“Midnight Diner” and “Sparks;” Two Compelling Netflix Shows from Japan

February 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

Kaoru Kobayashi in "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories"

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in "Sparks"

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in “Sparks”

One of the bright spots of the past couple of months has been my discovery of two new Japanese series on Netflix, both excellent. Both shows are based on books: “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (“Shinya Shukudou“) on a manga (graphic novel) series, and “Sparks” (“Hibana“) on a novel. Season One for both series is available on Netflix, and both will continue.

“Midnight Diner,” takes place in one of the countless small, owner-operated restaurants located on side streets throughout Tokyo. What distinguishes this one is its hours–midnight to 7am–and its owner, a handsome, stoic man known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Master’s facial scar and bearing suggest a mysterious past as a sword fighter, though it is never discussed. In his current life, Master is a talented cook who runs a tight ship: only one item on the menu but endless possibilities, based on ingredients he is given or has at hand. And though diverse viewpoints are welcome in the diner, there’s no fighting allowed.

Each episode is named for a different dish, most of which evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who order them. In “Corn Dog,” an old, washed- up comedian continues to treat his former protégé, now a successful TV actor, as his lackey. In “Tan-Men” (a kind of ramen), an actress-turned-chauffeur meets a late night D.J., who later recognizes her as the superhero idol of his youth. “Ham Cutlet” follows a soon-to-be-retired lawyer and his long-lost stepbrother who is fighting eviction from a city-owned apartment building.

Though each episode features different people, a core group of regulars provide both color and continuity. They include bar hostesses, two men who dress as women and a group of ladies who are either insomniacs or office workers on the night shift. Though separated by gender, sexual orientation and income, all are loyal to Master, who observes the action and offers sage counsel.

There’s a beautiful melancholy to the series that is at once universal and very Japanese. Watching it, I felt as if Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Hopper and the writers of “Cheers” had gotten together to make “Midnight Diner;” it’s that good.

Less accessible but no less fascinating is “Sparks,” which follows a two sets of Manzai stand-up comedians as their careers rise and fall. Manzai, which originated during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) but is strongly identified with Osaka during the Meji Era, involves rapid-fire bantering between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).

When the series opens, the young boke protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), and his partner arrive in Atami, a seaside resort city, to perform at its summer festival. Though they bomb, Tokunaga strikes up a fateful friendship with Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), the boke of an older, more skillful duo, and quickly becomes his protégé. As the series progresses, Tokunaga’s star rises while Kamiya’s falls, changing but not destroying their friendship, which (like those in “Midnight Diner”) is cemented over restaurant meals.

For Japanese speakers, “Sparks” offers a bonus: it’s a crash course in slang-laden, Kansai dialect, male Japanese. For everyone else, it’s a bromance that sheds light on an ancient but still vital Japanese comedy tradition. Although it took me a few episodes to get hooked on it, I’m looking forward to Season Two.

Remembering Carrie Fisher

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher in 2013


Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.

The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.

Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.

Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.

It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.

Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.

Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

Radical Solutions For Loneliness in Two German Films: “Wild” and “Aloys”

October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lilith Stangenberg in "Wild"

Lilith Stangenberg in “Wild”

Georg Friedrich in "Aloys"

Georg Friedrich in “Aloys”

Though there may be some bad German films I’ve never seen one, which is remarkable given the number I’ve watched over the last thirty years. This past week’s German Currents brought to Los Angeles eight recent features and a documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose huge oeuvre (forty-four films in the eighteen frenetic years before his death, in 1982, at thirty-seven) was my gateway into modern German cinema.

Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.

In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.

Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.

Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.

The Joy of Watching Movies Alone

August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

222px-Interno_di_un_sala_da_cinema
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”

There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.

Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.

Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.

Remembering Beachwood Canyon’s Spectacular Production of “Julius Caesar,” One Hundred Years Later

May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Photos of the "Julius Caesar" Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

Photos of the “Julius Caesar” Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

May 19th, 2016 marked the centennial of what is surely the biggest production of “Julius Caesar” in history. It was performed just once by a cast of five thousand for an audience of up to forty thousand. (Because of ticket scalping, no one knows for sure how many people saw it.) The location was the natural amphitheater where Beachwood Village and Hollywoodland now stand.

The production was both a celebration of Shakespeare’s birth and a benefit for the Actors’ Fund, and starred such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, William Farnum and the young Mae Murray. A fuller account can be found in these posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/when-shakespeare-came-to-beachwood-canyon-julius-caesar-1916/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/julius-caesar-at-the-hollywood-bowl-stills-from-the-1922-production/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/death-at-the-1916-julius-caesar-a-news-account/

Last night’s commemoration in Beachwood Village featured the local historian Greg Williams and the actor Stephen Fry, who read the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Act III.

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Because a fully built neighborhood now stands where the sets and stands were located, it’s a challenge to visualize the 1916 production, which featured chariot races, gladiator fights and dancing girls, as well as hundreds of extras recruited from Hollywood High School and Fairfax High School. But “Julius Caesar” was performed here to critical success, and the fact that it drew such a crowd should dispel the notion of early 20th century Los Angeles as a cultural backwater.

“Norwegian Wood”: Film Versus Novel

April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in "Norwegian Wood"

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in “Norwegian Wood”

The standard rule about cinematic adaptations holds that good novels make bad movies and bad novels make good movies. This makes sense, since so much of what happens in good novels is confined to the characters’ minds, while most of what happens in bad ones happens outside them, and thus is entirely filmable. But this wisdom hasn’t really been true since two wonderful literary novels, The Remains of the Day and The English Patient, were made into excellent films. (As for the other part of the equation–bad novels making good movies–I don’t know, but then again I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, or see the movie.)

Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.

The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.

Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)

Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”

Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:

Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.

Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outré moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.

*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.

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