Sunday, March 27, 2016

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 13

The sun shone beautifully today, Easter is upon us, overall spring has been off to a pretty calm and gentle start. So before I start looking for dramas to watch during this spring season, I wanted to sum up the dramas that provided me welcome distractions during the winter. This time around I watched 'Wakamonotachi' and 'Dr. Rintaro' with English subs. Since I watched 'Naomi to Kanako' as it aired in Japan, I caught it with Japanese subs.

 若者たち (Wakamonotachi/Young People/All About My Siblings) - Fuji TV/2014

Much like 'Shinya Shokudo', 'Wakamonotachi' has a very folksy and infectious theme song that evokes nostalgia, wandering, and feelings of home. Each episode of 'Wakamonotachi' starts with a lengthy montage of Tokyo life set to said theme song, which is Moriyama Naotaro's "Wakamonotachi". The titular young people are a family of five siblings who grew up and still live together in the same house in Shitamachi, Tokyo. Asahi, the workhorse and eldest brother, dropped out of high school to raise his siblings when their parents passed away. He tries to play both brother and father to his siblings, which not only stresses him out but also causes contention between them. Satoru, the second oldest brother (played by Eita from 'Saikou no Rikon'), re-enters the family after having spent some years in jail. Hikari (played by Mitsushima Hikari from 'Woman'), is the only sister in the family and the only person so far to successfully go to college and start a professional career. She's passionate about her work as a NICU nurse, but is suspiciously involved with her supervisor. Haru, the second youngest, runs a young adult theatre troupe whose actors don't always appreciate his style of leadership. And baby brother Tadashi is a somewhat aimless high school student.
'Wakamonotachi' isn't a topical drama per se, but through examining out how these siblings survive as a family while contending with each other's personalities, dreams, and secrets, the show manages to touch on various current issues. These include unemployment, shotgun weddings, affairs, abortion, raising special needs children, stealing from the elderly, having a convicted felon in the family, and revenge porn. But no matter what they face or how much they want to strangle each other sometimes, what remains is that the Sato family loves hard. This drama teaches viewers that when you're struggling, or if you've really messed up, don't try to handle it alone. Family is there to call you out on BS and straighten you out, but they're also there to cry with you and help you persevere through trying times. They help bear your burdens, and not letting them stand by your side and share your pain is like spitting in their faces.

ナオミとカナコ (Naomi to Kanako/Naomi and Kanako) - Fuji TV/2016

Naomi (Hirosue Ryoko from 'STARMAN') is a luxury brand salesperson and Kanako is a housewife. They've been best friends since college, and one day Naomi discovers that Kanako's husband Tatsuro has been beating her up. However, Kanako's reluctant to report him, so Naomi comes up with the idea to kill him so that Kanako can be free. No, this is not a joke and yes, they do go through with this plan. Through her job, Naomi becomes acquainted with a Chinese undocumented immigrant named Li who's the spitting image of Kanako's husband, and so they do a switcheroo. They dress him up, teach him how to sign his name like Tatsuro, give him a copy of Tatsuro's passport, and have him take tons of money out of the bank to make it look like Tatsuro had been embezzling funds from his workplace before escaping to China. Once Li is off to his homeland, Naomi and Kanako strangle Tatsuro to death and bury his body in the boonies. Though the police let the case sit idle, Tatsuro's older sister and Naomi's work superior Yoko (Yoshida Yo from 'Koinaka'), is relentless once she realizes that something's not quite right about her brother's disappearance or Naomi and Kanako's behavior.

And who could blame her? The duo makes it so annoyingly easy for Yoko to be suspicious of them, because they repeatedly make rookie mistakes! Like happily going on a trip together right after being questioned by the police and Tatsuro's workplace, instead of laying low. Or like forgetting that security cameras exist and not trying to avoid them or get possession of the footage after having done the deed. Murder and clumsiness aside, this show hammers at the value of self-sacrifice and loyalty in friendships. Naomi and Kanako might not be skilled assassins but they are women who support each other, ride-or-die besties no matter how mired the mess gets. This show also emphasizes how important it is for people to get out of situations that hinder their well-being. Such is the content of the theme song "No More" by EXILE ATSUSHI + AI, which is JAMMIN'! Originally Hirosue Ryoko and the premise of 'Naomi to Kanako' are what hooked me, but a couple plot devices felt really cheap, and I'm still not sure how I feel about the phony Chinese accents (Chinese characters played by Japanese actors). I'd say watch it just to hear "No More" over and over again and to see how the scenario plays out.

Dr.倫太郎 (Dr. Rintaro) - NTV/2015

I actually finished 'Wakamonotachi' before 'Naomi to Kanako' had finished airing, so I picked up another older drama to fill in the gap. As a psychiatrist, Dr. Hino Rintaro's (Sakai Masato from 'Legal High') mission is to help the figurative lost sheep of this world find their way. He's sincere and sometimes uses unpopular methods, which is why most of his male colleagues don't care for him and why he hasn't been promoted despite a stellar performance record, published books, and TV persona as a trustworthy and friendly mental health professional. The show mentions various disorders caused by prevalent triggers in Japanese society and modern life, but again I wouldn't call it a topical drama. Workplace bullying, stress-induced sleepwalking, grief, gambling addiction, communicating with savants/children on the autism spectrum, and eating disorders among men are all vehicles used to display the progress of patients rather than to take stock of society as a whole. The standout patient is Aizawa Akira (Yuu Aoi), a woman with dissociative identity disorder who works nights as a geisha hustling guests out of their money. Her mom extorts her to pay her own gambling debts, and Akira obliges in hopes of finally earning her mom's love. Dr. Rintaro also has mommy issues, and no love life. That is, until he meets Akira. Maybe.

I must say that after watching him go from an obnoxiously petty but brilliant lawyer in 'Legal High', to a brilliantly compassionate psychiatrist in 'Dr. Rintaro', I am all the more impressed by Sakai Masato's skill as an actor. And at least one factor in the original broadcast's rating success is clear to me, because EVERYBODY'S in this drama. Granted, some of the dramas I'm about to list aired after 'Dr. Rinaro', but still.You've got Yuu Aoi from Hula Girls and 'Wakamonotachi'. Kichise Michiko from 'Hirugao' and 'Otona Joshi'. Uchida Yuki from 'Naomi to Kanako'. Takashashi Rin from '5-ji kara 9-ji made'. Takahata Atsuko from 'Naomi to Kanako'. Yo Kimiko from 'FIRST CLASS 2' and 'Wakamonotachi'. Kenichi Endo from 'Kekkonshiki no Zenjitsu ni'. Chances are, if you've been watching J-drama for a while, you'll recognize a few faces.

This round's best pick is a tie between 'Wakamonotachi' and 'Dr. Rintaro'. The former was intriguing to me as a family-oriented only child, and the latter added to the little that I understand about mental health in Japan. However, as usual I would recommend all three. Until next time!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Zootopia - Try Everything and Stop Racial Profiling.

Let me set confess something to you. I'm a child of the '90s, the renaissance age of American animation. Disney Renaissance films especially informed how I saw the world as a young girl, and how I valued music and expression and worlds displayed in color. The Lion King has been my favorite movie since preschool. Watching the TV cartoon 'Madeline' in kindergarten is what inspired me to study French and go to France. Discovering anime on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in high school inspired me to study Japanese and go to Japan. The work of animators has tremendously blessed the trajectory of my life, and so I will always have a profound respect for animated works of art. Which is why I feel no qualms about taking my single, childless, 20-something, college graduate self to see family films meant for kids. Big Hero 6? Inside Out? The Book of Life? I was there for all of them, and Zootopia was no different.

I must admit that it's somewhat pitiful that in 2016 Disney still has to use anthropomorphized animals acting out society and urban life in order to get folks to want to practice an idea that's so simple: treat people with the respect and consideration they're due simply for the fact that they're PEOPLE. But I've been hearing and reading so many wonderful things said abut this film, and if this is what it takes for some folks to finally take a hint and pass it on to their kids, then I'm all for it.

Seen Friday, March 18th: Zootopia

In a world where predators and prey have evolved to no longer bear enmity toward each other, the metropolis of Zootopia is celebrated as the bastion of inter-species harmony. A hopeful and idealistic bunny named Judy Hopps leaves her rural hometown to pursue her dream of being a cop in the big city, but no one takes her seriously because of her small stature. In the face of discouragement coming from without and within, Judy strives to prove that police work is not just for large mammals, while at the same time confronting her own prejudice when a hustling fox named Nick Wilde becomes her unlikely partner in solving a missing animals case. 

What I really like about this film: It approaches so many currently relevant issues, with enough cues for conscientious adults to recognize what's really being talked about, and enough grace to make it enjoyable and comprehensible for children. The list of worthy lessons and messages that the film offers likely varies by who you ask. But if you ask me, here are the points that I picked up on:

Growing up and starting your first "real" job. Leaving your hometown to chase your dreams in a big city. Believing in yourself and thriving despite having been constantly told that you can't do something simply because of who you are, what you are, and/or where you've come from. Overcoming past conflict and trauma to not use negative interactions as an excuse to judge and mistreat people who happen to be part of the same group as your aggressors. Workplace discrimination. Racial profiling. Government authorities planting drugs, targeting a specific minority population in order to simultaneously demonize and destroy them, whilst bolstering their own political power. Giving a REAL and sincere apology when you do/say something stupid or inconsiderate to offend your fellows, regardless of how good you thought your intentions were. Confronting your own privilege and prejudice. And accessibility for all bodies! From elephants to mice, every single animal in this movie had entrances/exits, transportation, buildings, neighborhoods, clothing, and services formatted in some way to accommodate their size, speed, stature, and overall way of life. A utopia indeed. 

My most favorite scene is the scene where Judy and Nick go to run a license plate at the DMV, which is operated entirely by sloths. Literal. sloths. I laughed until I cried watching this trailer, and I reacted the exact same way watching the scene over again in the movie theater. The sloths were so good-natured and unbothered by the need for expediency that it made my sides hurt.

What I don't like about this film: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. However, I'm just now realizing that Zootopia was overwhelmingly a mammal's world, as I don't recall seeing any birds, insects, or lizards/reptiles. Not sure why that is, but to me that's more curious than complaint-worthy.

Would I recommend it?: Without a doubt. While I don't condone parents letting TV, phone, and computer screens raise their children, if someone were to put together a "How to Raise Your Kids to Be Good People, Believe in Themselves, Fight Injustice and Willfull Ignorance, and Actively Appreciate Other People's Differences" starter pack, Zootopia would be one of the first materials that I'd throw in. Heck, look at how people in America have been showing their behinds, especially in this election year. Adults and adolescents need a refresher course too! Much like Inside Out, this is a film that all can learn something from.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

BOOKS! (The Orphan Master's Son)

Pretty simple motivations for reading this one. Spotted this novel on one of the display tables when I still worked at the store. I saw that it was well-esteemed and about North Korea, so I bought it. In high school I brought Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to my school, I took a Korean history course as a college sophomore, around that same time I read Kim Young-Ha's Your Republic is Calling You, I was super into K-pop and K-drama from 2009-2013, and I have friends who study South Korea/North Korea relations. So while North Korea isn't a particularly passionate interest of mine, I can't help but be curious about it. And I won't say that this book ended up being one of my favorites ever, but my reading experience was very similar to when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude; once I cracked it open, I was hooked. It's full of action and suffering and hidden desires and deceit, and I always had to know what would happen next. To the point of cancelling plans, I spent most of this week with my nose buried in this book, and I regret nothing.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Part One gives us the third-person perspective of Jun Do, a North Korean boy who grows up in an eastern coastal town. After his mom was stolen away by the government to be an opera singer in Pyongyang, Jun Do was raised by a single father (the titular Orphan Master) who took up running an orphanage to protect what remained of his small family.

Ironically, Jun Do's work serving the fiercely proud and secluded North Korean regime increasingly exposes him to the outside world and what he might be missing. He spends his adolescence as a soldier in underground tunnels, going beneath the DMZ to resurface many times in Seoul, a city that seems to be in the future. He's then recruited to help kidnap people in the same way his mom was kidnapped, except his team steals people away from Japan. As a reward for turning in a fellow soldier who tried to stay in Japan, Jun Do is sent to an English language school before being posted on a fishing ship to intercept and record radio messages transmitted by other countries. He's even taken on a diplomatic trip to Texas as an interpreter. But even consistently following orders and repeatedly resisting the temptation to defect don't keep Jun Do safe, and Part 1 ends with him being deposited into a prison mining camp upon returning to North Korea. No one, not even the most devoted to the regime or the highest up in its elite ruling class, is safe from denunciation, torture, or erasure.

Part Two alternates between three voices. In addition to Jun Do's third-person narrative, we have national PA announcements (as introduced in Part One) which set the tone for the government's spin on current events and Jun Do's story. Lastly, we have the first-person reflections of a nameless torturer ("interrogator") who leads part of the division in Pyongyang that's assigned to question and punish Jun Do for impersonating Commander Ga, one of North Korea's most respected athletes and military personnel. This second part of the novel has the reader invested not only in Jun Do's fate, but also the fate of the "national actress" named Sun Moon. What started as a joke tattoo of her face on Jun Do's chest morphed into a desperate fandom, into an obsession, and finally into an indefatigable (and one-sided?) sincere love for her on Jun Do's part. Having projected his shortcomings and strife onto her, he idealizes her as both a maternal savior and as the woman of his dreams. He goes so far as to infiltrate her home and appoint himself as her replacement husband, determined to free her from the confinement of being Commander Ga's wife and Kim Jong Il's favorite female companion. I'll let you find out for yourself who makes it out alive, and in what fashion.

In the North Korea that Adam Johnson presents, stories are paramount. They sustain people's identities, they keep people alive, they apportion value to some and condemnation to others, they make it so certain things never happened and certain people never existed. And because people here survive by demonstrating complete harmony between themselves and the state, every character's story in The Orphan Master's Son is marked by some sort of loss, and everyone masks or stifles some part of their true selves. Jun Do desperately wants to know who he is and yearns for some sort of control over what happens to him. The interrogator craves sincere human connection and wants to know that his life story means something beyond the brutality he uses to piece his victims' biographies together. And Sun Moon, rather than being forced to appease and entertain the men around her, wants to be able to live a simple life and make art on her own terms. Each of these characters manages to reclaim power in their own way, but not before confronting their status as property of the state.

Favorite quote:
"I couldn't get that brand out of my mind. I saw it scalding red and bubbly across Commander Ga, I imagined its scars, ancient and discolored, running down the thick backs of all the old Pubyok, I saw Q-Kee's perfect body disfigured by it, a burn from neck to navel, splitting the breasts toward the sternum, the belly, and below. I didn't use my Pubyok badge to board the subway's priority seating car. I sat with the average citizens, and on all their bodies, I couldn't help but see 'Property of' in raised pink letters. The mark was on everyone, only now could I finally see it. It was the ultimate perversion of the communist dream I'd been taught since childhood" (401).

Friday, March 18, 2016

3rd Note About Everyday Writing

Okay, so "everyday" writing has become more like "once or twice a week" writing.

Don't misunderstand, I'm engaged in the act of writing every single day. Writing songs, jotting down notes from daily Bible readings, annotating books as I read them and then writing reviews on this blog, jotting down Japanese words and translations while I watch J-dramas for listening practice, writing emails, writing movie and J-drama reviews on this blog, and maybe a few other things that I'm forgetting. It wasn't until I decided to insert a little creative writing back into my life that I realized that I'm already writing all the time as it is. I don't know why I just had to add to it with this "Everyday Writing" challenge. But I was up late and greatly inspired when I made that decision, and even though I'm not as consistent as I'd like to be I don't want to stop. If I can respond to 1-3 prompts a week, then I'm okay with that. Now, onto what I've learned.

The biggest lesson I've learned during these past two weeks is that drawing material from my own life is an excellent tool to get and keep those creative gears turning! In no way do I mean just writing about myself all the time, though sometimes a personal story bests suits the prompt at hand. For me, it's difficult to just come up with something out of the blue, especially if a prompt involves situations/phenomena/objects that I either don't care about or I'm not personally familiar with. When I try to write something from nothing, it feels forced, I end up trying too hard, and the work ends up feeling quite empty. But if I can make something about the prompt even the slightest bit familiar to me, like the motivation behind why a character decides to rename herself, or the name of the place where a character gets gypped out of paying too much for parking, that makes all the difference. That little sliver of familiarity helps ground me as the writer of the story, and I no longer feel like I'm desperately grasping at straws. Once I've set this sort of home base, I feel more confident being playful and venturing into the unknown as I write. And I find the story flows better too. So, to sum it up, this fortnight's lesson is to draw from what you know and use that as a springboard to be imaginative and push yourself!

And lastly, my favorite prompt this time around was the wackiest one and the most fun to respond to:

WPTDS #8: What if?
What happens next? You figure it out.

A schizophrenic patient who thinks he/she is Jesus escapes from a mental health institution. Write what happens next.

Happy writing! See you in two weeks!

Friday, March 4, 2016

2nd Note About Everyday Writing

Alright! So it's been two weeks. What have I learned?

First. As I suspected, writing every single day is a lot harder to keep up than I'd anticipated. Maybe it was unrealistic to begin with? Dunno. Anyway, rather than a hard-and-fast rule, I keep writing everyday in mind as a goal to keep me motivated to just write something. Like drinking a gallon of water everyday. It'd be nice to achieve, but if I don't check it off completely, it's not the worst thing in the world. As long as I'm taking time to jot down ideas multiple times a week, then I'm okay with that. Which brings me to my next point.

Second. "Writing everyday" doesn't have to mean "finishing a story everyday". Especially not if I want the story to be halfway decent, and if I want to have even a semblance of a life outside of my journal. To be honest, during these past two weeks I've only completed six of Steph Buchanan's Writing Prompts that Don't Suck. This is due in part to a laziness and lack of ideas, but it's also due to the fact that I had to spread the writing out. In fact, two of the stories I wrote took me three days each to complete! I don't like feeling rushed when I'm trying to do things well, and I  guess this creative writing thing is no different.

Third and last. I've decided against sharing any more of my responses to prompts. Unless I happen to write something super short. Maybe. Dunno. Instead, every two weeks I'll post my favorite of the prompts that I completed during that length of time. My favorite for this week was the most difficult for me to write, and it's the story that I felt most invested in while writing it:

 WPTDS #4: Beginnings and Endings
Start with: Every morning, she wrote down another reason not to nuke the planet. 
End with: She found that the green glass complimented her decor quite nicely. 

Here's to another two weeks. Happy writing!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

BOOKS! (The Handmaid's Tale)

This is my 50th book review, Women's History Month has just begun, and coincidentally The Handmaid's Tale is my most recent read. During my time at the store, a handful of high school customers repeatedly recommended this book to me with particularly earnest enthusiasm, so I bit. The girls pressed it upon me as if it would be in the interest of my future safety and well-being to read it; I needed to arm myself with it, just in case. Which sounds silly, but now I understand why they were so passionate and serious about this book. Apparently this offering from Canadian writer and activist Margaret Atwood is a staple in feminist literature and high school English/language arts curricula.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 

Men in the United States are bored and dissatisfied with modern times (not too long after the 1980s), feeling like there weren't enough structures in place for women to make them feel manly and stroke their egos. So a militarized Christian fundamentalist entity called the Sons of Jacob trashes everything and creates a totalitarian, paternalistic, woman-hating "utopia" called the Republic of Gilead, initiating a civil war at the same time. Within the first few weeks they assassinate the people in power, take over the US government, order that all women be relieved of their jobs, and eliminate their access to their own bank accounts, making them dependent on the men around them from the jump. And that's only the beginning.

Gileadean society is organized so that women are allowed only severely limited roles, which revolve around the interests of men and are color-coded by dress. Women are either Commanders' Wives in the new ruling class (blue), said Wives' daughters (white), widows (black), Marthas (cooks, housekeepers, servants; green), rotating Handmaids assigned to each household as concubines to produce children for the Commanders and their Wives (red), the Aunts who train the Handmaids before they're dispatched to their two-year posts (brown),  or prostitutes in secret government-run brothels. Women who are too incorrigible or of negligible use to be incorporated into society at large are deemed Unwomen (grey), relegated to cleaning up bodies and toxic waste in Colonies where they eventually die from exposure. The threat of being killed or sent to the Colonies constantly looms over Handmaids' heads especially, because if they can't produce a healthy baby within six years, they are discarded. (Infertility is solely the women's fault under Gileadean law. Three strikes, you're out.) This society is founded upon an ingrained and institutionalized mistrust of women, under the guise of protecting their virtue, removing distractions, and making life less complicated for them.

All of this is explained to us by Offred, the Handmaid who narrates the novel. She has lost her career, her home, her husband, her child, her mother, her best friend, and her name, and in order to survive imprisonment and retain her sense of self, she tells her story to a non-existent listener. She knows that things weren't always this way, and holding onto that knowledge is one of numerous forms of her quiet resistance. Offred's determined to survive this. As such, the conscious act of remembering who she was and what the world was like before gives her the resilience to hope that this nightmare will end within her lifetime. Though a supposedly new and improved structure, women here are still forced to perform the same roles as before: wife, maid, mistress, whore, chaste vessel, silent companion, mother, mother-to-be, mother-to-be-eventually or else. The world of this novel is extreme, but the expectations and perceptions placed on women aren't altogether different from the ones women have faced today, in the '80s, and long before then. The Republic of Gilead just makes it so everything is done strictly and overzealously according to men's whims, militarizing the operation and calling it Nature's norm, under which women either comply or die.

Another aspect that's not altogether unfamiliar is the fact that men in The Handmaid's Tale are consistently, pitifully, dedicatedly clueless about women's suffering, assuming that better for men means better for all, or simply not deigning to care about how the women around them feel. Like, why would you try to run away or kill yourself? Sure you're locked in your room all the time except for when you have permission to run errands, or when you're required to have sex with the Commander of the house while his Wife watches, and you're not allowed to read or write or wear what you want or go where you want or converse freely with other women, and your sole value to society is being able to produce children that will be seized from you. But hey, you've got a nice house to live in, you don't have to work, and you don't have to desperately vy for male attention anymore, so what do you really have to complain about? You get to focus on praying and making babies all day! What's the problem?

Atwood makes a chilling point in the epilogue that, "no new system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter" (305). This is one of the ideas that stands out to me the most in this book. The point of this novel isn't "Men suck! Women, beware and be ready!" (Although, if that's what you take from it... you know, stay woke by any means.) Rather, I think what Atwood calls readers to do first and foremost is to contemplate what in the Republic of Gilead speaks true to our existence at present. What kind of seeds are being planted and codified into law? What's so dangerous and terrifying about women having agency over themselves or any kind of authority over others? What are we sacrificing, and who are we devaluing in the name of preserving men's egos? Why can't we just let people (and yes, women are people too) live?

Chile. Margaret Atwood is cold for this one. She calls out all the BS, and just when you don't think the conditions of this dystopia can get any worse, they do. The Handmaid's Tale is a brilliantly disturbing work with a strong sense of purpose. It's one of those classics that I wish I'd known about sooner. Would highly recommend this book to all people. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Favorite quotes:
"Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. Even when there is no one. A story is like a letter. Dear You, I'll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one. You can mean thousands. I'm not in any immediate danger, I'll say to you. I'll pretend you can hear me. But it's no good, because I know you can't" (39-40).

"I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping" (73-74).