Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo

This 2009 Spanish film starts out very promising and so is all the more disappointing when it doesn’t fulfill its promise. Watching the first third of it I became deeply aware that the way a film is shot and edited, the language of film-making, has a distinctive national accent. I’m used to the flavor of Japanese films and American films set in Japan. I think Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is the first European film about Japan I’ve seen. The result? Tokyo looks very much like Paris in some 1960s film noir flick. The cinematographer focuses on bridges arching over dark rivers, on cold, colorless modern buildings, and on scenes of isolation and emptiness. It is the antithesis of the usual shots of Tokyo’s assault on the senses–a great look beyond the cliches.

The sound editing is likewise distinctive, as the title leads you to believe. In one of the few air shots where the camera pulls back to provide a typical night scene of the Tokyo tangle of freeways, you hear nothing but the sound of cicadas. From a distance, we are merely insects in the hive.

The story begins well, focusing on a wealthy Japanese business man who learns of his daughter’s suicide. He cannot stand the thought of her foreign lover being alive while his daughter is dead so he has his assistant hire a hit. The killer is a young woman, Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi) who works at the fish market, so that she does not have to think too much. She goes to check out her mark, David (Sergi Lopez), a wine merchant. He asks her to try a wine and she finds him disarming, in both senses. This is the point that the movie dies for me because it turns into a silly romance. If it had ended the way that all French noir movies end (everybody dies), then the last act would have had tension and poignancy.

I’m surprised to discover that Map of the Sounds of Tokyo was both written and directed by a woman, Isabel Coixet because the third act devolves into western male fantasy. The sacrifice is completely on the women’s side in this film. The men get life, guilt-free sex, and melancholy nostalgia. True, we foreigners look back fondly on our years in Japan and remember how it changed us forever and still infuses our life with bittersweet memories…but in a movie, it’s a cheap ending.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

I enjoyed this anime more than I expected to initially. I see myself watching it again. The protagonist is a klutzy Everygirl, Makota Konno, who pals around with two guys in her class, the cool and gorgeous Kousuke Tsuda and the sidekick type, Chiaki Mamiya. Makota is having a very bad day. At the moment when the day veers from comic daily irritations to near tragedy, Makota is flung off her bicycle and back in time.

At this point the movie takes off. What does a junior high school girl do when she learns she can time travel? She doesn’t go back in time to meet Einstein or kill Hitler. Instead, she employs her power as a do-over button. Her life become a little video game where she wakes up on time, aces the pop quiz (which she can now prepare for), and avoids awkward entanglements (both physical and romantic). Of course, we the audience know by now that if you change the past you change the present.

As Makota deals with the consequences of her actions, the movie gets both funnier and more serious.

Super 8

As movies go, 2011 is the summer of the aliens. Of the three I’ve seen this month, I think that Super 8 captures a kind of innocent magic that is lacking in Attack the Block or Cowboys and Aliens. Maybe it’s manufactured Spielbergian magic but, somehow, J.J. Abrams never falls completely into the schmaltz that the man he’s paying homage does. (Spielberg produced and Abrams worked with him on earlier films.) I think it’s because Abrams always cuts to the chase, literally, instead of lingering too long on sentiment.

Just as he did with Star Trek, Abrams brings a fresh energy into a pretty well-worn genre. There’s a scene where all the characters pull together to take action and you know that it is the beginning of act 3 and that the ride is going to be fun and fast. Such joy. It’s suspenseful and scary but it isn’t gory or violent. This is not E.T, though. I think it would be most fun to see it with an 8 to 12 year old.

The set design and costumes are also very good. A lot of shows that portray the 70s make it look like a costume drama. Here the 70s looked pretty much real and not like a parody of itself.

But please, J.J. Lose the lens flare. I know it’s your signature thing and all. But it just distracts rather than adds anything to every scene it is in. You overuse it. There was a few times that it was so bad that I thought there was something wrong with the projector.

Shirley

I snapped up an old Everyman’s Library copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley at Recycled Reads for $2. Although worn and covered with library stamps, the little volume is sturdy. Physically, they are wonderful books, just the right size for the hand and well bound.

