“Restore the Rules of the World”: Kurasawa Kiyoshi and the Decline of Japanese Society

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Charisma (1999), for fans of Kurasawa Kiyoshi, is an unusually allegorical work that was released in the years between Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Not so much a horror movie as it is a dark study of a police negotiator’s effort at reckoning with a fatal choice he made during a hostage situation. Sent on a vacation, which becomes indefinite, “Yabuike Goro,” played by Kurosawa’s favorite leading male actor, Yakusho Koji, finds himself in the middle of a forest. Far from the world in which his status as policeman meant anything, Yabuike also finds himself in the middle of an ongoing dispute over the fate of this unnamed forest.

At the center of the controversy is an unimpressive tree surrounded by scaffolding and tended to by a former sanitarium patient, “Kiriyama,” played by Ikeuchi Hiroyuki. Yabuike first encounters Kiriyama and the tree when he’s led on an expedition to see this unique arboreal specimen. “Nakasone” (Osugi Ren) and “Tsuboi” (Otaka Akira) are working for a man, “Nekoshima” (Matsushige Yutaka), who want to take the tree for undisclosed reasons, but which is clearly quite valuable to them, given the money, manpower, and criminal activities they are willing to commit to their ambition.

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What Yabuike eventually learns is that the tree, which Kiriyama calls “Charisma,” is poisonous and is killing the other trees. So, whereas as Kiriyama wants to protect Charisma, another person, a professor of botany, “Jinbo Mitsuko” (Fubuki Jun), wants to destroy it. Which life, then, is more important, the tree or the forest? Or can they both be saved? Yabuike soon finds himself caught between the horns of another ethical dilemma, similar to the hostage situation that led to his dismissal, for which he’s compelled to make a decision as his search for personal understanding becomes enmeshed in the lives of those around him.

In the final analysis, there are elements of Charisma that are profound, eloquent, but also bizarre and perplexing (á la Fellini or Antonioni), which resist interpretation, including, in my opinion, the ending. However, judge for yourself, if you so choose.   If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you saw, slowly realizing the effectiveness of Kurosawa’s storytelling, looking for meaning in all the symbolism, which is never preachy, but rather is like a dream that leaves you a bit shaken without knowing why.

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The Story of Tom, Auto Worker and Philosopher

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When I was a philosophy tutor at Mt San Antonio College I had a student, Tom Swope, see me about some arguments for the existence of God he was having trouble understanding. You know, Anselm, Descartes, that kind of stuff.

Tom, by the way, was one of these cool old dudes with a wry sense of humor. He carried around all his class notes in a binder he labeled “THESONOFABITCHFROMTHEFRONTOFFICE,” which was apparently a reference to his days as an auto worker for Chrysler.

Anyway, Tom and I are talking about God stuff when he lays his own unique argument for the existence of God. More specifically, he claimed that it was impossible to be a true atheist, therefore God must exist.

“What do you mean, Tom?” I asked.

“Well, take for example, when a so-called atheist says ‘Goddamn’ or ‘Goddamnit!”

“Yeah,” I said patiently.

“Well, if an atheist says there’s no God, then who is he asking to damn something?”

“I don’t know, Tom. Good question.”

Anyway, Tom somehow passed his philosophy exam with an A-, for which I’m willing to take some of the credit.

“Dance For Me, I’ll Keep You Employed”: The Secret and Unenlightened World of Young Men’s Desires

BodyShop

It may shock some of you–or maybe not–that I was once eighteen years old and that when I was that age I actually thought that seeing scantily clad women was an adventure. Such was the impudence of my teenage mind. Nevertheless, my cousin Irwin and I rode in my 1979 Toyota Corolla to Sunset Blvd, where West Hollywood begins to merge into Beverly Hills. Our destination was The Body Shop, a location that would one day be featured in Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” video. Given its location, The Body Shop also had a reputation for having the “hottest” girls around. As far as this type of place goes their boasting was true, mostly because The Body Shop was where countless struggling actresses went to work when their dreams of Hollywood stardom turned to dust.

As for me, I got the idea to go to this place from one of my high school buddies, Tim Torres. Tim told me all about the girls, some of whom he said he even spoke with—wow!—and how to get there. Since I frequently went to the nearby Tower Records, finding this club was no problem. At the same time, I didn’t want to enter a joint like this alone, so I enlisted my cousin’s company, whose arm, by the way, I didn’t have to twist very hard. All it took was saying that I’d drive us and pay for our drinks. Consequently, on an autumnal Friday night after work, we set off from Pomona to Hollywood.

We parked in the back, showed our ID at the door, paid the cover, then ordered our two drink minimum (both of us had cokes). Sitting up front at the edge of the stage, I remember feeling nervous, as if it were obvious that I’d never done this before, which was for good reason, because I hadn’t! In any case, the announcer introduced the next dancer, whose name I no longer recall. I think it was a stage name, anyway. However, what I do remember vividly is that she was from Virginia and that she was an “Indian princess.” Whoa! At that time, I was by far more tantalized than offended by the degrading “Indian princess” moniker. My cousin and I looked at each other, feeling haltingly amused by the promise of a bogus Indian act.

As a song started bumping out of the house system, which was some random dance music of the times, the “Indian princess” sauntered out on stage. She was a fair-skinned brunette, who gave my cousin and I a wink. I didn’t think she looked Indian—certainly not compared to the Indian girls I knew personally—but I certainly thought she was beautiful. I was mesmerized! Beyond that, I don’t remember much else, not even the other girls we saw that night. Needless to say, I didn’t have the courage to talk with this girl. All I left with that night is what I have to this day, a mere memory of this “Indian princess” who danced her way into my boyish heart, then left just as easily.

For an awkward teen with a minimum-wage job, an uncool car, and no girlfriend having a pretty girl smile at me as she took off her clothes was just what I needed, or so I thought at time. Obviously, there was much about women as people, as opposed to merely objects of my still adolescent lust, that I needed to learn. Still, from my eighteen-year-old perspective, that “Indian princess” was an antidote to the rejection I often encountered during this period of my life as I navigated the difficult terrain between high school student and adult, in particular one that had loftier aspirations than what the dead end world of working like a dog in which I was trapped had to offer. Even though I don’t need such places today, nor have I for a very longtime, I’ll never forget that salacious night when fantasy became flesh.

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‘Dopesmoker’ In The Southwest: Sleep Live at the Rialto Theatre

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If you ever found yourself on a long interstellar journey to a desert planet, you’d probably want some music to while away the endless amount time to your destination. Moreover, you’d likely want some music to set the mood of your flight through space. If you’re like me, then you’ll want to take Sleep’s Dopesmoker with you. Sleep has been around since the 90s, however, I didn’t get into their music until relatively recently. They were part of this genealogy of metal bands that went from death to sludge to stoner that I was consuming after I was introduced to NOLA bands like EyeHateGod and GoatWhore. Sleep, of course, are from San Jose, CA. Nonetheless, they were part of this sonic universe of heavy chords and epic themes of darkness and unreal worlds that emerged from a world influenced less by geography and more by a Giger-esque vision of irreligious beings, which spawned from the subconscious realm of unholy dreams and desire.

As for Dopesmoker, I saw Sleep perform this music live as one of the headliners at the 2015 Southwest Terrorfest in Tucson, AZ, where they took the stage at the historic Rialto Theatre. The band played a twenty-minute version of their hour-long larger-than-life ode to an hallucinatory caravan to Zion, “bong in hand.” If Frank Herbert’s Dune could be purged of its grating Toto-Eno soundtrack and re-scored, I would wholeheartedly advocate for Sleep’s Dopesmoker. I hope you like the video I shot from the back of the venue. Although, as mentioned, Sleep regaled their devoted audience with twenty-minutes of this work, my arms gave out after about eleven minutes or so. Still, it’s a pretty bitchin’ excerpt:

Video credit: David Martínez

The Agony and the Ecstasy: My Life With a Philosophy PhD

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The secret to my success? I have no secret. At least, that’s what I realized recently when I was asked to recount the pathway to the stable and rewarding career I now enjoy as a university professor. Interestingly, I don’t think anyone has been interested enough in my life to bother asking me such a question until about a week or so ago. Actually, this person wasn’t so much interested in me per se as he was about my struggle to find a job with a PhD in philosophy, one of those humanities degrees that’s more effective at amassing student loan debt than it is at landing you a lucrative tenure-track job anywhere, let alone at a prestigious university.

Doctoral students in a variety of disciplines have long had a tough time in a very tough job market.  In the case of my fellow philosophy students at Stony Brook, where I got my PhD in 1997, the struggle has been quite real, to say the least.  And judging by articles I’ve seen in The Chronicle and The New York Times over the past couple of years or so, things have not gotten any better. In fact, the arduous fight for adjunct teaching rights, complete with a bevy of heartbreaking stories, indicates that things have become worse.

As for being an American Indian with a philosophy PhD, well, that’s a whole category of strangeness altogether!  When I was on the job market back in the late 90s I learned three things.  One, trying to leave academia was impossible, at least for me, because potential employers kept pigeonholing me as an “academic,” and so would never take me seriously as a possible colleague.  Everyone who interviewed me kept asking why I didn’t “want to teach,” then told me that they couldn’t hire me because I’ll probably land some impressive academic job and leave them after three months.  Second, when I did turn to the philosophy job market I learned the hard way just how ethnocentric philosophy departments were across the US and Canada.  In spite of the generous support I received from my philosophy professors in my effort at developing American Indian philosophy as my area of concentration, the rest of the Philosophy World couldn’t care less!  I did get an interview with UNC-Asheville, which went very well at the American Philosophical Association meeting, however didn’t lead to an on-site interview.  Otherwise, the numerous CVs I sent to virtually every philosophy department with a job opening responded with a terse “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  Some of them, of course, didn’t respond at all.

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Actual photo of me prepping for my two courses at Central Arizona College, summer of 1992

So, then, how did I find employment?  The third thing I learned from the above job market experience was the importance of friends, as opposed to networking.  When I got into my philosophy doctoral program I got in part because one of the grad students already there, David Abram (author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’) strongly advocated for my admission.  Then, when I got my first adjunct job in 1992 at Central Arizona College teaching Intro to Philosophy and World Religions, it was because my mentor at the University of Arizona, Ofelia Zepeda, introduced me to people she knew at CAC.  (At this point, I didn’t have my PhD yet but I did have a master’s in American Indian Studies.)

In turn, the chair of the philosophy department at CAC, Ek Buys, introduced me to Ann Mahoney, the chair of the philosophy department at Mesa Community College, where I got some much-needed adjunct work to carry me through 1992-1993 until I could return to my philosophy doctoral program to finish my degree at Stony Brook.  As I was finishing my dissertation, though, I got it into my head that I wanted to leave academia. So, I spent countless days and weeks looking for work in the government and private sector. Moreover, since this was the 90s I thought for sure that I could move to the Bay Area and find work in the booming tech industry. All I got for my trouble was disappointment, not to mention impoverished and overwhelmingly in-debt.

Eventually, I found my way back into teaching when I landed a job at Verde Valley School, a private college prep school in Sedona, teaching American Indian philosophies. When I was compelled to leave that job due to the political turmoil that the school was undergoing, I was lucky to reconnect with Ann Mahoney, who saved me from descending back into the doldrums and poverty of adjunct life by offering me a full-time one-year-only appointment as a philosophy instructor. Of course, since this was a one-year-only gig, at the same time I was adjusting to teaching five sections with about 200 students enrolled altogether—which I’d repeat the following spring semester—I also had to start looking for work for the following academic year.

