Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Patlabor!

The other day I finally finished the good ol' 80's Anime series, Patlabor On Television (that's actually the full name of the series) and it was pretty fun! The series is an alternate retelling of the Manga Patlabor: Mobile Police. That's right! Mobile police, as in police with mobile suits, which in the anime/manga world are basically big robots that you pilot from a cockpit within.  

"Alphonse" the main mobile police unit or "patlabor" featured in the series. It is an "Ingram" model The head is roughly the size of an average adult person.
The premise of the series is pretty interesting and is apparently an "alternate re-telling" of the manga that its based on (which also has a straight animated mini-series adaptation as well, which makes one wonder why they made this series in the first place... but I digress...). It is the near future and mobile suits called "labors" are being widely used throughout the world in a number of labor intensive industries and practices (e.g. construction, military etc.). This has lead the emergence of "labor crime" which, in the series, manly consists of scenarios in which angry citizens hijack labors and reek havoc to satisfy personal vendettas or two construction workers will have a disagreement and start labor-fighting or something like that. To deal with these problems the Tokyo Metro Police Force (cause the series takes place in Japan) forms two "special vehicle units" that specialize in dealing with labor crime with their own police issued labors called "patrol labors" or "patlabors" for short. The specific patlabors featured in this series are called "ingrams" (shown above.)

The men and women of Special Vehicles Unit 2.
The series is paced fairly lightly with the majority of episodes being one-shots in which a story arch is started and wrapped up in a single episode. Being an anime about police using giant robots, one would expect a considerable amount of labor vs. labor action, but the series is actually quite subtle in that respect. Robot fights actually make up a relatively small part of the series which focuses much more on character driven story-lines, largely driven by the main character, policewoman and labor pilot, Noa Izumi. Think of it as a cop drama except that the police happen to have giant robots. It's a pretty interesting approach because, as we all know, anime is typically NOT where you go for subtlety. The characters are also quite likable and most of the usual archetypes are accounted for (e.g. the hothead, the by-the-booker, the bumbling fool etc. etc.). Some of the episodes are hit or miss however, as some range from hilarious and/or action-packed to fairly boring and uninteresting, however even the most boring episodes are aided by the charm of the characters so if you like the characters you won't suffer too much.


All in all I found the series quite enjoyable (I mean I watched the whole thing right? That's 47 episodes by the way!) and a rather plausible vision of a future in which mobile suits are widely implemented in society. Though the series is lacking an abundance of robot battles, its subtlety was actually kind of refreshing as a kind of break from the seizure inducing, physics defying battles that we're used to in this genre (I'm not saying I don't enjoy that stuff... I'm just saying its nice to see something different from time-to-time). The characters are likeable and though filling the usual anime and police drama archetypes, actually act like real people for the most part. Especially the main character, Noa Izumi, actually acts like a REAL woman who would be doing a job like being a labor pilot. For example, she is both strong AND feminine rather than just totally submissive, weak and girly or cold and emotionless two common opposing archetypes in anime. Seriously, some female characters in anime seem like they were written by people who have heard of women and seen them on TV but never actually interacted with one on any sort of intimate level (I'm just sayin...). So yeah, my verdict is: Check this out if you want to see a plausible, character-driven, somewhat realistic mobile suite anime from the 80's which is light on emotional investment. Certainly not the best anime I've ever seen, but certainly not without it's charms. I'll be watching the aforementioned faithful manga adaptation mini-series in the near future so I'll tell you how that goes.

PS: I LOVE the way the ingrams are designed! frickin awesome!          
    

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cinema Kabuki

Hey hey! Yesterday I saw my first Kabuki play! (feel kind of funny saying that) And it was awesome! How did I see a Kabuki play in Toronto you ask? Well the Japan foundation had their yearly run of Cinema Kabuki, in which the Japan foundation rents a theater and screens Kabuki plays in HD.

Last year's poster
The play I saw was called Hokaibo. It was the story of a corrupt and vile priest who loves to drink, have crazy sex and generally messes around in people's business.There are a cast of characters all played by members of the super famous Nakamura Kabuki family, many members of which have been in a number of high profile Japanese films and television dramas. The play was a comedy featuring hilarious bits of prop, physical, absurdest and situational comedy that is so present in many other Japanese media. It was a lot of fun.

The Trashy Monk, Hokaibo

The plot revolves around a family scroll that was stolen from a noble prince, who is searching tirelessly for it. The scroll changes hands several times in the play and eventually ends up in the monk Hokaibo's possession. Aside from the scroll there are also side stories about a poor girl who is constantly harassed by creepy guys and who is having an affair with the prince and another one about the princess whom the prince is engaged to. The play culminates with the princess and Hokaibo dying and fusing into a single vengeful spirit (which has both character's voices, and an army of exorcists attempting to defeat the vengeful spirit. Sounds wild no?

From the final scene, in which Hokaibo and the princess's amalgamated spirit is reeking havoc while being exorcized. 
 So what was my impression of this strange and new Japanese art form? (new to me, I mean) It was awesome!!! The visual style was beautiful and wild! I loved it! The comedy was actually hilarious! I laughed out loud many times! And the ending was so visually spectacular with the main character high on a platform and cherry-blossom petals falling from the stage before the main character jumped into an array of rope in an exciting and dangerous fashion. I wish I had a pic of this scene! Truly like nothing I have ever seen. It seems to me that Kabuki really is a kind of multimedia art form, with dancing, music, acting, in this case, a bit of comedy, and a little bit of acrobatics all in one. I brought my family and they loved it! Well, all except my grandma who wasn't really feeling it. But suffice it to say, I'm definitely going to watch more Kabuki in the near future if possible. Loved it, loved it, loooooooved it!!!   

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Flash of Capital

Hey Ya'll! If you guys are interested in Japan, Japanese Film, and the evolution of Japanese Capitalism then ya'll gotta read this book The Flash of Capital. I hear ya'll saying "what's all that about?" well read on and all shall be revealed.

Last semester I took a class at my university (that's U of T a.k.a. University of Toronto) called "Approaches to East Asia". Upon enrolling in the course I had no idea what to expect, as the title appears rather ambiguous dose it not? I mean, I know what East Asia is, and I know you approach it via Vancouver (or Hawaii for all ya 'mericans out there) *this is me trying to be funny* But anyway I was quite curious about what this course had to offer as it was mandatory for my specialist degree in East Asian Studies. Well suffice it to say the course was pretty solid, awesome, interesting, eye opening, and actually gave me a new perspective on studying history, which is something I do in abundance. Basically the course was broken down into three major areas. History, geography, and subjectivity, which, my professor explained to us, were all problems often prevalent in the study of history. He showed us articles and films that either were examples of or addressed these problems so that us, his students, could see for ourselves the problems inherent in much historiographical documentation and general approaches to historiography in general. While I'm not going to go into the whole course in detail (because I could easily devote an entire blog to its subject matter) I will simply say this. Awesome course, awesome prof. Who is this mystery prof. you ask? That would be Professor Eric Cazdyn, the author of the book I finished not long ago, The Flash of Capital.        

  
Being much inspired by this course I found out, through one of my TA's (teaching assistants) that Professor Cazdyn had written some books which highlighted some of the issues in the course. I suppose it should have been little surprise that my prof. writes books about his ideas and stuff but the idea never crossed my mind for some reason. Anyway the book I managed to borrow off one of my TA's was the one you see above, The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan. Each chapter of the book analyzes a certain era or time-space within modern Japanese history (the last 100 years or so) and capitalism's place within it, and then, the coolest part in my opinion (as an ex-film student and East Asian film buff), talks about certain films from that era, and how various scenes or themes (and other elements) from the films highlight the zeitgeist of the times in relation to capitalism and various sociopolitical issues. It's tremendously interesting if you dig this stuff.

If your interested in Japan and have gotten over your Japanophile phase or world politics, READ THIS. Not only is it a lesson in modern Japanese history but also a lesson in the inner workings of Japanese society, political systems (not just Japanese) and film analysis in general. Seriously, there's a lot here. Though I cannot say its an easy read, its certainly an interesting one. I honestly had a hard time putting it down... and I have A.D.D.!

Chances are, if your reading this blog, your probably at least somewhat interested in Japan, so do yourself some learning, go to a book store or library and check out this book! *note that this is not an advertisement. Seriously though... check it out!                  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie? I don't think so...

Hey! It's been a while! I just got a new computer and I've been setting it up and finally everything is good to go, so here I am with a new post. Have you ever heard of Sleeping Dogs? If ya'll like video games like me then you probably have! Sleeping Dogs is a new game that's gonna be coming out in the near future. It's one of those open ended sandbox games, like GTA (Grand Theft Auto) or something like that. Except it takes place in mutha-flippin Hong Kong! I saw a trailer and some interviews and game footage and it looks like the developers really captured the HK action move aesthetic and I couldn't be more pleased. Here's a sick live-action teaser trailer they made for the announcement.


The game was orignally going to be part of the True Crime series which came out back in the PS2 days and has two games to its name (one of them featuring Snoop Dog!). So yeah apparently this game has been in development for 4 years. The character you play as is a Chinese (or Hong Konger) undercover cop which is good cause its set in HK. If your going to have a game set in HK, you might as well be a Chinese dude am I right? Yes, I am. While the live action trailer is pretty damn good in its own right, if you want to get a look at some in-game footage, there's some pretty awesome clips on gametrailers.com or ign.com or what-have-you. Definitely worth a look if you like video games and Hong Kong action. I'm stoked for this.        

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Drunken Yen

The Kung Fu keeps on rolling! I just watched the film Drunken Taichi for the first time. What is it? It's a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie from the 80's which was actually Donnie Yen's first film! Who's Donnie Yen? Are seriously asking this question? Just in case you don't know, Donnie Yen is a Chinese action star who was never really as famous as Jet Li or Jackie Chan, but certainly on par with them in terms of screen presence. He's been in a pile of Chinese and Hong Kong action films and even a few Hollywood pictures.

Donnie Yen as seen in 2009's Yip Man
 Those not well versed in East Asian cinema might know him from such films as, Highlander: Endgame (the motion picture finale of the Highlander TV series), Blade II (sequel to Blade 1, not as memorable or awesome as the first), Shangai Nights (a lack luster sequel to a half good American Jackie Chan film) and some other stuff I probably haven't seen or was not memorable enough for me to recall it at this time. Yes, like most HK actors his Hollywood portfolio is not the best, however his HK stuff is pretty awesome, boasting such films as, Once Upon a Time in China II (in where he fought Jet Li), Hero (in where he fought Jet Li again), In The Line of Duty 4 (fight scene heaven!), and SPL (or Killzone in the North America, in which he fought against Wu Jing and an older Sammo Hung alongside Simon Yam!!!). I'm probably leaving out some REALLY good movies but that's just what's coming to me at the moment. Anyway about Drunken Taichi...


 Drunken Taichi is an old-style kung fu comedy movie from 1984. I say old-style, meaning that there's no wire-fu or any of that more flamboyant, overclocked, fight scene stuff that became popular in the early 90's. It's directed by Yuen Wo Ping, who is, without a doubt, the GOD of fight choreography and even in this early film, his unrivaled fight scene creativity is present. The plot revolves around Donnie Yen's character, the son of a rich merchant who lives a cushy life-style but still does Kung Fu and gets into trouble. One day he messes with the son of another affluent businessman and ends up inadvertently causing the other young man to suffer some kind of emotional or brain damage. The father of the young man hires a killer to wipe out Yen's Character's family. The killer strikes when Yen is out of the house, killing his father and older brother and thus Yen is orphaned. Eventually the killer comes for Yen but he ends up living with a Kung Fu master couple comprised of an old drunk Taichi master and an over-weight quilt maker who uses her own brand of kung fu. They train him and he kills the killer.

Young Donnie Yen with his old master played by Yuen Cheun Yan
The story is fairly derivative, forgettable and extremely silly and this is nowhere near as awesome as Yuen's or Yen's later work. Still, the fight scenes are really quite creative and include a firework battle in which Yen and his brother fire and dodge all manner of ridiculously engineered fireworks. The choreography was also made to show off Donnie Yen's physical abilities with complicated jump kicks and all manner of flamboyant stunts. Though certainly not a hall-of-famer, any fan of old-school kung fu films should enjoy this, and any fan of Donnie Yen will likely get a kick out of seeing his onscreen debut. Worth a look, just be warned, its REALLY silly and I think some of the jokes are lost in translation.       

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mystery of the Chess Master

Hello, Hello! I just finished reading a super famous Chinese novella called, The Chess Master by A Cheng. The story follows a Chinese fellow who has to go off and work at a labor camp during the Chinese cultural revolution. In doing so he meets a guy named Wang Yisheng, a man with a complicated past who loves chess (the Chinese version which is actually called Xiangqi) over everything else and is thus dubbed "the chess maniac". 


 This novella is unique for the time because instead of following the process of the cultural revolution, which was often violent and always unfortunate, the story focus's more on self realization and existential transformation (ooh big words!). The main character and narrator is a man that came from a privileged family, but suffered abject poverty after the death of both parents. In the story he transforms from a man who is constantly searching for money and upward mobility, to a man who is able to enjoy the simple blessing of financial stability. The chess master, Wang Yisheng, the focus of the story, was a poor man, who's family is in dire straights in terms of finance and who became interested in Chess from a young age. His realization is simply that before one can spend time playing chess and enjoying leisurely activities, the fundamentals of life must be fulfilled (e.g. a means of sustenance) which is impossible purely through things like playing chess; at least, that was my interpretation. It's pretty deep stuff.

Your average Xiangqi board and pieces.
Chinese Chess itself is actually quite an interesting game. It works around the same principal as Western chess, in that you need to capture or check-mate the other player's king piece to win. The pieces however move quite differently and in the middle of the board there is a line that represents a river that only certain pieces can cross. I believe the reason for this is that the game is based on a decisive historical battle in the Chu-Han Contention, (a war between two states in the "warring states" period in Chinese history from 206-202 B.C.) in which the two sides fought at a river. The board itself is also quite different with a series of lines the pieces can move over instead of the familiar checkered pattern in Western chess.

Even today this is not an uncommon site in my local China town; a bunch of older men watching a game. (not my pic)
My personal experience with Chinese chess is fairly limited. I once tried to learn "JJangi" which is the Korean version (though I'm fairly certain it's the same game) and found it to be extremely difficult and confusing. This was not helped by the fact that the pieces were all in Chinese and nearly identical in size, though you can get boards that feature figurines. I'm also terrible at Western chess as well, so it was sort of a lost cause from the beginning, I suppose. My other experience is watching old guys play it in China town. It can get pretty intense! I once saw a large group of Chinese men of all ages gathered around a park picnic table and I was really curious what they were looking at. After eventually investigating I realized they were all watching a Chinese chess game! I was pretty surprised!

Box art for the film "King of Chess" based on A Cheng's novella, sometimes called "Chess King".
Apparently a rather critically acclaimed Chinese film was released based on The Chess Master called, King of Chess. I have yet to see it but have heard good things! Anyway, the book is well worth your time, its quite short and a very easy read. Check it out!     
        
 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Modern Shaolin

Poster for Shaolin
 Hello again! The other day I finally got around to watching Benny Chan's 2011 film, Shaolin. The verdict? Pretty damned good! The film features Andy Lau in the starring role as a ruthless warlord turned monk who is eventually forced to fight his former subordinate played by Nicholas Tse. The gorgeous Fan Bing Bing plays the wife of Andy Lau's character and Jackie Chan has a supporting role as a temple's resident chef. Wushu artist, turned actor Wu Jing and Yu Xing, the kicking guy from Kung Fu Hustle make appearances as monks. Quite an awesome cast.

Andy Lau pointing his gun towards a group of monks before he becomes one... does anyone else get the Street Fighter M. Bison/Vega vibe?
The film takes place in what is often referred to as the "warlords" era in 1920's China, where the Kuo Min Tang and other factions were vying for power over China's mainland, resulting in war, famine and displacement. The film revolves around Andy Lau's character, a general of one such faction (though fictitious) who after attempting to assassinate a fellow general and sworn brother, is betrayed by his subordinate, suffers the death of his daughter and the loss of his wife, who leaves him after blaming him for their daughter's demise, and becomes Shaolin a monk. His new home, of course, becomes the famous Shaolin Monastery in Hunan, China, where the film was shot.  (there is actually more than one Shaolin temple as "Shaolin" loosely translates to "mountain-forest"... sort of).

Andy works out with some baldies!
The action in the film is good old Kung Fu action that recall some of the finest early 90's HK Kung Fu action, with a number of awesomely choreographed fight scenes which show off the martial prowess of the martially gifted cast (excluding of course non-martial actors, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bing Bing etc.) One particularly fantastic/hilarious scene has Jackie Chan's character using his cooking skills for fighting while three child-monks beat the snot out of a bunch of rifle-men. What's not to love?

The real Shaolin Temple in Hunan, China
 Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film, however, is the fact that it was made with the cooperation of the actual Shaolin Monastery, with real monks filling in as extras for the film. Apparently prior to making this film, the Shaolin monastery expressed, to the film powers that be, that they wished to be better represented in film and that to ensure this they would participate in sponsoring and the actual film making process of Shaolin Monastery themed films. The result of this agreement is this film, which is apparently the first in a line of new Shaolin themed and sponsored films to come. If their all as fun as this film, I can't wait!

A Shaolin Temple poster from 1982 featuring a young Jet Li
 Another interesting fact about this film is that its considered by its director and producers to be a remake of the 1982 film which was the vehicle for Jet Li's big screen debut, Shaolin Temple which is, in itself a remake of an even older film which I have yet to see. The 1982 Jet Li one, however, is certainly one of my favorite Kung Fu movies EVER! So if you like this sort of thing, check out both of these films! I've included trailers below!


 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Great Jang Geum

Yo! I just finished watching the entire series of the famous Korean television drama Dae Jang Geum. I know, big deal right? Well it's 58 episodes and I've been watching it since 2007!!! (because I suck at committing to consistent television watching.) So... you may be wondering why I decided to undertake such a brutal endeavor. Well back in 2003 Dae Jang Geum was sweeping the Korean nation! It got so popular in Korea and eventually became such a success that it was translated, dubbed or subtitled in just about every East Asian and South East Asian dialect and exported all over the eastern continent, where it continued to explode. Ask anyone who knows a thing or two about Asian TV and they have probably heard about it.


 The drama takes place mostly in the late 1400's to early 1500's during the Chosun dynasty (a Korean dynasty which reigned for 500 years;  the longest uninterrupted rain of any dynasty if my sources are correct.) and follows the story of Suh Jang Geum, a girl who becomes a worker in the royal Chosun kitchens and who is destined to save many people. Though it is a historical drama, there is little in the way of great battles and sword fighting as this drama is much more focused on the lives of women in the palace and their various jobs or functions. Naturally of course, there is much palace intrigue as multiple family factions are fighting discreet battles over all manner of things ranging from exclusive food supply rights to royal succession. Makes me feel pretty happy to not be working in a palace.
This is a correlation chart that someone actually made for the series, looks complicated no? 
 Where the series really shines is its depiction of the various processes of the workers in the palace. When Jang Geum is working in the royal kitchen we see, in great detail, the preparation of myriad foods that looks REALLY DAMN GOOD! Several times throughout the show I had to stop it and grab something to eat cause it made me hungry and gave me a insatiable craving for Korean food. Later on in the series Jang Geum is eventually kicked out of the kitchen and later becomes a royal physician and the viewer is then given an interesting and detailed view of how Chinese or traditional East Asian medicine works.

FOOD!
 By now you should probably have figured out if this holds any interest for you at all, but for an East Asian Studies nerd, like myself, its pretty AWESOME! This drama is pretty old hat, but if you are at all interested in historical Korean drama and somehow missed this, then go find it and watch it! You'll be glad you did.