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No Longer Human is a Japanese comic book drawn by Usamaru Furuya, based on the classic novel of the same name by Osamu Dazai. The plot follows Yozo Oba, a young man who gradually becomes alienated from society, following closely to the extremely depressing semi-autobiographical source material.
Famous novels are subject to many adaptations, but I believe this is the first manga version of No Longer Human. Usamaru Furuya is one of my favourite manga authors, as he has a strong, pleasant looking art style, tends to deal with more obscure topics and has an awful sense of humour. Sadly, the latter doesn't particularly shine through here as the original book isn't exactly a barrel of laughs.
This manga is read left to right, like a "normal" book. According to Vertical, the publisher, the work isn't flipped or edited, but prepared that way by the author with Western translations in mind. The binding is lush and literally shiny. I can't fault the book's copy-editing either. It's a competent piece of work from Vertical.
Though this adaptation is loyal to the original novel, there are some slight changes. For one, the manga takes place in the present day, framed by Furuya's self-insert discovering the blog of the main character. This is a really nice touch that brings the story, originally published in 1948, to life.
Unfortunately, this manga has its limitations. Like many teenage boys Yozo deals with his anxieties by acting the class clown. This disparity between his behaviour and his inner turmoil gradually becomes worse and worse until he starts dabbling in sex, drugs and... joining a union. As confessional and fresh this story must have seemed in the late 40s, as a semi-autobiographical work by an already prominent author, it really does seem rather jaded now. There isn't really a way to get around that when youth alienation and rebellion is now ubiquitous in media as in real life.
However, as a spin on a classic story, it's at least interesting. The art is gorgeous. I especially like the stylised interludes denoting Yozo's inner-thoughts. These are often very detailed, and I think drawn in charcoal, which is not something I see a lot in Japanese comic books. There are excerpts from the novel before and after every chapter. They fit in well, with a nicely chosen font for the English translation, and the Japanese alongside.
Overall, it's an enjoyable read, something a bit more mature to the usual manga offering. This is volume 1 of 3, and I brought them all for around £5 each from Amazon.
Sidewalls (Medianeras) is an Argentine romance film released in 2011.
Martín is a 30-something freelance web designer with a depressed dog. He appears to spend all his time in his shoebox apartment, mostly on the computer, or in bed.
He says he can do everything on the Internet - listen to the radio, play games, chat with others, and even have sex (mostly just with himself). Martín seems pretty self-aware when it comes to his present condition, however.
"The Internet brings me closer to the world," he thinks, "but further from life." He seems to spend a lot of time playing another round after round of Space Invaders with the aliens replaced by pills, apparently a game made for insomniacs like himself.
After his girlfriend emigrated to the United States, leaving him her dog, Martín has seen a therapist to help with his anxiety and hypochondria. Martín blames Buenos Aires for his problems, so his therapist suggests he takes up photography as a hobby to help him deal with his fear for the crowded, motley city he lives in.
Across from Martín's window is Mariana, another 30-something left lonely after her relationship dissolved. Mariana has aspirations to become an architect, drawn to Buenos Aires' bizarre buildings, each one with a story behind them. She currently dresses shop windows for a living, and following her dream seems unlikely at this point. Her career, however, is the least of her worries. Still struggling to get over how someone she loved can turn into a stranger, she brings home a mannequin from work. Mariana interacts with the mannequin like a room-mate and even, in the broadest possible terms, has sex with it. I've been trying to work out how she did that since I saw this film. "Don't fool yourself," she mutters at the mannequin, smoking with a look of scorn on her face as morning breaks outside her window, "it was just sex."
Mariana has been fascinated by the puzzle books "Where's Wally?" for since she was a child, and the inability to solve the puzzle "Wally In the City" seems a mascot for her loneliness. "So I'm wondering: if I can't find a person when I know who I'm looking for," she ponders, searching the aforementioned page with a magnifying glass, "how can I find a person when I don't know who I'm looking for?" Wow. Getting too real there, Sidewalls. Too real.
Essentially Sidewalls flits between Martín and Mariana and their individual lonelinesses. Both of them attempt to start new relationships with other people. Clearly, though, Mariana and Martín are perfect for each other - they like the same music, they cry at the same films (Woody Allen's Manhattan, natch) and they even go to the same swimming pool - but just somehow they're never in the right place at the right time. Several times in the movie their paths cross, but like two parallel lines they seem doomed to never meet.
Sidewalls isn't all depressing, for a film about two milquetoast quirkyalones. First of all, the reason I was drawn to this film was the cinematography, and it is far from gloomy. Every shot, especially architectural ones, are framed beautifully and overall the film has a modern (almost too-modern) look and feel. Buenos Aires' architecture is an important facet of the film, even lending it its title. Sidewalls - the large stretches of, er, side-walls used for ugly advertising and occasionally studded with tiny, illegal windows.
The colours of Medianeras are bright and the editing is abrupt and ostentatious, in the same way advertisements flutter around to try and keep the audience's interest up. This was director Gustavo Taretto's first feature length film, based on the 2005 short of the same name. (This gives me hope that perhaps there will be a full-length feature of the surprisingly affecting advert for condoms, Love Distance, but it seems unlikely.)
Medianeras was released 3 years ago, but could have been made yesterday. The modern feel might sound a bit obnoxious - or well, up-itself - but the overall effect is fresh. The film is never boring - though at times I felt myself waiting for the film to segue into an advertisement for Google or Apple or Amazon...
Like most romantic dramas (even if Sidewalls seems like the inversion of a romantic drama), this is a character driven film. Martín is the quintessential bachelor. He has a beard, for a start, which screams 'I have given up' to me. (I was highly perturbed that his moustache did not quite meet over his philtrum, but don't worry. It grew in). He likes Astro Boy (literally the last place I'd expect to see Astro Boy was in this film), lives off fast food and tries to find love / sex on dating sites. The 'date' he goes on with one woman he met online is especially excruciating to watch. "Ich hätte mich leicht verliebt," she says to him in her last scene. "Look it up in a dictionary."
The actor who plays Martín, Javier Drolas, gives a good performance considering much of his lines are delivered via voiceover, leaving most of the acting to non-vocal methods. Most of the time he looks sort of tired - specifically, that aching kind of tiredness that isn't conducive to sleep. Great actor.
(There is an interesting scene when he is chatting on the Internet; his expression is quite glazed-over (despite the messages he is sending), but as soon as he reads that he has made his conversation partner laugh, his eyes express a faint disbelief. I don't know, that scene sticks with me, there is something strange and poignant about it. Sidewalls are full of these subtle kinds of scenes.)
Arguably the actress playing Mariana (Pilar López de Ayala) has the more difficult role. Mariana develops the most in the film. She goes from perpetual weeping (in a very specific plays in her apartment, always, that doesn't seem special at all but that she obviously feels safe in) to a kind of walking listlessness. As a female protagonist, Mariana feels genuine. Some of the things she does to get over her break-up are things I've done myself, and it does strike a chord. Who hasn't gone through the horrible process of deleting pictures of someone you used to love from your computer, from your life? Perhaps that is why, just somehow, Mariana's storyline feels slightly darker than Martín's. There is a feeling that a slight breeze could send her over the edge, and Pilar López conveys this well.
Interconnectivity is a strong theme within the film. Zipped up in a concrete beehive, both protagonists look up at the wires above them and wonder why, when there are a thousand ways to connect with someone they somehow manage to be lonely in a city full of people. Martín stays up until the early hours on his computer and ends up sleeping til noon (what a loser, who would do such a thing?). Neither of them seem to have any family or any real friends. It seems pretty obvious that in getting over their respective past relationships, they have accidentally isolated themselves (almost) completely. Perhaps Martín is right to be afraid of the city, where something like incomplete isolation can happen without anyone noticing or even giving a damn.
It may seem odd that a film about two lonely people failing at life could be called an effective romance film, but Taretto has set the audience up to genuinely root for Mariana and Martín. As the film takes place over a year, we see them heal and change. The ending may be the one thing that was cheesy and annoying (if I turn my personality off, I can almost bear it).
Despite that, I enjoyed Sidewalls overall. Even if the romance element bores you, Sidewalls contains a glimpse into the dynamic but isolating capital city of Argentina and asks questions about how technology impacts human relationships. And you'll probably be humming "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for the next few days, which is always a plus.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the 1975 Australian film based on the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay and directed by Peter Weir.
The film takes place on Valentine's Day in the year 1900. As a special treat to the students of Appleyard Ladies College, a class is taken on a field trip to Hanging Rock, an ancient geological formation that gives the area its name. While there, three students wander off to get a closer look at the rock, never to return. One of the teachers chaperoning the trip also disappears, under strange circumstances.
The police, aided by the local community, begin to look for for the missing persons. As the search stretches on with little to show for it, it seems everyone has an opinion on their disappearance - were the girls murdered, abducted? Did they die of dehydration? And what about the teacher?
Meanwhile, the students and faculty of Appleyard College have to come to terms with the media sensation surrounding the vanishing. They must also deal with the fact it appears three of their students and one of their teachers won't be coming back from the picnic at Hanging Rock.
I came across the film Picnic at Hanging Rock while looking at spooky stuff on the Internet. Whether this is a horror film or not is definitely arguable (very arguable. Please see imdb forums for further clarification).
It's also arguable whether this is based on a true story or an elaborate hoax that has become, over the 40-odd years since it was released, an urban myth. The film begins by telling the viewer that what proceeds is a dramatisation of real events. This is a pretty contentious issue between fans, many who genuinely believe the events in the film and the novel are based on fact. This is not helped by the fact the novel's author wouldn't say one way or the other. I watched the film believing the events as they unfolded were, generally, true. This added an extra frisson of uneasiness to the proceedings, especially the ending.
I have read about Picnic at Hanging Rock, suitably enough for the day the film begins, described as "romance porn". It's hard to argue with that label. There are dreamy sequences of girls standing in line, tightening each other's corsets; reading poetry to one another, brushing each other's hair, pressing flowers. The students take lessons in embroidery and elocution. They wear long white dresses, their long hair in thick curls. One teacher describes the most popular student, Miranda (played by Anne-Louise Lambert), as a "Botticelli angel" and a swan is often used as a symbol for her in another character's imaginings.
What we see of the picnic itself is extremely dreamy, the class lounging in the shade of trees with pink silk parasols, unfurled ferns wafting in the shimmering heat. Time seems to stop, as do everyone's watches. The scene was shot with a bridal veil over the lens, which explains the desaturated, ethereal look.
The film itself was shot on location, and the stones are a real volcanic feature. Shots of the area are lovingly composed. Even native Australian animal species feature, with a koala bear in a tree a criminally overlooked key witness.
Director Peter Weir cast people from the location where filming took place to play the Appleyard College students, as he allegedly thought actors from the city would not be able to capture the innocence of the very sheltered girls. All of the amateur actors were dubbed over in post-production. The dubbing itself is fine, the film does not resemble a 115-minute Kinder advert, but the very presence of it gives another subtle layer of malaise to the already strange atmosphere.
Back at the college after the disappearance of the three girls and their teacher, the headmistress, Mrs Appleyard (played by Rachel Roberts) attempts to salvage the reputation of her school in a storyline that almost overshadows the original plot.
Mrs Appleyard operates with an offensive strictness, even before the incident at Hanging Rock, telling the girls they could only take their gloves off once they were miles away from the town on a swelteringly hot day. Likewise, her office has little pictures of Queen Victoria and a Union Jack flag on the wall, presumably to evoke the arbitrary severity of the old colonial ways at the turn of a new century. There is a sense of blind authoritarian fool-hardiness in even sending a group of young girls to a place with so much danger. "This we do for pleasure, so that we may shortly be at the mercy of venomous snakes and poisonous ants," one teacher admits.
Apparently the character of Mrs Appleyard and her strained relationship with students and staff members alike was hardly acting. Rachel Roberts managed to offend many of her fellow actors so much most of her lines were, apparently, delivered to a piece of tape on the wall rather than another human. Roberts committed suicide a few years after this film was made, her fate uncomfortably similar to her character's.
There are remarkably quite a lot of characters in the film. Obviously there are the students (those that remain after the picnic getting less precedence than those who don't), several teachers, grounds staff, and two men who were present at the time of the disappearance. One of the two men is from the landed gentry, and one is his servant, and their friendship appears to be illicit. One of them may be the long-lost sibling of another student at the school. These tangled relationships are surprisingly complex for a subplot, as are the general undertones of sexual repression and hints of homosexuality.
Because of the many subplots after the initial disappearance, unsurprisingly some people will find Picnic at Hanging Rock a meandering and pretty worthless story that doesn't deliver on the mystery it sets up in its first half hour. The film does have its problems. There are several intelligent-sounding things said in the script that are actually rather papery and pretentious when thought about for over five seconds ("Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place." Well, duh). The most famous quote from the film is a misquote from Edgar Allen Poe.
Then the acting is perhaps not great, especially from the more inexperienced actors. Even Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda was the second-choice for the role. Finally, the music is a mish-mash of almost self-parodying pan-pipes (performed by George Zamfir) and bizarre thudding electronica. I liked the classical music used, however. Though it is hard to go wrong with Mozart in a film where tender young girls spin around barefoot in the sunshine for 5 minutes at a time...
It is perhaps surprising, then, that Picnic at Hanging Rock is regularly voted to the #1 position in polls for Australia's best films. It was the country's first ever international hit. I can recommend it, for its eeriness and its beauty, with only a few reservations.
A note on the different cuts of the film available. In 1998 Weir released a director's cut of the film, which loses around 10 minutes of footage from the original (115 minutes down to 107 minutes), which he felt was superfluous. For the record, this review is based on the director's cut version. After looking on the Internet at the differences, the director's cut excises a lot of relationship development for two characters. You may wish to keep this in mind.
The Panic in Needle Park is a 1971 North American film directed by Jerry Schatzberg, based on the novel of the same name by James Mills.
At her boyfriend's apartment in New York City, Helen (Kitty Winn) is recovering from a backstreet abortion her boyfriend is pleased to have gotten so cheaply. While she is there, she meets small-time drug dealer Bobby (Al Pacino) for the first time. Later, Helen goes to the hospital. "I've gone through 5 pads in 10 minutes," Helen yells as she begs a nurse to let her see a doctor, even though she has no health insurance.
Bobby is the only one to visit her, on some flimsy invented pretext, and also to let Helen know her boyfriend has left on a sudden trip. Bobby later takes her home when she is discharged, as she seemingly has nowhere else to go. As recompense, Helen offers him sex - but he refuses, saying she isn't well enough. As they spend time together, Helen and Bobby fall for one another. However Helen also realises that as well as dealing drugs, Bobby is a heroin addict himself. She quickly becomes addicted. But New York in the 1970s isn't a good time to be addicted to heroin, as the "panic" - as a police officer helpfully explains, a limited supply of drugs in circulation - means addicts are turning each other into the police in return for favours.
Plot-wise this is a fairly typical seedy-underbelly kind of film. I can think of three or four films off the top of my head that follow almost the same bleak, meandering story of two drug addicts in love. However, for its violence, profanity, nudity and frank scenes of drug use (obviously), The Panic was rated X at the time of its release. (Weirdly, an unedited version is rated PG on some PPV services.) The Panic in Needle Park features probably the earliest scenes of someone shooting up - despite being simulated, it is still horribly convincing 43 years later and goes on seemingly for at least seventeen minutes. At one point I literally pulled the wool over my eyes, because I was knitting a scarf at the time, and also I have a needle phobia...
The Panic in Needle Park isn't all grotesque. There is none of Christiane F.'s projectile vomiting here (and no random David Bowie, more's the pity). Much of Helen and Bobby's time is spent trying in vain (haha - vein) to acquire heroin. Far from dull, there are some striking images - whether it's Helen rubbing the gooseflesh on her arms while waiting at a street corner, or a random assortment of people shooed into a tiny en suite while a prostitute services her client in the next room, there's a deep sense of boredom and impatience inherent to their lifestyle. This suits the cinéma vérité style and the film's minimal dialogue.
Strangely, though there are a couple of tender moments between them, there are hardly any scenes where Bobby and Helen actually enjoy themselves, sober or not. Though it could be a glaring omission on the part of Schatzberg, it seems more than appropriate for Bobby and Helen's situation. So it really isn't all that surprising that the two of them walk the line between fantasy and reality more often than not. Helen dreams of getting out of Needle Park and going to the country, while Bobby is constantly asking her to marry him and waxing poetic on his grand future plans (most involving leveling up as a drug dealer). Ultimately though, despite their best intentions, the more heroin they use the more they destroy one another and their relationship.
The cinematography in The Panic reflects the cheery subject matter. Everything is very blue in this film; it's so washed out that even if it's sunny, it looks as if it's raining. As for music - there is none. Gritty...
The sense of realism extends, for the most part, to the central performances. Kitty Winn as Helen is exquisitely vulnerable (and cute) in the first half of the film, and her degeneration into someone motivated by selfishness and desperation is believable (she also remains cute). Al Pacino as Bobby is best as the charming joker Helen initially falls for, but he's a little bit too withholding to be menacing. He raises his voice, not his fist, which seems unusual considering his hot-headed personality and the film's darker latter half. The acting never hits the hysterical crescendo that one might expect considering the twists and turns of the plot, but that makes it all the grimmer, somehow. Perhaps too much drama would have been deadening.
As darkness goes, The Panic in Needle Park errs to the side of the ridiculous once or twice (a puppy dies) but for the most part is grim enough to be gripping. It is also strong enough to be watched alongside thematically similar films and be compared favourably, in case anyone feels particularly masochistic. And you would have to be.
Now seventy-eight, the once-eminent professor of medicine and doctor Isak Borg is preparing to travel across the country to receive an honourary doctorate for lifetime achievement in his field. Despite his former profession as a physician presumably requiring some kind of bedside manner, over the years Isak has retreated from human contact and developed a cold and callous nature. As a widower, he is almost always alone, barring his housekeeper. For the meantime, though, his daughter-in-law Marianne is also living with him.
The separation of Marianne and Isak's son was the catalyst for Marianne to move in with her father-in-law. Though they share the same roof (albeit on a presumably temporary basis) Marianne treats Isak with frank dislike, blaming him for the emotionally distant person her husband has become. Evald Borg is the mirror of his father: a celebrated physician - but also a desperately lonely human being and malign in the way he acts towards others. "It's absurd to bring children into this world and think they'll be better off than we were," he explains to Marianne, when he informs her why they won't be having children. "I was an unwanted child in a hellish marriage."
At the last moment, Isak decides to travel to his award ceremony by car rather than plane. Marianne, who has decided to finally return home, goes along for the journey. During the ride he passes his grandmother's chateaux where, as a child, he and his family had spent their summers. Deciding to stop and take a look around, he finds himself looking back as the memories of his youth play out around him.
"If I have been feeling worried or sad during the day, I have a habit of recalling scenes from childhood to calm me. So it was this evening..."
The concept of going on a journey to relive the past came to director Ingmar Bergman fairly literally, apparently, as he travelled on a similar road trip and found himself wondering, "What if I could suddenly walk into my childhood?" and imagining a film "about suddenly opening a door, emerging in reality, then turning a corner and entering another period of one's existence, and all the time the past is going on, alive." In my opinion, the plot feels reminiscent of A Christmas Carol (obviously this film has a lot in common with the superior Ross Kemp version).
The part of Isak Borg was written for Victor Sjöström. At the time Sjöström was in retirement from a formerly illustrious career in silent cinema, both as an actor and a director. Several allowances were made for Sjöström's age (he was 80 when this was filmed), including some back-projection in the interior car scenes that cinematographer Gunnar Fischer admits were "very bad" but were done to accommodate Sjöström's health. It was worth it. To say Sjöström hardly needs to act for his part seems a little insulting, but he delivers the role of an older, self-indulgent gentleman with ease. He certainly looks the part, with his craggy features and slow, lilting line delivery. This would be his last film, as he died 3 years after its release.
Notably, Bibi Andersson plays two roles, as a girl in Isak's flashback and as the present-day as a hitchhiker he and Marianne pick up on the journey. However, it's another Bergman regular, Ingrid Thulin, who deserves more recognition as an actress in this film. Thulin as Marianne is always quietly hostile to Isak, but never to the point of gratuitous nastiness. Much of Marianne's remote demeanor is conveyed through her posture and her taut smile, especially in the car scenes, where Isak rambles at length. Despite her demeanor, Marianne is perhaps the most sympathetic character, as she alone knows the secret behind the painful disintegration of her marriage.
Despite the iffy back-projection in some scenes, there's a crispness to the textures and details present in Wild Strawberries. The scene composition is also quite beautiful, particularly outdoors, with all the fecund foliage of Isak's springtime memories. His dreams are also especially well-realised, managing to be pedestrian and eerie at the same time, while still being surprisingly simple in execution. The first dream sequence in particular reminded me of "Whistle and I'll Come to You", with exemplary use of a single silk stocking. One of the most uncanny images this film leaves behind is also the one of a clock with no hands, which reappears several times throughout the movie, no doubt signifying something morbid and inescapable.
Obviously, much of Wild Strawberries' 93 minute run is given over to flashback. This was not particularly new or exciting for its time, as (for example) Citizen Kane had used the device similarly to illustrate how a character developed into someone less than noble. The difference in Wild Strawberries, however, is that Isak becomes a part of the memory. He stands to one side like the spectre at the feast, seeing all but not being seen. Rather than the classic interjected expository scene, Ingmar Bergman uses flashbacks to weave a tangible nostalgia into the film's narrative.
It's this thread of nostalgia that creates a sense of warmth in Wild Strawberries that is sometimes absent from Bergman's other films. Wild Strawberries is full of a pure, aching longing for former lives and better times. That isn't to say the film is full of mushy sentimentality. It still retains a sharpness, as Isak relives his first heartbreak. The very name of the film, in fact, comes from Isak's memory of his first love picking wild strawberries. Falling into an embrace with another man, she spills the strawberries onto her lap, where they stain her apron. To be pretty frank, this is a pretty twee visual metaphor, but it's effective.
This is merely one example of how Wild Strawberries has something indefinably sweet and somehow distinctly Swedish about it. Isak's first love wears a checkered pinafore dress with her hair Heidi-style, but instead of looking completely ridiculous, it just works. This was truly a time before ABBA came and ruined everything for everyone, and perhaps it is because of that (the lack of Bergman's ability to foresee ABBA) that the film is brimming with such a quiet and gentle optimism. However, it's not just optimism that Wild Strawberries leaves you with. More than anything there is a suddenly hope for redemption in Isak's life. Tension is evoked, whereas before Isak's life was empty, it is now a race against time to see if Isak can see the error of his ways and make amends.
A Separation opens on a married couple, Nader and Simin, sitting in front of a judge. Simin (Leila Hatami) is filing for a divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) because she wants to take their 11 year old daughter Termeh to live abroad, arguing that there is a better future for her outside of Iran. Nader refuses to leave the country because he is the sole carer of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Despite their bickering, the judge refuses to grant them a divorce. Back home, Simin packs her things and goes to live with her parents; Nader stays with his father. Given the choice, Termeh decides to stay with Nader.
Alone caring for his senile father, Nader tries his best with Termeh, helping her with her homework and teaching her various chores. However, working whilst caring for both his daughter and his father is too much for him, so through his now-estranged wife he employs a carer for his father. The carer, Razieh, is 4 months pregnant and arrives with her young daughter. Her husband is crippled by depression and she admits to Nader that she is taking the job (along with its gruelling commute by bus) only because they are being harassed by loan sharks. The job entails more than she bargained for, as Nader's father's condition has deteriorated so badly that he is incontinent.
When an incident occurs that seems to be superficially Nader's fault, resulting in a police investigation, Nader is torn between taking full responsibility for something he believes he didn't do (and possibly facing jail time) or lying to cover himself in front of the daughter he has tried so hard to raise right. But not everything is as it seems, and no one is telling the whole truth, in this part family drama, part courtroom saga.
Despite a complex cast of characters, A Separation has a simple narrative told in a fairly straightforward way. Free from directorial embellishments, there's nothing here in either camerawork or the editing that distracts from the intimacy and clarity writer and director Asghar Farhadi conjures in his work. Every character in A Separation has a motive that sharply defines them, even if it isn't immediately clear, leading to definite character development that strays just on the right side of obviousness.
At the center of Simin and Nader's world is their daughter, Termeh, but she is pushed to the periphery as her parents fight in increasingly brutal ways over her future. With hardly any lines for the first 90 minutes of this 2 hour film, Termeh undoubtedly wields the most influence by choosing to stay with her father when her parents separate, thus setting off the entire chain of events that culminate into the film's main conflict. Likewise, Nader's father is a constant presence in every one of Nader's scenes outside of the courtroom. This is despite him never saying a word - or, rather, the words he does utter having no meaning. He is bundled into the car, left in bed with an oxygen tank, or in the background of every scene like a weight on the mind.
This is just one example of how the composition of scenes is especially well realised (most of all in the final shot of the film). Not only does the disease of Nader's father loom like a shadow, the positioning of Nader and Simin in scenes together is careful and deliberate. They don't touch one another at all, and often stand as far apart as possible while still being in the same shot. Their apartment, too, though lived-in and comfortable-looking, has an indefinable blankness and emptiness to it that is likely symbolic to their crumbling marriage.
Nader and Simin's urban middle-class lifestyle is a world away from the poverty alluded to by carer Razieh. Every part the harassed mother to a (very cute) 4 year old girl, Razieh has a habit of lightly biting on an edge of her headscarf when stressed. She is also deeply religious, more so than any other character, to the point where she consults a religious hotline to ask if washing Nader's father after he had soiled himself was a sin. It is Razieh's faith that is tested when she is forced to choose between keeping quiet to protect her husband - or telling the truth and leaving him potentially suicidal.
As in the opening shot of the film, where Simin and Nader are arguing, many scenes take place in a courtroom. In these scenes, it is through the framing of the shot that the audience adopts the role of judge. This is perhaps the most effective trial sequence I've seen. Something about the drab little room and the bored-looking officials (who become increasingly sweaty throughout) is deeply claustrophobic and gives the scenes where characters argue an extra edge of desperation.
At its international release, A Separation won many awards in many categories where it was the first Iranian film ever to do so. It might also possibly the last, as Iran subsequently tightened its censorship laws. However, at least when I watched the film, the idea of Iran as the fanatic monochromatic state it is painted as in the media is far away. In A Separation the lives of the Iranian characters feel intimate and involving, replete with all the heartache that comes from pride and loyalty in any given family.
This is a review of 1976 film The Tenant (or, Le locataire, which you might want to look up this film by, lest you stumble into a minefield of the 9th Doctor). Roman Polanski directs and stars in this adaptation of the novel of the same name by Roland Topor. So it also has nothing to do with the 1927 film The Lodger, though you may accidentally call it that, and I will forgive you...
Polanski plays the role of Trelkovsky (a man with apparently no first name), a bureaucrat who rents an apartment in Paris. He quickly learns that the apartment's last tenant attempted suicide in that very room and remains in hospital in a critical condition. The apartment is up for rent again because, to sum up the concierge's words: after Simone Choule threw herself out of the window, she will definitely not be getting better.
Morbidly curious, Trelkovsky visits Simone Choule in hospital. There he meets her friend Stella, who is inconsolable at the sight of Simone - bandaged from head to toe, toothless and moaning. So naturally Trelkovsky decides to try and get Stella into bed.
At first preoccupied with thoughts of Stella and his job pushing paper, Trelkovsky begins to get distracted by the downsides of apartment living: his neighbours complain at every little noise he makes and try to get each other evicted. Trelkovsky also comes across little reminders of Simone Choule left behind: drawers full of make-up and clothes and a bloodied human tooth wrapped in cotton wool and slipped in a hole in the wall behind the wardrobe. It also seems that, across the courtyard in the communal bathroom, figures seem to stand and stare into Trelkovsky's window for hours at a time...
And then Simone Choule dies.
It's easy to see why the novel appealed to Roman Polanski, as in the past he remarked on the racism he received as a Polish national living in France. Here Trelkovsky experiences the same prejudice, but this is only the first of many uneasy scenarios our main character finds himself in.
The Tenant is often mentioned in the same breath as Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, as together the three form some kind of trilogy to tell the world how much Polanski really hated living in a flat at some point. Unlike those two films, there is no willowy blonde protagonist for the audience to glom on to emotionally here. Trelkovsky himself is not a particularly sympathetic character. He is boring, selfish, and his friends are annoying rowdy types (one of them managed to be both homophobic and sexist in the one, possibly two, lines he had). Polanski suits the role, and looks suitably weedy and a ferret-like throughout.
Isabelle Adjani as the "arty" Stella is also rather one-dimensional, with pretty much nothing behind her owlish glasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. The two are not well-suited at all, so it makes a kind of warped sense that they would be attracted to one another. They are the only characters we see very much of, though there are glimpses of the other tenants in Trelkovsky's building - the bolshy old man who serves as landlord and a woman who is the miserable, slightly sinister concierge.
In just over 2 hours, The Tenant lurches from the staid normalcy of Trelkovsky's everyday life to deep down the rabbit-hole of delusions and paranoia. Small incidents, like one tenant going door-to-door in the building, getting people to sign a petition to evict another tenant, build up to bizarre and surreal night-time visitations from a crone who may or may not be the would-be evictee. A postcard from an almost-not-quite boyfriend of Simone's somehow leads to Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into the bathroom wall. Apartment life is seen as claustrophobic and deranged - and Trelkovsky seems almost normal in the way he reacts to it all. Almost.
Unless it's all in his head, which it may well be. It's difficult to tell. In The Tenant, nothing is ever explained, at least not conclusively. That doesn't quite matter though. The recursive plot, a few genuinely spooky bits that give way to a feeling of permeating dread - and Roman Polanski in lipstick - should be enough to satisfy.
(This is a review of the 80s animated movie, not the later live-action one.)
Devilman is an animated movie series based on the comics by Go Nagai. The legend goes that Nagai was about 20 years old when he developed some kind of intestinal weakness and was stricken, for the first time, by the horror of his own impending mortality. So, he wrote Devilman on the toilet. Or so the wind whispers, on these hot and lonely nights...
This is the first film in the trilogy, entitled Devilman: The Birth. Sadly this is unrelated to a meta-universe where the main character of this movie is born as an adult from the cervical canal of a very surprised lady, but we must soldier on.
Devilman was made in the late 80s. Channel 4 acquired the rights and dubbed this into English in 1994. That's a hint - don't bother with subtitles - you want the English dub. It elevates an 80s cartoon about fighting monsters into a magnificent work of art, ripe with meaning, scathing in its criticism of society and also of God. Weirdly, Channel 4 have yet to release it, can't imagine why. In my opinion, it's one of the few truly beautiful things in this wretched world.
Devilman starts with a colourful prologue about dinosaurs, who also happened to co-exist with a plethora of demons. Who knew? Unfortunately the demons are kind of mean, and they kill each other, and whatnot. There are no nipples in this film, but if you see a nipple-less boob, you just know a mouth is going to erupt from it and explode. That's the kind of film this is: it pushes boundaries. Anyway, let's skip quickly to the modern day!
Ah, well, 1984 will do. Akira is an average high-schooler with above-average sideburns. The first scene we see him in includes some bunny rabbit corpses ("My God, how awful!") and then Akira saving a bunny rabbit from some bunny rabbit killers on the school roof. Unfortunately, Akira is injured during this confrontation. As he is being patched up by his neighbour Miki, the duo are interrupted by an old friend of Akira's, Ryo. Ryo threatens Miki with a knife ("What's happenin', man? And what've you got that knife for?") and whisks Akira away to his house. Are you with me so far?
Post-abduction, Ryo drops the bombshell: his father is dead. (In the manga, he simply exclaimed, "My father died! Because of that I became TOTALLY ALONE! He was my only family.")
Ryo explains that after exhibiting increasingly bizarre behaviour ("the first clue I had was when I found our pet dog decapitated") his father set himself on fire and rather predictably burnt to death. "It's true what they say, smoking's bad for your health. Especially when it's your own flesh you're smoking." ...
For Ryo, his father's legacy is a burden he can't bear alone, and has recruited Akira to help out. Ryo's father discovered a fossilised demon skull when excavating some ancient Mayan temple; the skull shows the memories of its long-dead owner (so, the annoying prologue - lucky) to whomever wears it. This, somehow and without a doubt, proves the existence of demons. Thus Ryo's father researched the demon skull - and was driven to madness after discovering that demons are being revived in the modern day (by the melting ice caps, of all things), where they can still use their powers to possess the bodies of both animals and humans. Still with me?
Please, don't accuse me of spoilers. This entire exposition scene is delivered in about 5 minutes. Devilman certainly likes expository dialogue ("ever since my parents' disastrous expedition to the South Pole, bad luck just seems to be a real good friend o' mine") presumably because it leaves more time for the important business of swearing and killing. Hell to the yeah!
Anyway, Ryo tells Akira that the only way to fight the demons is with more demons. To be more specific, if they become possessed by a demon while retaining their souls, they gain the pre-natural powers of the demon seeking to take over their bodies. According to Ryo, retaining your soul during a possession is only possible if the human involved in the possession is a "righteous" "young man" of "pure" and "virtuous" nature (to which Akira optimistically replies, "Well, I suppose I'm a young man.") This is where the film actually starts ticking down towards a climax as Ryo and Akira try to become demon-hybrids, or, to put it another way, a Devilman.
For the most part, Devilman is a story of two characters. Firstly, Ryo is incredible. It could be the stripy blue smock with matching cummerbund, the highly reflective purple shades and the billowing beige cape that leave such a deep impression - but I feel it's more his voice actor. He's dubbed over by a guy called Adam Matalon (who I sincerely hope is the same Adam Matalon that comes up on a cursory Google search, who is hilariously bald). Matalon has, um, an alternative style of line delivery, in that he speaks in a loud monotone, sans the usual pauses or vocal inflections one might expect to hear in human speech.
(Somehow it makes Ryo sound all the more unnaturally driven, though, almost mechanical in the pursuit of avenging his father. Or maybe I have watched this too many times. I think... almost 10 times, now.)
What all the voice actors have in common is their inability to pronounce the names of their characters correctly, leading to the awkward-sounding Ackyrah, Rio/Roo/Ryoo, Mickey etc. Probably the worst offender is Akira's voice actor, but only because he is just really British. I don't know about you, but I've never greeted someone by saying, "Oh, of course, it's my old friend Ryo, how the hell have you been keeping then?" (Well, in my defence, I don't have an old friend called Ryo.) Of course, Akira's dubbed toffish accent makes it even better when he starts swearing his face off. It's like Michael Buble dropping an f-bomb, but better.
The English dub's script is certainly intense, especially considering this aired on Channel 4 once upon a time. There is just so much bad language. For some people this will be far too vulgar, I'm sure, especially in its very casual delivery ("Ryo, I don't think Akira should go with you, he had an accident earlier." "I don't give a shit, this is very important.") All I can say is: when you're being chased down a hallway by a diabolical cycloptic spider trying to tear you limb from limb, what else are you gonna yell to your best bud but "fuckin' A, run for it"? This is my question to the world.
In fact, this entire film is hysterical. There is just such an over-abundance of shock and gore that it becomes, bizarrely, a comedic buddy film. This has its faults. When the story calls for actual humanity to be displayed - for example, when milquetoast Akira hesitates before killing some weird tentacle beast thing - it just becomes unbearable. Devilman delights in some kind of slick ultraviolence, but then so quickly turns around and earnestly contrives to pull on its audience's heart-strings. But how can I empathise with someone who endeavours to become a demon because his friend just told him to (and has such huge sideburns)? I found myself whispering furiously, "Just shoot the damn weird tentacle beast thing, already! I wanna go to the black sabbath," instead of being moved deep inside by the innocence and gentleness implicit in Akira's hesitation.
Of course, the lack of sympathetic resonance with the characters could just as easily be down to the medium of animation. It's a cartoon. Not that the animation in Devilman is inadequate; in fact, it's surprisingly nice. It has that 80s vibe, before anime got all hideous and homogeneous. I like older animation, as you get the feeling the cels have been drawn by actual human hands. Still, while the animation is a bit dated, it has a great use of lurid colours in a few scenes, especially with regards to the monstrous creatures.
The demons themselves are impressively bizarre. Within the lore of the series, demons don't reproduce, but instead physically fuse with one another and form hideous mutations with animals. Most of the female demons are incredibly sexualised despite that, having gaping, drooling mouths lined with teeth where their breasts and genitalia should be. Still, none of them are particularly frightening outside the general overbearing misogyny.
Aside from the dated attitudes, one of the only faults I can find in Devilman is that the dub script took out so much great dialogue. In the manga, when Ryo is trying to convince Akira to wear the demon hat, Akira speaks the immortal line, "Where's the phone? I need to call the insane asylum."
Also, the music is boring, just stock tension-building music, though it occasionally goes OTT and tries to convince us something is deeply frightening when it certainly is not, which is amusing. More than anything, I could have done with the saxophone solo in George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' during those charged held gazes between Akira and Ryo. Channel 4 should have made the effort.
Overall, however, Devilman's a ride; essentially a cheerful, hyper-violent gorefest infused with a good old sense of fun and comradeship between men. All this film needs is a pretentious epigraph quoting Shakespeare... Then it would truly be a masterpiece.
Whatever else I might say in this review, above all, it's important to know Dario Argento's 1985 film Phenomena (also known as Creepers) is a movie where Jennifer Connelly attempts to solve a series of killings that may or may not have been perpetrated by a chimp. Also, I apologise in advance for making this film sound more interesting than it actually is.
Jennifer Connelly plays, erm, Jennifer, the spoilt but troubled teenage daughter of a famous musician who has sent her to live at a boarding school in Switzerland. It's unfortunate that Jennifer immediately acts freakish towards her classmates and makes no friends. Luckily for her, there is a murderous lunatic who dismembers young women prowling around, so Jennifer's social outcast status isn't focused on. If only there'd been a serial killer around when I was in high school...
Only a few of the victims' body parts ever surface, but when they do, the police consult Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor is a famous entomologist, left wheelchair-bound from an accident and living alone with his chimp. Please, feel free to re-read that sentence. I often sit and think about the possibility of Donald Pleasance just bringing a chimp along to the set one day, and one thing leading to another. Surely no one could deliberately write a screenplay hinging on the relationship between a scientist and his monkey assistant and expect to retain any shred of credibility? However, it is important to note that this was filmed in 1985.
Inga (the chimp's name is Inga) and the professor have a strong bond; Jennifer Connelly gets some chimp action too as she discovers her latent psychic connection with all insects. In fact, she almost gets seduced by a beetle. After spending some time with the professor, Jennifer takes up his suggestion that she and some insects go in pursuit of the killer. And why not?
Phenomena contains elements of horror, thriller, and the supernatural. Unfortunately, these are coldly disparate from one another. It's too dissociated to be truly horrifying, and not tense enough to be a thriller, while the psychic stuff just comes off as weird. The resulting dissociation of the audience is deepened further by odd scraps of narration, as well as the film dipping in and out of subbed Italian now and then. Presumably, the latter is down to restored scenes. To quote my friend (I made him watch this, I am sorry), "I guess [the director was] just clipping out what was judged as inessential dialogue... but it's no less...inessential than just about anything else..."
Against the odds, it is this sense of removal that makes Phenomena strangely effective. Various scenes are beautifully shot on location, including some kind of waterfall, but all are remote and feel unreal. Sequences where Connelly sleepwalks, evoked with the painfully simple technique of inverting the colours, manage to be all the more eerie for their artlessness. There are several long scenes involving insects of the wriggling and flesh-eating kind, but as someone with a phobia of anything with more legs than I have, I was unmoved. Falling into a pit of maggots? Well, we all have problems...
Ultimately, this film is stiff with a sense of forced whimsy, and that's how Connelly plays her part. At one point, completely deadpan, she summons a swarm of bees to devour a small child. To me, that was a stake in the heart of everything Labyrinth stood for. It was great. Mostly Jennifer just sort of walks around, having shiny hair and making ridiculously stupid decisions. I didn't feel any empathy with her whatsoever, but that was probably because I am not a beetle.
Surprisingly, Phenomena is also quite funny. It's not a laugh a minute kinda thing, and there's no indication that Argento has any sense of humour whatsoever or that any of the hilarity was done on purpose, but it is what it is. Amusement acts as a foil to the more effectively odd parts, and is probably why I found myself enjoying this film. Even so, there are long stretches of mediocrity sandwiched between the odd and the vaguely funny. Plot threads are also left dangling and nothing makes sense. With this in mind, Phenomena isn't really recommendable to just anyone. Probably just for those with a robust interest in Jennifer Connelly having a bee harem and eating baby food with a pencil, then.
Girl of the Shell (or, as it seems to be marketed in romanised Japanese, Kara no Shoujo) is a pornographic murder-mystery visual novel from veteran pervert storytellers Innocent Grey. It is PC only and is released with a full English translation.
Japan, 1950s. Six years before the game begins, private detective Reiji Tokisaka teamed up with Tokyo Metropolitan Police officer Kyozo Uozumi to solve a series of serial killings in the red light district. Unfortunately, their investigation came to a tragically literal dead end when Tokisaka's fiancée was murdered. All this happened in Cartagra, the standalone prequel. In KnS, Tokisaka and Uozumi are on the case again after a spate of bizarre dismemberments sweeps across the prefectures of Tokyo. Concurrently, Tokisaka has been hired by young heiress Toko Kuchiki to "find her real self". At first dismissive, Tokisaka is forced to unravel the dark mystery in Toko's past to catch the killer, before the body count rises even further.
A visual novel is basically a choose your own adventure book. There are several pre-set endings, and at certain choice points, you can ultimately influence the one you get. Generally there are Bad Ends, Good Ends, and a True End (the one the creators intended to be canonical). KnS does have one True End, but you have to unlock a certain number of endings first. To be honest, it could also be called as a Bad End. So, essentially, KnS is a game intended to be played again and again for the player to ultimately experience the entire storyline(s), miserable as they are.
Visual novels tend to have a pornographic element in an otherwise non-pornographic scenario, to attract perverts to buy it. I seriously hope they were disappointed, because the porn in KnS is seriously debased. It's like someone made a list of the worst things they could think of and then added it to the game (in fact, someone did make a list: blood, torture, mutilation, dismemberment, drugs, rape/molestation (not committed by the main character), abortion, cannibalism, incest, necrophilia, suicide, very strange ideas about Christianity. I would add "really stupid character names" to that list too; "Celestial Stella" really triggered me). Unlike other VNs, KnS does not give you the option to turn the porn off... Technically there's only one adult cut-scene which is mandatory, but if you want to collect all the endings (which I did) you have to go through about eight. Ho hum. Somewhat ironically I just pressed enter over and over until it was done. This brings me to...
The most exciting part of any given game, I think you'll agree. Basically:
* Enter or the right arrow key flicks through the dialogue;
* Spacebar pauses the dialogue;
* Shift skips previously read dialogue.
The auto function has a variable speed (so you don't have to keep pressing enter). I put mine to the fastest one, which, unlike other visual novels, is actually fast enough for me to skim easily. Right click brings up save files and triggers a save (you can save at any time, which is great, and there are 80 save slots, though they are named/arranged less than intelligently in rows rather than columns).
There are other menus for changing the volume of music or the voice acting that can be accessed by hovering over the right-hand side of the dialogue box.
As you'd expect for a so-called visual novel, gameplay involves lots of reading. As we meet different characters, we'll get to know them, and in some cases, interrogate them. There isn't much room for the player to make many decisions early on in the game, though they become much more important further along.
Tokisaka lives with his younger sister, Yukari, after both of their parents passed away in an accident. We wake up every morning at home, and return there every night. Most mornings Yukari will make breakfast (men are pigs) and then we can choose where we spend the day loitering/investigating; we can choose up to three locations from the map. These include the morgue, the train station, Yukari's school, the park, the café and the art museum. If we choose the train station we can travel to other districts and thus visit other people or places, such as our friend's detective agency or the police HQ. Locations will disappear, for example, if trains aren't running. We can also uncover more specific ones along the course of our investigation, such as characters' houses.
The game takes place over several months - and we experience every single day of it. As the days change, as does the calendar at the top of the screen, saying occasionally interesting but always irrelevant things such as "full moon", "neap tide" and so on. Despite that it covers almost six months by the day, the KnS is classed as 'medium' length of 10 - 30 hours gameplay.
KnS is basically split into two. One the one hand, we are aiming to solve the mystery of who keeps dismembering school-girls and leaving their corpses in bizarre situations lifted from Dante's Divine Comedy. In contrast, we are also going fishing for a lady love who will let us hump her.
Almost all the girls in the game are dateable. Sadly the men are not (some of them have pretty impressive beards, so it's quite a loss). Your sister is also not available to woo. Sorry. If you hit all the right romance flags, which means going to your character's location more often than not and choosing the right answers, you can achieve a sex scene with them. That's it, really. The bad ends don't overlap with the romance part; they are entirely variable on how (or if) you solve the murder investigation. However - if you try and beat the game by going to the same location over and over to see your bit of crumpet, you will miss important character events, which are liable to get you bludgeoned to death. It's certainly a balancing act, with higher stakes than the usual romance game.
Notes on the murder investigation are automatically added to a little black book Tokisaka carries around. This is important, as these gathered pieces of evidence are what you use in what I will refer to as judgement rounds, where you have to choose the who, the what, the why and the when to further your investigation. The choices you make here are pivotal to the ultimate ending of the game. Again, if you get it wrong, you get a cudgel to the head.
Investigating corpses is also a necessity of the game play. These rounds are point and click, but are still notorious for being incredibly annoying, as you may have to click things several times to get the right piece of evidence or uncover hidden things in pockets or under clothes. These are probably the second most graphic parts of the game, with open wounds, general unpleasantness and torn-out uteruses. The most graphic parts are the murder scenes we're treated to now and then.
KnS has over 30 characters, many with tangled and confusing relationships with one another. There is a character relationship chart, to keep your mind fresh, though I found myself not looking at it much, to be honest.
Part of the reason I didn't need the character chart is because everyone looks so distinctive. The sprites look great. There's the typical anime style going on but things are kept within reason; natural eye and hair colours (for the most part). There is a nice use of different body shapes. Women tend to be shorter, sickly Toko is very thin, and Uozumi cuts an imposing figure with his wide shoulders. I don't think the artist has ever seen a real pair of human breasts before, though. Baffling.
Likewise the backgrounds are meticulously rendered and have a lovely realistic style, though they do become repetitive over time as we mostly see the same three places over and over.
One aspect of the game is collecting CGs, another quirk of visual novels. CGs are basically special pictures that can be unlocked. Some are sex scenes - yet another is your sister finding her lost snail... They are stored in the CG gallery that can be accessed from the loading screen. When progressing throughout the game you should be collecting CGs naturally. Unlike other games, there is no Easter Egg to be unlocked once you've collected them all, so it's almost completely pointless. Nevertheless, I collected all but one CG, and it still annoys me that I don't have it (it was one of my girlfriends with a cake, bless her).
The OST of Kara no Shoujo is called "Azure". The game music has lot of piano pieces and the occasional ghastly flute (Nietzsche hated flautists for a reason). Most of the music is perfectly listenable and sets a melancholy mood. Some are variations on the same six notes, though, which drove me absolutely mad. Thinking about it still makes me irrationally angry.
Incidental music is fine - traffic, trains, school life, that kind of thing. The noises that occur during killings are an especially disgusting series of rasps and squelches.
Voice acting was removed in the English release for legal reasons, but MangaGamer announced recently that they're putting it back in. (For those that bought it before the voices were added, there is a fan-made patch. Or you can pay $5.) The voice acting is of a high quality, especially Toko's voice actress, who turns an annoying character into an (almost) endearing one. The sex scenes are voice acted too, which is always interesting and nearly never not incredibly funny.
The English translation was purchased off tlwiki, a not-for-profit fan-translation group, by MangaGamer. It could have done with a bit of editing here and there, as there are a few misspellings and ambiguous phrases, but I'd say it's 90% on the way to perfection.
The way people are named isn't too annoying either; KnS is consistent with whether we refer to someone as either their family name or given name, which limits the confusion with so many characters.
KnS is a strangely addictive little game, though not without frustration. It is almost impossible to get the True End without a walkthrough, and even then, playing for 4 hours bleary-eyed isn't my best memory I've ever made. My sister's friends getting dismembered was also a bit of a downer (she was fine with it after I bought her some snails, but still. Oh my God. Snails have shells. So that's why Yukari's hobby was so weird. That makes so much sense now).
A word of warning: if you have sex with someone, they die in inventively sadistic ways. This isn't a complaint, as that has always been my experience, but I imagine it's frustrating for the perverts.
The plot is surprisingly twisted, and draws from a range of seemingly random sources, such as Dante, Yoshitaka Amano (his weird little movie Angel's Egg in particular) and Natsuhiko Kyogoku, though sadly not Herman Hesse and his love of chicks in eggs. Also, in the course of play KnS invents some of its own mythology, in the surprisingly boring meta-fiction Egg of Neanis. Never mind, it all fits together rather pleasingly in the end. Despite the pornography, the story is the reason I feel KnS should probably be more well-known than it is.
Please Save My Earth (Boku no Chikyou wo Mamotte) is a manga series written and drawn by Saki Hiwatari. Genre-wise, PSME is the intersection of two specific genres, sci-fi and shoujo (girls' comics).
To give some background, just as in the West, sci-fi was seen as a male-dominated genre until the early 70s. That was until the exclusively female Year 24 Group started producing more and more comics for girls, including manga adaptations of sci-fi novels from both Japan and America. Undoubtedly influenced by the Year 24 Group, Please Save My Earth began serialisation in 1987, in shoujo magazine Hana to Yume (Flowers and Dreams), and was brought to an end in 1994. The story was collected into 21 volumes, of which this is the first. The series was licensed and translated into English by Viz Media in 2003.
Alice Sekiguchi is a highly-strung perfectionist of a teenager, prone to maudlin daydreams. It doesn't help that her parents gave her an English name that makes her stand out, or that she has an annoying younger brother - among all the other trials sent from God. Nightmare becomes reality for Alice when she is forced to babysit her annoying 7 year old neighbour. Rin is cute, less than 4ft tall and extremely manipulative. He can cry on demand and uses this to make Alice bend to his nefarious demands, such as taking him to the zoo or buying him an ice cream. When he's not exercising his evil cerebrum, Rin reveals an extremely naïve side of himself, especially about matters of an adult nature (such as when he asks Alice if his mother is a virgin). Whilst supremely irritating and a blight on poor sensitive Alice's life, he is for the most part a normal kid and their babysitting arrangement is far from bizarre. That is, until Alice accidentally throws him off a third floor balcony. Awkward...
Meanwhile... two boys in Alice's class, Jinpachi and Issei, engage in what can only be described as gay moon conferences. The pair have a problem: they have been sharing the same dreams since middle school, and now the dreams are becoming sexy in nature. In the dreams, Issei is the female Enju, an anthropologist on a moon base, and Jinpachi is the male Gyokuran, the same moon base's archeologist. Despite the dream-Enju and real-life-Issei having different genders, they act strangely alike; likewise, both dream-Jinpachi and IRL-Gyokuran are virtually identical in looks and personality. The pornographic canoodlings of their alter egos is causing them some strife. Alice comes across the two of them having a stolen discussion about the gay moon dreams at school. Due to the duplicitous nature of what they're talking about (especially when Issei (and his massive fringe) runs away crying and screaming "I'm in love!" in a great parody of shoujo melodrama), Alice misinterprets the nature of their relationship... until Issei and Jinpachi explain it to her. You know, about the gay moon dreams. (I can't emphasise them enough.) I've got to say, weirdest cover-up story I've ever heard - I might use it.
All this takes a back seat for Alice, of course, wracked as she is with guilt from almost killing a 7 year old (the hilarious circumstances don't alleviate her burden). Rin survives the fall, but is comatose. While his understandably anguished mother watches over him, Rin begins to dream that he is an engineer on the moon-base, who along with six others, observe the Earth...
As PSME goes on, its main cast grows from four (Jinpachi, Issei, Alice, Rin) to seven (with the inclusion of Haruhiko, Sakura and the phenomenally useless Daisuke). Unfortunately, Hiwatari isn't the best at fleshing out a large cast of characters. Sakura and Daisuke bare the brunt of her lack of consideration. Sakura is fine, being quite funny, if nothing else. However, Daisuke literally does nothing, and his role could easily have been 'absorbed' (figuratively, I hope) by the other characters. As all of the main cast are brought together by their dreams, it becomes apparent that at the crux of the phenomena is something much more sci-fi than mere subconscious suggestion.
As they piece together fragments of their synchronised dreams, the characters realise that their dreams aren't as simple as they seem; they are memories surfacing from previous incarnations. The problem is, the reason they were reincarnated is because the moon scientists they used to be died - in circumstances as bizarre as they are tragic. As the characters come to piece together exactly who they are and what happened in their previous incarnations, they struggle to prevent their past incarnations' feelings, identities, jealousies and ulterior motives from taking over their new lives.
Looking back, this has to be one of the strangest stories I've ever read. The originality of PSME is even more exceptional within the shoujo genre, which these days is thoroughly uninteresting, with few exceptions.
What makes Please Save My Earth so compelling is the peculiar balance of sci-fi, romance, drama and action. Saki Hiwatari utilises the shoujo genre and all its clichèd trappings for all they're worth. From the art style to the flowery monologues that make very little sense ("Say, mother. The moon and Tokyo Tower look prettier than I thought. The tower is like a dinosaur. A lonely dinosaur with a moon for a friend") - Hiwatari either hams up the tropes of her genre, wringing situations for humour, or subverts them totally for dramatic emphasis, while never crossing the line and alienating her audience.
For a shoujo manga, the complaint I read often about the series is that Saki Hiwatari's art is very much of its time. I still like it: it's very emotive without descending into 'chibi' or super deformed styles. Interestingly, as this spanned almost a decade, Hiwatari's art evolves throughout the series in quite a dramatic way (though I didn't really notice while I was reading it). It's pretty average as shoujo art goes, but it still might put off people. Still, it's a superficial criticism. A more profound one is that PSME's values are dated, too, including an incident where a character is sexually assaulted and it's like, totes okay. I love this comic, but I found Hiwatari's depictions of gender dynamics very disappointing in a series that contained other more progressive elements.
Another profound criticism is how goddamn hard to understand this manga is at times. For each character, they have a corresponding past-life reincarnation (or 'moon friend', as I call them) and the tangled web of relationships spanning both sets of characters can be hard to follow. For example: Issei is the reincarnation of Enju. Enju was in love with Gyokuran. Gyokuran was in love with Mokuren. Jinpachi is Gyokuran's reincarnation. Jinpachi and Issei are best friends. Jinpachi develops a crush on Alice, who is Mokuren's reincarnation (ostensibly). Issei is in love with Jinpachi. And so on. These are only half the characters and relationships involved. Despite the complexity, the story never feels convoluted - probably because it spans so many volumes, the narrative never feels rushed or overpowers the reader with information. Luckily, there are character/relationship charts online for the reader who has missed something. Even so, PSME is definitely a comic suited for re-reading.
That's great, because as of 2006, over 15 million copies of Please Save My Earth volumes had been sold in Japan. It's not too unpopular in the West either (which is to say I know a few people who have read it without me having to bully them). Perhaps a double edged sword, as Hiwatari received a lot of creepy fan-letters from people who believed they, too, were reincarnations of aliens who lived on the moon...
As shoujo sci-fi manga go, PSME is not as weird as Reiko Shimizu's Moon Child, but not as serious as the sci-fi works of Hagio Moto or Keiko Takemiya's Ryu Mitsuse adaptations. PSME's sci-fi element is as strong as its dramatic equivalent, though it doesn't escape the ubiquitous patronising tone of sci-fi, especially in its virulent anti-war sentiment. Notably, Hiwatari has managed to build a world (the home planet of the original moon base scientists) which seems fully fleshed out, with its own religion (more pleasingly, their deity is a woman), society, politics and, most prominently, warring factions. Some of the most effective sequences in the manga are flashbacks to a character's experience as a war orphan, a reading experience I haven't found duplicated in any other medium in quite the same way. Perhaps mostly due to the involvement of a giant alien cat, but I digress.
In conclusion, this is one of my favourite comics ever. Something about all the disparate, sometimes eccentric elements of the art and the story coming together just really works for me; the first time I read it, it took me about 10 hours because I didn't stop until the very last page. I hesitate to call it an 'epic', but for over 20 volumes Please Save My Earth certainly is a consistently surprising and (for the most part) well thought out piece of science fiction. Well worth your time, and if you're a fan of classic shoujo titles as I am, I think it's fair to call it unmissable.
Leslie Feist is a Canadian singer-songwriter. Feist seems to be one of those musicians everyone has heard of but few people actually listen to and enjoy. She's ubiquitous, though; I can't count how many times her songs have been used on TV shows or in adverts and whatnot. The Reminder was her third studio album, released in 2007.
For the past few weeks I've been listening to my old MP3 player, ruthlessly exposing myself to the kind of music I liked about 6 years ago. As my MP3 player is otherwise full of music too mortifying to admit to liking (I hope to God it somehow self-destructs if I die) for all intents and purposes I've basically been listening to her 2 albums, Let It Die and The Reminder, over and over again. This is mostly due to the fact I forced myself long ago to disregard her debut album "Monarch, Lay Your Jewelled Head Down", as it was terrible. Though I mustn't let myself forget the painfully indie song "It's Cool To Love Your Family" it contained under any circumstances. "It's cool, it's cool, to love your family, oh yeah..."
The Reminder has no such love for the Feist clan, thankfully. It opens with total downer "So Sorry", about the regret after an argument ("we don't need to say goodbye / we don't need to fight and cry / we could hold each other tight / tonight"). Feist just mumbles through this in the most unimpressive impersonation of a sad person ever attempted. The only good part of the song is the lyric "no one knows where the shore is / but divide it by the ocean", a compellingly and abstract lyric Feist returns to in another song on this album, suggesting that it's either very personal to her or just that she's terribly pleased with herself. And she should be - to a point - as "I Feel It All" is much better. The song lurches from "I love you more" to "I'll end it all / though you started it", containing probably every emotion known to man all in under 4 minutes, which is faster than I can do literally anything. As a break-up song, it's one you can cry to ("I'll be the one who breaks my heart / I'll be the one to hold the gun") while simultaneously dancing (it has probably the happiest, catchiest melody on the album, with a tinkly loveliness about it).
"My Moon, My Man" is much a perkier song, probably because it's not about love troubles at all. It's easily my favourite. Musically, it is simplistic, almost hypnotically so. It comprises a relentless drumbeat and some nicely buzzy guitar effects with Feist's lovely and ethereal vocals, thankfully free of her try-hard murky whisperings. Lyrically speaking, quite a lot of people on the website songmeanings.net argue about this song being about anal sex. I don't quite know how to feel about that. Rationally, I really don't think it is, but it's quite amusing to think of Feist writing about such squalid perverted filth. (Saying that, couldn't fans have picked on "I Feel It All" instead?) I pretty much like every lyric in this song, and I'm not sure why, as they don't particularly make sense. "My boobs, my face, we're digging a phase, / It's the calendar page again, / Take it slow, take it easy on me, shed some light, shed some light on me please..." Insightful? Who cares, I'm dancing!
"My Moon, My Man" peters out with some weird background noise leading straight to "The Park", which recedes into yet another mumbled abstract Feist song about depression populating a city and making her homeless. Passing the burden of responsibility a bit there, Leslie. (Anyway, she probably wasn't homeless after this album - although I hear her brother still works at a supermarket. If I must remind you, Feist: it's cool to love your family.) Similarly, "The Water" is downbeat and dull. Not even the promise of Feist playing the banjo on this track makes me want to listen to it. If anyone has a higher tolerance for acoustic guitar than I do, then you may enjoy these tracks more.
Unlike her previous album Let It Die, there are no covers here. Still, "Sea Lion Woman" takes a lot of inspiration from Nina Simone. After two mediocre songs, "Sea Lion Woman" is shockingly good. I used to think this song was about selkies, but apparently it's about a high class hooker. I'm not sure how I made that mistake. In hindsight, the song tells the story of a woman's continued love affairs, going from "wink at the man / then stab him in his back" to "smile at the madman / and wake up in his bed". Musically, the instrumental arrangement is memorable even if it is a bit too derivative. I especially like the backing singers chanting "sea lion, sea lion, sea lion woman" and managing to make it affecting instead of stupid. I mean, not once did I imagine a sea lion dressed as a prostitute going about her business during this song, and that's amazing.
"Past In Present" is essentially "I Feel It All" redux (same general tune and theme of reliving happy memories while having to face up to the present), but the part where Feist frantically sings "it's a volcano, it's a volcano, it's a volcano" always makes me smile. (It's probably not a volcano, Feist.) There are worse songs on the album than this - quite a few, really.
Saying that, I wasn't expecting to like "Limit To Your Love", but surprisingly, I really do. The lyrics are pretty strong: "there's a limit to your love / like a waterfall in slow motion / like a map with no ocean". Feist walks the line between showing emotion and sounding incoherent, getting a bit whispery and Regina Spektor at times but not to the extent of ruining the song. It ends with a sting, the surprisingly poignant "...'cos there is no limit, no limit to my love."
"1 2 3 4" is the main single from this album and the most famous song Feist has ever done, possibly along with Mushaboom, as it was used on some iPod advert at the time. In every way it's sweet and gentle, a kind of rose-tinted version of adolescence - "sleepless long nights, that was what my youth was for" / "breaking your heart for those teenage boys" and so on - but at the cost of being incredibly bland. I suppose it doesn't help that I sing the Sesame Street version in my head instead of the real lyrics. "1, 2, 3, 4, now I can count up to 4." It's very difficult to forget that kind of poetic resonance.
"Brandy Alexander" is another painfully adolescent song, but if I am in an indulgent mood, I rather like it; while Intuition is about as irritating as asbestos reading Bruce Forsyth's autocue. Honey Honey appears to be about a woman waiting for her lover to come back: "honey, honey out on the sea / in the doldrums waiting for me / me on dry land thinking of he," and then presumably realising he has died, "honey honey, food for the bees". (Though it's arguable if Feist truly means to suggest he was devoured by bees while at sea.) "How My Heart Behaves" is another irritating pseudo-folk song, so I pretend the album ends with "Honey Honey" (and starts with "I Feel It All").
Between Let It Die and The Reminder, The Reminder is the slightly weaker album. Despite this, The Reminder was much more successful than its predecessor. It was certified 2x Platinum in Canada and Gold in the US, Australia, Austria and France. "1 2 3 4" also won some kind of award for best indie song the same year. (The single version, not the Sesame Street version, which is a damn shame.)
It's not perfect, though. Feist has a real problem with trying too hard, and some of the tracks here reek of a queasy forced quirkiness, especially the vocals (though the Lord knows she isn't as bad as, say, Los Campesinos!, though perhaps it's unfair to compare them as they are both talentless in different ways).
On the one hand, I get the feeling Feist is dying to be experimental (as she did on Let It Die, by singing in French, of all methods), with songs like Honey Honey and Sea Lion Woman, perhaps to earn the recognition of her arty beatnik friends in Broken Social Scene. However, she still studiously stays in between conventional lines when it comes to the singles she releases, perhaps because that's what will please her fans (or her producers). Even so, as soft pop, indie rock or easy listening or whatever genre this is (Wikipedia suggests "baroque pop" - right), I like 9/13 tracks here, so I suppose I can rank this as a successful album. Even after all these years. Excuse me now, as I now have to listen to No Doubt and Madonna and anime music.
The Reminder - Feist
Total Length: 54:31
MP3 Download: £7.49
Secretary is a 2002 American indie movie. It's essentially well known for being a fetish film. S&M feels old hat now, but I guess it was original enough in 2002 (like furries were). Despite the DVD cover and the movie's tagline ("assume the position"), Secretary is more of a romantic drama than any kind of sex comedy / softcore porn.
Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a 20-something woman who has recently been released from a mental institution after her self-harm got out of control. As she still lives at home with her parents and her recently married sister, Lee's fragile mental balance is at the mercy of her mother's codependency, her father's alcoholism, and her extended family's silent judgement. After a failed attempt to give up cutting herself, Lee finds a job as a secretary to the uptight and demanding lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Despite the affections of her boyfriend, Lee finds herself developing an obsessive crush on her boss. The twist is - he is a sadist sex fiend!
I watched Secretary along with my friend and a few preconceptions. To be more precise, before watching the film I was dubious on two accounts. Firstly, to what extent Secretary would use violence against women to portray the attractiveness of a BDSM relationship; and secondly, how the sublimation of self-harming urges into the S&M lifestyle could be construed as anything but misguided at best and offensive at worst.
To address the issue that resonated most with me first: Lee self-harms. This is something I find especially painful to watch (especially when she burns herself with a kettle, Christ). Lee has a box full of implements to both harm and heal herself and, throughout the film, arduously struggles to throw this collection away. This obsessive, ritualistic side of self-harming is very true to life and the film does well to handle it sensitively. I didn't feel the director was trying to wring sympathy out of the audience, or worse, suggest that Lee was hurting herself for attention - or because she was insane in the membrane, so to speak.
In fact, Lee comes off as a very sweet girl. Maggie Gyllenhaal infuses her character with a painful awkwardness conveyed through body language alone. Combining this with clothes that are about 20 years too old for her gives Lee a very naturalistic demeanor of someone very slightly out of their depth in the real world. (And by jove, her clothes are ugly. Her fashion only improves as Lee gets deeper and deeper into S&M; there is no greater recommendation for this lifestyle.)
Her boss, Mr Grey, despite being the focus of Lee's desire, is a much lesser developed character - all we really know about him is that he's divorced - but in essence Secretary is a bildungsroman for Lee, not him. Mr Grey is essentially a catalyst. He notices Lee's self-harming and tries to change her habits / improve her as a person... through spanking her ass. Yeah..! Obviously there is more to it than that, but to be frank, not that much more.
This was filmed just before James Spader's sheepy phase (the same one he is currently quagmired in) - thanks Jesus - so he can sleepwalk through the role by just slightly narrowing his eyes and pouting a bit, as usual. One thing about his performance that bothered me was his insistence on speaking in a soft deliberate whisper. I had to get my friend to transcribe most of his lines because I discovered that I simply suck at lipreading. (Actual line: "Pull down your pantyhose and underwear." My lipreading: "Did you know my man nose was born in Guam?" etc. etc.)
While the relationship between Lee and Mr Grey is borne of fetish cliché, it actually hits most of the tropes for any given romance flick (even as it subverts many at the same time). This is probably Secretary's biggest weakness - its lack of any originality besides taking the obvious and spinning it around. Of course, there are other minor quibbles as well. Maggie Gyllenhaal's Judy Blume-like narration grates, and perhaps the ending is overly neat, but the fact that it basically follows roughly the same formula as The Notebook is most startling.
Still, even with its faults, Secretary is an enjoyable 2 hour romp. The direction is functional, occasionally spicing it up with interesting sequences such as a requisite montage. There are very few sets used, Lee's bedroom and Mr Grey's office being the main two. But these are riddled with in-joke props, such as Lee's typing errors framed in the hallway of Mr Grey's office, seemingly along with statues of monkeys masturbating. I like his style.
Style is an odd word to use to describe the retro technology used in Secretary. I'm not actually sure it's particularly retro for its time; Lee uses a typewriter and listens to tapes on her Walkman. I was 9 years old in 2002 so I don't remember any of it. The typewriter motif isn't used enough, in my opinion, though there was a point in the story where I thought it would play a much bigger role. I liked these needless antiquary embellishments.
To write about what Secretary did right, the use of comedy is strangely adept. Four or five genuinely amusing scenes are slipped in throughout, seamlessly breaking up some of the heavier melodrama, without causing the film to feel uneven. My favourite is Lee's masturbation fantasy where she - of all things - gives Mr Grey a hug, while behind them a green-screen of giant flowers burst into bloom. This part, along with a woman telling Lee to read some feminism 101 books, endeared me to the film rather more than anything else.
Despite the sadomasochistic wrapping paper, ultimately Secretary's core message is about how love heals all wounds (that old chestnut), instead of "it's edgy to slap a woman until she bruises" or "don't cut yourself, let me hit you instead". As a spectacle, it is unique enough to entertain without taking away from what could be called the moral of the story: that love can conquer fear.
Secretary also isn't offensive in the least, though I was looking forward to being offended. Everything up until the last 25 minutes could probably be released under a 15 certificate, as there is nudity (not including one bizarre - and hilarious - scene where it seems as if Spader is going to launch himself into orbit) at the end that likely pushes the certificate up to an 18. Beyond the "whips and chains excite me" façade, Secretary is a genuinely engaging and believable love story, so don't let fear stop you from giving it a try.
Price (ATOR): £10.99
Studio: Prism Leisure Corporation
DVD Release Date: 7 Feb 2005
Run Time: 107 minutes
I discovered Cibo Matto accidentally, about six years ago, when looking for music on last.fm (anyone remember last.fm?). I was looking for shibuya-kei - sort of like Japanese electronic lounge music; Cibo Matto don't really fit into that genre. Or... any genre of music. I love them all the more for it, though.
Cibo Matto were a band based in New York, consisting of two women, Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori. Miho sings in beautifully shattered English and Yuka does everything else. Just as well, then, that Cibo Matto features other various contributors. This includes, of all people, Sean Lennon. (He was dating Yuka at some point, and even Yoko gets in on a remix at some point. Imagine working with your girlfriend and your mother on a song. And having John Lennon as your dead dad at the same time. Bizarre.)
Cibo Matto directly translates to crazy food (in Italian), because most of their songs are about, erm, well, how to put this... crazy food. At least on their first album, Viva! La Woman. Their subsequent EPs and final album before disbanding were a bit more mature - well, they later had a song called 'Marijuana', so...
Viva! starts with the tinkly Apple, which I find weak. However, the next track Beef Jerky is endlessly more suggestive of Cibo Matto's style. With a rather frenetic melody, it tells a story of someone's mother, who finds the listener "kinky". It also features the lyrics "Who cares? I don't care! A horse's ass is better than yours," in the bridge. I have yet to use this in conversation, though not for wont of trying. The song ends with Miho murmuring dreamily about eating carrots together, until the song fades out. So far, so good.
Sugar Water is just about the best song on the album, a gentle occultish song about someone turning into - gird yourself - sugar water. There are a lot of black cats, women on the moon singing to the earth, and buildings turning into coconut trees. Yes, it's marvellous. I especially like the imagery of urban sprawl slowly turning into something mystical, which I imagine is influenced by the musicians living in New York, but who knows. Sugar Water is vaguely famed for featuring on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Let's go to The Bronze, Cibo Matto are playing"), which shocked me at the time.
Following this is White Pepper Ice Cream, an oddly mesmerising song with some kind of muted jazz sampling. Miho really loves this flavour of ice cream apparently: "in my mouth / it sting my lips / it's like eclipse / as I'm in the crossword puzzle / but I can't fill in the blank". I also like the way she pronounces 'pepper' as 'paper'. I find White Pepper Ice Cream strangely lovely to the point that the worst I can say about it is that, as always, grammar fiends best stay away from Miho's shattered syntax.
After this is the notorious "Birthday Cake". It's probably the worst song ever made, but totally fantastic in its reckless horribleness. A mother attempts to bake a cake for her son's birthday, but uses heinously out of date food, including milk that went off "two months ago". Her son points out to her that "it's moldy mom, isn't it?" to which Miho screeches, indignantly, "I don't give a flying fuck though". The album version contains a line about killing Vietnamese people and loving LSD (Miho pronounces it as LCD, mind you), but this was cut out of the single version, which through forces unknown made it into Jet Set Radio Future. As for vocals, Miho screams the entire time. Not even artily, like Björk; she just sounds like she's being murdered and is damn well angry about it! Still, even though Birthday Cake may sound like ear cancer, in my opinion it's the perfect soundtrack for those special occasions. What can be more poignant than force-feeding someone rotten food that you made with love in your heart?
After that, the most incredible 3 minutes 16 seconds of your life, Know Your Chicken has a lot to live up to. "Sixteen years ago one day, I was walking down the street / I was cruising in Brooklyn, you know what I mean? Something was cooking, but wasn't yet a chicken..."
This song is about buying a chick and raising it (naturally), and how it slowly comes to rule Miho and Yuka's life for over a decade and a half. (I think we can assume this is a true story.)
Tension comes to a head as Miho tells us of the chicken's dark demise in a verse near the end: "then one night I met a lover / one night, she made me dinner. / Licking finger, I wondered / where she got the chicken." The rest of the song is an urgent warning to discipline your poultry in order to avoid a similar fate. They should make children memorise this song in school. We should not let this tragedy be repeated.
After that glut of songs that were both beautiful and meaningful, the remaining 5 tracks are a bit of a let down. "Theme", at 10 minutes, goes on for far too long; "Candy Man" is an uninspired cover, though it showcases Miho's lovable accent; while Jive and Le Pain Perdu are nice, but forgettable. The final track, Artichoke, is surprisingly good. It's a strangely tense song full of weird psycho-sexual food imagery, ("Your hands are like a rusty knife", "can you squeeze a lemon on me?") which I suppose is to be expected.
Viva! has 11 tracks, and comes in around 48 minutes. A remastered version was released in 2006. Despite being originally recorded in 1994, the album doesn't feel dated at all. This is the album that gave Cibo Matto a cult following, and even twenty-odd years later still sounds as esoteric as ever. No one did weird quite like they did.
This is perhaps not one if you don't like bizarre music (or crazy food). Probably not if you actually like music that sounds nice all the time either - but that obviously isn't an issue for me. So, if it interests you, don't be afraid to try it... You know my love is very sweet.
Download is £7.49 at the moment; audio CD is £9.25, but much cheaper used
Masayuki Kawashima has a problem: he is plagued by the urge to stab his baby daughter to death with an ice pick. Between the intrusive imaginings of the day and the terrors of the night, the urge to maim his daughter haunts him every hour of the day. He can't sleep. He can't focus on his work. He can't bear to be around his wife, let alone their child. He can't function while this constant pressure builds and builds inside his head. He knows he has to alleviate it somehow, or he'll lose his mind or harm his loved ones - or both. So Masayuki develops a cunning plan.
He will lie to his wife about a business trip, rent a hotel room, hire a prostitute and then stab her to death. Then he will clean up the crime scene, get rid of the body and go home. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot of things have gone wrong in Chiaki Sanada's life. As a child she was abused by her parents, leaving behind a lifetime's worth of wounds that have yet to scar over, painfully represented by the self-inflicted cuts on her arms. Her childhood trauma has not only manifested physically. At some point she became addicted to several drugs that got her through the nightmares, but they too have warped her personality and her body, and she works in the sex trade to pay for her habit. Though Masayuki hires a prostitute's services for the night with some precision, he did not make room in plans for Chiaki. Chiaki is the ultimate unpredictability.
What follows is essentially a cat and mouse game. Despite being, at times, unremittingly brutal, Piercing also has a darkly amusing streak. Masayuki often laments his frustration at what he feels should be a simple (almost boring) task of killing a hooker. Chiaki, for the most part, is so out of her head that everything she does is ludicrous. At one point she ties Masayuki up with a lamp cord and goes off into the kitchen to make something to eat. I don't know what I expected.
Each chapter switches perspective from one character to another, keeping up a brisk pace. I usually don't like alternating points of view, but Piercing is just about short enough that this gimmick doesn't have time to become irritating. Via the switches we see that both Chiaki and Masayuki are essentially very similar, both in their pasts and their reactions to the situation at hand, sometimes evoking a rather nice symmetry in dramatic irony.
Somewhat grimmer is the concept that two people so similarly damaged can turn against each other in such a spectacular and depraved fashion, but Piercing isn't really a meditation about anything deeper than the lurid violence that glimmers on its surface, as it moves far too quickly to dwell on anything of substance. At just under 200 pages, it's a quick read. This is helped by an eloquent translation and general lack of loquaciousness in, I assume, the original prose.
Still, somehow Piercing is a bit more disposable than Murakami's other (thematically similar) works. In comparison with the genuinely tense first half of In The Miso Soup, Piercing could almost be set to the Benny Hill theme-tune for much of its progression. The characters were rather predictable, too, as if drawn from stock: a cute prostitute who was abused as a child and a smug man who doesn't need to read the instruction manual and ends up faffing up a simple bookcase (only, you know, with murder, instead of flat-pack furniture). For the most part, this was made up for in the sheer unpredictability of the plot. Quite apart from the grotesque attempted-murders, the end seems almost incongruous - some found this disappointing. One of the covers the novel has gives it away, too.
Unfortunately Piercing is considered slightly outmoded now, as it was originally published in 1994 (it doesn't sound that long ago, but to put it in perspective, it was a year after I was born). The English translation came out in 2008. Obviously, I liked it, but it is perhaps not essential reading.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; paperback / softback edition (7 Jan 2008)