to this challenge with seemingly effortless ease, and what we are left with is tense, claustrophobic and mesmerising. It’s also hard to tell a story about how a man loses his arm under a rock, but actually leaves the rock with more than he left behind. This challenge was also accepted and executed perfectly. Aron Ralston is a modern day King Lear – his hubris is his downfall, his relationships his salvation.

 

7. The Social Network – Jesse Eisenberg stars in this picture about the people behind the genesis of Facebook and their resulting lawsuits. The film is told in a non-linear fashion, with three separate timelines: the time of the creation of facebook at Harvard University, and the times of each of the two lawsuits. On paper, this is an extremely boring idea, but Aaron Sorkin’s script and David Fincher’s direction make for a fascinating film about the age-old themes of friendship and betrayal. The film is seen more as Sorkin’s baby than Finchers, owing to the hundred-mile-an-hour witticisms that come out of every character; but Fincher definitely left his mark on this film. The colour palette reminds the viewer of any number of his previous films – Seven, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button – and the whole theme of an outsider trying to fit in or to make something of himself is one that Fincher knows extremely well, it being the backbone of most of his body of work. Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the brilliant but socially inept figure behind the Facebook empire. Eisenberg does well to convey both the characters vindictiveness and amorality, which alternately are the driving forces behind most of his actions. New Spider-Man Andrew Garfield portrays Zuckerberg’s saint-like best friend, Eduardo Saverin – also the plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, having been forced out of the company. The two actors have a great chemistry, but the fact that these two characters, being so different, could ever have been friends in the first place is baffling. There are some other great supporting performances from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, and Armie Hammer as both the Winklevoss twins, who are in the other lawsuit with Zuckerberg, claiming that he stole the idea for Facebook from them. Overall an excellent film with a larger demographic than was originally thought, you don’t have to be tech savvy to enjoy it.

 

8. Toy Story 3 – Toy Story 3 is the third and final chapter in the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and those other guys. Their owner Andy has turned 17 and is going off to University, which means a bleak future for the toys he has now grown out of. The toys are accidentally given to a daycare centre, but this idyllic paradise is not what it seems. With the exception of Jim Varney, who died in 2000, the cast returns in the conclusion of arguably the greatest trilogy of films ever made. As Andy has matured, the tone of the film has also. It is much bleaker, with the Toys all contemplating their futures and mortality. This theme was addressed in Toy Story 2 with Woody, but here it is spread out over the remainder of Andy’s toys. For the most part, the colour palette is a little darker, and the antagonist Lotso (Ned Beatty) is much more sinister, as the jaded “warden” to the daycare centre’s “prison”. That said, a lot of the humour remains intact – Mr Tortilla Wrap Head, Spanish Buzz and Chuckles the Clown’s Vietnam Vet are all highlights. The classic film references are also still there; this time there are nods to films from Cool Hand Luke to Return of the Jedi. Ultimately Toy Story 3 is a very good film; but, like last year’s Up, it’s not a likely choice for Best Picture. It also faces some very strong competition for Best Animated Feature from How To Train Your Dragon. 

 

9. True Grit – The latest offering from Coens Ethan and Joel, True Grit is a western that tracks a fourteen-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) and her search for the killer of her father along with hired help Rooster Cogburn, and cocky Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf. Billed not as a remake of the 1969 John Wayne vehicle but purely as an adaptation of the original book, this is a surprisingly straight western from a pair of brothers known for putting their own stamp on films. Jeff Bridges steps into The Duke’s shoes as Cogburn the US marshal hired by Steinfeld’s character to assist her in her search. Bridges projects an air of confidence and experience as the weathered mercenary, but is unfortunately inaudible in his performance. The character is a man who drinks too much, and probably smokes too much, but Bridges is too faithful in his depiction of a mumbling, gruff alcoholic. He really should come with subtitles. Damon’s turn as the arrogant Texas Ranger is small comic relief, and he does very well with what he is given. The star of this film, however, is Steinfeld. Her Mattie Ross is an articulate, street-smart, quick-witted young woman who will stop at nothing to find her father’s killer. True Grit is very much about the journey, not the destination, but one doesn’t actually realise that until after the film is over. Very little actually happens in the film, and what looks like a straight revenge film in the trailer is actually a lot more contemplative and meandering. In the end, True Grit is decent, but ultimately forgettable.

 

10. – Winter’s Bone – Set in the Ozark Mountains, Winter’s Bone is about a young woman who must find her absentee drug-dealing father who, after putting the family house up as collateral for his bail, has gone missing. Jennifer Lawerence stars as the main character, beset on all sides by problems monetary and familial. Like Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Lawerence’s Ree is a strong female lead determined to find who she’s looking for, despite being either refused information or straight-out lied to by everyone she talks to. Her father is involved in the making and selling of crystal meth, so naturally everyone who might know something wishes to remain tight-lipped, despite the precarious situation that Ree and her family have been placed in on his account. John Hawkes plays her morally ambiguous uncle in a truly oscar-worthy performance, and has been rewarded with one such nomination. The bleak colour scheme and heavy subject matter make this film sound like a chore, but Director Debra Granik has provided us with a film that is thoroughly engrossing.

 

 

 

 

The quality of this year’s nominees far outstrips that of last year. The films are so good that to make a list like last year’s would be a disservice to most of the nominated films. I can state, however, that had I made such a list, it would be propped up at number 10 by The Kids Are All Right. My top two films are 127 Hours and The King’s Speech. It is hard to separate the two. Both depict the trials of man: man vs. nature and man vs. self; Both have amazing climaxes that are in actuality bittersweet; and it is a testament to all involved that they convince the viewer not to notice that. In the end I’ll have to give it to 127 Hours, because after I finished watched it I felt elated and life-affirmed, whereas my reaction to The Kings Speech was merely ‘bloody-hell, that was a good film’.