Friday, December 31, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch, Vol. 3: "Intervention"

"Woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification." - Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

"Intervention" was in common usage in academia before it became an MTV-sanctioned watchword for the dramatized fight against addiction, but even without that post-facto reappropriation (there's a word for another day), this is one of the most annoying terms in the critical theory lexicon. Why? In a nutshell, it implies a vision of the critical theorist as an activist which, I think, simultaneously inflates and undercuts the stakes of the project.

"I actually did that."
To intervene implies to stop something in progress - to leap to the defense of a battered spouse, or to shove a child out of the way of an oncoming bus.  Of course, in theoretical usage, the "intervention" is usually against a linguistic convention, a social practice, or a pattern of thought that the critic thinks is harmful - but the word is intended nonetheless to convey that sense of immediacy, urgency, and engagement.  I'm willing to bet that Judith Butler was the single greatest force in spreading the term around, and as in most such cases, she remains one of a very few whose use of it can be defended.  Her work actually did end up being this sort of abrupt interruption, becoming a touchstone for a politicized feminism that then went out and did some very direct things with it.

Those who have come since have generally hoped for a similarly spectacular, direct impact - but the inconvenient truth is that claiming to be making an "intervention" is more a quantitative than a qualitative claim. That is, it implies that one believes one's own work should - perhaps even that it will - have the kind of deep, short-term social impact that Butler's did.  Inevitably, most of these "interventions" have come up short, turning the word into self-important ash in its users' mouths.

But is the picture of critical theory's impact implied by the term "intervention" even the one we should be committed to?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Husulah, "Choppas Out": Deep Throat X's Favorite Rap of the Year

I just got this pick from Middle Finger of Deep Throat X - I hadn't heard it before, but it was his pick for the year:

The funny thing is the both members of DTX are basically otaku (rap otaku, maybe) but they have a thing for this kind of low-rent, grimy, basement style.

Hidden Mothers


(Hijacked from BoingBoing)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Favorite Books (Not) of 2010

When it comes to music, there’s something that makes me want to keep up to the minute.  As far as books?  Not nearly so much.  I’m an utterly voracious reader, but as one of the books on this list stresses, the day-to-day, or even year-to-year, surges of novelty and innovation can be a serious distraction from paying attention to the deeper questions.  Moreover, I’m a haunter of bookstores (mostly of the used variety), and much of what I end up reading is dictated by what I stumble across that looks interesting.  So, with that in mind, here are the books that found me this year:

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Absolutely riveting, profound, transporting – and not subject to accurate summarization.  Don’t be put off by the misplaced idea that it’s somehow ‘experimental’ – ultimately, it’s a ripping sci-fi/historical adventure made only more engrossing by some technical wizardry.

China Mieville – The City and the City

I’ve progressively lost interest in Mieville since the Marxist post-racial fantasmagoria of Perdido Street Station, but this one sent the ticker back up at least momentarily.  Mieville isn’t much of a stylist, so it’s all about the ideas and plot.  In this case, the idea is what makes it worthwhile – two cities that share the same physical space but are separated through elaborate social codes, enforced by a mysterious higher power.  A great metaphor for so many things about city life.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Fooled By Randomness; Malcolm Gladwell – Blink; Leonard Mladinow – The Drunkard’s Walk

Probably one of the most fascinating intellectual trends of the past ten to twenty years (though I’m not really sure about that timeframe?) has been the advance of the idea that after all, humans are not rational beings, and that we need to confront our own irrationality and learn ways to deal with it.  This idea has often been most accepted when presented in terms of neuroscience and mathematics, but I’m invested because this is essentially the point made by Freud a century ago.  I don’t think anyone has made that connection in a really public way yet (and I’ll have more to say in particular about Taleb’s dismissal of “theory”) but these books may ultimately promise redemption for recently set-upon psychoanalysis.

Ian Buruma – Inventing Japan

Short, sweet, and profound summary of how Japan got to where it is now, with a particular focus on identity and discourse.  Probably the single book I would recommend for non-specialists.

Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space; Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Henry Lefebvre – The Production of Space

This year, particularly since starting my fellowship, has been all about kicking free of my focus on any strict theoretical framework.  I’m swimming in ideas – and these books have been the most important for my trip through the territories of critical geography.

Earl Sweatshirt: Drop

This isn't exactly new at this point, but it's the most exciting new hip hop I've heard since Die Antwoord.  The beat is just nutty, Originally produced by Polow da Don for Rich Boy.  But Earl Sweatshirt (from the Odd Future crew) is absolutely right - nobody did it justice before him:

I just love the flow, the menace, the weirdness that clearly comes from someplace deep - way more legitimately promising for the underground than Lil B.  Sadly, Earl is apparently missing, somehow, for the moment, so, you know, free him.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Crowning the Freestyle King: Japan's Ultimate MC Battle

Ultimate MC Battle 2010
New UMB Champion 晋平太 (Shinpeita) breaks down.
Saturday night was the final of the 2010 round of the annual UMB - the Ultimate MC Battle, Japan's unified freestyle title.  It was the culmination of a yearlong process that selects 16 regional champs from Hokkaido to Okinawa, with long battles in each region. This year's final winner was Shinpeita, from Tokyo (represent!).

I was totally blown away.  As a non-native Japanese speaker, many of the punchlines and wordplay passed me by, but the scale and sophistication of the event itself was truly stunning.  It was held in Kawasaki, maybe an hour outside of Tokyo, apparently for reasons of accessibility. The location, Club Citta, is a huge box that was holding, I would guess, about 1500 fans. The stage was spectacularly lit, divided between blue on the left and red on the right.  The red side was also referred to as the 'senpai' or senior position, one of the many ways that traditional familial/workplace hierarchy surfaces in Japanese hip hop.  Each of the MCs was introduced by his own three-minute biographical 'trailer' video, of very polished production, projected on a huge screen behind the elevated stage.  This was clearly a high-dollar event.

The competition itself was amazingly rigorous.  Five DJs were lined up along the back of the stage, and at the beginning of each round the MC who had drawn or earned the red side of the stage selected from two or three tracks offered by the various DJs.  The MCs then traded rhymes for four rounds of 16 bars each, with mics that descended from the three-story ceiling.  Then there were two rounds of judgment - one by audience applause, occasionally measured by an overhead sound meter, and one by a panel of judges, whose picks were again projected on the huge overhead screen, using an NFL-style animation.

I had some camera issues, but this should give at least some idea of the pomp and circumstance:

I was honestly not super hype about the outcome - the winner was Shinpeita, who seems like pretty much a straight battle MC, pretty forceful but not graceful.  I'm not sure he'll come up with much of an album, but he did win my heart when, completely overcome by his victory, he broke down crying.  I would probably have done just about the same, considering the stress of the setup, as well as the payoff - a bunch of nice equipment and a check for Y100,000 - something like $12,000.

