November 5, 2013
Probably like me you are intensely frustrated that the Wall Street bankers responsible for the ruination of the American economy haven’t been prosecuted, let alone gone to jail for their incredibly reckless, selfish, and massively destructive illegal acts.
Japan is hardly the perfect model for government- and self-regulation of a country’s banking system, but recently a scandal concerning one of its biggest banks, Mizuho, illustrates a sharp difference between how America and Japan treats dishonest lenders.
Essentially Mizuho broke the law by knowingly loaning money, about USD $2 million in small car loans, to organized crime, the Japanese Yakuza. Mizuho, incidentally, turned my wife and I down for a home loan seven years ago even with the substantial down payment and collateral we were offering, but I guess Mizuho thought gangsters a better class of clientele.
What’s interesting about this is the fallout from this scandal. Despite the puny amount relative to the Wall Street meltdown, here’s what’s been announced:
- The chairman of its banking unit will resign
- The president will work for the next six months without pay
- Thirty executives will get substantial pay cuts
- A dozen or so former executives will be required to return some of their financial compensation, presumably bonuses
- … and the Japanese Parliament may still take further legal action against the bank
Is this adequate punishment? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Japan’s conservative government and banking industry can impose punishments like this over a mere $2 million scandal, why can’t Congress go after Wall Street’s crooks who’ve cost the U.S. economy trillions?
November 5, 2013
Like a lot of you, I’m eagerly awaiting arrival of my copies of the latest Cinerama films on Blu-ray: Cinerama Holiday (1955) and Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958). I’ll be reviewing the latter for DVD Talk and the former, well … more about that later.
So excited about these am I that the other night I tooled around the Internet, curious about Cinerama exhibition here in Japan. I stumbled across a number of fascinating images. Here are are few that I discovered:
October 22, 2013
In my capacity as a cinema historian and writer of books about Japanese film, occasionally I’m asked to appear on a radio or television show to discuss my work. Sometime in 1996, while still living in Los Angeles, I was invited to appear on a Japanese television show filming at Universal Studios. Wrongly, I assumed I was invited to talk about my interests in Japanese movies and perhaps what was then my newly published book, The Japanese Filmography.
The night before the morning shoot, I received a telephone call from one of the producers, asking me if I wouldn’t mind bringing along my collection of kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) toys.
“Toys?” I asked.
“Yes, we understand you have a large collection of vintage Japanese toys relating to Godzilla and Gamera and all that.”
“I’m sorry,” said I, “But you’re mistaken. I have a few things I’ve picked up over the years, but not very much and certainly nothing spectacular.”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Oh. Well, could you bring everything you got anyway?”
I said, “Sure,” but was puzzled by this strange development. Until the following morning, that is, when I discovered that I wasn’t going to be interviewed at all, but rather somehow I had been volunteered to appear as a contestant on a Japanese game show called 『開運!なんでも鑑定団』(“Kaiun! Nandemo kanteidan”), that’s been airing on the TV Tokyo network since 1994. The show was such a hit at the time they were filming a special Hollywood edition for which I had become a bemused and reluctant participant.
The show, like most Japanese game shows, resembled a colossal, frantic pinball machine, and built around the premise that contestants would bring in family heirlooms, collectibles, and other treasures. They’d take a stab at guessing the item’s worth, and professional appraisers would determined their actual value. Sometimes an item believed to be worth mere hundreds of dollars turned out to be worth a hundred times that amount, but more often than not contestants went home humbled.
Sitting by my side were the show’s other Hollywood contestants, mostly transplanted Japanese and Japanese-Americans. One elderly American lady had brought pottery handed down to her through the generations, china that once had belonged to Commodore Matthew Perry, who in 1854 helped open Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa. A young Japanese couple brought another treasure that certainly caught my eye: an original 3-sheet poster for the American version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! And me? I had a box of plastic Godzilla toys that had been gathering dust on top of a bookcase. I slunked in my seat.
Sure enough, when I was called to the stage by the typically goofy-looking Japanese comedian hosting the Hollywood segments, I didn’t impress anyone with my meager collection of plastic Baragons and Mechani-Kongs. At least I correctly guessed their worth, about $300. The woman with the Commodore Perry pottery, on the other hand, was a big hit. She was clearly exactly what the show had been looking for: a little old lady utterly baffled by the comedian’s broad gestures, and genuinely startled by an appraisal so high they’d have to confirm the amount back in their studios in Tokyo. Could she leave for Japan tomorrow?
The items she had were indeed valuable. When the show’s producer sent me a VHS souvenir copy of show, I finally got to see her in the filmed-in-Japan segment, still looking as startled and nonplussed as she had at Universal. I didn’t come off too badly, but it’s not an appearance I’m anxious to see again anytime soon.
And yet, the most memorable part of the day had nothing to do with the show. Earlier that morning we all met in convention room space at the Universal Studios Hilton Hotel, where the crew and their equipment was based. After filming close-up insert shots of our family treasures, we were to take a little shuttle bus to the filming location, near the front of the park. I ended up standing next to two well-dressed, middle-aged Hispanic gentleman. They, it seems, were waiting for a similar shuttle bus headed elsewhere. They asked me what I was doing there, and I attempted to tell them my strange story. “Oh, we’re doing a television interview, too.” one of them said. “We’re musicians.”
Only as they boarded their bus did I recognize them as these guys, Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones:
To the disappointment of many, I did not take this opportunity to strangle them for their mind-searing contribution to popular culture.
October 20, 2013
Conventional wisdom is that after the disastrous government shutdown, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, led by Ted Cruz, would never try something so stupid and costly like that ever again.
I believe just the opposite is true that, having tasted so much power over the global economy, Cruz and his misbegotten bunch are emboldened to try the same stunt over and over.
Further, it seems to me Cruz may well be moving toward something I’ve not seen suggested anywhere else, but which already exists in another form right here in Japan.
The Japanese Diet consists of two houses of parliament. The current ruling party is the Liberal Democratic Party, which is literally neither. It’s basically the equivalent of the Republican Party in the United States, minus the international hawkishness. The Democratic Party here is more or less like the Democratic Party in Japan. Below that are a number of smaller parties with relatively few seats in the Diet: the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, as well as tiny boutique parties usually splintered off the Liberal-Democratic Party, such as the People’s New Party, which holds a whopping three of the 722 seats in both houses.
But here’s something to consider. The third most powerful political party in Japan for the last ten years or so has been the New Komeito Party, a religiously conservative group founded by members of the Soka Gakkai, the somewhat controversial Buddhist movement based on the teachings of Nichiren.
When I first moved to Japan in 2003 the New Komeito Party was at the peak of its powers because it had formed a coalition government with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This coalition dramatically undercutting the minority Democratic Party’s powers while at the same time increasing the New Komeito’s. The ruling Liberal Democratic got most of what it wanted, though much of the legislation it proposed required the approval support of the New Komeito Party in order to pass.
I think there’s a darn good chance that by the 2016 elections in the United States, something similar will emerge. I think Ted Cruz, or whomever is the Tea Party’s Flavor of the Month by then, will officially break away from the Republicans and form their own legitimate political party. Cruz presumably knows he hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever being elected president or even supporting the 2016 Republican ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate.
But, as the leader of a third political party forming a coalition government with the Republicans, he could yield all the same the kind of power and sway he did during the government shutdown. Non-Tea Party Republicans famously hate the man and have for some time trying to figure out how to rein him in. But if Cruz (and others) formed an actual third party, the reins would be off and he’d wield more power than ever, God help us.
I hope Cruz isn’t reading this.
October 18, 2013
Most of the time I function reasonably well with my admittedly pidgin Japanese, but sometimes when I’m at a shop or a restaurant the person I’m speaking to gets stuck on a particular word and hilarity ensues. Though my vocabulary is limited and my grammar worse, my pronunciation is actually pretty good so I think in most cases it has to do with the person suddenly looking up and being intimidated by this big foreigner trying to ask a question.
The Japanese word for lamb is ラム, or “ramu.” Couldn’t be easier, right?
But at the grocery store the other day I was in search of lamb chops and couldn’t find any, so I approached a middle-aged grocer stacking mackerel and asked, in Japanese:
“Excuse me, do you have any ramu?”
“Do you have any ramu?”
“Ramune?” (a Japanese soda pop)
“No, not that. Ramu.”
(In English) “Instant?”
(I, bemused) “No, no, no. Ramu. The meat. You know, ‘Baa Baa!’”
(At this point an English-speaking Japanese woman stepped in to help.)
(Her): “He wants ramu!” (pronounced exactly as I did)
“Oh! Ramu! Why didn’t he say so?”
October 17, 2013
Criterion announced today that it would be releasing an Ultra-Deluxe Blu-ray edition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Stanley Kramer’s gargantuan all-star comedy.
I first saw it on television, when it premiered as an ABC Sunday Night Movie (or some such thing) back in the 1970s. I had known of the film for several years, having read about it in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Comedy Teams and elsewhere. From Saul Bass’s animated opening titles, with its dizzying cast of comedy greats so densely packed together I could hardly believe my eyes, I fell in love the movie at once.
Through the years my own mad world continues to intersect with Kramer’s movie. When UA sold it to local TV markets I was horribly disappointed watching Mad World‘s premiere on WKBD-TV, channel 50 in Detroit. It ran on Bill Kennedy at the Movies, with hammy has-been actor and movie host Kennedy, once a minor Warner Bros. contract player, dominating the precedings at the expense of the film, which was cut by at least half and hour. I wrote an angry letter published in Mike Duffy’s Detroit Free Press‘s TV column, which prompted an angry reply from the station’s owner, who insisted they never cut movies. “Yeah, right,” was Duffy’s response, which only prompted many more letters from Mad World fans who knew the owner was lying through his teeth.
In high school I was very much involved with the school’s program of renting prints of recent movies shown in its modern, 1,000-seat auditorium. I lobbied hard for them to book a 16mm anamorphic print Mad World and eventually got my wish. (Rental: $150.) Despite my tireless promoting, less than 50 kids showed up. And why would they? They never heard of Milton Berle or Terry-Thomas or Spencer Tracy.
When I moved to California in 1993 one of the first things I did was hunt down as many of the film’s original shooting locations as I could find, and when a job I had at MGM was running out, I formally proposed to my boss that he create a new temporary position for me to launch a feasibility study on restoring Mad World, MGM being the film’s current owners. That didn’t happen but it did lead to a new job in their Technical Services division as a kind of a “movie detective,” tracking down lost film elements. I did, however, spend many hours pulling MGM’s files on the film, and I was able to piece together a timeline tracing its early release, when it was cut from its November 1963 premiere version of 197 minutes to its later, roadshow release version of 154 minutes by early 1964. Alas, all the notes I took went back into MGM’s files and I no longer remember much in the way of specifics.
I was also at the American Cinematheque for what will forever be Mad World‘s best-ever revival screening. Sid Caesar was there, along with co-stars Jonathan Winters, Peter Falk, Mickey Rooney, Edie Adams, Stan Freberg, Marvin Kaplan, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, a few stuntmen, and Karen Kramer, Stanley’s widow. Everyone was beaming with pride, Falk especially, who had a real spring in his step that evening.
The event was sold out, but somehow I wound up sitting next to a family of tourists who’d finagled last-minute tickets: a father, mother, and their two kids. Talking among themselves I realized they had never even heard of the movie before, and I slumped in my seat thinking they’d probably get bored and yack all the way through the picture. Instead, to my utter delight, they loved the film, laughing long and hard all the way through. I envy their getting to experience the movie for the first time under such optical conditions.
One last, peripheral Mad World story: One evening my pal Ted Newson and I decided to treat ourselves to a little late-night pie a la mode at a Burbank coffee shop that was a stone’s throw from where I once lived. It was a summer evening and we decided to sit outside, even though it was fast approaching midnight. Around this time in sauntered in one of the coffeeshop’s regulars, actor Marvin Kaplan. Ted suggested we stop by his table and say “Hello,” but given the hour I was reluctant to bother him. Fearless Ted went over to talk with him anyway, and I joined the conversation a few minutes later.
I don’t remember if Mr. Kaplan’s association with Mad World was ever even mentioned because instead we had an absolutely fascinating chat, mostly Ted and I listening to Mr. Kaplan, about his political activism within the Screen Actors Guild. We ended up talking until 3:45 in the morning, and left only because Ted and I got tired. For all I know Mr. Kaplan might still be there.
Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray, due in January, is the kind of thing Mad World fans have been dreaming about for years. The movie premiered at that 197-minute length, but that version was shown only in a few venues, and only for a couple of months. Probably to allow for more showings per day once it went into general release, UA and Kramer cut the film in late ’63/early ’64. However, due to the continued popularity of How the West Was Won and a few other high-profile Cinerama releases, Mad World didn’t open in many American cities until the spring of 1964, so in most cities even the roadshow version was cut and few ever had the chance to see the long version. Most current home video versions are the shorter, 154-minute cut, though some of these have restored the Overture, Intermission break, Entr’acte, and Exit Music. Back in the 1990s an attempt was made to restore the film for a VHS reissue and laserdisc release, but that version is not an accurate representation of the original premiere version, as it incorporated footage not seen in any publicly screened edition, though some footage of the long version is in there.
Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray promises to restore as much of the premiere version cut as possible, though some footage remains missing. Probably it’ll end up being something like Ron Haver’s superb reconstruction of the A Star Is Born (1954). Like that release, some scenes might have audio but no actual film footage, with animated photographs filling in the blanks. There’s going to be a ton of extra features, including an audio commentary track featuring Mike Schlesinger, Mark Evanier, and Paul Scrabo that I’m particularly anxious to hear.
This is one I’m going to Express Mail to Japan, so expect to hear from me again in late-January with my reaction. Can’t wait.
September 4, 2013
Once again I’ve been away from blogging for far too long. The reasons are many. For starters, I’ve been fiendishly busy over at DVD Talk, madly writing a bit less than one review per day, but it’s also been an embarrassment of riches, getting to write about such widely varied Blu-ray fare as Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), René Clément’s's The Damned (1947), Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance (1977), a DVD set of some terrible Charlie Chan movies, scads of TV, and that’s just within the last 10 or 15 days.
Kyoto’s cripplingly hot August was another factor. A decade of living in Japan, the summer of 2013 was the hottest I’ve lived through so far. Even with the air-con (as we call it here) on full-blast, it was still too hot to write upstairs in my office, forcing me to pen reviews at the much less ergonomic kitchen table. After a couple of hours writing up a DVD Talk piece, my lower back was in no mood to blog.
More distractions: About a month ago, my nearly six-year-old Sadie found a four-week-old kitten near death in front of her daycare. Yukiyo and I agreed she could rescue it and all three of us took it to the vet and eventually nursed it back to health. Unfortunately, neither Yukiyo or I could find anyone willing to adopt it. It’s been living in our (Japanese) bath room, i.e., a three-room affair with a bath-room, a middle room with a sink, and a separate toilet room, during which time it’s managed to destroy just about everything it can get its paws on, including the walls which now look like shredded cheese.
This puts us in the Syria-like no-win situation. We would never leave him at an animal shelter that might euthanize him, and we have no way of knowing if any of the area’s supposedly no-kill shelters are reliable. On the other hand, if we keep him, and it’s looking more and more like that’s what’s going to happen, he’s going to have to be declawed.
I’m not crazy about this, but there seems little choice. For various reasons our house is a clawing feline’s paradise and we’d have a Cat Came Back-like situation within a matter of hours. Before you write to tell me about clipping his nails or using those glue-on claw caps let me stop and tell you that, 20 years ago when I had two cats named Montag and Chibi-san, I tried both methods and neither of them worked very well. The claw caps regularly fell off or the unhappy cat would obsessively pry them off himself, and neither Yukiyo nor I are diligent enough monitors to keep this fellow’s claws adequately and reliably trimmed.
Meanwhile, Yukiyo departs early tomorrow morning for a 12-day business trip to Paris, leaving Sadie in my 24-7 charge. I look upon this with a combination of enthusiasm and trepidation. Sadie and I tend to bond best when Yukiyo is out of the picture, maybe because Mama (or, as Sadie pronounces it, “maMA”) is no longer a default option when there’s conflict about eating her vegetables or resisting bedtime. When Mama’s away Sadie becomes admirably compliant and grown-up, there’s nary a harsh word spoken between us, never a meltdown, and we end up having loads of fun together. Conversely, for those 12 days my life will be pretty topsy-turvy, with no movie-watching in the evening hours save for the occasional Disney Blu-ray, a 9:00 pm bedtime (sheesh) for both of us, plus the twice-daily grind to and from Sadie’s daycare, not my favorite drive in the world.
Incidentally, since buying my beloved Honda Little Cub motorcycle 21 months ago I’ve come to pretty much detest driving our car. These days anytime we travel as a family I’m inclined to let Yukiyo do all the driving, which she prefers anyway. Except in bad weather, the Honda is a real joy and as fun to ride now as it was when I first got it.
Just as the Honda has helped make the summer more bearable, so too has my latest toy, a MasterBuilt BBQ I picked up from Costco (yes, we have ‘em here in Japan, too). Yukiyo was very dubious about buying one: “If we get it you’d better use it!” she said, but I showed her and then some by grilling meals two and even three times a week all summer. Carne asada, dill salmon, peach-pineapple skewers, Kobe steaks, lambchops, salt-water soaked corn-on-the-cob. By August I had really figured out how to use the thing, and we had loads of fun inviting new and old friends over for big cookouts.
But now that I’m back upstairs, the temperature is down to a comfortable low 80s during the day and low 70s (F) at night, I’ve resolved to get back to blogging, to do some work around the house ahead of our 3rd Annual Halloween Party and Haunted House (the entire second floor is converted into a walk-through attraction, and this year I’m converting one room into something based on the “A Drop of Water” segment from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath), and lots more other stuff that had been impossible for the last eight weeks because it was simply too damn hot. I’ve a lot on my mind so…watch this space. More to come. Really.