Posts in September 2010

☆☆ If you haven’t seen Martyrs, I would STRONGLY recommend that you watch it without reading this review…or any reviews for that matter. I think it is best to go into this movie without any idea where the story is going to take you. You will only be able to experience watching this film for the first time once, so I suggest you make the most of it. ☆☆

Martyrs (2008, Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier) opens with the young Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) running down a deserted street, screaming and covered in blood. She had been kidnapped and subjected to extreme forms of torture before escaping. The authorities remain completely mystified about who did this to her and (more importantly) why. Severely traumatized, Lucie refuses to speak to anyone, save for her only friend Anna (Morhana Alaoui). Fifteen years later, Lucie knocks on the door of a normal suburban home and executes the entire family living there. She is convinced that these are the people who tortured her as a child, and calls Anna for help. Anna is skeptical about Lucie’s convictions – especially since Lucie also believes that she has been being attacked by a monster ever since her escape.

After a few plot twists that I won’t mention here, Anna discovers a sleek and completely sterile torture chamber hidden underneath the house. In the dungeon, she finds another woman who was being tortured by the family. Anna attempts to help her, only to be abducted herself when the leaders of a mysterious organization arrive at the house. The leader of the cult-like group reveals to Anna that they are torturing women in an attempt to recreate the experience of martyrdom. By using pain and violence, they want to push these women into a plain of higher existence in an attempt to discover what lies beyond life and after death.

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You’re wandering around an abandoned mental institution with your best friend when you find a woman chained to a bed and wrapped in a plastic sheet. Do you:

(A) Run away

(B) Call the police

(C) Free her

(D) Fuck her

In Deadgirl (2008), the answer is always (D). When JT and Ricky find the girl in the basement, JT suggests, “We could keep her…just till tonight or tomorrow.” Despite the fact that Ricky’s moral compass has identified this situation as undeniably ‘Not Good,’ he isn’t enough of a man to stand up to his friend. So he leaves his friend and the girl in the basement. See no evil, hear no evil.

The next day, JT convinces Ricky to come back to the basement. And of course Ricky does, because that’s what friends are for. It turns out that – mid-rape – the woman started struggling and tried to bite JT. Obviously, the only thing JT could do in a situation like that is beat her to death. So he did. But she doesn’t die. She was dead all along.

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Next up in the “Teaching in Asia” interview series is my friend Philip, who some of you may know as ToLokyo on YouTube. Philip graduated from university in 2003 with a degree in English Education – Secondary and a certification to teach grades 6-12 in Florida. During college, Philip did an internship abroad in Saipan. After graduating, he moved to South Korea in the summer of 2003 and started teaching English. Then, in mid-2005, Philip moved to Japan, where he made his living as a freelance English teacher until the summer of 2010. He is currently traveling around the world filming a YouTube video series called “Caught Doin’ Good,” that highlights individuals and organizations all over the world who are doing good things to build up the communities around them.. With seven years of experience living and teaching in both South Korea and Japan, Philip’s observations on living and working in Asia are extremely insightful and nuanced. Furthermore, as a formally-educated English teacher, his perspective on foreign-language teaching is much deeper than that of the average, run-of-the-mill ALT. He is also one of the most genuinely happy and fun-loving individuals that I have ever met; every time I see him, I am surprised by his positivity and enthusiasm. If you’d like to read more about Philip, his ‘Caught Doin’ Good’ project, or watch his YouTube videos, please follow these links:

Philip/ToLokyo’s website:

Caught Doin’ Good homepage:

ToLokyo on YouTube:

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Philip: When I graduated from university, I considered teaching around Asheville, NC in a high school.  I knew I’d had enough of South Carolina and Florida, and I was ready to start something new.  At that time, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq, and massive funds had been diverted from education programs all over the nation to be used in the war effort.  I heard horror stories from friends who graduated the year before of having to teach with no textbooks or resources.  In one fateful week, I randomly encountered about 5 teachers.  They all had the exact same advice: “RUN~!!!!  You’re young!  You can do something else!  You don’t have to be stuck in this hell of a job!  Get out while you still can~!!!!” I took the hint and decided to look into a website I had heard of a few years back called Dave’s ESL Cafe.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Asia?

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Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo

Unlike the West, Japan does not have a history of strong feminist movements – or, at least, Japanese feminism is less focused on individual autonomy than Western feminism. Even today, most ‘feminist’ dialogue takes place within community or civil rights organizations, not feminist activist groups. While the position of women within Japanese society has changed since the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, AKA ‘Japan’s Toothless Lion’) passed, Japan is still a country characterized by an M-shaped labor curve for women and abortion is still a preferred form of birth control, due both to cultural factors and the difficulty and expense associated with using oral contraceptives. I would also like to point out that many observers believe that low-dose oral contraceptives were finally approved for use in Japan in late 1999 (after 35 years of debate) because that the Diet fast-tracked the approval of Viagra (which took about 6 months). Therefore, one must ask: how successful has women’s suffrage been within Japanese society?

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Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy

I spend most of my time cursing the ill-fated timing of my birth. Being 23 in the 1980s seems like it would be oodles more fun than being 23 in 2010. That’s right, I said ‘oodles.’ We have yet to colonize the moon, Mars, or develop teleportation, so in the eyes of 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s science fiction, mankind is woefully behind schedule. To make matters worse, no one is eating sushi dusted with flakes of gold in Tokyo anymore. But watching Roger Vadim’s psychedelic softcore, sci-fi trip-fest BARBARELLA (1968) makes me wonder if the 1960s were actually the best time ever to be alive. Everyone involved had be seriously high to produce of a movie of such outstanding quality. (And Roger Vadim, who was married to both Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, has to be the luckiest man ever.)

From the first frame of Barbarella, I knew I was going to love this movie. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella performs a zero-g striptease act while Bob Crewe and Charles Fox serenade you with the film’s title theme – spouting poetic gems like “Barbarella psychadella / There’s a kind of cockleshell about yooou.” Meanwhile, the credits float around the screen, discreetly protecting Barbarella’s modesty while she removes her high-tec space suit. You don’t even need to know what ‘cockleshell’ means to know that this movie is going to rock.

Based on a French comic by Jean- Claude Forest, Barbarella captures everything I love about cinema from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, cinema (particularly genres like science fiction and horror) exists to break rules – to be wild and free and challenging. Especially when compared to the sterilized, safe nature of Hollywood today, the films of the ’60s and ’70s are wonderfully energetic and really experimental. It’s no wonder so many cinematic classics were created during this time. Today, audiences and filmmakers are too aware of everything. Genres like science fiction and horror are rampantly self-referencial – very aware of where they come from and who they are made for. It’s almost like filmmakers are trying to say, “Look, I’m smart and I can add in all these clever nods to genre classics.” Meanwhile, the audience seems to have lost faith in the role of the filmmaker – to show us things about the world, to transport us to different worlds, and to tell us stories.

Roger Vadim doesn’t fall back on pretentious intellectualism or self-reference. Neither does Jane Fonda, who gracefully walks the line between shameless titillation and wide-eyed nonchalant deadpan. (Sure, Jane Fonda wishes she could forget the fact that she turned down Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to star in Barbarella, but there are a lot of things I’d like to forget about Jane Fonda. Let’s call it a compromise.) Lacking the cynicism and snide cleverness of post-modernism, Barbarella is blissfully unself-conscious and innocent. And that’s very ‘cockleshell’ indeed. I’d tell you more about the plot, but it honestly doesn’t matter. Just watch the movie.

With that said, here it is – 12 Reasons to Love Barbarella and celebrate a time when storytelling was much more free and adventurous:

Hello, Mr. President

12. Women can be naked when they teleconference with the President, but they still must be wide-eyed and childishly innocent.

11. The members of the underground revolution use plastic slides (AKA ‘secret escape shoots’) to enter their secret base.

10. ‘Love’ is the universal greeting and farewell. You know, like ‘Aloha’ but for futuristic space hippies.

Little kids are creepy...especially when they come in matching pairs.

9. Lethal Eskimo twins that incapacitate you with snowballs then try to feed you to flesh-eating dolls with razor teeth. Someone was clearly stoned off their ass when they wrote this.

8. The most evil person in the universe is Duran Duran. (Or Durand-Durand, same thing.)

7. In the future, the interior of all space craft will be entirely covered with shag carpet. Take that static electricity.

The "Ex-sex-sive" Machine

6. The preferred method of torturing women is pleasuring them to death. Silly women, how dare you be capable of having multiple orgasms!

5. Casual sex (well, it’s the 60s so let’s say ‘free love’) is alive and well, but only if you take an Exultation Transference Pill first. Oh, you don’t like the Pill? Fine, whatever, do me anyways.

I'd like to take a hit off that!

4. You can smoke Essence of Man. All you need is a giant fishbowl bong.

3. Pygar, the winged angel. Beautiful, blonde, blind and submissive – the sexual fantasy of every gay man alive.

Do you think she'll screw me is I save her from certain death?

2. Jane Fonda is hot…and constantly gets knocked unconscious. You do the math. (Hint: It involves sex.)

1. The outfits. Barbarella has a costume change every ten minutes. Seriously…dear god…THE OUTFITS!

PS – Back in 2009, there was talk of Robert Rodriguez doing a Barbarella remake (if Germany does financie the movie, they MUST have a scene with David Hasselhoff riding a dolphin…over a rainbow tidal wave). I love Rodriguez and I respect that fact that he enjoys having exclusive access to Rose McGowan’s vagina, but does anyone else question if McGowan has the chops to fill Jane Fonda’s shoes? (But, Rodriguez and McGowan may have split, I can’t keep track of all this celebrity stuff.)

The common treatment of the Heian court found in textbooks and survey histories depicts Japan’s ruling class as a group of leisured and effete aristocrats more concerned with composing elaborate waka (poetry) and mastering esoteric Buddhist practices than the effective governance of the country. Furthermore, efforts during the Taika Reform era to adopt a Chinese-style administration and military are dismissed as complete failures, abandoned only a few decades after their inception. As the court “became isolated to an extraordinary degree from the rest of Japanese society,”[1] and could no longer provide an effective military or police system, “provincial residents were forced to take up arms for themselves…[which] allowed the development of large, private warrior networks.”[2] In their respective works, both Karl Friday and William Farris seek to revise this misperception and argue that “the genesis of Japan’s bushi [warrior class] took place within a secure and still-vital imperial state structure.”[3] In Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, Karl Friday traces the evolution of Japan’s military system, from the foundations laid by the Taika Reforms in 645 to Minamoto Yoritomo’s “epoch-making usurpation of power in the 1180s,”[4] to prove it was court activism that concentrated military control in the hands of the rural elite. Furthermore, Friday believes that the court’s growing reliance on the private martial skills of the gentry was motivated by the desire to maximize the efficiency of its military institutions and reflected the changing nature of Japan’s military needs.[5] William Farris advances Friday’s argument in Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan’s Military, 500-1300 by arguing that the samurai class of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the “direct descendant of the mounted archers of yore…[and maintains] that an equestrian mounted elite was a critical factor in society, economy, and politics as early as about A.D. 500.”[6] However, while Farris asserts that the imperial reforms were essential to the evolution of Japan’s mounted military elite, he does not support Friday’s belief that the court successfully took control of the military from the hands of provincial elite. In the context of these two works, the evolution of Japan’s military can be divided into three stages: the centralization of military control and the adoption of Chinese-style mass infantry tactics under the ritsuryō codes during the eighth century, the subsequent ‘abandonment’ of infantry in favor of ‘the privately acquired  martial skills of provincial elites and the lower nobility,’[7] and the further organization of private military networks around major provincial warriors during the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries.

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Let's play 'Spot The Gaijin'

For the second installment of my interview series about teaching in Asia, I sat down with my friend Nino. Nino and I both attended Boston University and shared several Japanese classes with each other. Since I always thought he was much too cool and good-looking to talk to, I actually didn’t get to know him until the Spring semester of my Junior year. So, I am definitely glad that a fortuitously placed copy of Karl Friday’s Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan led to a conversation with him – he is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met and his knowledge of Japanese history is astounding. I can honestly say that he knows far more about samurai history than I ever will. Nino graduated from BU in 2009 with a degree in East Asian Studies and a concentration in Japanese. He has been teaching English in Japan since January 2010, first in Ishinomaki and later in Sendai City.

Constantine: So, why did you want to teach abroad?

Nino: Sadly the answer to this is more for the selfish reason of pursuing my own interest in Japanese history than anything else. Though, I do find teaching to be a fulfilling job, especially when you notice how much the student has learned. But, initially my passion for Japanese history is what brought me here; considering there’s no better place to study the history of a country than in that country itself.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Japanese history?

Nino: Damned if I know. I first became interested in middle school… I have always been quite the nerd. The answer I usually tell people is Shogun by James Clavell. But, as an academic, admitting Shogun was my inspiration is actually sort of embarrassing – considering it’s such a bastardization and romanticized version of history – even if it was written as fiction. But in any case, I read it in middle school and knowing it was based on history got me interested to learn the actual history. I had always been familiar with samurai just from the general fantasy genre (which might often blend Eastern and Western mythologies or histories together) but after reading Shogun, it was the first time I actually began to pursue an academic interest.

Constantine: Shogun was actually something that sparked my interest in Japan as well. I read it at around the same age you did.

Nino: Yeah, I hate admitting it, but that’s what did it.

Constantine: It’s better than Sailor Moon.

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Magnetic Rose (a rather loose translation of 彼女の想いで, “her memories”) is the first of three episodes based on the manga short stories of Otomo Katsuhiro (the genius behind Akira). Directed by Morimoto Koji, Magnetic Rose does not offer any insight into Kon Satoshi’s work as a director. However, he wrote the adaption of Otomo’s original manga story and the episode contains many of the key themes that Kon explores in his later work. Specifically, Magnetic Rose explores the boundary between reality and illusion, the role of perception and memory, and femininity.

Drawing inspiration from the story and music of Madame Butterfly and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Magnetic Rose follows the members of the deep space salvage vessel Corona. While performing a salvage mission, the crew encounters an odd distress signal emanating from the Sargasso region, ominously nicknamed ‘the graveyard of space.’ Each man has their own reasons for working in deep space, namely to ‘build houses in California.’ Specifically, Miguel is looking forward to being united with one of his beautiful girlfriends and Heinz longs to return to his family.

The crew discovers a destroyed space station and Heinz and Miguel are sent in to investigate. Once onboard, Heinz and Miguel are lured deeper into the baroque interior of the space station, following various holographic images of the beautiful Eva Friedel. A famous opera singer, Eva fell from grace after she lost her voice and disappeared completely after the murder of her fiancée, Carlo. As the two men venture deeper into the ship, the holograms begin to reflect their own dreams and memories and the difference between illusion and reality become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Though the narrative is about the two men, the story actually revolves around the feminine presence. It is the figures of Eva Friedel and Heintz’s daughter Emily who stand, in the words of Susan Napier, “at the nexus point between real and unreal, ultimately beckoning the men towards death” [1]. The recurring images of roses and the haunting strains of Madame Butterfly are very powerful feminine symbols. Simultaneously alluring and sinister, Eva seduces Miguel into believing he is her fiancée. However, it turns out that it was actually Eva who murdered Carlo because he broke off their engagement. According to Eva, “Carlo lives forever. With me, in my memories…In my memories he will never change his mind.” This is, in fact, Eva’s own attempt to manipulate her own memory into reality.

Meanwhile, Eva similarly attempts to seduce Heinz with the image of his daughter Emily. At the beginning of the episode, the viewer is led to believe that Heinz is waiting to return home to his family. However, we ultimately discover that his daughter is dead and the photograph in his wallet only a memory. Though Heinz refuses to accept the hologram as reality, proclaiming “Memories aren’t an escape!”, this realization comes too late. The Corona and its crew are destroyed in the blast generated to break away from Eva’s ship and Heinz is sucked out into space. In the final frame of the film, Heinz is drifting away from the rose-shaped wreckage, holographic rose petals floating in his helmet.

Throughout Magnetic Rose, both men are motivated by their desires – for Miguel, the desire for the mysterious Eva, and for Heinz the desire to be reunited with his daughter. Because both desires only lead to destruction, the viewer is left with ‘a sense of the emptiness of desire’ [2]. Furthermore, the fact that both of these desires are impossible to attain – both Eva and Heinz’s daughter are dead – speak to the inherent danger of memory and nostalgia.

Magnetic Rose contains several themes that Kon Satoshi moves on to explore in his later work; reality and illusion, as represented by the holograms, and memory and nostalgia, as represented by Heinz’s daughter. However, the character of Eva Friedel contains the clearest link between Magnetic Rose and Kon’s later work. More than an embittered woman, Eva herself was a victim. An opera singer, Eva lost everything – the admiration of her fans and the love of her fiancée – when she lost her voice. His murder and Eva’s subsequent retreat into the space station represent both an act of vengeance and an attempt to preserve the memory of her former glory. In particular, the numerous images of Eva that cover the interior of the ship, old news clippings, and the holographic representations of her fans have a strong connection to Kon’s next project Perfect Blue.

Ah, this dinner is zehr gut, could you pass the ketchup?

For me, Magnetic Rose does fall prey to one of the more amusing characteristics of anime. The names and characterization of the characters are quite ridiculous. The name of the ship, Corona, makes me think of the beer and the characters sport names like Ivanov and Miguel (you know, to represent how international the crew is). Heinz is the best example of this. His blonde hair, blue eyes, and hulky build identify him as foreign. When we are transported into his memory of home, German music plays in the background. Clearly, with a name like Heinz, he must be German (or a member of the ketchup dynasty).

Joking aside, Magnetic Rose alone represents a strong addition to the anime genre. The animation and mecha designs are top notch and the story is absolutely fantastic. It is also a short and easy introduction to Kon Satoshi. Highly recommended.

Coming up next is Perfect Blue.

Works Cited

Napier, Susan J. “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi,” Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements With Japanese Animation. Ed. Steven T. Brown. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.

Alright, I realize that by doing something like this I am going to be revealing just how much of a nerd I am to everyone who reads this blog. However, considering my last blog post mentioned that I have history-induced orgasms, I guess I’m not fooling anyone into thinking that I am coolness personified.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of critical essays and reviews on the works of Kon Satoshi, who has recently passed away. (To read a translation of his final words, please visit Makiko Itoh’s blog.)

These will be the first Japanese anime reviews that I have ever posted on this page. You will see that this is not because I don’t watch anime. In fact, I have seen more anime than I care to admit. I was obsessed with anime and manga for the majority of high school. The reason why I tend to keep this under wraps is because I don’t want people’s perception of me and my essays to be clouded by this fact. Let’s face it, anime fans have a horrible reputation (and not undeservedly so) and I already have to contend with enough comments calling me ‘Wapanese.’

Anime is a fairly big deal in the United States. Anime and other forms of Japanese pop culture play an enormous role in influencing the way the younger generation of Americans perceive Japan, and for that reason it is probably one of Japan’s most powerful exports (in terms of soft power). However, the distribution of anime does not necessarily lead to a more informed or accurate view of Japan or the Japanese people. No one is going to develop a deep understanding of Japan through watching big-breasted school girls or giant robots. In terms of cultural understanding AND film studies, anime is mostly consumerist crap that facilitates escapism (trust me on this, I’ve seen a lot).

One of the exceptions is Kon Satoshi. Like Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, the works of Kon Satoshi not only hold their own against the classics of live-action cinema but also show us the potential of anime as a serious filmmaking genre.

Kon Satoshi (1963-2010)

In light of the impact and importance his work has had on the genre, Kon Satoshi’s filmography may seem surprisingly small. It includes:

  • ‘Magnetic Rose’ from Memories (1995) – writer
  • Perfect Blue (1998) – director and animator
  • Millennium Actress (2001) – writer, director and animator
  • Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – writer, director and animator
  • Paranoia Agent (2004, a 13-episode series) – director
  • Paprika (2006) – writer and director

Kon’s last work The Dream Machine will be released posthumously in 2011.

Perfect Blue (1998)

Kon explored a number of themes in his work – the tenuous relationship between reality and illusion, the subjective nature of perception, the power of memories and nostalgia, Japanese history and society, the female image, and an unrelenting examination of psychology.

My first experience with Kon Satoshi was back in 2000 (I was 13). I had recently been exposed to Japanese anime and this was around the time that mainstream retailers like Blockbuster began to carry anime titles. I was happily devouring as much anime as I could get my hands on and rented Perfect Blue.

It blew me away.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Not only did Perfect Blue fuel my interest in the anime genre, I list it as one of the films that has had the most impact on me personally. Along with films like Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Perfect Blue has had a profound impact on how I appreciate and analyze cinema. Shortly after watching Perfect Blue, Kon’s Millennium Actress was released on DVD in America (I actually preordered it, lame). Kon’s deeply touching and nostalgic exploration of Japanese history and cinema motivated me to explore other genres of Japanese filmmaking. I can honestly say that the works of Kon Satoshi had a major influence in how I became the person I am today.

The force and impact of Kon Satoshi’s work not only transcend the boundary between animation and live-action filmmaking but have expanded the limits of the anime genre. As a fan, I know that his death will be deeply felt – within the anime industry as well as the film genre, internationally as well as domestically.

I will be reviewing Kon Satoshi’s work chronologically. Because all of his work has a strong thematic unity, I believe that watching and studying his work in chronological order reveals his stylistic development as a director and how key themes have been developed and expanded upon over the course of his career.

That said, the first review is the ‘Magnetic Rose’ episode from Otomo Katsuhiro’s Memories (1995).