Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Identity of the Killer, Identity of the Spy

1944's Ministry of Fear has many of the hallmarks of a great Hitchcock movie--a man on the run from sinister forces as well as the police, a beautiful blonde woman, and brilliant suspense. But it's not a Hitchcock movie, it's a Fritz Lang movie and it bears many of the distinct qualities of that brilliant filmmaker, including a protagonist whose innocence or guilt is never totally clear.

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from an asylum where he was placed after being found guilty of murdering his wife. The first thing he does is wander into a charity event where children are playing and grownups are cheerfully socialising. He wins a cake by guessing its weight after a helpful clue from a fortune teller--but then Dan Duryea shows up looking sinister as usual and there just may be more to the cake than it seems. It may be part of a Nazi plot.

That sure is a lot to happen to a guy on his first day out of the asylum. But it doesn't end there. Neale gets on a train that's derailed by a Nazi bomb and he's briefly knocked out by a fellow passenger who'd been pretending to be blind. The "blind" man steals the cake, shooting at the pursuing Neale, before another bomb takes out the man and the cake, too. Naturally concerned for his own welfare, Neale absent-mindedly pockets the man's gun and goes the rest of the way to London. Get a load of that Expressionistic countryside. It's like a dark dream.

It all sounds crazy, it all looks like a dream. But is it? Lang never lets you off the hook too easily and I suspect his own experience fleeing Nazi Germany played into the story's ambiguous, weird dread. That may be what it's like when you become subject to an irrational but popular hatred arising all around you (it possessed Lang's own wife, after all). One doesn't like to see one's society as irrational so one might well try to rationalise things on society's behalf. Which could make the world itself seem crazy indeed.

He wanders into another seance. He meets the weirdly cheerful brother and sister heads of the charity, the latter of whom is the beautiful blonde, Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), who starts to fall for Neale and says so in the one scene that breaks from Neale's point of view. But it does nothing to solidify the impressions of reality, it only makes Neale's accounting of his own actions less certain. Does Carla love him because she's a good judge of character, or is she taken in by his own madness?

Ray Milland as Neale walks that line brilliantly, being charismatic but also like he's on the verge of cracking. You're afraid for him in more ways than one.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Trees and Mountains

I've been seeing cherry blossoms everywhere lately so I thought yesterday would be a good time to go back to Mount Yoshino. A lot of people had the same idea, I guess, because the train was packed, even though it was a Monday.

It was definitely a different experience to when I went last month. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 30,000 cherry trees in the area.

I went up the hillside path that ended in a bridge.

This was part of a street for tourists, filled with shops and restaurants.

Despite all the people, and the fact that it was around noon, the restaurants weren't very crowded. So I stopped in an udon shop and ordered the "Sakura Somen Set".

I should've taken a picture when it was all neatly together but I was so hungry I'd already dug in before it'd occurred to me to take a photo. Somen is very thin noodles served cold. Normally they're white but these had a very light pink colour, apparently flavoured with cherries or petals. They were pretty good, anyway. The yellow strips are egg and it also had green beans and mushrooms. The dark liquid in the cup is tsuyu, a dipping sauce served with somen or soba. Wrapped in the leaves are three pieces of sushi (salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and the cube is a kind of jelly dessert called anmitsu. It was a great lunch.

There are a number of temples and shrines on Mount Yoshino. The biggest is the Shugendo temple Kimpusen-ji.

And it's old.

Sure, it was rebuilt in 1592, making it a mere 429 years old. But parts of it are much older so that's still pretty good, right?

Seriously, though, I'm used to San Diego where something's ancient if it's 150 years old. So many of the structures around here astound me.

The nearby Buddhist temple had some particularly beautiful cherry blossoms.

Some of their branches were supported by thin bamboo poles.

I walked down a path that wound behind the Buddhist temple.

It turned into a steep stone stair I saw few extremely tired tourists coming to the top of. There were no crowds in this area.

This was only one bend of the stair. It's broken up periodically for small shrines.

