New Haruki Murakami Book

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For those readers out there, another one of the world’s current great authors, Haruki Murakami, also has a new book out.  It’s called Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  My favorite three books of his are probably Kafka On the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  I think that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his masterpiece, but Kafka On the Shore is probably the best place to start as it is more accessible.

For anyone that has seen a David Lynch movie, Murakami has the same sense of the uncanny that Lynch has.  He has the ability to make the everyday seem strange and haunting.

I spent time in Japan last year and I have been interested in their culture for a long time.  After going there I read a little bit about their culture.  Because they have stricter rules than us concerning personal interaction they are more comfortable with ambiguity.  There is a certain amount of ambiguity and abstraction even built into their language.  Often what is meant is inferred by body language and facial expression, instead of being overtly expressed.  I’ve commented before that this plays a role in their art.  If you watch any movies that are wildly popular in Japan, they will seem much more surreal than our popular entertainment.  Anyone that has seen movies like Spirited Away can attest to that.  Murakami’s work, although it can be extremely realistic at times, also has many moments of this surrealism as well.

I love art that has a certain dream logic to it, as I often see the world as being dreamlike.  If this is something you find yourself drawn to then I highly recommend that you check out Murakami’s work.

The Beautiful Strange World of Hayao Miyazaki

Don’t call him the Walt Disney of Japan: How animator Hayao Miyazaki became a cultural icon by doing everything Pixar doesn’t http://www.salon.com/2014/06/23/dont_call_him_the_walt_disney_of_japan_how_animator_hayao_miyazaki_became_a_cultural_icon_by_doing_everything_pixar_doesnt/ via @Salon

The above article is a really interesting one about the famous Japanese animator.  His films can appear very strange to the Western eye.  After traveling to and reading I have learned about how the Japanese are more comfortable with abstractions.  Abstractions are part of their everyday language.  Because of their complex social behavior they often speak in abstractions and convey certain nuances through how things are said and facial expressions. 

I love Miyazaki’s beautiful and surreal movies.  They are art and entertainment all in one.  If you are looking to go someplace you have never been give his films a try. 

Forging a New Reality

The other day, while traveling back to Texas from Pennsylvania, I met one of those people that you are thankful you ran across.  The man was a 72 year old man from Panama of partially Jamaican descent.  He exuded a positive energy and intelligence that I found rare on this foul day of travel. 

I had delays getting on and getting off of my first plane.  Right before the doors to my first plane opened a stewardess announced through the loudspeaker that all passengers that did not have immediate connecting flights should allow the passengers that did to get off first.  As soon as the door opened people were basically trampling each other to get off.  It was a prime example of the ugly American.  Having just been in Japan, where people value community above all else, I was thunderstruck by how selfish and greedy people were on the plane.  Most of them were white, middle aged, heavy set Americans.  Let’s just say that my faith in humanity was not at a high point!

On my second flight I began talking to the gentleman that I mentioned.  He had moved to Michigan, although he now lived in Houston because of his grandkids, and he taught foreign languages at the University of Michigan.  He spoke 8 different languages.  We talked about how to learn a foreign language, he swears, which is funny for someone that taught languages, that the computer programs like Rosetta Stone were actually the best way to learn a language aside from actually living in a foreign country.  This was because it was interactive and someone could learn at their own pace, much like in real life.

We also talked about Panama and the way that the U.S., even though he largely loved this country, has intervened harmfully in developing nations.  He was not blind to the bad things in the world. 

However, what was so amazing is that he possessed an unbelievable calm and thoughtfulness that was especially noticeable in the horrible traveling conditions that we were immersed in.  We got off the plane together and walked to baggage.  He thanked every single airport employee in a personal and kind manner for doing a good job and allowing him to travel that week.  You could see each and every person lighting up with a smile.   Who knows what he was really thinking, but his outward demeanor brought out kindness and warmth in others. 

When I was in Japan I noticed how polite everyone was.  Again, even if they were thinking the opposite, this politeness had a great effect on all those around them.  The way that they interacted became the reality. 

I am a long, long way from enlightened.  Someone even called me a malcontent once.  However, I hope to be able to treat people this way someday.  For regardless of our thoughts, it is our actions that can truly make life a better place.  Through compassion we can slowly form the reality that we wish to see. 

I Don’t Care What People Say Behind My Back

One thing I have never cared about is if people talk behind my back.  I just assume at some point that friends or even loved ones are going to say something negative about me when I’m not around.  It’s human nature.  A lot of people worry about this kind of thing, but not me!  Let them talk away.  No one is going to like everything you do, even if you are always trying your best.  To blow off steam at some point they are probably going to need to get something off of their chest.  I’ve probably been called every name in the book when I’m not looking.  But if I don’t know it happened, to me it never existed.

Now I’m not talking about people plotting something behind your back like stealing your girlfriend or preparing a practical joke of some kind.  Those are things that you might one day have to deal with.  Also, if there is something that I’m really doing that bothers someone, and I am unaware of it, I would hope that they would be honest and make me aware of it.  But again, I’m just talking about the good old human nature of shit talking and blowing off steam.

All that really matters is how people treat you.  In the realm of interpersonal relationships it is action that counts.   How many times have you had to go to some event for a friend that you just didn’t want to?  Probably while you were driving there you said something like, “Why the fuck did Bobby have his birthday party on a Tuesday!  Doesn’t that dumbass know that I have to be at work tomorrow?”  But Bobby has been a good friend overall so you soldier on despite how you feel.  Does making that negative comment negate the fact that in the end you did the right thing?  I don’t feel that it does.  In the end you burned off some of your negative energy, made your friend happy, and all is well, with your friend being pleasantly ignorant that his event put you out.  All people put us out at times.

When I was in Japan everyone smiled at me and was very outwardly kind towards me.  You find yourself smiling back even if you aren’t really in the mood.  These people could have been calling me a dumb American behind my back, but the way they treated me made me feel welcome even if I wasn’t.  In turn I was kind to them.  In some ways the action became the reality that was taking place, even if people were thinking different thoughts.

I’m not necessarily talking about being fake.  If you hate someone you might be polite, but you definitely don’t need to kiss their ass.  But often our emotions towards someone are complex.  We have friends that we love, but they do that one thing that drives us crazy.  As people we want that person to know that we love them, but we also might need to vent about what they are doing to someone else so that we aren’t mean to them in a way that they might misinterpret as being something more than a casual annoyance.  Again, human interactions are complicated!

So as long as people are nice to me I’m happy.  They can say whatever the fuck they want when I’m not around.  I’m a realist.  I expect that kind of thing to happen from time to time.  If I never find out about it, it is just taking place in some parallel dimension that I will never enter.

Dust Before the Wind

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple 
Echoes the impermanence of all things. 
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree 
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall. 
He who is proud is not so for long, 
Like a passing dream on a night in spring. 
He who is brave is finally destroyed, 
To be no more than dust before the wind.

From The Heike.  The Heike is a 13th century war tale from Japan.  The translation was done by P.G. O’Neil.  

Why do the Japanese Make Such Weird Movies?!!!

I have long loved certain kinds of Japanese anime, especially the Studio Ghibli films.  Watch the movie Spirited Away sometime.  Visually these movies are unlike anything in Western culture.  Often after viewing one of these movies several questions come to mind.  Are the Japanese taking a lot of acid?  How do the Japanese know exactly what my dreams are like after I eat a Cadbury egg right before bed?  I often wonder if things like Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse are as strange to the Japanese as their films are to us.  Is there something in their culture that makes these movies so popular in Japan?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have read part of two books about Japanese culture.  One is A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia.  The other one is called The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno.  I admit that I am only about 30% through the first one and I haven’t actually even gotten to the part about anime yet.  However, what follows is some guesswork on my part that I believe will turn out to be somewhat accurate.

The Japanese highly value social harmony.  Because of this their culture is infused with a great deal of ambiguity.  People will often say things that are vague so that the other party is not offended.  A good deal of the time you can infer what people mean by the way they say something and not by what is actually being said.  The closest example in our culture that I can come up with is from an episode of Married with Children.  On the show there is a situation that goes something like the following:  Al Bundy gets asked by his wife Peggy how she looks.  He can either tell her she looks good and then be forced to sleep with her, or he can tell her that she looks bad and get slapped.  Neither outcome is desirable.  Because of this he tells her that she looks nice.  Nice is a lukewarm meaningless compliment that can only be understood by how someone says it.  The Japanese use a great deal of this kind of language so that they can maintain social harmony.

There are also other reasons that the Japanese are comfortable with ambiguity.  Another reason is related to the roll of Zen Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture.  There are a series of brief stories that resemble riddles called koans.  The most famous one is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”  Another one is as follows:

Two monks were arguing about a flag.  One said, “The flag is moving.”  The other said, “The wind is moving.”  The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by.  He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag.  Mind is moving.”

These koans are supposed to be slightly confusing and ambiguous.  However, when you are confused you begin to think.  By thinking you can start moving towards enlightenment.

Another factor that might play into all of this is the way that the Japanese write.  Two of the Japanese alphabets, their culture uses three, are based on symbols.  Anyone that has seen the beautiful Japanese characters knows what I am talking about.  The Japanese do use our alphabet, but often when things are written in this alphabet this can be slightly confusing to the Japanese.  That is because their minds are trained to again read through symbols.  Reading is often a much more visual act for the Japanese.  Because of this the Japanese are a highly visual people.

So you combine a highly visual culture with people that are primed for ambiguity and that is my guess on how you arrive at strange cartoons that resemble acid trips.  Except for certain filmmakers like David Lynch, our cinema does not dive so regularly into that kind of abstract dream logic.  Unless of course we do drugs, which we sure have a lot of!

The Vivid Nightmare of Oldboy

The other night I watched the movie Oldboy.  It is a Korean film that plays with the norms of the revenge film.  It featured some of the most depraved film violence that I have ever seen.  Whatever you are expecting, from the revenge films that you have previously seen, you won’t see what’s coming at the end.  I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, which doesn’t necessarily translate to enjoyment. 

A careless drunken Korean businessman is imprisoned for 15 years.  Why he is imprisoned is the mystery that is at the heart of the movie.  Once he escapes he decides to solve this mystery and seek revenge on those that imprisoned him.  To tell you anymore of the plot would be to spoil it. 

To be honest I can’t say if I liked this film or not and I definitely can’t think of who I would recommend it to.  I have an extremely strong stomach for violence in cinema, and I found myself squirming at times.  Although there is graphic physical violence the emotional violence that takes place is every bit as harrowing, if not more so. 

What purpose does a movie like this serve in our culture?  It’s not escapist in nature.  Although the cinematography is really well done it is not a moving painting like certain works by David Lynch.  Although you could not call the film dumb, it doesn’t necessarily have any deep probing intellectual questions. 

However, to say the movie has no worth would be easy and probably not fair.  First of all, as previously stated it is a Korean film.  Although it steals from Western culture, it is not entirely based upon it.  There may be some misunderstanding on my part.  It was based on the Manga comics that are popular in Asia.  In Asia these comics are popular in ways that our comics are not.  When I was in Japan I saw many businessmen and other adults waiting for trains reading them.  I also have a book on Japanese folklore, while that obviously being a different culture than Korean culture, that’s tales of revenge were reverberating through my mind as I watched the film.  In the folklore book that I read there were many stories that started out with rules about honor, and once these rules were broken things descended into the most extreme forms of bloodshed. 

Also the film again plays with what we have come to expect from these kinds of films.  Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the ending doesn’t leave you with the satiated feeling that most revenge films leave you with.  In fact I think part of the idea of the film is a comment on revenge in film itself.  While most movies leave you feeling a sense of resolve, like loose threads have been tied, this one doesn’t.  In fact it leaves you almost feeling like you participated in a crime! 

I love the language of cinema and I love when movies play with conventions.  As long as a movie tries to do something original I try not to write it off.  I don’t like things that are shocking just to be shocking.  Something like the Saw movies holds no interest for me.  That being said many of my favorite movies are extreme in nature.  I enjoy when story tellers go into unexplored country, whatever the nature of that country might be. 

I do love well done genre films.  Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a film that I have been thinking about recently.  Despite it containing an array of horrors there is a dark Victorian beauty to it.  There may be no value to it in terms of learning anything about life, but it is a piece of art.  Every shot is like looking at a sculpture on a gothic cathedral. 

I also like movies that are well done as pieces of escapism.  Films that are so entertaining that you forget where you are and can relax for a couple of hours. 

All of that being said this is one of those rare times when I can’t decide if what I gazed upon watching Oldboy was good or bad.  I can’t tell if sitting through this movie had any artistic value or not.  Although it is fading in my mind every day, I know that parts of it will stick with me, like some half remembered nightmare.  Does glancing into a vivid nightmare enhance human experience at all?  I don’t know.  However, if you are looking for something you haven’t seen before, you may want to take the risk.