Most of Shirley is written in a voice that sounds like Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. I think it interesting to imagine that Charlotte Bronte identified more with Mr. Rochester than Jane Eyre. It’s so easy to mistake the voice in a first person narrative for the author’s, thinly-disguised. In one of my own stories, I realized I could write more freely if I wrote with the voice of the character that was the least like me. Jane Eyre, although very singular, tried always to appear correct. Mr. Rochester had the wealth and position to do as he pleased. Charlotte Bronte grants Shirley the same freedom.

Quotes and Notes

“…it is a novel of wonderful interest, for the framework has been clothed with the stuff of her own mind and much of it is unforgettable. It contains more of her thought than any other of her novels, and for the reader who comes to it with some knowledge of Charlotte Bronte’s life, Shirley is an oddly moving experience. And that, after all, is how most of us approach this uneven book. We read Jane Eyre in youth, falling at once and for ever under its spell. Next, we turn to Mrs. Gaskell…” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p vi

So I have followed a well-worn path, although I’ve yet to meet any other travellers.

Reading Shirley, I’m reminded of a remark I read years ago from Virginia Woolf (from A Room of Her Own?) in which she complained of a passage in Jane Eyre where Jane is feeling bitter that a woman’s life is so narrow and constrained. That one outburst in Jane Eyre fills most of Shirley.

“When she wrote Shirley, Charlotte [Bronte] believed that she would never marry. She had pondered much on spinsterhood, and was appalled at the barren lives of middle-class unmarried women, without education, without occupation, with nothing to expect from society but contempt.” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p viii

The frustration at being denied occupation and employment colors the whole book. So while I thought Virginia Woolf was being a bit hard on Charlotte Bronte for the passage in Jane Eyre, I begin to see her point. This isn’t to say that Shirley isn’t worth reading; it’s just more interesting reading it for historical insight than as fiction.

However, the opening lines are wonderful.

“Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.” –1

Charlotte Bronte, who was writing under the pen name Currer Bell, then goes on to savage those curates. Unfortunately, her identity and those of the curates quickly became public knowledge.

“‘Some people say we shouldn’t give alms to the poor, Shirley.’
‘They are great fools for their pains. For those who are not hungry, it is easy to palaver about the degradation of charity’.” –209

Being raised as a Catholic, I came quite late to the knowledge whole sects of Protestants had taken St. Paul’s and Martin Luther’s idea that good works flow from faith and twisted them into the justification that faith alone matters and thus we should abandon good works. It seems that not a lot has changed in 200 years. It’s still odd that the people who claim to be Christians are the ones arguing against helping the less fortunate.

“…till a man had indisputably proved himself bad and a nuisance, Shirley was willing to think him good and an acquisition, and to treat him accordingly. This disposition made her a general favourite…nor did it diminish the value of her intimate friendship, which was a distinct thing from social benevolence, depending , indeed, on a quite different part of her character. Miss Helstone was the choice of her affection and intellect; Misses Pearson, Sykes, Wynne, etc., etc., only the profiters by her good-nature and vivacity.” — p 234

“…when I see or hear either man or woman couple shame with love, I know their minds are coarse, their associations debased.” — p 251

Midnight in Paris

Manhattan meets Back to the Future meets Before Sunset. The story is thin, more of a short story subject than a novel. Not enough to flesh out an entire movie. It’s concept-driven rather than character-driven. The concept being that when we let nostalgia light up the past we become blind to the beauty of the present. We romanticize the good ole days at the expense of living fully in the now.

I would have enjoyed it more if Owen Wilson hadn’t channeled Woody Allen throughout. I realize that Woody Allen is the main character in all his films and now he has to have younger actors play his character. But it was distracting. Not only does Owen Wilson never find his own center in the character but he (or his character) lacks the full range of Woody Allen’s neuroses. So Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, really does seem to be “missing” something; he never seems whole or completely present.

All the great bits come from the supporting players. The conversation with Man Ray (Tom Cordier), Dali (Adrien Brody), and Buñuel (Adrien de Van) was laugh-out-loud brilliant. So was the conversation between Gil and Adriana (Marion Cotillard) about his relationship with his fiance, Inez.

I didn’t think much of the central conflict. Should Gil marry Inez (Rachel McAdams) a woman with whom he has nothing in common except a love of pita bread? The bigger question is, how did these two ever meet much less fall in love and get engaged? You can’t imagine that so you can’t feel any anxiety about the demise of their relationship. They don’t have a relationship. What if Gil had been engaged to Adriana instead? Then Gil would have had to choose between a beautiful, understanding woman in the present time and his fascination with historical figures and nostalgia for a past Golden Age. That would have been a conflict.

Seeing Paris brought to mind the last scenes of The Accidental Tourist. Now there were three interesting characters. All three had faults as well as virtues. All three had deep-set inner conflicts and complicated feelings for each other. No matter how it turned out, someone was going to get hurt and no one was going to be unreservedly happy. It made you care.

Thor

Pretty much what you’d expect. I know. That isn’t really biting analysis. The boy and I had good fun splurging (diet-wise) on a couple of beers and the Alamo Drafthouse’s “The Godfather” pizza. The theater was dark and air-conditioned. Summer’s here. Bring on the mindless entertainment.

The movie was competent but predictable. We both felt that the earthbound scenes brought the movie down. Those scenes were mundane in both its senses. (1. lacking interest or excitement; dull 2. of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one). Thor was best when it remained in the realm of the gods. It’s ripe for a RiffTrax treatment.

Fuzzy Nation

I enjoyed John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. So, when I heard he had a new book out, I suggested that AJM buy it for me for my birthday as a “Homer buys Marge a bowling ball” type gift. Something we both can enjoy. We went all out to support John Scalzi and local business and plunked down the full $24.99 list price for the hardback at BookPeople. As it turns out, Fuzzy Nation is really a book suited more to the iPad/Kindle market. It’s a light, fun read but it doesn’t have enough meat for a reread. After AJM finishes it, it will just take up precious shelf space.

Spoiler Alert!

Had Fuzzy Nation been my introduction to John Scalzi, I probably would have never explored further. The story is predictable and the character development nil. I admire foreshadowing but Scalzi telegraphs plot developments awkwardly. Is there any question where this is going when at the beginning of chapter 2 he halts the action to throw in this paragraph.

“Zara XXIII was in most respects an unremarkable Class III planet…It lacked sentient life, but most Class III planets did, otherwise they’d be Class IIIa and ZaraCorp’s E & E charter would be void, the planet and its resources held in trust for the thinking creatures who lived on it.”

Explanation and backstory continue on for a page and a half–inserted right in the middle of a conversation. I hate when an author interrupts the rhythm of a conversation like that. The same thing happens 100 pages later right in the middle of a tense situation when our hero is being attacked by things that want to get in and eat him. Let’s backtrack suddenly so we can spend two pages explaining why our hero just happens to have the tool on hand to save him.

The book moves along at a good clip. The last third of it takes place in a courtroom. The banter is fun and amusing. But no great things are decided. The explorations of sentience–what it is and what it means and how you can prove it exists–happened earlier and elsewhere in this universe. All these characters have to do is apply already accepted standards to this case. There’s nothing here to challenge readers’ assumptions, or to make us look at ourselves and our place in the universe differently. We learn nothing about the creatures in question. They are just noble savages whose world is about to be destroyed by evil corporation Z, unless our hero comes to the rescue.

Three Came Home

War stories that interest me have nothing to do with battle. Combat heroics are not something I’ve ever identified with despite being the images of war I grew up with, the images from TV and movies, books, and listening to my dad’s stories. With the exception of Anne Frank, who I first learned of when I was ten, it was not until I was an adult that I discovered the stories of war that I could relate to: the stories of civilians in war time. Typically (but not exclusively), these are the stories of women caught up in war: Natalie Coulter’s Forbidden Diary, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Nella Last’s War, Ursula Bacon’s Shanghai Diary Fosco Maraini’s Meeting with Japan, Japan at War: An Oral HIstory. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances not of their choosing.

The internment stories cut the deepest–stories of an imprisonment worse than any criminal’s because, as Agnes Keith points out, unlike a prisoner you don’t know when or if you will be released. There is no known end date. There is no way to count down to the end of starvation and misery. And if you do survive, there is nothing to go back to. Nothing left of your home or life.

In 1939. Before Agnes Keith was interred with her 2-year-old son, George, she had written a book about here life in Borneo, Land Below the Wind. It had been translated in Japanese where it was a big hit. Thus, she was known to her Japanese captors as somewhat of a celebrity: the poetess, the artist. The camp commander provided her with some extra privileges in exchange for writing propaganda. Not that she had any real choice. In response, she resolved to write her own story, the true story of her captivity, and to this end kept a secret diary.

photo: Agnes Keith

Probably the most glaring point that comes across in Three Came Home is that there was no point. This is not some stirring tale of how overcoming adversity and great suffering leads deep philosophical or spiritual insights. Agnes Keith deflates any notion that she gained anything from her internment. She wants to be very clear that the only result is lost years, lost youth, and lost health–not just for herself but for everyone. She wants to describe the horror, not glorify it. There was nothing ennobling in her experience. Nor does she give into any dramatic suspense in the narrative. From the title you know that not only she, but her husband and child survive. Three came home. Her sole purpose is to document, as clearly and with as much detail as she can, what happens to people in wartime. When the war ends and the internees are rescued, many lash out at their captors, tormenting and eventually killing them. Agnes Keith sees this as further evidence that it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. The one with the gun torments; the one without the gun suffers. War brings out the worst in everyone. The victims are no more noble because they are victims. They become bitter, petty, and resentful.
Agnes Keith published her story in 1946, when the wounds were still fresh. As a result, her anger and bitterness are still raw. This is not a bad thing, but it makes an interesting contrast to Forbidden Diary which I prefer. The latter was not published until 1980 and is excerpts from the actual diary, rather than being a memoir.

Quotes and Notes

“The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us. We are not pleasant people here, for the story of war is always the story of hate; it makes no difference with whom one fights. The hate destroys you spiritually as the fighting destroys you bodily.” – Why I Wrote This Book

“…I had been introduced to the enemy though my book, the Japanese translation of which had been widely read in Japan. Its subject, Borneo, was a country they were determined to take, because of its oil. I thanked God then that I had made no rash statements about the Japanese. If everyone who writes a book knew he would sometime be helpless in the hand of his characters, literature would grow tame.” – p. 30
“[Shihping Cho] took the long view of captivity, and where I was constantly being astounded by things that happened, Shihping had always expected and prepared for them” – p. 49

[At first we] lived at a high tragedy level because we expected release to come, the war to end, or ourselves to be dead, quite quickly…Later, we took desperate chances, but for the reason a gambler gambles–because it was the only pleasure we had in life.” – p. 53

“Something very hard and cold formed inside my chest, where I had used to feel a heart. This something said: I am alone, I in all this world, stand between my child and destruction. I only. There are certain things which have gone out of me now forever: softness, love dependency…I am no longer a woman. I am hard, I must fight, I am alone.” – p. 84

“Our death rate was never spectacular. Being women we hoarded our strength, eked out that one kilogram of energy, and lingered on. We could probably have lain on the flat of our backs and just continued to exist for some time. But we mothers could not spend much time on the flat of our backs.” – p. 104

“Throughout camp life, the way to get a thing was to disregard all rules, both British and Japanese, and go after it. This was antipathetic to the law of community living, but sympathetic to the primary law of survival of the fittest.” – p. 158

“Our attitude towards the waste products of living had changed. At first in prison camp we had shuddered over the latrines, held our noses, asked to have the excrement removed. Now we hoarded it, and rationed it, per capita, per garden. Dysentery and doctor’s orders did not stop us. Fertilization makes vegetation; and hunger outruns hygiene.” – p. 214

“…the warning not to be consumed by hate. Hate is a wasteful emotion; for my own sake, I didn’t wish to hate the Japanese, or the people about me….Hate is worth neither living nor dying for. We in prison were now the mistreated ones. Yet it would be only a matter of time, and the turn of the tide, before we would be the abusers, and our captors the abused, because we had in ourselves the same instincts for brutality. War evoked and exalted these instincts. It was war that we must hate, and not each other.” – p. 227

“Perhaps the person with the greatest emotional capacity for realizing life fully suffers the greatest when his life sinks to a monotone of misery.” – p. 239

“In all my life before I had existed as a free woman and didn’t know it. This is what freedom means to me. The right to live with, to touch and to love, my husband and my children. The right to look about me without fear of seeing people beaten. The capacity to work for ourselves and our children. The possession of a door, and a key with which to lock it. Moments of silence. A place in which to weep, with no one to see me doing so.” – p. 239

“Today [1946] we live in a world, not a state. Discoveries of science eliminate space and time. We have become a body of human beings, not nationals. The responsibility of the entire body is ours. No matter how good our own conditions now, we cannot ignore starving Europe, a demoralized and fighting Asia.” – p. 302

“I believe that:
While we have more than we need on this continent, and others die for the want of it, there can be no lasting peace.

When we work as hard in peacetime to make this world decent to live in, as in wartime we work to kill, the world will be decent, and the causes for which men fight will be gone. – Afterward

At Her Majesty’s Request

Although the title sounds reminiscent of a James Bond thriller, At Her Majesty’s Request is actually a biography of an African princess who became a ward of sorts of Queen Victoria in the 1850s. Her christened name is Sarah Forbes Bonita. As a child, she is captured by another African nation who murders who family and destroys her village. She is kept for two years as a prisoner and then about to be ritually sacrificed when a British naval officer intervenes. She is given to him as a gift to Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria takes an interest in Sarah Forbes Bonetta (nicknamed Sally). She is brought to live with a family in England, raised and educated as an upper class Englishwoman, sporadically visits the Queen and counts her children as playmates. However, patronage is a two-edged sword. Sally can only obey when the queen orders her to one home or another, to one country or another, and finally chooses her husband for her.

The book is slight, only 140 pages. It is written for older elementary school or middle school students (which I didn’t realize when I bought it sight unseen; it had been on my books to read list for a long time. Amazon lists the age range from 4-8. I think it’s more like from 8-12). I found the excerpts from Sally’s actual letters and Queen Victoria’s diaries the most interesting. Walter Dean Myers does a good job piecing together Sally’s life from these few fragments and in putting it into the context of the time. However, like any sketch, we catch only a glimpse of the subject, and can know only externals in broad strokes. What remains is the sense of wonder that it happened at all; this is one of those true stories you never learn in school.

Deceived with Kindness

I can’t but think that Angelica Garnett is a bit of a whiner. Maybe it’s the result of her growing up during the birth of Freudian psychoanalysis but her entire memoir seems focused on blaming her parents. Her mother, Vanessa Bell, smothered her with kindness. “When she was alive, I had seen her only as a stumbling block, as a monolithic figure who stood in my way, barring my development as a human being…I burdened her instead of myself with the responsibility for my life…I longed for her to want me to be strong and independent, whereas apparently all she desired was to suffocate me with caresses.” Her father, Duncan Grant, was distant. Angelica Garnett was in her teens before she discovered that her mother’s lover was her father. Later she married his lover, Bunny Garnett.

I have no patience for people who blame others for their unhappiness. What a waste of a life to wait around for others to please us. How petty seem the problems of the privileged. I prefer to read about people who have risen above their circumstances. Ursula Bacon fled the German holocaust only to trapped in the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai during the war. And her approach to life is radiant.

For the reader, the promise of this book is a first-hand account into the daily lives of the Bloomsbury Group by one of its daughters. There are many personal observations of family life, another viewpoint, another glimpse into the world and people already so well-documented in letters and diaries. I don’t find Angelica Garnett interesting in her own right.

Quotes and Notes

“It is generally believed that to understand all is to forgive all, but apart from the fact that it is impossible to understand everything, to talk of forgiveness smacks too much of superiority.” — p. 175

I know that saying only from Brideshead Revisited. I wonder if it was a common saying in the 1930s. I never hear it now. Anyway, I have my own prescription for forgiveness, from my childhood catechism. One has to ask for it, to be truly sorry, and to offer penance. Of course, before asking for forgiveness one has had to have sinned. The catechism spells out rules for that, too. Very few people have sinned against me personally. Although I’ve neither forgotten nor forgiven, I don’t spend any time worrying over old sins either. Why would I give them that power over me?

“I have tried to describe my own ghosts, and, in doing so, to exorcise them.” – p. 176

That is the last line of Deceived with Kindness and perhaps it should have been the first. I’m just not interested in reading someone else’s psychoanalysis even if it is someone with very famous relations. The glimpse of the people I’m really interested is too faint and distorted.

The surface and beneath the surface