“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.

“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.

Remembering 3/11: Japan’s Triple Disaster, Five Years Later

March 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since the night I watched the horrifying footage of the Tohoku coastline being destroyed by tsunami. The earthquake that caused the waves measured 9.0 on the Richter scale: it was the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan and fourth most powerful recorded earthquake in the world. Nearly 20,000 people died in Tohoku that day, including some on trains that simply vanished when the tsunami struck.

Then came the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity. Residents of the twelve-mile-radius evacuation zone were resettled in other areas; as cleanup is estimated to take forty years, they are unlikely ever to return home.

In the aftermath of this unprecedented triple disaster, it was impossible to know how quickly Japan would recover, or even if it would. If the earthquake’s epicenter had been in Kanto, it would have been a different story, as Tokyo would have suffered the brunt of the damage. But Tohoku is considerably less populated–think New England versus the New York metropolitan area. Another reason for Japan’s recovery is its institutional strength: thanks to a strong central government and well-developed prefectural and local governments, debris was quickly cleared and roads, railway lines repaired in record time. All of the region’s many ports were operational within the year.

Though the Daiichi plant continues to leak radioactive water, today there are few reminders of the disaster outside Tohoku. When I went back to Japan on vacation in 2013, I found both Tokyo and Kyoto more opulent and overrun by tourists than ever before. Each year has brought record numbers of visitors to Japan, and in 2020 Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games for the second time.

As heartening as these developments are, I haven’t forgotten what happened on 3/11 and never will. Here are two posts I wrote immediately after that terrible day five years ago:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/physically-in-hollywood-mentally-in-japan/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/not-about-hollywood-or-filmmaking-tips-for-surviving-a-big-earthquake/

His Other Brilliant Career: Remembering David Bowie’s Acting

January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

"The Hunger" (with Catherine Deneuve)

“The Hunger” (with Catherine Deneuve)

"Basquiat" (with Dennis Hopper)

“Basquiat” (with Dennis Hopper)

Like countless others, I was stunned and deeply saddened by David Bowie’s death; nearly two weeks later, I’m still processing the fact that he’s gone. Although I only saw Bowie in concert once, his music permeated my life, providing an indelible soundtrack that began in my childhood and ended with the newly released “Blackstar,” a stunning coda to his 50-year career as a musician, singer and songwriter. (Since this is a film blog, I won’t write a dissertation on his music, but a brief reminiscence of mine appears here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/arts/music/thank-you-mr-bowie-you-changed-our-lives.html?&moduleDetail=section-news4&action=click&contentCollection=Music&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article&_r=0

During the 1970s, as he released a torrent of albums and shape-shifted from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, David Bowie began to appear in leading roles in notable films. Although I had assumed Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976) was his screen debut, it wasn’t: he had appeared in a handful of English films and TV shows before it, beginning in 1967. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” established David Bowie as a serious actor, rather than a rock star dabbling in movies. In it, Bowie is the quintessential alien, but his performance is nuanced and at times quite funny–my strongest memory of the film is of him singing off-key in church, not an easy thing for a singer with excellent pitch.

Over the next 30 years, Bowie went on to appear many more features–23 in all–along with numerous shorts, TV shows, documentaries and music videos. He made his Broadway debut in “The Elephant Man,” (1980), the first rock star to appear on Broadway in a drama. (His performance was pronounced “splendid” by the New York Times.) He was a pioneer of music videos, putting out filmed performances of his songs before MTV existed, as well as two of the most famous videos ever broadcast (“Let’s Dance” and “Ashes to Ashes.”)

Though not all of Bowie’s movies are good, a number of them– including “Just a Gigolo,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners”–are, and showcase his skill and range as an actor. One of my favorites is Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), in which he plays Andy Warhol. Although Bowie doesn’t nail Warhol’s accent–his English r’s creep in–he captures the artist’s odd way of mumbling out of one side of his mouth, as well as the diffidence that was his most striking characteristic. It’s an amazing performance, and the fact that Bowie’s fame as a musician already matched Warhol’s as a visual artist makes it mind-bending.

In 2006, Bowie’s played Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige.” In his remembrance the director Christopher Nolan wrote, “[David Bowie] seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be.” After 30-year feature film career in which he famously played an alien, a soldier, a goblin king and a vampire, David Bowie’s last movie character, fittingly, was closest to himself: a genius of invention whose work is eternal.

Setsuko Hara, One of the World’s Great Actresses, Is Dead at 95

November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Setsuko Hara

Setsuko Hara

Although Setsuko Hara passed away on September 5th, her death was not announced until today. Retired from acting and public life since 1962, Hara maintained “a Garbo-like silence” (as Variety put it) for over five decades. She lived in Kamakura, Japan, where many of her most famous films–those directed by Yasujiro Ozu–were set.

