Blessed Are the Meek, For They Shall Rage Against Their Tormentors!: Sion Sono’s ‘Cold Fish’

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Based on the “true story,” as the movie claims, of an infamous series of murders committed by a married couple who owned a pet shop, Sion Sono’s 2010 film Cold Fish is much more than the goriness that fills up several of the scenes, including the film’s blood-soaked ending. Like many of the better films of its genre, Cold Fish reveals the hidden depths of Japanese society, which is often covered up with decorum and politeness. More to the point, the story is about the fatal encounter between a meek tropical fish shop owner, “Nobuyuki Syamoto” (Mitsuro Fukikoki) and his older counterpart, “Yukio Murata” (Denden), the Ferrari-driving owner of Amazon Gold, which is a larger, more successful tropical fish shop, complete with a team of young, pretty girls as employees.

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At first, what we know of Nobuyuki’s life is that he has a wife, “Taeko” (Megumi Kagurazaka) whose idea of homemaking consists of little more than microwaved meals, and a cheeky daughter, “Mitsuko” (Hikari Kajiwara) who does not respect her parents and has an arrogant boyfriend with a hot car. What the film eventually reveals is the shattered life that the Syamoto family is trying to maintain, in spite of the inner-turmoil that each of them bares and for which they each blame one another. Entering the picture at a difficult time is Murata, who is shopping at a supermarket where Mitsuko has just been caught shoplifting. The store manager has Nobuyuki’s daughter in a back room, where she is being scolded for her petty theft. When Nobuyuki and Taeko arrive, they are contrite and obviously embarrassed. It is in the midst of the parents’ humiliation that Murata suddenly intervenes, calming the store manager, even convincing him to drop the matter and allow the parents to take their daughter away.

Murata then invites Nobuyuki and his family to visit his shop, Amazon Gold. Murata knows that Nobuyuki is also a fish shop owner, saying that he makes it a point to know his competition. Despite the torrential downpour, Nobuyuki follows Murata to his shop, where they are all astounded by what they see. Without revealing too much, it is at this point when, unsuspectingly, Murata begins luring Nobuyuki and his wife and daughter into his world, which is anything but a friendly law-abiding business. Murata pegs Nobuyuki as weak, whose wife Taeko is resentful of the disappointing life she is leading, replete with a step-daughter Mitsuko who loathes her and is acting up as a way of lashing out at both of them. Murata manipulates each of them, enmeshing them in the sinister world of murder and corruption that exists behind the impeccably maintained aquariums, breaming with beautiful fish, amphibians and crustaceans.

So, what does this have to do with the inner depths of Japanese society? While I will not presume to possess anything but casual knowledge about the topic, I do know what Sono’s film disclosed to me in the lives of his characters. Nobuyuki is inherently timid, as evident by his less than spectacular fish shop, who, in spite of this conscientious nature—he is nothing if not responsible—goes through life passively rather than with any sense of drive, let alone ambition or assertiveness. Yet, it is because of his low self-esteem that Nobuyuki ultimately makes the lives of the two women in his life, Taeko and Mitsuko, completely miserable. At the same time, it is because of this culture of male limpidness that monsters like Murata and his wife “Aiko” (Asuka Kurosawa) are created—existing at the extreme depths of the frustration and anger that Nobuyuki, Taeko and Mitsuko try to handle as “normal people.”

Sono’s Cold Fish, in the final analysis, is a film that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but which moves at a brisk pace, entertaining both the intellect and the senses. Another chapter in Sono’s search for the Japanese soul in post-Lost Decade Japan, which includes Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Strange Circus, and most recently The Land of Hope. More psycho-drama than horror movie, Cold Fish is a fascinating study of the gruesome resentment toward family and society that can exists in the hearts of otherwise compliant men.

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The Origin of War: Byron Preiss and J Michael Reaves’ ‘Dragonworld’

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I first became aware of Preiss and Reaves’ Dragonworld when I saw it featured in the August 1979 issue of Heavy Metal Magazine, which was the same periodical that introduced me to Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Similar to Shannara, what captivated my imagination much more than the story were the illustrations. In the case of Dragonworld, Joseph Zucker was the source of my escape into this world of legendary monsters. I stared at these images for hours, copying them in my sketchbook. I wanted nothing less than to completely immerse myself in this world. As for the epic narrative that Zucker illustrated, Preiss and Reaves’ collaboration would have to wait decades for me to finally turn the page on the first chapter and begin reading. I have always read a great deal, however, for some reason certain books simply have to wait until it is their time to be read.  With respect to Dragonworld, that time was recently, thirty-six years after Bantam Books published this title in September 1979.