During that dreadful time when I was applying to all those philosophy jobs, I applied for two and only two jobs in American Indian Studies: one at the University of Michigan and the other at the University of Minnesota.  Michigan never even sent me the customary “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  However, Minnesota called, and they called in large part because another of my old professors at the University of Arizona, David Wilkins, was there.  Finally, after going through the indignity of tenure-denial at the U of M, I did, fortunately, have a friend in James Riding In at Arizona State University, where I’m at today, who was very helpful when once again my future was uncertain. James was my editor when I published my first peer-reviewed article in the ‘Wicazo Sa Review’.

In the end, my career as a university professor, which has sustained me for the past fifteen years—not counting my community college, high school, and unemployed days—seems to be the result of perseverance and incredible instances of good fortune. I didn’t go to a lot of conferences, and when I did I wasn’t very good at networking. Nor was I publishing much, at least not at the beginning of my university career in 2000. I only had a non-peer reviewed article and a book review to speak of at that point. Naturally, I did have the support of people who believed in me—my wife Sharon, above all others. And, in spite of the disappointments and hardship, I guess I must have believed in myself just enough to go on. What else could I do?

Consequently, when graduate students, including the ones I advise, ask me about how to navigate the job market, all I can tell them is my story and that relationships are everything. Networking is nothing more than brown-nosing and an exchange of contact info, complete with empty promises to get in touch. Relationships, like kinship, is the product of making an emotional connection with someone, which isn’t easy to achieve, but they can be the difference between the life and death. At the same time, you won’t know who your “relatives” are until they unexpectedly show up just when you need someone the most. Unfortunately, there isn’t a how-to manual or a workshop to show you how to deliberately acquire the kind of relationships that helped me. Like life itself, this kind of organic bonding occurs spontaneously and mysteriously.

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Definitely Something Here For Us: The Unexpected Maelstrom That Is ‘Cult Leader’

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I discovered the music of Cult Leader in the best way possible—when I also saw them perform live for the first time. They were opening for Sleep at the 2015 Southwest TerrorFest. On Saturday, October 17 at the Rialto Theater in downtown Tucson, AZ, they were easily the best of the four bands that opened that night. Taking the stage after Languish and Goya, Cult Leader’s began with an explosion of hardcore intensity, which didn’t relent until the end of their set.

Video credit: David Martínez

During the intermission I immediately went out into the theatre lobby where all the merch was set and headed to Cult Leader’s table. I have to admit at this point that I wasn’t familiar with the bands opening for Sleep, so I picking up a CD from the display of goods I asked the guy behind the table, “This is the band that was just on stage, right?” He said, “Yeah, that’s their new album. It totally rocks!” That’s all I needed to know, I thought, as I handed over my ten bucks and walked away my new copy of Lightless Walk.

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“There Are Too Many Vampires In This World”: King Dude at Valley Bar, Downtown Phoenix

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Photo credit: David Martínez

On Sunday, October 4, 2015 I saw T J Cowgill, aka “King Dude,” perform live for the first time. He and his band were on tour promoting his 2015 album Songs of Flesh & Blood—In the Key of Light. Since 2010, King Dude has largely depended on bandcamp to distribute his music, slowly developing over multiple albums and dozens of songs an impassioned following of his Luciferian folk vision. Despite a fascination with God’s fallen angel, Cowgill has less in common with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne—whose alleged Satanism is more comic than serious—and more of an affinity with Nick Cave and Tom Waits. King Dude’s songs evoke a lost world in which prayers are not answered and religion is completely demystified. There are no miracles in King Dude’s world; there’s only the randomness of fate and one’s will to endure.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

“The Silver Crucifix” is the last song of the recent release, a plaintive ballad about an irrecoverable loss. The lyrics do not reveal the object of this cry for relief, only that the singer doesn’t “wanna live in this world…Without you.” As for the crucifix, does it belong to the singer or the one sung about? It’s ambiguous on that point. However, its smallness symbolizes its emptiness and powerlessness to heal the hurt that is driving the singer to reject living in this world. “There are too many vampires in this world.” Yet, the song is far from bleak. Its words and melody turn the upheaval of loss into an object of beauty. The silver crucifix may not be able to “fix this old world,” but this song may soothe your heartache. I hope you enjoy the video I recorded: