Sunday, November 28, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki dabbled with plucky women in his anime previously, most notably with the character of Fujiko Mine in the Lupin III series – see The Castle of Cagilostro (1979) just for starters.

He also had younger heroines like the Pippi Longstockingesque Mimiko in Panda! Go Panda!

But in 1984, in Kaze no Tani no Naushika (風の谷のナウシカ Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), with Nausicaä herself – the heroine of this sci-fi/post-armageddon action/fantasy tale, and saviour of the world it chronicles – we see the tell-tale signs of female strength that invade later Miyazaki classics like Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (千と千尋の神隠し Spirited Away, 2001).

The story here revolves around a world treading water (rather than on the mend) a thousand years after the apocalyptic war that’s poisoned the environment. Scattered settlements fight to survive, and one of these is the peaceful Valley of the Wind. The people here are ruled over by an ailing king and his willful, charismatic daughter Nausicaä – and all soon find themselves in a struggle not only with menacing giant insects but against militias from rival kingdoms and the threat of a return to the destructive old ways.

Amidst the action, intrigue, prophecies and surreal toxic jungle set-pieces are another couple of Miyazaki’s favourite themes: an appreciation of and support for the natural world around us, fantastic flying machines, and a huge, destructive robot.

Most Japanese people you meet will know this movie, they’ve all seen it as kids (and often as adults), and many cite it when they talk about favourite anime movies in their lives.

It’s rated in the personal Top 5 for anime director Kenji Kamiyama (Eden of the East), and Tokyo DJ/producer Jin Hiyama rates Nausicaä as his second-favourite anime movie of all time. “It’s the combination and comparison of this grotesque world with her beautiful mind and her honesty,” he raves.

It also has one of the best, most memorable soundtracks ever composed by the prolific Joe Hisaishi (Hana-bi). I've lost count of how many times I've heard little kids and their parents humming the iconic theme music.

Still, there are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to Nausicaä.

For starters the earlier manga series (also by Miyazaki) is a far more comprehensive and telling journey.

“You must read the manga,” urges musician Lili Hirakawa. “While the movie is great, it doesn’t tell you nearly enough about this world."

Additionally, this ground-breaking movie originally entered the West back in the ‘80s via a badly dubbed and horrendously edited version on VHS called Warriors of the Wind – an excruciating cut that makes little sense and a bitter learning curve for both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, who've since insisted on a “no edits” overseas licensing clause.

The edits, however, have nothing on the cover.

That art (left) from the video cassette didn't even feature principle character Nausicaä at all - save for that lame ring-in in the top right-hand corner. Instead the foreground is dominated by a trio of males characters I'm pretty certain aren't in the film at any point, not even closeted away driving the tanks.

Fortunately an uncut and re-dubbed DVD version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, with (even better) the original Japanese dub and good English subtitles, became available around the world in 2005, although I picked up my copy earlier on from Studio Ghibli here in Japan.

And the verdict on the ‘real’ version, in spite of the disclaimers? Quite simply brilliant - just avoid that VHS predecessor at all costs.

© 1984 Nibariki - GH

Sunday, November 21, 2010

大奥: The Lady Shogun and Her Men

One of my books when I was a kid was Stan Lee’s 1977 tome, The Superhero Women - which included a short tale of his, illustrated by John Romita, that previously appeared in Savage Tales #1 (1971).

‘The Fury of the Femizons’ featured a gynecocentric warrior society.

Yep, you read right: gynecocentric. Ahhh, the el cheapo thrills of an online thesaurus; for those without one, "gynocentrism" roughly acquaints to matriarchal and it's my new vocab discovery of the day - possibly good for use bamboozling posh and/or pretentious people at glad-bag dinner parties. Or not.

Anyway, in this particular society women call the shots while the men-folk are there merely to sit pretty and display a peck or two.

A similar theme was used in the 1977 second season of Space: 1999 in the episode ‘Devil’s Planet’, in which Commander Koenig crashes his Eagle on a planetary penal colony, where he finds himself the prisoner of the voluptuous Elizia and her equally S&M-inclined female prison guards.

The notion even shaped up an ongoing skit (‘The Worm That Turned’, 1980) in the British comedy The Two Ronnies... in which Mars Bars were hilariously rebranded Pa’s Bars.

Of course, Women’s Lib in the 1970s helped to shake up the conventional male/female wisdom personified in the ‘50s and Mad Men, and these days women do happen to run huge corporations and direct Oscar-winning films.

In Japan, however, things can be a little different.

Women’s Lib never actually took root here and at times the traditional Japanese family image resembles something like Leave It To Beaver – dad out earning a buck (as well as often drinking and carousing at yakitori bars at night) while mum's stuck in the kitchen and raising the kids; alternatively you can see many of them treating themselves at cake shops in Jiyugaoka with their erstwhile maternal mates.

While there have been matriarchal societies in the past in which women held sway over the men folk – even in fiercely patriarchal Japan – the last attempt here was probably the Empress Jingu in the 3rd century, though the historical veracity of her reign is these days contested anyway.

Not so surprising, really, when the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “aided by a pair of divine jewels that allowed her to control the tides, she is said to have begun her bloodless conquest of Korea in 200, the year in which her husband died.” The divine jewels sound like fun.

More recently succession to emperor has been regulated by the Japanese Diet (Parliament) and the current law excludes women from the the process.

Which brings us to the new Japanese movie The Lady Shogun and Her Men, titled more simply Ōoku (大奥) over here and released in cinemas last month.

If you look up Ōoku on Wikipedia you get this explanation: "The Ōoku refers to the harem of Edo Castle, the section where the women connected to the reigning Shōgun resided."

Directed by TV veteran Fuminori Kaneko, the film stars Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale) as an alternate-reality 18th century shogun, and Arashi member Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters From Iwo Jima) as one of her gigolo-concubines, in a world decimated by an imagined disease that’s killed off most of the male population.

Think something a bit left-of-centre in shock/schlock value for local audiences.

It’s based on a more feminist, punchy manga by Yoshinaga Fumi (Ooku: The Inner Chambers) which had the smarts enough to win the 2009 James Tiptree Jr. Award for science fiction which expands or explores one's understanding of gender.

Yet this celluloid romp borders visually on an over-the-top J-Pop videoclip and while the script has all the hallmarks of a Japanese TV soapie (director Kaneko’s usual stomping ground), there are moments of fun and Shibasaki’s presence adds a deeper flavour.

For some of us, however, it feels like we’ve been here before – and honestly I think Ronnies Barker and Corbett did it better.

© 2010 The Lady Shogun and Her Men Film Partners

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Black Tokyo

I have two disclaimers I need to unravel hereabouts in order to set the record straight about me and Aux 88. The first one is that I'm a huge fan of the Detroit duo, and have been for well over a decade.

Also known as Tommy Hamilton (aka Tom Tom) and Keith Tucker, they've released through respected labels like 430 West, Submerge, Metroplex, Direct Beat and Studio !K7.

Too many of their releases are absolute classics, like Aux Quadrant on Direct Beat, which hasn't left my record crate in about 15 years; I also really dig the self-titled Aux 88 album they put out through Soundscape over here in Japan five years ago - it's hot.

So it should come as no surprise that I've been keeping an eye on the Black Tokyo project they're finally releasing through Puzzlebox this week on November 22nd... along with nifty associated furniture.

Fortunately I haven't been anywhere near disappointed; this is superb stuff.

While the name of the album itself is a wee bit misleading - after all this has been engineered and produced by two Americans from Detroit rather than persons Japanese residing anywhere near Tokyo - they get away with this by calling themselves Arashi Hoshino and Shin Muramatsudo here; also on board for the ride are bona fide local musicians Akiko Murakat and Erika Tsuchiya, and the opening track 'Intro (Japenesse)' has a nice monologue in nihongo over lush strings.

There are also track title references to Japan like Kyoto Station, Winter in Japan, Tokyo Telacom, Tokyo Drive and, yes, Black Tokyo.

Musically speaking the album brings together that classic Detroit techno sound along with the more riotous electro sensibilities and basslines that Aux 88 are famous for.

The title track references classic Detroit by the likes of Derrick May and Carl Craig, wrapped around vocal riffs Kraftwerk would be proud to claim, while Tokyo Drive is a crisp, bouyant reconsideration of classic electro and Electronic Cinema continues this theme with some floating/spacious vocal work-outs.

Then Stance (Interlude) again takes up the baton of lush strings from the opening number.

But for me it's the second and eleventh tracks, Groove Theory and Dragon Fly, that stand out here as something subversive and definitely ones to drop on a late night, up-for-it floor in order to mess with some headz.

I'm also a little biased, which brings me slap-bang into that second disclaimer I alluded to above.

When I recently rather cheekily bounced the idea off them about doing a remix for one of my Little Nobody tracks, Hamilton and Tucker promptly agreed.

Even more jaw-dropping was Tucker's extra added bonus comment that "the original mix sounds hot.” (Zounds!)

That mix - called The Condimental Op - is being released along with the Aux 88 rejig and another one by Chicago pioneer K. Alexi Shelby (Transmat/Trax/Warp) on old skool vinyl at the end of November 2010 through IF? Records, via British distributor Prime Direct.

It's already being spun, charted and is gathering steam thanks to support from Laurent Garnier, Trevor Rockcliffe, Alan Oldham, Inigo Kennedy, Kirk Degiorgio, Steve Poindexter, Jerome Baker, Lenny Burden, Mike Dehnert, Dan Curtin and Anthony Shakir.

Dave Clarke's also spun the Aux 88 remix on his radio show White Noise - twice.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Soon to be Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat

Melbourne (Australia) in the somewhat vaguely not-too-distant future. An alcoholic film-buff detective who smacks of vituperativity while leaning heavily on chemical dependency. An over-boiled world in climatic and moral decline, a mystery, a geisha, kanji clues, goats aplenty, several murders, the obligatory femme fatale, and an array of sweaty red herrings.

The novel I've been hacking away at for an absolute age (with huge thanks to Kristopher Young, Bob Young, and the crew at Another Sky Press in the US, plus insanely cool cover art by Scott Campbell), in the process helping me to shed 12kg over the past few months - an editing diet... nifty! - is about to be published next month.

If you're at all interested you can keep an eye on things on this sista/bruvva blog thingy: TSMG Updates.

In the meantime, if you haven't caught a glimpse of this flick (below) already, it's time you should - chances are it'll put you in solid with me once you do so, even if I'm ne'er the wiser. ;)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Old Skool Vinyl

Nope. We're not talking plastic shopping bags - which is what most Japanese think when you mention the word "vinyl", though it's pronounced something like veekneel over here.

I'm also not really interested in skirting the territory of the derivatives of ethene (CH2=CH2, with one hydrogen atom replaced with some other group), which is the scientific guff talked up on Wikipedia if you google vinyl.

The issue here is that other vinyl, a gramophone or phonograph record (yes, they do still make 'em), the analogue sound storage medium consisting of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove.

Here I'm also plundering directly from Wikipedia (sorry, but it's 4:20 a.m. and my brain isn't functioning enough to be inventive in any way), though I did fix analog so it reads as analogue.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, the picture above slapped around my senses - old skool vinyl, in particular a little flattened black nugget my label IF? will now be releasing through Prime Direct in the UK at the end of November.

It's one of my Little Nobody tracks, 'The Condimental Op' (I actually nicked this from a chapter title in my upcoming hack novel), with remixes by Detroit’s superb old skool vets Aux 88 (430 West/Submerge/Direct Beat/Studio !K7) and Chicago legend K. Alexi Shelby (Transmat/Studio !K7/Djax-Up-Beats/Trax/Warp/Artform) kind'a all going back to the source: Pure electro/techno, 2010s style. Well, me likes to methinks, anyway.

It's already been spun, charted and is gathering a wee bit of steam thanks to support from Dave Clarke, Laurent Garnier, Shin Nishimura, Trevor Rockcliffe, Alan Oldham, Inigo Kennedy, Kirk Degiorgio, Dan Curtin, Steve Poindexter, Jerome Baker, Mike Dehnert, Ryuji Takeuchi and Anthony Shakir.

This vinyl baby will be available from November 27th (incidentally my mum's birthday!) via Prime, but you can get a sneak preview (in lovely lower-res audio) here: