Monthly Archives: July 2007

I CAN HEAR MYSELF

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a lightning and thunder storm as fierce as the one going on right now. Every few seconds there’s a series of flashes closely followed by impressive claps and growls. The rain’s so loud against my window that I feel like it’s coming down the inside of the wall. I want to go outside and run around madly hailing the second coming of Christ.

It wasn’t raining on Friday – in fact, it was brilliant with sunshine – so I finally got down to the beach, which is barely a ten minute walk from where I live. For eight weeks I’ve managed to avoid it through a combination of bad weather, the effects of alcohol, and flat-out laziness. There wasn’t much special about it, really, apart from the fact that a big main road and particularly faceless apartment buildings were right behind me as I looked out at the sea. There’s a pretty small area for swimming, sunbathing and cavorting; several ramshackle food/drink establishments; part of an 8.4km walkway along the coastline; and the tiniest waves I’ve ever seen surfers attempt to ride. Not an amazing place, but it changed my perception of where I live. Where I used to think it was a bog-standard Japanese suburb, I now think it’s a bog-standard Japanese suburb next to the sea.

I went to another kaiten-zushi place on Tuesday after work in Yokohama, except it wasn’t revolving because we were there in the last half hour of business. Instead, we had a menu and placed our orders directly to the chef. I had four plates, one of which was blowtorch-roasted tuna sushi and tasted unbelievable. It was the best sushi I’ve ever had. By far the most exceptional thing about the place, though, was their system for billing your order. Usually at these places a waitress will manually count the number of plates you have in front of you, write the total on a slip of paper and hand it to you. Not here.

We’d been receiving different-coloured plates according to the varying cost of our orders. No problem; I figured they’d just add up the different values and write them on the paper. Instead, the waitress pulled out a scanner and positioned it on top of my pile of plates. A few seconds later, a printer on her belt spat out my bill. What? The guy I was with informed me that the plates were all microchipped, so all the waitress had to do was move that scanner near them and it would do the tallying up for her. Brilliant. I will go back and take pictures.

I don’t really get homesick. I have a way of being very practical about changes in my own life so that when they happen, comparisons between the former situation and the current situation don’t really occur to me. I’m here now, so I’d better deal with it. If you can believe this, though, the thing that finally made me miss home a little bit was reading about New Zealand supermarkets (Pak ‘n Save, New World, Foodtown etc.) on Wikipedia. The information on those pages is totally banal, but because you go to a supermarket at least once a week, as a touchstone of times past it takes no effort to recall.

I remembered all my hungry walks from Rata St to Riccarton Mall, from Worcester Blvd to Moorhouse Ave. Then I remembered running around New World Tokoroa searching for the coupon items my dad had given me to find. It’s essentially the same here, of course, except with none of the same stuff, and I’ve gotten used to that without any problems… it’s just that after twenty years of it back home, I kind of knew where everything was. It was easy. That’s why I came here, though – to challenge myself and open new doors in my brain. (Er… at the supermarket, oh yeah.)

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THE BEAT DON’T STOP IT DOESN’T STOP

Roppongi is everything I’d been led to believe. Nigerians appear at your side and wax lyrical in a hybrid English/West African/American accent about this awesome bar just down the street, nah just back here, it’ll change your life. Young Japanese women in tight, skimpy dresses flit from bar to bar looking for hot (or not so hot) foreigners to attach themselves to, of which there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, likewise looking for cute Japanese girls to feed their Yellow Fever. When the sun rises, everybody is still going, and they keep going until they fall asleep.

Am I making it sound good? Some sort of Platonic ideal of a nightspot? It isn’t. It’s a meatmarket, a parade of flesh, where the seedy and moralless come to get their kicks. (I shouldn’t be bandying words like moralless about, not from my position, but it feels apt.) Image is everything. The music in the bars is too loud to talk over and, most of the time, too shitty to dance to. Women live off free drinks, bought for them by men who are sure they’ve cottoned on to their lucky ticket for the night. Not necessarily bad people, just… not my people.

I was surprised at how Christchurch it all was. Music too loud to talk over? Check. Music too shitty to dance to? Check. Overpriced drinks? Check x3. The only difference was that people were a bit more approachable – like, where in Christchurch I would stick to people I knew, here I could talk to strangers without them insulting me or leaving immediately. Like I said, though, a voice as mumbly and inflectionless as mine can’t easily be heard over the din, so I ended up resorting to the dancefloor. Truly, it’s perfect if you go out looking for a piece of ass, but I won’t be going back in a hurry. (Disclaimer: I do in fact like good pieces of ass, provided that’s not all they’re advertising.)

I went there with E. (Wish he was still writing – he wrote a far more poetic and vivid description of Roppongi than this, but his site’s long dead.) He lives in the most opulent, comfortable living space I’ve ever occupied – and yes, K, that includes 505. Plus it’s five minutes from Hachiko Crossing. Coming home to my shitty room in my shitty flat has never more difficult. Although it isn’t as bad as it was: turns out I’ve been living here for seven weeks without using the air conditioner placed conveniently above my bed. All this time I’ve been sweating my way through nights in a stinky, humid room, keeping the window shut to keep out bastard insects, when I could’ve been sleeping in blissful comfort. What a prize idiot.

Oh, you want to hear about work? It’s all right. Same old same old. I did mock interviews for the flight attendant class at Yokohama last Tuesday – like, I was the stern executive asking them hard questions such as “Could you spell your name?” and “What do you like to do in your free time?”, for all of which they’d prepared and memorized answers. As they spoke, their eyes flitted back and forth as though they were reading off a page. If they spoke at all, that is – they were nervous as hell. Most of my debrief revolved around telling them to relax in interviews and trust themselves. After all, it worked for me!

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WHEN I WOKE UP THIS MORNING COULDA SWORN IT WAS JUDGEMENT DAY

Today is a holiday in Japan. Marine Day. What that means is that I and most of Japan’s employed population have the day off work, so I did what any sensible person would do: I went on a bender.

It wasn’t really my intention to do so. I mean, I wanted to celebrate – my first pay, my first paid day off work EVER, a rare chance to go out with other trainees – but I didn’t really have a plan. Sometimes, as in this case, that is best. You let yourself be led from place to place, and soak up as much of the atmosphere (and alcohol) as you can. We woke up on Sunday morning still a bit drunk from the night before, and in a moment of inspiration realized that we didn’t have to work tomorrow! We could do it all over again! And so we did.

The beer and shochu fuelled spirited conversation. I learnt a new word: majime, which can be roughly translated as ‘proper’, relating to behaving sincerely in the way you ought to be according to traditional social mores. What is its value? If sincerity is derived from obligation, doesn’t that make it insincere? Then again, if such a thing is part of the foundation of a culture, it shouldn’t be criticized just because it’s there, should it? It is important, and it’s impossible to imagine Japan without it, but for Westerners it can’t be completely understood. It’s just another thing that prevents us from truly joining this big club.

Many places have nomihoudai, all you can drink for a two hour period, which is just a wonderful way to promote sensibly paced drinking. They even have this at karaoke bars, so there’s this effect of feeling like your singing is getting better when you actually sound like the Jenkins’ greyhounds next door. Consequently I hit the wall at about 9pm on Sunday in some izakaya somewhere (they all blur together eventually) and, in no state to catch three trains home, stayed a second night at Tim and Shoko’s (thanks, guys).

Now I’m home, I have that odd feeling of knowing I had a pretty good weekend but without much that lasts. It’s a very immediate thing, getting drunk and talking shit – it entertains for a time, then it’s gone. I met some new people, so I guess that’s what I take away from it. The opportunity for more of the same at a later date. People might say I’m too serious all the time, but they… well, they’d be right. In the words of Oscar Yesenin: I’m not care.

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Half Nelson (2006) (E)

IMDb / Cale / Sragow
Written by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
Directed by Ryan Fleck

Traditionally, drug addicts in the movies are dealers or unemployed: figures on the margins of society physically and intellectually. They are certainly not people in positions of authority or importance. The protagonist of Half Nelson is Daniel Dunne, an inner-city high school teacher who smokes crack in the bathroom after coaching his basketball team after school. As such, this film offers the most mature depiction of drug addiction I’ve seen in movies. Dan is a real person, with real strengths and failings. He knows how his drug problem limits him, but he can’t be bothered to do something about it – or perhaps he doesn’t know how.

The film focuses on Dan’s relationship with Drey, a girl in his class who catches him slumped inside a toilet cubicle one afternoon at school. Drey lives with her single mother, a paramedic who works long hours, so Drey spends a lot of time hanging out with Frank, a drug dealer who consequently is wealthier than most of the community they live in. Frank has sold to Dan, and when Dan sees how Frank is taking Drey under his wing, he moves to intervene despite being in no real position to tell someone to stay away from drugs. It gives nothing away to say that she does eventually spurn Frank’s enterprise, and that this is a direct result of Dan’s actions, but certainly not in the way you’d expect.

This is typical of a film that doesn’t reach for anything beyond telling simple truths about normal people. Lofty ideas such as the current state of drug abuse in America, the battle between teachers and high school students of different races, or the problems of middle American families are avoided, but in the course of telling its story the film touches on all of these in some way or another. Instead of delving in and searching for answers, it succinctly shows what’s going on and leaves you to think about it. What I’d give to be offered such rich opportunities for thought every time I watch a movie, to have spoonfeeding struck from Hollywood conventions… some hope.

For example, we do get to kind of see where Dan’s problem stems from in a five minute sequence covering a night back home having dinner with his family. It only hints at the difficult familial relationships Dan has, and the escape drugs will have given him, but most of it is given over to contemplation on the viewer’s part. The movie is about the impact of his problem, not its origin. Fleck has said he was influenced by Altman, and it shows in these scenes in which people may be talking, but what they say isn’t really important: it’s the way the move, the way they sit, the looks on their faces that tell you everything. There’s no proselytizing – it leaves all the thinking up to you.

And you will think. Throughout the film, there are several of these wonderful periods of silence during which there’s so much going on even though nothing of consequence is said or done. It takes great skill to make scenes like these work. You have to make the audience forget they’re watching a movie and get them to live in the characters’ minds for the duration, and Fleck does it like he’s made a hundred movies (this is in fact his first). He achieves this not just through a great script, but by shooting the right thing in each scene to make sure its dramatic intent is understood. Like when Drey is having burgers with Frank, and Frank gets up and does the chicken walk, but the camera stays with Drey and her reaction. It’s another small moment that just works because we understand that Drey is what matters here.

Frank is the antagonist, I suppose, but he isn’t a bully or a thief, which is yet another of the film’s pleasant surprises. He’s a bad influence on Drey, but only in terms of the path he’s leading her down, not really in attitude. It’s a socially unacceptable path that could lead to hurt, and Dan feels that he must do something about it because he’s probably the only one who can, but how do you do that when your weekly budget includes $50 for crack & coke? There’s an incredible scene in which Dan confronts Frank without any real plan of attack, and what ensues will surprise any viewer.

Ryan Gosling plays Dan. He was nominated for an Oscar, and he probably should’ve won (though haven’t yet seen Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland). His is a performance of outstanding skill: subtle, understated, deeply felt and understood. He spends a lot of time brooding, but offers several moments of delight in his interactions with the kids. Then there’s newcomer Shareeka Epps as Drey, who is stunning in a role that calls for her to seem strongly independent yet vulnerable at the same time. Special mention should go to Anthony Mackie as Frank, who avoids caricature and gives us one of the most convincing opposing forces in recent history. Yeah, the whole cast is great, from these lead players to the smallest, single-line role. The set must have been a relaxed place of much laughter and creativity.

I’ve run out of steam. Just see it. I’ve watched it three times in a week, and I’ll probably watch it a couple more times before moving on to something else. It has everything I ask for from a film. (Except explosions. I’ll hopefully get those from Transformers and The Bourne Ultimatum.)

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WE BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCK AND ROLL

I have Fridays off, so usually that’s my day for exploration – sometimes with a companion, sometimes not. This week, I went into Ginza to meet someone for yakitori. I arrived there with two and a half hours to spare, so through thick humidity and heat, I wandered down to Hama-rikyu, known in English as the Detached Palace Gardens. That’s a reference, I believe, to the Imperial Palace twenty minutes to the north; Hama-rikyu was the emperor’s duck-hunting and tea-sipping retreat.

Begun in 1654 by the Tokugawa family and finished over a time period encompassing about 6 Shogun, then sequestered by the Emperor after the Meiji Restoration, the whole thing was destroyed last century: first by the Great Kanto Earthquake, second (and most completely) by bombing during World War II. The City of Tokyo was then given the garden by the Emperor (that strikes me as rather hollow: “Okay, everybody, we’ve enjoyed this beautiful park for hundreds of years and kept you out of it, but now that it’s decimated… here you go!”), which restored it – within about a year – to its former glory.

So, as I ambled through grassy meadows, sat contemplatively in rest houses, and admired the view from the Nakajima tea-house, the historical significance of it all was more a product of my imagination than actual, tangible evidence. However, the Japanese are exceptionally good at rebuilding things to look exactly as they would have. Some shrines were built to symbolize regeneration, so they are torn down and rebuilt brick-for-brick, board-for-board every 20 or 50 years or something. And of course, the war left a trail of destruction right across the country, so a good number of the country’s important sites are in fact copies of the real, vaporized thing. This garden, then, looked authentic enough, but the knowledge that it basically wasn’t couldn’t be pushed from my mind.

While the noise of the city and the shadows cast by its buildings cannot be completely escaped, its filthy air can. I’d almost forgotten what it feels like to inhale a lungful of fresh air, so entering this tree and grass-filled delight was like stepping out of my new life and back into my old one. I breathed deeply and felt… well, regenerated and energized afterwards. Plus there were resident cats, which always delights me (though the enormous flying insects don’t). Tokyo needs more places like this.

I also cannot escape New Zealand. I had a bit of free time at Yokohama the other day, so I was chilling out in the teachers’ room reading my handy guidebook (thanks again, Nic and Mami). Suddenly, I was forced to look up from the book and listen intently to the music coming from the lobby PA. Normally I would avoid doing this at all costs, as it is invariably pumping out swill like The Black Eyed Talentless Pricks or Destiny’s Satan-Child, but not this time. No, it was the dulcet tones of Bic Runga. Turns out it belonged to one of the staff members, who spent three years at high school in New Zealand, and actually lived just down the road from me in Riccarton. We probably saw each other at some point or another. This, combined with seeing my old flatmate’s picture on hundreds of Fujifilm photo-printing machines in Shinjuku, makes me think I know everyone in the known universe. Even if they don’t know me. Or prefer not to know me, since the spaghetti incident. Look, I said I was sorry and I meant it, okay?

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SAY IT’S A GAME AND I’LL COME TO NO HARM

Most of the time, I try as hard as possible to block advertising out of my brain. It’s dull and ever more aggravating. It’s always the same. Then I see something I haven’t seen before, and I think ‘wow! That deserves my attention!’ But after I’ve seen it about ten times, it’s exactly the same as everything else. With the exception of the Freshup ad.

For the first three weeks of being here, I was constantly in that ‘wow’ phase. On billboards, trains, massive TV screens – seemingly everywhere – I could see advertising images I had never seen before, and it was like being in a foreign country, as Ian Rush might say. It struck me that perhaps wherever I go, I will experience this initial fascination with advertising. Like, it’s so pervasive everywhere in the industrialized/developed world, and the products are so different everywhere, that it’ll always be the first thing I notice.

Now, I’ve stopped staring intrigued at DoCoMo posters on the train. I’ve almost reached the same stage I was at back home, an attitude of ignorance to the extent possible. It probably helps that it’s mostly in written language I don’t understand (with a few exceptions, like http://www.jti.co.jp’s intriguing campaign), but I get the feeling it would be the same in America or the UK or anywhere else. Advertising’s really, really interesting until you realise it’s the same thing as everywhere else you’ve been: companies selling things.

My kids classes went well this week. I prepared the shit out of them, so that when we got in there I knew what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, plus I set stronger rules and reward schemes so they didn’t run about the place. We played a lot of Spiderman, which is exactly the same as Hangman except with a spider instead of a person – more politically correct, I s’pose. Images of a crudely drawn stick figure being hung by the neck from a decidedly unsound structure never perturbed me as a child, but hey, I’m just following the book. Needless to say, the adults classes went fine, and people have actually started signing up for my lessons because I am teaching them. Apparently. This is what staff members have told me, anyway – it could just be a confidence-boosting thing. Whatever, I’ll take it.

After my last kids class on Wednesday, I was looking out the window, and I got my best smog indicator yet. Back in NZ, if you look directly at the sun for longer than half a second, you’ll destroy your eyes. (I did this often as a child, actually: I would stare at it until it went a kind of shimmery blue colour which wouldn’t get out of my vision for about two minutes. True story, and probably the reason for my rapidly diminishing quality of eyesight.) Here, the sun appears to be smaller and more orange in colour, filtered as it is through thick clouds of smog that hang over the city. I reckon you could get away with two or three seconds of staring at it before it burnt out your vision. It probably also means I might finally be able to get a tan and not just go bright red within five minutes of taking my shirt off. That’d be nice.

Finally, I went back to Shinjuku on Friday and had dinner on the 29th floor of the NS building, looking out over the night skyline with the Park Hyatt in the foreground. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, but you can trust me when I say it was quite stunning. The food wasn’t bad, either. I’ll have to go back and take some pictures.

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