Still, he wouldn't have been my pick.  The three guys who stood out to me and my crew were D.D.S. from Okinawa, R-Shitei from Osaka, and Jag-Me, from northern Honshu.  D.D.S. made it to the final four, and even though he was way too thuggish in attitude for me to easily get behind him, he's got a really interesting flow.  It's disappointing he didn't do better, and he's definitely one to look out for.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sun Murder: The Best of Japanese Underground Hip Hop (International Transport Volume 2)

Note: I'm now blogging at  It's more attractive, and it focuses more on cool stuff like music and fiction.  Check it out!

International Transport Volume 2: Sun Murder
(Re-upped May 14 - please right-click to download rather than streaming, this link has limited bandwidth.)

Over the course of three years digging into Japanese hip hop, I’ve discovered tons of amazing artists.  What I’ve also discovered is that, even in this amazing digital age, this stuff can be tough to get for people outside of Japan.  So, here’s my first shot to remedy that – a nearly hour-long mix of my favorite underground tracks from Japan.  I start it off a little easy on y’all, but most of these qualify as weird. Tracklisting and some pretty extensive notes after the break – maybe that’ll make things a little easier going.  (Also, if you have trouble with the link, please leave a comment – I’m still a bit rusty at this stuff.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Worst Best of 2010 List (Right?)

In making sure I hadn't missed anything particularly righteous in my music listening last year, I looked at a lot of year-end lists - and none of them was as smug, trendy, and lightweight as Stereogum's.  I genuinely like the site, mostly for its mass of information but also for good taste, so it's a little weird.  Here are the most odious of their picks, and their positions:

49. Small Black - New Chain: Not everything has to be "new" to be "best," but this recycling of New Romanticism was just about adequate regardless of innovation.  I gave it a 3/5.

41. Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal: This is probably hair splitting, but putting this record this far down is fucking criminal.

26. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker:  A solid record, and it's good to know someone is following the legacy of late-stage Earth, but this feels like the token 'metal' pick.

23. Salem - King Night: This is where Stereogum really starts getting on my nerves - admittedly, along with everyone else who tried to hype this record.  It's bad, warmed-over dubstep/noise, or whatever, I can't even be bothered to invent a descriptive conglomerate.  They'd contribute more to society as full-time models.

06. Sleigh Bells - Treats: More of the same - really hip band, really overrated album bandwagoneering.  Not feeling it, and we're beginning to sense a trend.

01. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Pardon me for being suspicious when an indie-rock blog puts a hip hop record at number one.  It's not that this is a bad record per se, but it's also crafty, 'artsy' crit-bait. The best album of the year should be something really revolutionary, something equally mixing inspiration and craft, crazy energy and crazy skill.  West has all the craft and skill, and definitely has the work ethic, but everything here is so calculated and careful, and none of it feels really new.

Kanye West at #1 is what really seals the verdict, but a look at Stereogum's whole list is important too - this is a painfully predictable list, and would be more accurately titled "50 Coolest Albums of 2010."  Dissapointing.

Top 10 Albums that Should Have Been on my Best of 2010 List

Feeling pretty lazy this morning, so finished up a little “Woulda Coulda Shoulda” – records I should have given props, but for a variety of reasons didn’t make it onto the top 25 I put together.  I admittedly could have done better if I’d taken more time crafting my list, but there’s also something inherently fallible about the process that deserves reflecting on – there are simply too many records out there to really give them all the time they deserve.

Up next, I’ll be posting a list of the records that probably shouldn’t have made my list, records that other people gave way more love than they deserved, and one site that gets particular mention for poor taste.

10. The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year

Technically, this is both a collaboration and something closer to an EP than an album. But the Knife is maybe my second favorite band, and I still didn’t take the time to even listen to this album.  This shit is exhausting.

9. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II)

For about two weeks this was on constant blast.  Then it just sort of wasn’t.  I still haven’t really revisited it, but . . .  hmm.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Life is Decay: Tinymixtapes' Top 25 Album Covers of the Year

A couple of days ago, the main website I write for put out their list of the best 25 album covers of the year. It's a bit of a methadone situation, because I'm anxiously waiting for TMT's best records of the year list (which I voted on and wrote a blurb for) to come out.  But the covers list is interesting in its own right, mainly because this year I really got back into music, and I feel really invested in both a lot of particular records and the general gestalt.  The covers list (which I wasn't involved in) forms an amazingly coherent statement about our life and times, even independent of the records in question, many of which I haven't heard.
oOoOO - oOoOO

The main theme that I was struck by was simply that of imperfection and limitation adding up to something very intentional and careful.  TMT is arguably the biggest site that really has a substantial focus on experimental and "noise" acts (a label that is quickly becoming, like "indie" and "alternative" before it, more about approach and attitude than sound), and the world that today's noise bands live in is one that is decaying.  There's not a more accurate way to try and reflect back the condition of the first world these days, which can basically be divided into those fighting decline (Europe) moping about it (Japan) and living in spirited idiot denial (America).  Either way, this mechanical bull is falling apart.

Teams - We Have a Room With Everything
But it's great to enter the worlds of (visual and musical) artists who neither deny that reality nor accede to it.  2010's best record covers show what's possible with primitive tools, with recycled images, with old aesthetics.  Things get weird, and wonderful, and point toward the possibilities of how to live a more enchanted life even if you have less to live it with.  It's something I struggle with - I just started making real money, and I know that I've foreclosed some portion of joy to get here.  It's a roundabout route to get back to it.

Small Black/Washed Out "You'll See It"/"Despicable Dogs" 7-inch
One way to try and reconnect with the possibility of being happy is to constantly search for the wonderful and strange in the everyday - or even to make it yourself.  I don't think anyone has ever really taken graffiti seriously enough, or done enough street theater, or spent enough time ranting like a madman on a street corner.  We all deserve to live weirder lives.  Some of us have gotten way too comfortable with the idea of 'going out' as this one very regimented way of having a good time.  I think about all this stuff because I've known people who live differently - have collage night!  and sewing circles! and just hang out and jam! and yet somehow I've never quite been that person.  I like to watch TV and play video games, and mostly to read and write.  Sometimes other people scare me.  But there's this amazing world in my head and it's great to see some suggestion that in fact it's in other people too.

Sometimes it's impossible to put our feelings into words - feelings of otherworldliness, of expansiveness, of infinite possibility.  Music is maybe the best way to get those thoughts out into the world, and give them form. But clearly, there are ways to do it visually, too.
Gatekeeper - Giza

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kafkaesque Absurdity of Japanese Paperwork

I had a rather eventful weekend, the less positive side of which was having my nice bicycle stolen (apparently by someone with a hacksaw and quite a bit of determination) from Koenji late Saturday night/Sunday morning.  The upside of the crummy experience was that I got to feel quite good about myself after going in to talk to the police and rather uneventfully reporting the theft on Monday morning.  Everyone I talked to was quite sympathetic and very helpful.

That was, for all its shadows, the good story.  The bad one began when last week I decided to finally get settled back into a yoga routine, which I'd been letting slide.  I found out when I first got here that though a recent yoga boom made studios pretty common, many of them - particularly those associated with the Yoga Lava chain - are women only.  But, since yoga has proven so vital to me keeping on an even keel over the last two years, I decided it would be worth it to trek down to Shibuya a few times a week to the closest male-friendly spot (I was also planning to bike there frequently . . . oh, cruel irony!)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tokyo Sound Catalog 1

Sounds You Will Not Hear in Tokyo:

  • Arguments in the Street
  • Catcalls
  • Honking (Exception: Very occasionally, a taxi)
  • Conversations between strangers (especially aboard trains.  The more crowded they are, the quieter).
  • Apologies between people who have bumped into one another or otherwise violated personal space (Replaced by nods, bows, glances).
  • Conversation on a crowded train
  • Individuals’ music (e.g. boomboxes, loud headphones)

Sounds You Will Hear in Tokyo:

  • Formalized routine sales pitches, recorded music via loudspeaker (in commercial districts)
  • Loudspeakers blaring from moving trucks (in residential areas – electronics resale shops; in busy centers – right-wing hate speech)
  • The rattle of passing trains
  • The klaxons of train crossings
  • Beeps (crosswalks, backing trucks)
  • Happy chatter (only late at night, after patrons begin leaving bars and cafes)

Chinza Dopeness at Heavy Sick Zero, 12.4

My lovely Aunt Debbie got me an early Christmas gift when I was home for Thanksgiving - a new camera.  It's a lot more portable than my SLR, and has already proven invaluable.  Enjoy this video from Saturday's excellent show at Heavy Sick Zero, a major hub of underground hip hop conveniently located just a few blocks away from me.  The sound isn't great, and I'm not particularly convinced by the "HD" designation, but it'll do.  I also must say I'm very impressed by Flickr's video player.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Infinite Tragedy of Awesome Bookstores

Going into a really good bookstore makes me strangely sad.  I was recently at San Francisco's Green Apple Books, and all I could think about was the fact that I could never hope to read all the great books that were laid out tantalizingly before me.  Thank god, then, that my Japanese reading is as poor as it is - Tokyo is full of bookstores of such size to bring on body-wracking sobs of desperation.  On top of that, they're cheap enough that the temptation to add just one more ridiculously cheap book to the pile can be overwhelming.

Today's haul was from the Book-Off in Akihabara, which has a small but cheap and, as you can see, occasionally spectacular English section.  All of the English books were Y200 each, except for the Alex Garland, which was Y105.  The Kobo Abe is a book I desperately needed, very specifically, for my current work.  The brown one you can't see is Natsume Soseki's Botchan, a classic of the transition from traditional to modern Japan - and both of those, again, Y200 each! The two Japanese hardcovers - by Ryu Murakami (top) and Haruki Murakami (bottom) were also Y105 each.  remix is an excellent, thoughtful hip hop and electronica magazine. Or, more properly, it was - it was recently bought and remade into a more commercial outlet.  I'm buying up all the back-issues I can get my hands on, particularly those featuring interviews with Japanese hip hop acts.  The issues here have interviews with Scha Dara Parr, Big Joe, Mic Jack Productions, and Muro (from 1999!).  The most expensive thing in the whole stack is at the very bottom, a remix featuring an interview with Sapporo's The Blue Herb.  And this was all just in an hour!  It's enough to drive you to drink - or at least that's my excuse.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"It Gets Better" - Living and Dying by the Stories of Ourselves

On my short trip back to the USA, I attended a funeral. The woman was a friend of my younger brother.  I had never met her.  She had, as the conventional saying goes, struggled with depression, and committed suicide after her insurance company forced her to switch her medication to a generic version of the drug she was taking.  Her parents' version of the story was that the switch caused her to slip back into severe depression and take her own life. Tragic events like this are common enough that psychopharmacologists are constantly working to figure out what's going on, using control groups and scientific methods.  The fact is, drugs may be amazingly effective at helping people with some kinds of psychological problems, but they're not flawless.

I didn't know this woman.  I don't know what she was like, or the contours of her problems.  But there were two hanging threads at the funeral that pointed to the need to treat depression with more than chemicals.  Her sister gave the eulogy, and a recurring theme was her sister's perfectionism and singular drive to succeed (in a bitter irony, the deceased had received her doctorate in pharmacology by the age of 24).  Very few Americans would consider this pathological, but as part of a complex including depression, you can imagine how destructive it could be.

There was a second element I only found out about after the funeral.  During the ceremony, I noticed an attractive young woman near the front of the chapel, seemingly taking things very hard.  She sat on the opposite side of the church from the girl's parents.  It wasn't until I spoke with my brother later that I found out this was the deceased woman's girlfriend.

One of the greatest historical sins of psychoanalysis is the way that, for a time, it legitimized blaming parents and their errors in judgment or action for everything from autism to epilepsy.  But however flawed and one-sided those conclusions might have been, they acknowledged a fundamental truth that is lost in treating the brain as a self-directed machine: that we are constructed not by some unified internal force, but by the actions of those around us.  I don't know anything about this girl or her parents, but this is a religious family in North Texas - a kind of Meccah for educated middle-class bigotry.  Even if her parents were fully supportive and loving, the broader context couldn't have made for an easy life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Notes Towards a Cultural Geography of Tokyo

Gaston Bachelard
I don't want to make it a general habit to put my research notes up here, but for the moment I'm a bit out of pocket, and I suppose occasional glimpses of the work in progress can only help.  As some of my recent posts have suggested, what I'm gravitating towards right now is a full-scale psychoanalysis of Tokyo as a spacial/mental construct.  In SF, at the amazing Green Apple bookstore, I happened across a book that I think is going to be vital to that effort - Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.  I wanted to get down a few thoughts that the book has triggered so far.

First of all, Bachelard's book is about the way the poetic image shapes our experience of space, and since my chapter is going to be part of a book about hip hop, the obvious and correct move is to integrate readings of how space is represented in Japanese hip hop, both lyrically and musically.  There are the broad categories of space representation in hip hop as a whole, then the specific ways this is implemented in Japan.  Immediately, it occurs to me that space in hip hop has two particularly important modes - the space of the 'hood, and the space of the club, both of which emerge both sonically and lyrically.  There's the spacial extensiveness of bass music, which can either flood out over a city block, or reverberate inside the box of the club, filling the body, going inward.  In Japanese hip hop , the hood gets represented in the work of Shingo Nishinari (named after his Osaka neighborhood) and MSC (whose song "Shinjuku Running Dogs" talks about Kabukicho/Nishishinjuku as an "unsleeping terminal").

The issue of place as a site for identity attachments was never a major component of psychoanalysis, and Bachelard makes the vital point that this leads frequently to the confusion of shifts in location for time's passage in human development.  Time and space are, if not interchangeable, then mutually dependent.  So aside from the music and lyrics, the chapter needs to look at the history of the city itself, from a psychoanalytic perspective of digging down into the layers below the street, as I did in my recent post about the firebombings. The city of Tokyo is a storehouse of memory, even though (actually, specifically because) so much of it is newly built.

This is also significant because time, space, and identity are so closely linked in Tokyo, in Japanese society more generally, and in particular in the Japanese attitude toward subculture.  For many here, participation in a subculture is something literally 'left at the door' when moving from subcultural spaces to professional or more generally social spaces.  So, space becomes not just the marker but the root of changes in identity.

Top 25 Albums of 2010

It was a good year for music - maybe even great, though it's always hard to tell on these things,  since so much depends on how closely you're paying attention.  This year I was paying close attention, and here's what came out on top.

25. Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
24. Sun Araw – Off Duty + Boat Trip
23. The Golden Filter – Voluspa
22. Yellow Swans – Going Places
21. Rene Hell – Porcelain Opera
20. Big Boi – Sir Lucius Leftfoot: The Return of Chico Dusty
19. Emeralds – Does it Look Like I'm Here
18. Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights
13. Dylan Ettinger – New Age Outlaws
10. Philip Jeck – An Ark for the Listener
9. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
8. Pocahaunted – Make it Real
7. Women – Public Strain
5. James Blake – CMYK EP

4. Forest Swords – Dagger Paths

3. Die Antwoord - $0$ (CD Release)

2. Gonjasufi – A Sufi and A Killer

1. Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Dream-Work, One

1) A man with vision split by technology - two different contact lenses - begins seeing a strange woman out of one eye (somehow just a reflection/construct of himself) until he ultimately encounters and makes love to her in a hall crafted of gilt and mirrors. Completely alone in the great hall, darkness around the edges, dark outside, the whole place dark and shadowy.

2) What the fuck? An ant with the gigantic, chitinous body of a grey spider? Ant’s thorax has grown a mock spider’s head?

3)Possible future study - the life world of north Texas.  Football games/watching on TV, shopping.  Intellectual effort expended on football, not music/culture.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Geography of Surface and Depth: San Francisco and Tokyo

The San Francisco underground – at least the part of the BART that I rode inside the city proper – is really terrible. There are no maps near the ticket machines, no audible station announcements, no signs with station names easily visible from the train at stops. If you want to know how to make the train less convenient and accessible than the bus, come to San Francisco. It's one stark contrast with Tokyo, whose subway organization and labeling is relentlessly clear and logical, down to a multilingualism that makes it potentially transparent (after a certain learning curve) to an array of foreigners.

The contrasts in the two cities' landscapes are layered and transverse. At the very surface, SF is a beautifully mystified city – a mosaic of murals, creative storefronts, beautiful century-old brass scrollwork, window displays, public art. By contrast, while I don't have a great deal of personal grounds for comparison, others before me have described Tokyo as one of the drabbest, if not outright ugliest, of the great cities. Its parks are scraggly and unkempt, and as much as they are romanticized by a certain American subset who fetishize their “postmodernity,” the unregulated trammel of racing neon lights, dirty plastic mascots, and frantically spinning tin signs amount more than anything to an unending eyesore. There are the struggles of a small few humanizers – graffiti artists and creative boutique retailers fighting the grey concrete and off-white tile, the textural regularity of the cheap and mass-produced buildings – but the fight, against indifferent ward governments and citizens long cowed into aesthetic submission, is one they can't win.

But at another level, the roles reverse. Beneath its surface vulgarity, for instance if we travel the paths of its streets and experience their flow, or even just look at a map of any random section of the 23 wards, we can see that Tokyo's humanity and chaos are inscribed at a deeper level. The map to the right happens to be of Shibuya, but shows a familiar pattern – a major hub towards which major streets and minor lanes alike converge, inconsistently, with kinks and swerves, revealing the trace of pedestrians and rickshaws and palanquins carving them by consensus over the course of a century or three. Streets bend and spiral, both at the level of the block and the level of the city as a whole.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eyedea - I am right, and wrong.

So, it turns out Eyedea really did overdose.  I speculated about this possibility previously. I just came from the funeral of a friend of my brother's who committed suicide after a long history of depression and, I'm again going to speculate, difficulties with her family related to her sexuality (this is in Texas). After having seen tragedy firsthand, I can only refine my point to say that some people, artists or not, are closer to the dark edge of life, engaged in a more profound struggle with difficulty more than others.  I'm not the sort ever to even dabble in dangerous drugs, much less willfully take my own life, but I can say I have enough experience with the dark side to know that sometimes you can't control it.  So, peace to all those who fight.

Invasion of the Body Scanners

I flew yesterday from San Francisco to Fort Worth, and had my first run-in with the already infamous TSA body scanners.  I haven't been keeping really well-versed on the ongoing protests - I only learned about "Don't Touch My Junk" guy a day or two ago - and I didn't know that I was going to have to deal with the machine when I got to SFO yesterday.  So I hadn't had time to get worked into a lather, but the experience was disturbing enough without priming.  The capsule itself was disconcerting, for sure - it's mostly enclosed, with a rotating scanner bar that's fairly ominous, and requires assuming the stance of submission seen to the left.

But weirdly, I didn't really find myself getting agitated until I got out and as I made to walk and pick up my bags, I was stopped in a kind of corral on the other side, where I was told to "turn and face my bags" and again place my feed in two yellow footprints. 

This suddenly put my hackles up for a whole lot of reasons.  First, the guy who gave me this order (and that's essentially what it was) had a fairly thick accent, and I had to ask him three times what the hell he was telling me to do.  I know these jobs are shitty enough they probably can't be too picky about screeners' speaking ability, but in a high-tension situation like this, a little elocution goes a long way.  Second, there wasn't just the one guy there - two of them blocked my way, as if I might suddenly make a move and they would need to cooperate to subdue me. Third, I got to watch them pull aside a black guy and give him, let's say, the personal treatment, which is never fun to watch.  And finally, of course, was the simple absurdity of being made to stand at parade rest while a bunch of strangers examined an X-Ray of my sunken, hairless chest.

I found myself, without even thinking about it, getting very testy with the screeners very fast.  And this was after a great week in SF, with two seemingly cheerful San Franciscans. Of course, this might have been just a delayed release of the deep disturbance of being in a tiny clear chamber, being scanned.  It's just as humiliating and weird as sudden public outcry has suggested. People are starting to question where the line of fair trade between security and privacy lies, and while I'd tend to think it should have been somewhere back with subpoenaing library records, finding out it's at the point of actual genital contact is better than not finding it at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Matthew Barney and MacArthur - Expiator and Guilty?

During my recent stop by San Francisco, I stopped by SFMOMA, where in 2006 I was lucky enough to catch the exhibit for Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9.  For reasons lost to the mists of time, though, I didn't get to see Barney's original performance for the opening - but amazingly, four years later, the apparatus he used to climb and traverse the inside of the SFMOMA's central tower are still there, along with the drawing he completed at the top of the tower.  What the accompanying explanatory text reminded me of was that Barney performed dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, and that MacArthur is also referenced in the opening music for Drawing Restraint 9, sung by Will Oldham, in which MacArthur is thanked by the Japanese people for repealing a whaling ban (whaling being central to DR9).

This contemporary article from the Guardian has Bjork diagnosing the thematic of MacArthur's appearance as Western male guilt, tied up in Nagasaki and authoritarianism and various other epochal crimes. It seems a fair analysis.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Holy Other: Unbowed by the Sublime

They're just about to release their first single on England's Transparent Records, but I'm already more excited about the producer Holy Other than anything in a long while.  The single's contents can (as is now the style) be heard entirely online at their myspace page, where I also recommend you check out the forty-minute "Sunshrine Mix" - I can't tell if this is some sort of screwtape/remix thing, or an actual 40 minutes of unreleased material.  Regardless, the songs YR LOVE and We Over are individually two of the most weirdly beautiful tracks I've ever heard, mining the same dusty/ghostly/bassy/darkgroove territory as producers like Forest Swords (album also coming out soon, sadly apparently only on CD).  Holy Other are getting compared a bit to Burial, which seems to me right in spirit but wrong on technical aspects - this doesn't feel like dance music, not even deconstructed and "experimentalized" dance music - in terms of rhythm and structure, if not sound, it's mining a decidedly rockier vein.  Specifically, there's a lot in common with shoegaze bands like Ride, Slowdive, and (not quite in that group, I guess) My Bloody Valentine.  The fact that it's all done by one guy, probably on a laptop, is still interesting, but by now I imagine that's pretty secondary. 

Holy Other 'Yr Love' from FAMILY on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pigeon Artist

It is right now 7am or something in Nakano, the sun coming up and telling us that all good boys should have been in bed.  You know, some time ago.  Instead I was in Roppongi until six a.m.  Towards the end I helped pile a half-coherent fifty year old political scientist into a cab as two Japanese women who'd joined us vaguely described his destination to the driver and we all crossed our fingers.  We refueled and exchanged phone numbers.  The best new friendships are born under fire.

But even better, as I walked back from Nakano station to Arai, along some half-paved side road,  I saw a man performing magic.  He was on top of an apartment block, waving a green, yellow, and red signal flag.  And as he waved the flag, a flock of pigeons moved around him, with infinite grace, like tamed lightning. They circled the building's top, again and again.  I stood and watched for ten, fifteen minutes, the very early morning traffic moving around me.  This was something practically supernatural, the mundane fabric of the city flicked to one side to reveal an oddity, creatures out of fantasy, made real through vision and not a little discipline - this must have taken decades to master. I was listening to this band called Dr. Dog who make sad and beautiful music, and it all added up to a truly amazing moment.

(Photo courtesy of Paz's New York Minute - very sadly, I didn't have my camera.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Koreans in the Midst: Korean National Identity in Japan

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of two amateur films about the situation of Korean-Japanese, or Zainichi.  One of those films can be seen online (Japanese only):

Before discussing the film itself, there are a few things worth noting. This is not some jingoistic pro-Korean film, but even still it stands out from the truly dark background of widespread Japanese attitudes.  I actually had trouble finding this video after the event, because a search for "Korean High School" turns up mostly angry screeds by right-wingers.  Even among those who have found this video, a number of the comments are ambiguous and even hostile; some are simply along the lines of "go back to Korea," but others show the notable subtlety of Japanese racism.  For instance, one guy argues that all Zainichi couldn't possibly be descendants of forced laborers from the WWII era, implying that they're somehow inflating historical wrongs for personal gain (a favorite trope of the Japanese right). I haven't yet read the best-selling hate manga "Against Koreans," but I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the elaborate 'theories' laid out in it.

The film deepens the image of Japan as shockingly regressive in its attunement to the situation.  On the one hand, the opening montage of young people shows how scant actual knowledge about the situation of the Zainichi is among average Japanese. In fact, as came up in discussion after the viewing, many Japanese aren't even aware that the Zainichi exist.  It's not quite fair to make the comparison to the awakening of America to the problem of minority rights - the Zainichi situation is much more recent - but it's still jarring to hear people in a modern nation profess this kind of ignorance.  Also extremely strange is that it was deemed necessary to offer masks or other means of hiding the identity of so many of the participants. The subject is genuinely inflammatory, especially to an extreme and sometimes violent fringe, but the idea that speaking about it would be either embarrassing or dangerous is, again, completely foreign to my American mindset.

But the film also demonstrates a lot about the Zainichi population that could be deemed to contribute to the problem.  First and foremost, it really is amazing that the Japanese government is funding high schools within its own borders that indoctrinate Japanese permanent residents to follow a military opponent of Japan. It's convenient for the Japanese right to obscure both the differences between North and South and the history - North Korea didn't actually exist when most Zainichi families were first brought to Japan - but I can certainly understand where the outrage is coming from. 

More subtly, the Zainichi given the chance to speak in the film express a range of personal opinions that are probably difficult for some Japanese to hear without flinching. Like most expatriate communities, it's clear they still have great loyalty to their homeland. And the association of Zainichi who have at least some sympathy for the North (Chongryon) promote an active anti-integrationist agenda, encouraging members to renounce any possibility of Japanese citizenship, as well as the right to vote. In the U.S., this is much less of an issue because the political tensions pulling on immigrants are largely insignificant, but try this one on for size - would Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S. be nearly as fun if Mexico was firing test rockets over Florida?  Or, more to the point - how about a Muslim cultural center?

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of any concept, on either side of the debate, separating nationality from citizenship, or more generally, of multiculturalism.  Korean activist groups (whether affiliated with North or South) consider accepting Japanese citizenship as synonymous with abandoning Korean identity, leaving Zainichi with a rather grim choice.  While international politics continues to make Zainichi its unfortunate playthings, even sudden peace with the North wouldn't solve the underlying problem - how do we reconcile the reality of the mobile 20th century (to say nothing of the 21st) with mindsets unable to approach national identity as something complex and multidimensional?

Soul Flower Union - Traditional Instruments, Contemporary Pop

One thing I've been paying attention to lately is the apparent rise in interest in Japanese traditional musical culture among young alterna-punks.  This takes a lot of forms, including the institutionalized re-emergence of Japanese classical music as part of the curriculum at schools like Geidai, and also grass-roots stuff like pop bands integrating older instruments into traditional pop songs.  For instance, here's the band Soul Flower Union:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tsukuba, Science Nightmare

I spent last night in Tsukuba, about an hour and a half northeast of Tokyo.  The landscape out there is a pretty mind-boggling contrast to Tokyo - huge, empty spaces, darkness, and six-lane roads. So late at night, it was like being on the moon or the north pole, empty and silent and oddly beautiful.  In that way, it's not far off from my hometown of Dallas/Fort Worth.  And oddly, there was a hip hop club there, a small place called Sol Y Luna, where I was lucky enough to see Nanorunamonai of Origami.  It felt a lot more like going to a club in the U.S. than anything in Tokyo - for instance, people were actually hanging out outside of the club, which pretty much never happens in town.  Still, I couldn't help being pretty bemused by the American guy trying to tell me how great it was to live in Tsukuba.  It didn't take me long to find the great side of living in Iowa, however remote - but my instincts all those years ago telling me to get the hell out of Fort Worth were absolutely spot on.  These places that are neither fruitfully urban - that is, not multi-use, walkable, and vibrant - nor truly rural, places that have been built to look like cities but are really just places for people to use their cars, are genuinely the worst accomplishments of human civilization.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Delusions and Dreams of Tokyo

In Freud's essay, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva," he analyzes an uncanny short story about an archaeologist who becomes obsessed by a woman seen in a reproduced Roman plaque.  He imagines that she died in Pompeii, and his semi-delusional obsession becomes so great that he leaves for Italy.  Inevitably drawn to Pompeii, he is stunned to actually encounter the girl from the plaque - not a delusion, but an actual woman - in the place he had prepared for her in his imagination. It is eventually revealed that the woman he discovers is a childhood love whose memory he had repressed and redirected onto the plaque, whose image resembled her.

The essay is relatively early (1906) and the parallelism of psychoanalysis and archaeology continue t proliferate in Freud's subsequent work.  Jensen's story certainly resonated with Freud so powerfully because of its simple but powerful point: that we always find what we are looking for.  Without knowing it, the protagonist is guided along paths set for him long ago, and while in this case the ending is happy - he overcomes his sexual repression and the two characters find happiness - this still has the character of a compulsive symptom, no different from hysteria or neurosis.

What catches me even more effectively, though, is the image of Pompeii, the ultimate uncanny catastrophe, in which a city was simultaneously destroyed and preserved for all time.  There is no modern disaster that fits this mold better than the destruction of Japan during World War II.  In some cases, this preserved destruction is of the same, physical sort - think of the Peace Dome in Hiroshima, or even more the outlines of bomb victims engraved on concrete walls.  But there is simultaneously a mediated preservation - we can still watch films of the firebombing of Tokyo as it turns from routine disaster to complete conflagration.

In Tokyo, these preservations tend to be totally overlain, one might say repressed, by the reality of the modern city.  But they are always there - whenever I get into a conversation with a person over 60, and mention any aspect of Tokyo as a city, the firebombing is sure to be mentioned.  It is cited as the reason there are relatively few large trees in the city.  It is (more certainly) the reason so much of it seems cheaply and hastily assembled.  Its memory, in a negative form, is physically present at every point on the map.  And this is to say nothing of the real memories that still persist among older people, many of whom starved for years following the war.

Around and through these memories flow the present - but the boundaries are never quite clear.  Just as Jensen's archaeologist eventually found the present through the past, the long graven shadows of the firebombing, however persistent, can only point towards the future. Japan's obsession with history, while objectively justifiable, has not yet recognized itself as a struggle over the present.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meditation Retreats

I'm close to missing the best time - Fall - but hopefully at one point or another I'll take advantage of one or more of these:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Talking to you is like talking to a Japanese person."

I ran into a friend of mine last night.  He's a Japanese guy, about my age, with a very cool job - he's a street calligrapher.  I haven't yet seen him in action, but as he described it to me, he talks to people for three or four minutes, then, using elaborate Japanese script and high-quality ink and paper, produces works that attempt to capture the essence of the person.  So, he's something like a mix of palm reader and poetic caricature artist

I'll be posting more about him and his interesting job soon. Last night, he was set up to do a few hours of work on Nakano Broadway, the shoutengai [shopping arcade] that I walk through on my way home from the station. I was headed home from school and feeling a little sick, so we didn't talk for long, but apropos of almost nothing, he told me that "talking to you is like talking to a Japanese person." He wasn't referring to my language skills - our conversations are usually a mix of English and Japanese.  He said it was more about my character or nature.

Such a strange thing to say to a person.  He's traveled abroad extensively, and I met him because he used to work at a guest house with a large foreign clientele, so he has pretty good grounds for comparison. I didn't press him on the issue, but just from what I feel about myself, I would hope he was referring to my somewhat reserved nature, my reflectiveness.  Of course, these are more ideals of Japanese identity than realities - practically speaking, he could equally well have meant that I was a falling-down drunk who hated his life, or that I was shallow Jersey Shore-esque Egg Man. Both of these are pretty uniquely Japanese, or at least could be seen as such.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Japanese Newspaper Marketing

Japanese newspapers are doing considerably better than their American counterparts, though their circulations are still falling fast.  I just found out firsthand one reason for this - aggressive door to door marketing tactics.  I was just offered a case of beer and two bags of rice if I signed up for a minimum of three months with Yomiuri Shinbun.  This is the third time (in two months!) I've had a door to door salesman offering me the newspaper, but this was the first guy who wouldn't be put off by the fact that I don't read Japanese that well.  He was keen to let me know that Yomiuri Shinbun doesn't use kanji beyond the sixth grade level (that is, beyond the 2000 kanji considered standard) and that it would be good practice for me.  And he actually carted in the beer and food, making it that much more difficult for me to turn him down.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freeter Buys a House/ フリータ、家を買う: Welcome to Ideology

In America, cultural critics have generally become used to having to really work to show how cultural products reinforce norms or bad habits.  Often enough, there's a real dialogue about whether something is 'good' or 'bad' for the culture, or for building a more just and egalitarian society.  With its extremely sophisticated and competitive media market, and a jaded populace that tends to look askance at any message that's too straightforward, America tends to produce a lot of stuff that winks, nods, and ultimately means something totally different than it initially seems to.

That's not how things seem to work in Japan, at least not in the very conservative world of television.  Even a semi-satirical show like Bengoushi no Kuzu literally ends each episode with a moral lesson. Next up in the ideology sweepstakes is Furiitaa, Ie wo Kau - "Freeter Buys a House." According to the synopsis, this is the story of a kid who gets a job out of college, but hates his boss and quits. He can't find a new one, but begins stringing together part-time jobs, becoming a freeter (a Japanese term meaning, more or less, full-time part-timer). This causes his family - particularly his father - mounting distress. His mother protects and cares for him, until one day his sister can't take it anymore and berates him about the stress he's so inconsiderately causing everyone around him.  He has a revelation and decides to dedicate himself fully not just to finding a full-time job, but to saving the 100 man yen (1 million) needed to buy himself a house and, presumably, become a grown-up.

The show's premise reflects a common, damaging trope of contemporary dialogues about Freeter - that the employment problems increasingly bedeviling Japan's youth are due to their own moodiness, laziness, and unwillingness to sacrifice. Look at the poster above - his loutish ways are literally tearing the family apart! I haven't read the book, and we'll see how the show itself develops, but don't be surprised if this becomes another forum for beating up young people as scapegoats for macroeconomic and institutional problems.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

So Far. Thanks primarily to my new membership in a private torrent tracker that shall remain nameless, and the fact that I graduated and have more free time now, this has been my biggest music year in a long time.  This is a very personal list, just what I'm listening to a lot, not encompassing everything that I consider "Good."

1. How to Dress Well: Love Remains
2. Pocahaunted: Make it Real (Heavy rotation for months)
3. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
4. Die Antwoord: $0$ (Original version, I haven't heard the commercial release yet)
5. Yeasayer: Odd Blood
6. Philip Jeck: An Ark For the Listener
7. Emeralds: Does it Look Like I'm Here
8. Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (I only just got this, but I have a feeling it's a grower)
9. Twin Shadow: Forget

Umm, looks like I only have nine.  Luckily there's plenty more time left to get this polished up.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kanji - Violent Language

Practicing Kanji is a constant reminder of the fact that language is how we mediate between our violent natures and our desire for at least temporary peace.  For instance, the word for "policy," 政策 (seisaku), combines the symbol for government, which literally derives from "correct with a hand," and the symbol for "plan," which derives from the idea of long strips of wood or bamboo being used to whip a horse (that is, as a way to guide it).  And of course, all policies are ultimately enforced by the implicit threat of violence, aren't they?

Obakemono thanx

Some fine fellow posting as Quailo over at the Obakemono forums has photoshopped my translations below onto a much better scan from Pink Tentacle. Now that, my friends, is what I call teamwork.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Yokai Autopsy 1: The Blackhair Cutter

As promised, I'm working on translations of Shigeru Mizuki's "Yokai Autopsy" Book.  This is really my first time translating anything, so I'm learning as I go, but I'm too much of a writer not to have taken some creative liberties.  Also, my apologies for the iffy image quality - I'll be looking for a scanner.  In the meantime, you can click through to get a larger version of the image from Flickr.

Here's the first one, the Kurokami Kiri, or "Blackhair Cutter":


(Note: Sorry for the wonky formatting below - I can't figure out how to fix it.)

Opening Text (Top Right): The Blackhair Cutter stealthily chases dark-haired women who travel by night, cutting their hair without ever being noticed.  Noone has ever seen the form of the Blackhair Cutter.

Inset: Magnified Diagram of the Black Tongue: Small Prickles emerge from its surface, easily holding on to hair.

Kitaro (Main character of GeGeGe no Kitaro, who appears throughout this book to provide commentary and jokes): "So it's like a trap tongue?"

Inset: The Black Nails: From the center of each finger emerge nails like razors.

Daddy Eyeball (from the cast of Kitaro): "I don't have black hair!"

Inset, Bottom of Right Page: The Blackhair Cutter lives at the edge of drainage ditches.

Rat Man (ditto): "Ditches, eh? He's dirtier than me!"

Anatomy (Clockwise from top left):

Scroll Tongue: Extends quickly to wrap up hair.

Black Brain: A dense organ occupied with trickery and the pursuit of women.

Sleeping Powder Holder: The powder produced here is blown out of the monster's mouth, and he cuts their hair while they sleep.

Black Heart: Pumps hair pigment around the monster's body.

Stomach: The stomach is small and easily filled, so the monster throws away hair that it can't eat.

Hair-Breaking Bowels: The Blackhair Cutter's digestive organ sends the nourishment and pigment from hair to the heart.

Strong Pelvis: The pelvis supports the heavy body.

Pummelling Guts: The guts are called into action to break up the hard-to-digest hair.

Strong Acid Pouch: Produces juice for dissolving hair, which it secretes to the guts.

So, in summary: A yeti-like creature who chloroforms women and eats their hair.  I'll refrain for now from digging too deep into the sexual connotations of this construct, or even less the connotations of a Black Brain occupied with trickery and the pursuit of women.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Darkness at the Edge of Rap: On the Death of Eyedea

Update: Some personal sources from MN are saying that apparently the death was by overdose. The exact words were "accidental overdose," but just how "accidental" these things are is always hard to pin down one way or the other. Again, though, my speculation below has more to do with what his music represented than the literal truth of whatever happened to him.

I only saw Eyedea perform once, opening for Atmosphere in 2001 or so.  I was mostly impressed by the mind-boggling DJ Abilities, who would go on to make one of the definitive contributions to turntablism on Fantastic Damage.  If Eyedea was always a little too conventional for my taste, that just shows how far to the edges those tastes tend to run - with his lightning-fast sprints and poetic flights, Eyedea sat right between conventional backpacker rap and the experimental stuff that remains my main jam to this day. He is, though, the first big death out of that cadre of rappers (who would have thought he'd be outlived by Cage?), so today's news really means something to me.

To treat him first as an individual: Though at the moment there's no news about cause of death, I'm willing to bet he killed himself.  That kind of speculation may be out of place, but just think about his records. They had a pretty dark vibe overall, from the resentful bitterness of Firstborn to explicit references to overdosing on E and A.  And his aggression was always a bit of the Holden Caulfield, angry-at-the-world variety (He was really young, but "Birth of a Fish" from Firstborn exemplifies this). The photos of him with his hair draped over his eyes seemed fully fitting. Some powerful art came out of whatever demons haunted him, but as in all these cases we have to ask whether it was worth it.  Even if it turns out he didn't take his own life, those records were probably made by someone who struggled with depression, anxiety, and resentment. Serious artists in the business of looking at society are so often driven at least a little over the edge by the exercise.

But beyond that pure speculation, I wonder whether Eyedea's death can be considered a kind of convenient period at the end of the whole experimental/backpacker scene that flourished in the early part of the 2000s.  The only really interesting and relevant records that have come out of that scene recently have been Why?s, and of course those are not rap records.  The really good rap records these days have a much less serious vibe than what Eyedea was involved with in his heyday, and it's a shame (with the notable exception recently being Black Milk's Album of the Year). We also lost Rammellzee recently, and if anyone should remind us of the depression, shadow, and weirdness at the heart of hip hop, it was him.  Eyedea was a child of Ramm, without question, and the fact that they went pretty close together is . . . well, Eyedea himself would probably say it was a coincidence in a cold and uncaring universe, while Ramm is probably on high doing the numerology of their respective end dates right now.

For whatever reason, and as harsh as it may sound, Eyedea died as the style he worked hard to champion was at a low ebb.  Or is it?  The same energy, and the same hype, is now surrounding weirdo R&B groups like Twin Shadow and How to Dress Well, who crack open the shiny, often upbeat core of R. Kelly Songs and George Michael crooning to find the darkness and even dread within.  And you'll notice one thing - on balance, the artists making the cleaner, more commercialized versions of both hip hop and R&B tend to be black, while the people deconstructing those genres and making them more difficult tend to be white (yes, that's a generalization. Sorry).  I think part of it is that more white artists have the ability to let their art live at the relative margins, while a lot of black artists feel the drive to hit the very top of the industry, and are willing to clean up what they're really feeling.  As crazy as this sounds, what artists like Eyedea were doing was, at least in part, rescuing the really dark, painful, even twisted roots of black music - the pain of being black in America - from the cleaning up, or on the other hand hyperexaggeration, it often got from the music industry.

So, that's my overthought exploitation of a real man's very sad death. If your life's work is to interpret America - and if you're a rapper, that's your job description - and you take it seriously, you will confront darkness at every turn.  Eyedea did that for us, so spend some time enjoying his work and considering the depths that it came from.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tokyo Journal 2: Hobbyist Nation

For a minute last night I thought there was some sort of brutal brawl going down in the park down the street from me.  As I got closer, I realized it was just several pairs of young men working on their (typically loud and mock-violent) comedy routines.  Everywhere you go, there are people playing saxophone in bicycle parking lots or doing karate on side streets. For such a cramped place, they make the most of it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Japanese Horror-Ween 2: Fuyuko Matsui

Note: I'm now blogging at  It's more attractive, and it focuses more on cool stuff like noisey music, weird art, and fiction.  Check it out!

Fuyuko Matsui (or, in Japanese, Matsui Fuyuko) is a young and fast-rising Japanese artist who produces images that are both explicitly gruesome in a very modern way, and moody, dark, and subtle in the tradition of a certain kind of Japanese ghost story. She is known almost as much for being beautiful and putting a lot of work into self-presentation as she is as an artist - she shows up on the cover of magazines much as would actresses in the U.S.  Naturally, her fame is based on drawings of ghost dogs ripping the living flesh from screaming women:

To see even more, including undead snakes, for chrissakes, try her official site as well as this strangely meticulous livejournal entry (do people still use that?).

I'm really of two minds on Matsui.  As a genre fan, her work is mind-blowing - it's smart, meticulous, titillating, and disgusting.  It takes you to another world just as effectively as the work of people like Rom Villaseran or Brecht Vandenbrouke (see, you learned about THREE artists today!).  But I think that ultimately it's genre work, not Art with a capital DEEP, and the idea that she's some kind of celebrity is a little disquieting.  I don't gather that she's really of the Andy Warhol/Lady Gaga school, where her fame is somehow meta-commentary, and it seems unlikely that such gruesome work would form the foundation for fame if she wasn't also a pretty lady. But nonetheless - this is some great work for those of us with morbid minds.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yokai Autopsy! Shigeru Mizuki makes every day Halloween.

Do they know it's Halloween in Japan? You're god damn right they do.  Though it doesn't seem as out of control as things tend to be in the States, there are displays of conventional Halloween goods in most every housewares store, and even better, bookstores are featuring the work of Japan's spookiest manga-ka, Shigeru Mizuki.  Mizuki might be the most famous manga artist to remain largely unknown in the states - his Gegege no Kitaro has been made into anime every year since it appeared in 1959, and I there's a new live-action film coming out soon (if you've ever complained about constant remakes in the U.S., be thankful you're not Japanese).  

Gegege is the story of a ghost-boy who works to defend humans from yokai, traditional Japanese ghosts, goblins, and demons. I've never actually read Gegege, but I found something even better.


The publisher's blurb describes it as a book of "Monster Autopsies," which is exactly what it sounds like - diagrams of internal organs and natural weapons of yokai, along with descriptions of their abilities.

There's no way I was passing this up - there's nothing I love more than a fantasy bestiary. I haven't played Dungeons and Dragons since I was 13, but I could still sit for hours reading through the Monster Manual.  And Barlowe's Guide to Extra-Terrestrials was a completely mind-altering experience for me as a kid. There's just something about getting technical with fantastic creatures, providing plausible explanations for their freakiness, that really does it for me. And the yokai Mizuki chronicles are genuinely freaky.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Japan's Lost Decade through Economic vs. Culture-Tinted Lenses

I recently found the very interesting New Deal 2.0 blog, thanks to this post by Marshall Auerback. I find the content in itself - mostly an overview of recent Japanese monetary policy - fairly interesting.  But what really intrigues me is that this is billed as "What Happened to Japan" - that is, a kind of definitive statement of the last 20-odd years of disappointment.  Auerback provides enough economic data to make this a convincing claim, at least for a blog post - but only if you accept the centrality of central banking to macroeconomics.

I, of course, have a tendency to see things in a different light. I don't have ready to hand the stats that would back my assessment up (disdain for math being essential to my intellectual identity), but the ideas that surface again and again when I talk to Japanese people or read about the situation is that the economy has been crippled as much by cultural problems as economic policy.  Paramount among these is the inflexibility of the Japanese labor market, especially for educated young people.  I spoke last night to a guy in his mid-40s who lamented the fate of Japanese now entering their thirties, who had had the bad luck to graduate from college at a low point among low points.  I cited to him some statistics I'd heard recently saying things were rough for low-ebb graduates in the States, too, who needed 20 years on average to match the earning power of those lucky enough to graduate at high tide.

"Well, that would be great!" he marvelled.  "In Japan, if you get stuck on that lower rung, there's no way out, at all." He described what he saw as the lingering power of privilege and luck, rather than skill and performance over time, in determining who was hired and retained by prestigious Japanese firms.  As years go by, the sometimes ineffective, entrenched workers, who are keeping jobs from potentially more skilled or educated people continuing their part-time work as convenience store clerks, weaken their companies from within.  He also described the lack of immigration keeping educated and talented Japanese in "3D" jobs - Dangerous, Dirty, and Dull . . . though interestingly he sort of couched this as a good aspect of a low-immigration and egalitarian society.  This is not to mention, of course, the persistent love of Japanese corporate culture towards inefficient overwork for show.

Like I said, I don't have empirical evidence to back up these claims, except to the degree that my conversations with Japanese workers are that.  It's at least a widely spread perception, though, that Japanese corporate culture, and the system of social sorting more generally, is broken. Now, everyone hates their jobs, I know, but the real clincher here is that the people I talk to are eager to move to the U.S. because they perceive both work and daily life there are easier - and these are people who have lived in the U.S. and seen its complexity up close, and are well aware of the problems of social inequality.

I don't mean to suggest Auerback is wrong - I know enough economic history to grant the importance of central bank policy.  I just think it's interesting to compare my drastically different perspective.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

International Transport Vol. 1: Slowly Summoning the Motivation to Kill Yourself Quickly

Two things have happened to me recently.  I've moved to Japan, and my interest in music has returned to just about the highest level since I was an undergrad.  I think it's the removal of the pressure of school - I can actually have feelings again.  So, in celebration of my return to the world of semi-normalcy, I'm planning on putting together occasional mixes - specifically, for the purpose of showcasing Western underground music to my Japanese friends, and in turn, Japanese music to my Western friends. The first one runs from West to East . . . or actually, from East to . . . wow, these geographical labels really don't work well.  Anyway, it's a collection of dubstep, electro-pop, and fuzzy post-soul, all of it cold, melancholy, or some combination of the two.

In Japanese, very roughly:国際通商、第一目:自殺教育

Minds Like Knives, International Transport Volume 1