In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/setsuko-hara-ozus-muse-forever-young/

Paper Houses: On Writing About Japanese Architecture

August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma's Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Although I started Under the Hollywood Sign to write about film, both the ones I’ve made and those I admire, from time to time I’ve written about architecture, particularly that of Los Angeles as seen in “Blade Runner,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Mad Men.” Recently I finished a novel whose protagonists are both architects. And this month I’ve been writing about Japanese architecture for the online design magazine HOUZZ (www.houzz.com).

Although I have no formal training in architecture, I’ve been studying it my entire adult life. I also had the good fortune to grow up in an architecturally significant mid-century house in Tokyo. Designed by the French-Czech architect Antonin Raymond, the house was a hybrid, a mostly western-style house that contained such Japanese features as a genkan (step-up entryway) a tokonoma (display alcove) and tsuboniwa (courtyard gardens). It was the only house I knew and I loved every inch of it, but it didn’t belong to my family. After we left Japan, it was torn down and replaced by an apartment building, which was later torn down and replaced by a much larger apartment building that obliterated what remained of the garden. Today the only reminder of my childhood home is its driveway. Yet the house lives on in my mind, indelible though it was demolished forty years ago.

During our years in Tokyo, my family made biannual visits to the United States. Each time someone would ask me, “Do you live in a paper house?” No matter how strenuously I said no, that person would insist, “we learned it in school–Japanese houses are made of wood and paper.” Somehow shoji, the wood and paper room dividers of traditional Japanese houses, were interpreted as structural materials to generations of American children.

While it’s been a long time since anyone has asked me whether I lived in a paper house, today I’m constantly confronted by “zen.” Used in English to describe anything even vaguely Japanese or minimalist, the term is as wrong as it is ubiquitous. Zen is an esoteric sect of Buddhism, and its use beyond specific temples and gardens is as discordant as “Jewish” and “Christian” would be if they were used to describe architecture and interior design.

Of course I realize the odds against my stopping the misuse of Zen. But in writing about real Japanese architecture–as opposed to “japanese-y” architecture–I can at least try.

Links to my first two articles for HOUZZ:

Other writing on architecture:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/BLADE-RUNNER–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/07/27/500-days-of-summer-and-its-real-star-downtown-los-angeles/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/the-jet-set-house-frank-sinatras-glass-hideaway-in-chatsworth/https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/marie-russak-hotchenor-and-moorcrest-the-theosophist-opera-singer-and-her-architectural-fantasia/

Visiting Hello Kitty Con and “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” at JANM

November 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Though I grew up in her homeland, I came late to the charms of Hello Kitty, a serious lapse of my instincts for pop culture phenomena. How did I miss Kitty’s future ubiquity as Japan’s ambassador of kawaii? Probably because I was jaded by my Tokyo years, which featured a delightful stream of childish novelties: toys, stickers, candies and rice crackers in seasonal shapes (e.g., cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, umbrellas). Japan also celebrated (and still does) three children’s holidays–Children’s Day, Doll Festival, 7-5-3 Day–surely a record unmatched by any other country.
Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum

Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum


Against this backdrop of national cuteness, Hello Kitty’s debut in 1974 was not earthshaking news. In fact, because my family had moved to the United States two years earlier, I didn’t see the pink sensation until my first trip back in 1980. “I don’t think this is going to catch on in America,” I remember saying. I soon knew better. But it wasn’t until early 90s, when I noticed a grown woman in the next car gripping a Hello Kitty steering wheel, that I realized how wrong I’d been.

In the years since, Hello Kitty’s reach has extended around the world and into the air. As part of Sanrio’s 40th anniversary celebration, EVA Airlines is flying to Paris in planes painted with Hello Kitty. Inside, everything is Hello Kitty-shaped or marked: food, soaps, pillows, headrest covers, and toilet paper. Another part of the 40th anniversary celebration was last week’s Hello Kitty Con, which I wouldn’t have missed. Held at the Geffen Contemporary, it was a completely sold-out four-day convention of all things Kitty: exhibits, merchandise, official and unofficial mascots, and even a live show against a filmed backdrop (above).

Next door at the Japanese-American National Museum, I toured a more subdued but even more fascinating show (which runs until April 24th) featuring Sanrio’s artifacts as well as Hello Kitty representations in fine art and fashion.

Hello Kitty Man's Suit at JANM

Hello Kitty Man’s Suit at JANM

Lady Gaga's Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Lady Gaga’s Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Which brings me to the perplexing news that Hello Kitty is not a cat. According to Christine Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific in an interview in the LA Times:

Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature.”

As if that weren’t enough, Kitty White is a British third-grader who lives with her twin sister, parents and grandparents outside London. She loves Paris–hence the EVA flights.

Nevertheless, Hello Kitty could only have sprung from Japan, the land of kawaii. As the JANM exhibit points out, the word kawaii (cute) is derived from kawaisoo, which means pitiable. It’s the powerful combination of cuteness, pity and the color pink that gives Hello Kitty her universal appeal.
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