I've noticed there are often small pieces of clothing on the statues.

These little foxes were up near the main temple.

I finally came to the bottom of the stairs.

I felt like I'd cheated, coming down the back. It seemed like a test of endurance for the few people I saw coming up the stairs.

I thought about going back up but I found an intriguing forest path and started walking. Very soon I was totally alone. It was very peaceful. I see now the road isn't even on Google maps.

I walked about ten minutes before the path came to this little area, which is where Google maps picks back up.

I still didn't see any people about until I spotted one guy on a motorcycle driving away.

I continued down the road figuring it would end up in civilisation again eventually. I saw lots and lots of trees.

Signs started warning me about falling trees and rocks.

It certainly looked like a tree falling was not an uncommon occurrence.

When I finally did start seeing buildings, it wasn't long before, unsurprisingly, I saw signs of lumber industry.

There were plenty of little homesteads, too. I felt a little like I'd found Japan's Twin Peaks.

Especially when I saw this table:

I finally ended up at Yoshino River.

I walked from there to Muda Station, skipping three train stations for my route home. According to Google, I walked around 4.6 kilometres, or around 2.8 miles. That's not counting my walk around Mount Yoshino itself. So I guess that was enough exercise for one day.

Twitter Sonnet #1437

Assorted snacks redeem the basket take.
We checked the box and cooked the curry right,
With flour, eggs, and salt, we often bake.
While sugar bides beyond the deadly night.
Computer shoes designed to run were slow.
The wire laces caught the edge of green.
Instruct the galley RAM to swiftly row.
There's something tiny stuck upon the screen.
A giant bed absorbed the extra room.
A growing face denied the novel prize.
Forgotten tabs would cause the cam to zoom.
The viewing distance changed instead of size.
The cherry mountains watched another fish.
The darker trees prepare a cooler dish.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Slayer Who Couldn't

Every superhero has to lose their powers at some point for some reason. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made the most of the tradition in "Helpless", a season three episode from 1999. The second episode to be written by David Fury, he makes good dramatic material from the reason for Buffy's power loss while director James A. Contner takes the opportunity to make a more traditional horror story of the kind Buffy is usually a subversion of.

Buffy (Sarah Michelle-Gellar) almost gets killed during a routine vampire fight, embarrassingly almost being stabbed with her own stake. During the day, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) has been giving her some kind of strange crystal focus training.

He's already acting suspicious while he's doing it but it's not until around one third of the way through the episode that we find out it's a combination of his hypnosis and drugs that are causing Buffy to lose her powers. He does it at a particularly potent time for dramatic purposes as she's heavily hinting she wants him to take her to an ice show in place of her own absent father. But Giles was commanded to suppress Buffy's powers by his superior at the Watchers' Council, played by Harris Yulin, perhaps best known for playing the judge in Ghostbusters 2.

I love the herringbone tweed sport coat with the extra straps.

He's sinister and authoritative enough you forgive his feeble attempt at an English accent, though it makes it puzzling that of his two English assistants, the only one played by an English actor barely has any lines--especially puzzling since it's Dominic Keating, who went on to be part of the main cast of Star Trek: Enterprise.

He does become a vampire, though, a disciple of the very creepy, Cape Fear-ish serial killer vampire Kralik (Jeff Kober). He stalks Buffy through the creepy old house where he's kidnapped her mother and apparently taken numerous photos of her.

They put Buffy in some evocatively vulnerable, juvenile outfits in this episode.

Kralik mentions an unfortunate past with his own mother, implying she castrated him with a pair of scissors, altogether making an episode that doesn't paint the rosiest picture of parental figures. Yet the internal conflict Giles feels as the institution designed to help the Slayer compels him to betray her trust is one of the best story points ever for Giles.

It's great because you can see both Giles' and Buffy's points of view even as her feelings of disgust and betrayal are completely reasonable. Which makes it all the more effective when she softens a little at the end. She gets it, it was the judge from Ghostbusters 2, but everyone would hope our loved ones would do a better job using their own judgement. It's a nice moment in the season arc, too, about rebellious youth and the uncertain reliability of authority figures.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available in a lousy cropped format on Amazon Prime.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Dekpa Finally Goes to Work

It must be a blue moon because there's a new chapter of Dekpa and Deborah to-day, my rarely updated webcomic, the first chapter since September. I hope I can do better than one chapter a year now that I'm more or less settled in Japan. But even if I only do one chapter a decade, I will finish this comic.

To-day's chapter title, "To Guard or to Strike with Edge or Point", comes from John Milton's pamphlet Of Education. I'm proud to say I work at schools now that do teach kyudo and kendo, Japanese forms of archery and fencing, respectively.

Twitter Sonnet #1436

Canary wings support a little flight.
The only ring improves the khaki dress.
A cloud of tea obscures the heavy light.
The weighty game's assumed to copy chess.
A heavy eye contributes weight to see.
Across the sand, a desert builds a line.
Across the water, drops construct a sea.
A heavy rain distributes light to shine.
With divvied pipes, the raiders claim the street.
Required dogs protect the watchful kid.
In cows and moles we find requested meat.
The bucket's full and breaks its flimsy lid.
Repeated songs enhance the pixel game.
Authentic days adopt another name.

Trucks and Flags

The second episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiered yesterday, bringing some tonal shifts from, and an overall improvement on, the story presented in the first episode.

Oddly, Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) weren't even in the top three most interesting things in the episode, which I would rank as 1. John Walker (Wyatt Russell) 2. The Flag Smashers and 3. Isaiah (Carl Lumbly).

The main thing I like about Isaiah is Carl Lumbly's performance. I've seen Lumbly in a few things--he's actually been in a few DC productions, including the excellent Justice League animated series from the early '00s, when he played Martian Manhunter--but I never took notice of him before. His energy when he confronts Bucky is captivating. You can see the restraint he's exercising and sense decades of anger simmering under the surface. The delivery on his lines is so tightly controlled, he reminded me a bit of Christopher Lee.

Following up on the mention of the global financial impact of the Blip is the organisation called The Flag Smashers, a ragtag group apparently based on an intriguingly complicated character from the comics who was only a villain most of the time. Flag Smasher in the comics represented a philosophy of ant-patriotism (to be an antagonist for the patriotic Captain America); here the group represents a not dissimilar globalist philosophy that keys in nicely with current politics. And it is a much more thoughtful use of the Blip as a continuing story element--I bet, in many ways, things must have been better during those five years. That was Thanos' idea, after all, that having none of the resource scarcity caused by overpopulation would lead to a reduction in conflict and civil strife. John Walker talks a little bit about the difficulties involved in post-Blip "repatriation" and it seems likely that all kinds of bureaucratic, as well as financial, chaos must have been caused by so many people returning from the dead. The banks are liable for all those bank accounts and property must have been redistributed or appropriated in who knows how many ways. It makes sense there'd be a group of people who look back fondly on those simpler times.

I was happy to see they didn't take the obvious route and just make John Walker a douchebag. He's captivating for the whole episode in kind of the way Anakin Skywalker is in Phantom Menace--no matter what he does, you're constantly looking for this or that little sign that indicates he's a villain, or the early stages of his path to villainhood. So the longer he's just a sweet, normal guy, the longer the tension holds. But he's more complicated than that because he does come off as smug a bit, and he can't resist giving a too presumptuous plea for Rogers' friends to be "at his side". As Sam says, it's always that last line.

Sam himself still feels like a blank, especially since there's no followup on his character building from the first episode. He has a couple of good one-liners, though. I also like how he ended the therapy session by saying, "Thanks for making it weird." Bucky, meanwhile, has two problems now--dealing with his past as a killer and dealing with his resentment of Sam and John over the shield. The action sequence was much, much better in this episode, partly for how well it incorporated the character drama, and I loved the split second where Bucky had to decide to hand John the shield.

The scene also featured a much more exciting use of Sam's wings.

I'm looking forward to seeing Daniel Bruhl next week, hoping the show makes better use of him than Civil War did.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available on Disney+.

Friday, March 26, 2021

A King Needs a Mane

The Lion King, Disney's 1994 animated feature, wasn't just the highest grossing movie of the year, it's also the highest grossing hand drawn animation film of all time, by a wide margin--over 968 million compared to The Simpsons Movie at number two with 536 million. The box office for Disney's animated films had steadily increased since The Little Mermaid and The Lion King was the high water mark. Why did it do so well? Maybe it's the simplicity of the story, maybe it's the fact that its story is by far the most conservative of any Disney film. It emphasises the importance of personal responsibility, of honouring tradition and blood relation. Many people may also have liked the patriarchal model it presents of family and government. Some may regard some of its supporting characters as Queer-coded and consider the story as an instruction of how such people should rightly be integrated into society (not in decision making roles). It's even been argued that the story endorses racial segregation, which may be reading too much into it. It's also a notoriously derivative film, particularly in Japan, where its resemblance to Kimba the White Lion is unmistakable. But the simplicity of The Lion King's story, the resonance of its themes, and the brilliance of its songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, make it an undeniable triumph in its own right.

It seems like no-one expected it to be so successful by half. It was produced at the same time as Disney's subsequent feature, Pocahontas, and many of the best animators, including Glen Keane, chose to devote themselves to the human oriented feature. After all, hadn't the lesson of the Disney Renaissance been that audiences wanted stories about sexy young humans, not animals?

Of course, there is sex in The Lion King, arguably more than in any other Disney film. I'd be far from the first to point out the significance of the scene where adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) wrestles Nala (Moira Kelly) and she allows him to pin her. There's something Disney wouldn't have dared with human characters, it feels like the envelope is being pushed as it is. If you want a lecture about the connexion between Simba's viability as a mate and his acceptance of responsibility, you can watch Jordan Peterson's lecture.

Kimba the White Lion is the English title of ジャングル大帝 or "Jungle Emperor". One of the early working titles of The Lion King, notably, was King of the Jungle. Kimba/Jungle Emperor was a manga created by Osamu Tezuka in 1950 and remains relatively well known in Japan to-day. In fact, in the city where I live in Japan, Kashihara, I came across an exhibition of some cell art from the anime series that premiered in the late 1960s. The lion cub's name was originally "Leo" but he was called "Kimba" in the English language adaptation. It's the story of a lion king, if you will, in Africa who rules over all the animals. When the king dies, young Leo must take up the mantle of leadership. The story differs from The Lion King primarily in that Leo, like his father, leads the beasts in a struggle against encroaching human industry. The anime series' opening theme animation has a strong resemblance to the opening of The Lion King, including a shot of the king lion on a boulder projecting out from the side of a mountain and shots of various animals running together as though being summoned.

While Disney movies are very popular in Japan, and merchandise for many Disney movies can be found practically everywhere, I've yet to see anything for The Lion King, nor have I heard anyone mention liking the movie. Though, to be fair, Disney fans here tend to prefer films with pretty human princesses. Still, when The Lion King was first released, it drew widespread protest in the Japanese animation industry, including a letter signed by 488 cartoonists and animators asking Disney to credit Jungle Emperor. People involved with the production of The Lion King have claimed not to have heard of Jungle Emperor, which seems especially unlikely considering one of The Lion King's two directors, Roger Allers, had not only lived in Japan for two years but had also worked in the Japanese animation industry. Wikipedia notes that the Tezuka estate and company haven't pursued litigation and have made public statements denying significant connexions between the properties, which smells to me like the there was a quiet deal worked out between the two parties.

When I was at San Diego State University (from 2015 to 2017) in California, I was struck by how popular The Lion King seemed to be among the students. It wasn't Jungle Emperor they usually compared it to, though, but to Hamlet. I heard students randomly mention it in class so many times that finally, on one occasion, I asked, "Why do people keep mentioning this?" I received only confused silence in reply. It was only later that I figured out it was because students figured part of their grades were due to in-class demonstrations of independent critical thought. Who knows who, long ago, first mentioned The Lion King's resemblance to Hamlet, but the little oral crib note evidently passed from one classroom to the next like a legend.

It is a little bit like Hamlet, in that it features an uncle, in this case Scar (Jeremy Irons), who murders the king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), in order to claim the throne. And then the son, Simba, is visited by his father's ghost and urged to remember his inheritance. But Hamlet is about the ambiguity of knowing what one's responsibility is--there's no sign that Claudius wants to kill Prince Hamlet and Hamlet's reluctance to kill Claudius is not due to any fear of his inherited responsibility to rule Denmark. While The Lion King has some superficial details reminiscent of Hamlet, the underlying theme of responsibility is matched my more closely by Henry IV, and Simba's compulsion to ignore royal obligation in favour of the Hakuna Matata lifestyle is much more like Prince Hal wasting his time with Falstaff and Poins. It's interesting to note that King Henry IV's anxieties about his son's apparent failure to accept the dignity of his birthright are related to the fact that Henry IV deposed the previous king, as seen in Shakespeare's Richard II. The Lion King emphasises the importance of bloodline far more than Hamlet or Henry IV.

When Scar takes over, he shockingly proclaims that the lions and hyenas will now live side by side--I think there's some merit to claims that the film is showing racial or at least ethnic integration to be a bad thing. The hyenas are shown to be uniformly evil, though considering the lions and the hyenas both kill and devour their fellow beasts, it's not clear what literally makes the hyenas worse than the lions, unless it's the fact that they join in Scar's strategies of winning via lies and schemes. I would attribute this more to laziness on the part of the writers rather than outright racism.

It's not clear why the land turns dry and dead under Scar's rule, but that's okay. It's basically like the health of the land mirroring the health of King Arthur.

I've talked about the underlying Royalist ethic behind Disney movies all through my reviews of the canon and certainly we can see its full expression in The Lion King, even as we can also look at it as an illustration of Aristotle's concept of relationships between ruler and subject being replicated down through instances in social strata. You're watching a movie about a king and a prince, but it's really about a dad and a son and the kingdom is the household and family. The film wisely spends a lot of time showing the relationship between Mufasa and Simba before the king is killed.

Jeremy Irons as Scar is almost too broad, oozing lethargic menace. The resentment of the family's confirmed bachelor--unlike Gertrude in Hamlet, Simba's mother doesn't end up wed to the murderous uncle--is directly tied in dialogue to his unusual lack of physical strength. This mirrors the film's other arguably Queer characters, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Both represent paths outside of the traditional order and it's significant that Timon and Pumbaa become heroes in the climax due to their willingness to accept Simba's authority. Timon, Pumbaa, and Scar aren't fit to rule the kingdom any more than Nala or Simba's mother--they're not strong enough. Everyone accepts that implicitly except Scar.

It's his weakness and misfit quality that differentiate Scar from Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, an altogether more menacing villain. Jeremy Irons' performance is almost like a parody of George Sanders as Shere Khan. Great new villains were at one time one of the chief assets of Disney animated films but the Renaissance has three movies in a row where the villain is essentially a copy or parody of one from another movie--Gaston is a broader version of Brom Bones, Jafar is a less complicated version of Jaffar from The Thief of Bagdad, and Scar is a slightly homophobic version of Shere Khan.

The simplicity of its underlying themes is The Lion King's chief asset and most viewers are able to ignore some of the lamely conceived plot elements, like Simba's accepting the blame for his father's death at the end--followed by the equally lame moment where Scar compulsively confesses his guilt like a cheap Bond villain.

There's still plenty to recommend the film, especially the songs. The Lion King is available on Disney+.


This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp
Sleeping Beauty
101 Dalmatians
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast