Posts By Mike

Watch Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー), Right Now

Fish Story movie poster

Fish Story movie poster

If you might like a movie that is equal parts…

  • Memento: but instead of the story unfolding in reverse, it unfolds in a completely jumbled sequence, going from 2012, to 1982, to 2009, to 1975, and then back to 2012. If you enjoy a movie that calls for your active mental participation, and you appreciate the movie maker’s attention to detail in making all the seemingly disparate threads of a story mesh together, then Fish Story is for you.
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil: except instead of a story about a briefly famous band that falls into obscurity, the band in this story, Gekirin, goes from obscurity to oblivion. They write a punk song in 1975 that is ahead of its time, that almost no one appreciates, but ultimately is the key to saving the world (yes, punk rock can save the world, and fortunately, they actually wrote a great track for the movie).
  • Armageddon: in 2012, the destruction of life on earth by asteroid is imminent. Last ditch attempts to save humanity, involving space ships and nuclear warheads, are involved. If you’re wondering what a forgotten punk rock song from the 70s has to do with saving the earth from an asteroid 37 years later, well you’ll just have to watch the movie!
  • The Karate Kid and Power Rangers: a young man who isn’t sure why his father forced him to endlessly practice martial arts as a child finally finds his purpose.
  • High Fidelity: the cool record store owner in this movie has the same encyclopedic knowledge of music as John Cusack’s character, but his sadness does not come from girl troubles.
  • If You Give a Pig a Pancake (which is a children’s book, not a movie): after watching Fish Story, you might start thinking about causality, conditionality, and contingencies, but all I could think of was this book. Each step in the story makes sense by itself, but they all add up to a crazy spectrum of events.
  • …then you will enjoy Fish Story. There’s also a doomsday cult, a bitter old man, a brilliant mathematician, a hostage situation, and a love story, but I ran out of movie analogies. I encourage you to not read any plot summaries before watching it – a lot of the fun is watching the story unfold, as it definitely does not follow a predictable plot line. But I will share with you a bit of the review from Lost Turntable, which explains what makes it a good movie:

    Although the idea of Fish Story is more than a little silly, its conceit is not. At its heart, Fish Story is about how music can connect with people and change their lives in unexpected and amazing ways. It shows how music can give us courage and hope, and challenge us to make ourselves and those around us better. It shows how a song, a stupid little song that almost no one in the world knows about, can drastically affect and change for the better the lives of people who have never even heard it. And when you think of it like that, it’s not hard to imagine that a song could, somehow, actually save the world someday.

    Unlike modern American movie trailers that summarize the whole movie for you, the Japanese trailer for it gives you a sense of the movie without giving away the story (with subtitles).

    Unfortunately, it’s currently not available on Netflix streaming, but it used to be, and may come back in the future (here’s the Fish Story streaming page on Netflix if you want to check). Netflix does have it on DVD. It may be on other streaming services – there are several movies with this name, so definitely make sure you’re looking for the Japanese one.

    Originally published March 1, 2012

One Day in Tokyo: Asakusa, and a River Cruise to Odaiba

If you have the misfortune of visiting Tokyo for only a few days, you’ll find it hard to decide where to spend your time in a city that has so many amazing things to see and do. A good way to get a sense of the traditional, slower-paced Tokyo, as well as the modern, fast-paced Tokyo in a single day is to venture to the northeastern district of Asakusa in the morning, with its temples and buildings dating back to the 1950s (Tokyo was essentially leveled in the WWII fire-bombings, so the 50s is considered old for Tokyo architecture). Then take a cruise south on the Sumida river, which will take you under about a dozen architecturally distinct bridges. The cruise ends on the man-made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, which offers endless attractions for modern shopping and hi-tech fun, and even a sandy beach. At the end of the day (or night), head back to the mainland on the Yurikamone line, which does an entirely gratuitous 360° loop as it crosses the river, giving you a panoramic view of eastern Tokyo.

Asakusa

Asakusa is a well known part of Tokyo, and many others have written about it, so I’ll just give you a summary from Wikipedia:

Asakusa is… most famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. There are several more temples in Asakusa, as well as various festivals… For most of the twentieth century, Asakusa was the major entertainment district in Tokyo… In its role as a pleasure district, it has now been surpassed by Shinjuku and other colorful areas of the city… It is central to the area colloquially referred to as Shitamachi (not an official designation), which literally means “low city,” referring to the low elevation of this old part of Tokyo, on the banks of the Sumida River. As the name suggests, the area has a less frenetic and more traditionally Japanese atmosphere than some other neighborhoods of Tokyo… In keeping with a peculiarly Tokyo tradition, Asakusa hosts a major cluster of domestic kitchenware stores on Kappabashi-dori, which is visited by many Tokyoites for essential supplies. Next to the Sensō-ji temple grounds is a small carnival complex with rides, booths, and games, called Hanayashiki. The neighborhood theaters specialize in showing classic Japanese films, as many of the tourists are elderly Japanese.

Asakusa is a part of Tokyo whose glory days are behind it, but still has a lot of old city charm, and continues to draw tourists as well as Tokyoites looking to spend some time away from the fast-paced modernity that defines most of Tokyo. If you visit during cherry blossom season, the park along the river will be packed with people having picnics to celebrate the start of Spring.

Sumida River Cruise

The river cruise boats depart from the Asakusa wharf. Don’t be shy about asking someone where it is. Plenty of people speak English, and if you’re not too far from it, someone may even walk you right to it. There are multiple destinations so make sure you’re getting on a boat headed to Odaiba! The cruise lasts about an hour, and takes you along the eastern side of Tokyo, so you’ll see a lot of interesting buildings and bridges. japan-guide.com has a helpful overview.

Odaiba

Odaiba is a cross between Disney World and Las Vegas: it has all the lights and dazzle of both, but is more family-friendly than Vegas, and has a lot more fun activities for adults than Disney World. Japan-guide.com has a good overview of Odaiba’s multitude of attractions. It was a frequent destination for the boys and I when we lived there in 2007. From where we lived in Shinagawa, Odaiba was only one stop away on the Rinkai Line. The boys especially loved the Toyota MegaWeb complex, the Palette Town video arcade, and the parks and beaches.

The Yurikamone Line is an attraction itself, and is definitely the way you should depart Odaiba. It’s fully automated – there is no one driving the train – and the tracks run in a loop on the eastern edge of the river, giving you a spectacular view of the city.

I’ve visited Odaiba about 20 times, and I still haven’t seen all of it (although that’s partly because the boys always wanted to do the same things every time we went). I’m recommending it for just a half day visit though, because it really will give you sensory overload. It’s worth a second half-day visit if you have time.

This post includes pictures from 3 visits to Japan, in 1999, 2004, and 2007.

Originally published April 30, 2009

Japanese Baseball on the 4th of July

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As an American attending a Japanese major league baseball game for the first time, it turned out that the most fun part wasn’t watching the game, it was enjoying the highly choreographed, non-stop cacophony of alcohol soaked cheering and singing from the fans. The game itself was good, and was very much like watching two good major league American teams play. It was the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Hanshin Tigers, who have a long-running rivalry like the Yankees and Red Sox. The big difference from American baseball is the rituals the Japanese bring to the game. When you combine Japanese baseball fanaticism with their obsessions over convenience, cleanliness, and group activities involving alcohol, you get a unique experience.

Convenience begins with buying the tickets – I didn’t buy tickets until the morning on the day of the game, so all that was left were standing room only tickets. But I was able to buy them at a convenience store for only 1000 yen (about $11) each. Convenience stores here sell tickets for just about every major event in the city, with no surcharges like those obscene TicketMaster “convenience” fees. Getting to the game is also convenient on the subway, which takes you within a stone’s throw of the Giants’ home stadium, the Tokyo Dome. I didn’t even see a parking lot – if there is one, it must be small.

Cleanliness is apparent the moment you walk in the stadium. You’re allowed to bring in any food and drink you like, including alcohol. However, there are paper cup stations at every entrance, where you are required to give your drinks to a uniformed guard, who will pour them in cups for you, as they want to make sure all the metal cans and plastic bottles are recycled, and to minimize any mess. And there is no mess: every stairwell, hallway, stadium seat, and toilet is spotless. The stadium had an almost antiseptic feel to it, like a hospital: as an American, it felt utterly antithetical to any previous stadium experience of mine. I had to restrain a fit of laughter partway through the game, when a man sitting across the aisle spilled his beer (by then we had snuck into some empty seats in the nosebleed section behind home plate). Not only did he immediately get up and run to report the spill to a stadium attendant, the attendant than grabbed another attendant, and they rushed back to his seat with a pile of paper towels and a plastic bag to frantically clean it up.

Like in the US, beer is the drink of choice for many at baseball games, but hard liquor is also for sale. The people working hardest during the game aren’t the players, it’s the beer girls. They’re all young and pretty (presumably a requirement for being hired), and they carry pony kegs on their backs, so they can serve draught beer. They are in constant motion, huffing up and down the steep stairwells, serving beer and dripping sweat, but always with smiles on their faces. It was like watching marines doing basic training, but high on happiness pills. I felt exhausted just watching them. I noticed none of the same girls were around for more than a few innings, so presumably (hopefully) they were allowed decent breaks.

The most remarkable thing was the choreographed cheering, which started before the first pitch and went on continuously throughout the game (see the video above for a sample). Actually, there were a few brief breaks when the cheerleaders – yes, cheerleaders for baseball – came out to dance (so they should call them dancers instead, since they were definitely not cheerleading). The left outfield seats were occupied exclusively by the Toraki-chi (crazy Tigers fans), and the right outfield was for the Giants, and then fans for both teams were mixed together in the rest of the stadium. Each side had chants they sang when their team was at bat, and the other side mostly would stay deferentially quiet, except for especially good defensive plays. The stadium-wide coordination was impressive. Each team had a specific way to express their enthusiam for home runs. For the Giants, aside from an explosion of cheering, every fan has a small orange towel to wave, and in the center of their fan section were people waving two enormous flags (see the video below). Unlike in the US, nobody brings home-made signs. I thought it was all really a lot of fun for the first few innings, but by around the sixth inning the constant cacophony became numbing. But I wasn’t drinking, so that was probably a big part of my problem.

What also stood out to me was the lack of an announcer. Not a word was ever spoken over a PA system. The name of the current batter was usually incorporated into the crowd’s chant, so everyone was following the state of the game just fine without an announcer. My favorite chant was for the Giants’ American player Edgar Gonzalez, whose name is impossible for the Japanese to pronounce, but they did the best they could, chanting “Ed-o-ga! Ed-o-ga!”

Which reminds me, I did also pay some attention to the game 😉 The Giants clobbered the Tigers 10-2, mainly because the Tigers opening pitcher gave up 7 runs in the first few innings before they finally took him out. Here are the game’s full stats if you’re curious. Since I was still a bit jet lagged, it was a pleasant way to relax on the 4th of July, and have an experience that felt both American and uniquely Japanese.

Originally published July 10, 2012

Big Country’s Stuart Adamson: Underrated

Big Country's Stuart Adamson

Big Country’s Stuart Adamson

Stuart Adamson was the singer, lead guitarist, and primary song writer for Big Country, my favorite band. I’ve always been dazzled by his guitar work, but not being a musician myself, I was never really able to find the right words to describe what I was hearing. When I meet folks who play guitar, I always have to recommend they give a listen to Big Country, as most are not familiar with Adamson’s work, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly why he’s so good. The other day I came across Tom Kercheval’s blog – he’s an independent musician – and not only is he a Big Country fan, he listed Adamson as his primary influence, and unlike me, he’s able to explain Adamson’s talent:

…the thing that always struck me about Stuart’s playing was not so much his lead playing (although it was great) but his rhythm guitar playing, particularly the odd chord structures he came up with. To this day, he’s one of the few guitar players that gives me fits when trying to figure out what he’s playing. His use of droning, open strings when playing chords was so appealling to me, and the Scottish/Celtic sound of the playing as well. He is so underrated. Beyond belief underrated. I still think the album Steeltown is a guitar masterpiece. Listen to that one with headphones and just hear the guitar symphony that is going on on most of those songs – tons of parts interweaving with each other, creating a huge, totally unique sound. Just brilliant. Like no one else.

In regard to Steeltown, I would add that it is also a masterpiece lyrically. Unfortunately, despite a 4-star review from Rolling Stone when it came out, it went nowhere in the pop charts. I think the album was musically too intricate, and lyrically too dense, to stand a chance on pop radio. But those are the qualities that have given it staying power – more than 20 years after it’s release, the opening track Flame of the West can still send chills down my spine.

This bio piece provides a good explanation for what inspired his songwriting, and what gives it the rare quality of being deeply personal yet political at the same time:

My mum and dad also had some great friends who played folk and country music (my mum does a mean Patsy Cline) and they would come to our house after the bars were closed and people would sing through the night. This made me aware of the power of the song and how music was interwoven with the lives of the working class Scots I grew up amongst. I would watch these big rough, hard men declare their love of family and the land — emotions they would be embarrassed to admit to in conversation — in songs old and new. I realised a lot of my schooling was solely aimed at my learning to accept my place in the British class system and railed against it. I believe the measure of a man is in his actions and not his social background (maybe this is why I like the US…another disenfranchised Celt)… A lot of the darkness of the Steeltown album comes from remembering my first experiences of the prejudice of class and nationality and the obvious truths that little had changed in my adulthood. The desire to write initially grew out of just wanting to be a “real” band and then I found I was driven to communicate some of the joy and frustration of the human experience…

Those are the people I grew up amongst and I could see the beauty in such simplicity as well as the anger and beaten acceptance. I think that frustration and learned apathy is the daily bread of the great majority of people in the world and as such represents the greater part of life experience, certainly in the western world and is to me a fertile source of inspiration.

Here’s the opening track from Steeltown, Flame of the West:

Originally published April 12, 2006

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