Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The most recent issue of The New Yorker, the "cartoon issue," has a two-page strip by Roz Chast on her encounter with Japanese-language manga, which is reproduced here (via Dirk Deppey. It's not particularly insightful, but it's an amusing portrayal of the disorientation people who are only familiar with Western visual and storytelling conventions may feel when encountering manga for the first time. Though Chast presents herself as completely mystified, she evidently did some research. The kana displayed are accurate, as are the kanji for "book store"; and Tohru, and Yuki's mouse form, are clearly recognizable in the first manga she looks at (though she's taken the artistic license of drawing the interior art in color).

Chast devotes the most attention to one manga, which she indentifies as "Step Up Love Story" and describes as "like a children's comic book, a sex manual from the fifties, and a raunchy movie all mashed up together." This manga actually exists, though its title isn't "Step Up Love Story." While those words are displayed prominently on the cover (in English), the actual title is Futari Etchi (sometimes romanized Futari Ecchi), which might be translated as "Two-person Sex" or "Sex for Two". And as with Fruits Basket, the characters are recognizable from Chast's drawings. In fact, you can even tell from her drawing of the cover which volume she's looking at: it's volume 32, the most recent one out so far. And the Engrish blurb on Chast's cover is also on the real cover, though again Chast has taken artistic license in making it a lot larger than it actually is. I own volume 5, which has a different English blurb: "Are you as sexually able as you'd like to be? This comic is high quality 'love' fiction. The effects of this comic are both amazing and permanent. Thank you, everyone".

Futari Etchi is an erotic comedy by Katsu Aki about a couple who are virgins when they marry, and strive to improve their sex life with the help of advice -- not always accurate -- from friends and relatives. (For more details, see the Wikipedia entry and this review.) In the volume I own, there are plenty of sex scenes and nudity, but no genitals (except in a few cross-sectional diagrams): in scenes where genitals ought to be visible they're simply not drawn, leading to a couple of panels showing a character apparently performing fellatio on nothing.

The manga seems to be very popular in Japan: not only are there thirty-two volumes out so far, plus two volumes of Futari Etchi for Ladies, but the volume I own went through thirty printings in less than three years.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006


I recently was up in Chicago for a few days, and rented a couple of DVDs from Odd Obsession Movies, one of which was Death Powder, a 1986 film directed by Shigeru Izumiya.

Apparently the film was intended to have a plot, but I have no idea what it is. It didn't help that a good deal of the dialogue is only subtitled in Japanese, which I could only partially read without a dictionary. Nor did it help that when I was able to check the English subtitles, when they existed, against the Japanese dialogue or subtitles, the two had virtually nothing to do with each other. It's as if whoever did the subtitles was trying to invent their own (still incoherent) story. (From what I was able to gather, the real plot involves "scar people," an android named Guernica, and of course "death powder," whatever that is.) Basically what I got from the film was a series of bizarre, often incomprehensible images, some of which were striking. So if you're a fan of that, it's worth picking up.

Here's a longer, more detailed review, with screencaps. The reviewer is sharp, and noticed some things that I missed, although he accepted the English subtitles as accurate (as is natural, of course, for someone unable to check them against the Japanese).

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Sunday, November 12, 2006


If you've been reading this blog long enough to remember my infrequent posts on music, you probably won't expect me to be a fan of musicals. And for the most part, you'd be right. But there are a few exceptions, one of which is Urinetown, which I saw on Friday.

Urinetown, perhaps the most unlikely Broadway hit ever, was conceived as a parody of Brecht-Weill type political musicals, with a deliberately ludicrous premise: a city where you're not allowed to pee except in public pay toilets, which are controlled by a corporate monopoly. It also parodies musicals in general. The hero and heroine are impossibly idealistic and naive. And the narrator, who is also involved in the action, is well aware that he's in a musical: at one point he explains to another character that nothing can kill a musical quicker than too much exposition, only to have that character retort that a bad concept, or a bad title, can also kill a musical pretty quick. The music, too, is a pastiche of other musicals. The biggest influence, naturally, is Weill, but there are also imitations of other genres of musical numbers, such as the jazzy, Fosse-type number; the faux-gospel number, the love duet, the Les Miz-type anthem, and more.

All this provides a lot of laughs. But the secret of Urinetown is that under all this parody and postmodern tomfoolery, it's actually a good musical. The book, for all its absurd elements, is artfully constructed and well-crafted. And though it started out as a parody of political musicals, beneath the laughs it turns out to examine serious political issues in an intelligent and unpreachy way.

And in addition to being clever pastiches, the songs can stand on their own as good songs. Mark Hollmann, who wrote the music, not just a skillful pasticheur, but a very good composer in his own right, with a gift for catchy, insinuating melodies. Particular highlights include the very Weill-ish opening (and title) number, the Brechtian "Don't Be the Bunny," the love duet "Follow Your Heart," and the show-stopping "Snuff that Girl" (the Fosse-ish number mentioned above). The clever lyrics (co-written by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who wrote the book) make an equal contribution.

Friday was actually the third time I'd seen Urinetown: my first two times were during the New York Fringe Festival run which was its very first outing, and the first off-Broadway run. What I saw Friday was a community theater production put on by the local community college, and I wasn't sure what to expect; but I needn't have worried. The performances were generally professional level (despite a couple of muffled lines and some difficulties with projection). I thought two actors were particularly noteworthy. Brad Baillio plays the hero, Bobby Strong. Though Strong is impossibly pure-hearted, Baillio managed to find the humanity under the parody. And Michael Steen plays Officer Lockstock, the corrupt cop who is also the narrator, and in a sense the linchpin of the show. Steen fulfills this role admirably, and strikes the right balance between charm and viciousness. It's not just me: most of the audience appeared to be having a great time. If you live in Champaign, IL, you still have an opportunity to see it, next Thursday through Sunday (Nov. 16-19), and if I were you I'd jump at that chance. (I should point out that, despite the title and subject matter, aside from a few silly pee jokes there's nothing offensive in the show, not even any swearing.)

If you don't live in Champaign, you can still buy the original off-Broadway cast album. Though the lyrics are clever and often witty, as I mentioned above, the songs by themselves generally aren't laugh-out-loud funny, but they are very good: Hollmann's music alone makes the cast album a worthwhile purchase. You can also read the playscript (there are inexpensive copies available from Abebooks, if your library doesn't have it). This also includes a very interesting introduction by Kotis and Hollmann describing the show's history and development.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006


And two of them are Japanese, just to show that I'm not an uncritical Japanophile.

Game 6 (dir. Michael Hoffman). I've previously expressed my dissent from Scott Eric Kaufman's loathing of Don DeLillo, but I do have to give him this: Game 6, the film DeLillo wrote the screenplay for, is terrible. The main problem isn't that the characters all sound the same (Kaufman's complaint against DeLillo in general), but that you can't imagine anybody actually saying the things they say or doing the things they do, the protagonist in particular. This might work in a novel, or perhaps even in a stage play, but definitely not in a film, especially one with a patina of realism. I confess that I didn't watch the entire film: I stuck it out nearly to the end, but a plot twist about five minutes before the end was just too much for me. I watched Hoffman's sporadically interesting commentary for about half an hour. Judging by it, he can't be blamed for the film's awfulness: he approached DeLillo's screenplay with reverence. He also says that a number of professionals were so impressed by the screenplay that they volunteered to work on the film for free. I find that mind-boggling.

Imprint. This is the notorious Takashi Miike film that was made for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, but which Showtime refused to air. As a fan of Miike I hate to say this, but its not airing may have been for the best in the long run. For a lot of people, it would have been their first introduction to Miike, and it's a mess. There's certainly a lot of gross and grotesque stuff in it, but unlike in Miike's best films of this type (e. g. Ichi the Killer), here it just seems pointless and arbitrarily thrown in. And it doesn't help that the climactic reveal, rather than being scary or horrifying as it's intended to be, is just silly. The other big problem is the weak performances of the two main actors. Billy Drago is especially bad, but Youki Kudoh is no great shakes, either.

Third-party DVD commentary tracks are rarely interesting, but this one was. Chris D. and Wyatt Doyle, who recorded it, are obviously both fans of Miike, and they clearly didn't like the film very much. They discuss the faults mentioned above, and some others as well. (For instance, the fact that although the film is in English, none of the actors aside from the two leads could speak English very well: in fact, it sounded to me like a lot of them had learned their lines phonetically.)

Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (dir. Teruo Ishii). I know, I know: how can a film with a title like not be great? Part of the problem is that while there is a "blind beast" (actually a blind serial killer) and a killer dwarf, they never fight each other, and I don't think they even meet. In fact, the two storylines they're in barely interact with each other. The "blind beast" storyline is based upon the same Edogawa Rampo short story that Yasuzo Masumura's film Blind Beast was based upon. Masumura's film is better and more disturbing, but Ishii's version has its good points, particularly the performance of the actor playing the serial killer. The "killer dwarf" storyline is a straight detective story (apparently based upon another Rampo story), and frankly I found it boring.

The film's trailer makes it seem much weirder and more interesting than it actually is.

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