Dragonworld did not disappoint my expectations, neither as a seasoned reader nor as someone who recalls his original adolescent fascination with this work. At first, the story suggests a boy’s tale of exploit, as a child character Johan “borrows” Amsel’s “wing,” which Zucker portrays as a Da Vinci-inspired hang-glider, and launches himself off a sea cliff. Tragically, Johan meets his end, which sends his father, Jondalrun, into the throes of agony and despair. Even more unfortunate is when Jondalrun lets his gut-wrenching grief guide his conscience, which leads him to blame Amsel for his son’s “murder.” Soon, because Amsel if from a different people than Jondalrun, a grieving father’s need to blame someone for his child’s death eventually turns into a desire for vengeance, which grows into Fandora organizing an invasion of Simbala. It is at this juncture in the narrative when Preiss and Reaves’ turn their adventure into a parable about the futility of war.

As for the dragons, their stories, including the Last Dragon and coldrakes, are more than legend—they are the creatures that once ruled the land and their stories are part of the natural history of Dragonworld. However, dragon and coldrake alike have been driven to near extinction, turning their fragile existence into the stuff of myth and misunderstanding. Yet, the true story of their tragic lives possesses the key to settling the upheaval devastating Fandora and Simbala, which is contingent upon comprehending how to restore the land to balance, so that dragon, coldrakes, and humans may live in peace. Complete with Arthurian-like characters and a Tolkien-esque sense of adventure, Dragonworld reminded me what it was like to see literature through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old, when reality was simply not enough to slake my thirst for the extraordinary.

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The Girl On the Fourth Floor: Hideo Nakata’s ‘Dark Water’

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Appearing four years after his 1998 J-Horror masterpiece Ringu, Hideo Nakata returned in 2002 with Dark Water, another story about a forlorn girl who refuses to be forgotten. More specifically, Dark Water is about “Yoshimi Matsubara” (Hitomi Kuroki) and her six-year-old daughter “Ikuko Matsubara” (Rio Kanno) who have moved into an unnamed desolate apartment building, which is spacious but poorly managed. Yoshimi and Ikuko have wound up here as a consequence of Yoshimi’s divorce from “Kunio Hamada” (Fumio Kohinata). Because Yoshimi is struggling to make ends meet and provide for her daughter to the satisfaction of the legal system settling her case, the now single mother is constantly in fear of losing her only child.

What Yoshimi realizes only slowly and much to her horror is that it is not only her ex-husband who wants to take Ikuko from her. Seemingly friendless and alone, except for an auntie, “Kayo” (Chisako Hara), who is willingly to babysit her grand-niece, Yoshimi is forced to deal with the horror that dwells in the apartment above on her own. As it turns out, both Yoshimi and another young girl, “Mitsuko Kawai” (Mirei Oguchi), were both abandoned as children, whose paths now seem to be crossing, as evident by a wilted flyer near Ikuko’s kindergarten, which pleads for help at finding Mitsuko, who was last seen on July, 19, 1999. More ominously, a leak has sprung on the apartment’s ceiling, turning from a stain to a steady drip, which remains in disrepair until the room is drenched.

As the problem with the leaky ceiling begins to grow, so too does the lives of Yoshimi, Ikuko, and Mitsuko begin to collide more intensely. Eventually, Yoshimi realizes what she has to do to protect Ikuko from harm, which entails finding a way of purging the memories of her own abandonment and Mitsuko’s. Similar to “Sadako” in Ringu, Mitsuko is a tormented ghost, wandering the places where she once lived, looking for retribution for what was done to her. As such, the source of Dark Water’s sense of horror is the primal fear of desertion that inhabits every human psyche. However, whereas for most people such fear may only manifest itself as a nightmare, in the case of Yoshimi her nightmare is becoming reality.

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“Gleaming and Empty”: The Refulgent Darkness of Deafheaven

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Imagine heaven. Now, imagine heaven bereft of God and His Angels. Now, imagine a heaven that cannot hear your prayers. Imagine Deafheaven. There’s something ineffably serene about the pure nothingness of a heaven uncreated and infinitely emptied of deities, dogma, and the suffocating clichés of biblical tradition. Such is the universe evoked in the music of Deafheaven, a San Francisco-based black metal band that recently released New Bermuda (2015), a much-anticipated follow-up to their seminal 2013 debut Sunbather. I caught them live for the first time at the Crescent Ballroom, which is located in downtown Phoenix, AZ, on Wednesday, November 18. While I enjoyed the entire set, I was especially anxious to see them perform their 2014 single “From the Kettle Onto the Coil.” This, more than any of their other compositions, symbolizes the sublime vistas of energy, light, and sound, which are bound together by the blackness—and emptiness—of space.

 As I tiptoed off the plane of existence,

And drifted listlessly through the velvet blackness of oblivion,

I am what I always was,

Gleaming and empty.

Seeing Deafheaven live was truly a transforming experience. Whereas for many metal bands, their references to the darkness are often comic—rendering “Satan” or “the Devil” like a mischievous child—in the case of Deafheaven, I really felt that they believed in the world that they so effectively sing about, which is even more evident in their live performance. I hope you enjoy watching this video as much as I did making it.

 

 

“A God-Eclipsing Miracle”: The Non-Western Imaginary World of Liu Cixin

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Liu Cixin is one of these writers that one happens upon while blissfully browsing in a favorite bookstore. In my case, this occurred at Changing Hands in Tempe, AZ, where I was perusing the science fiction section. Amidst the usual array of American and occasionally British authors the name Liu Cixin stood out like an unexpected flower in the middle of a sidewalk. The book on which Liu’s name was displayed was the second volume of a trilogy that I’d never heard of before, but which made this fortuitous encounter with Chinese sci-fi all the more enticing. Naturally, I looked for the trilogy’s first volume, which wasn’t available, nor were any other works by Liu.

When I returned home I hastily googled the author’s name, which straightaway directed me to his Wikipedia entry. In addition to being a multiple award winner, including China’s equivalent of the Hugo Award, I learned that Liu went to college in Yangquan, Shanxi and that he’s a trained technician and computer engineer. More important, though, was the fact that he and I were born the same year—almost on the same day! That was enough to convince me that I needed to delve into his writing. What I sampled in the bookstore instantly held me transfixed. But where to begin?

As I sifted through the selections available on amazon, I spotted a kindle edition of The Wandering Earth that promised to transport me from my mundane existence in Phoenix’s East Valley to a completely alternate universe, in which our blue planet and the solar system it had inhabited for countless millennia comes to an end. For what Liu imagines is a time when the earth’s rotation comes to a halt and humanity must figure out a way to survive the calamity. “My mother once told me,” as the unnamed narrator recalls in an elegiac tone, “about the time our family witnessed the last sunset.”

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Over the course of hundreds of years earthling’s have been artificially rotating their planet with massive engines placed strategically on all the continents, including Asia, where much of the story happens. However, these “Earth Engines” are not for the purpose of mechanically restoring the celestial status quo. Instead, they are for the objective of distending the earth’s orbit around the sun in a way that will catapult the planet into deep space. Once free of the solar system, the earth will travel across infinite distances in search of a new star to call home. Of course, the earth undergoes dramatic environmental changes, yet somehow humans persevere, turning to underground cities as the surface becomes uninhabitable. Oceans freeze and mountain ranges are completely razed.

Through it all, Liu’s main character watches society endure, although values and beliefs change in response to the extremities of their predicament. The development that struck me as the most interesting was when after humans were driven underground this led to the unforeseen decline of the world’s major religions. It seems that people reached a point where they simply stopped practicing these traditions. Liu, however, doesn’t dwell on this topic. In fact, his narrator recounts the passing of religion matter-of-factly. This very brief episode fascinated me so much because I thought that in the hands of an American writer there inevitably would have arisen some kind of messianic movement, since Americans have this irrepressible, often annoying predilection for apocalyptic, Second Coming-like plot developments. Liu’s world is much starker, which for me made it more believable. Having said that, I shall refrain from divulging too much of what was a sincerely satisfying story. The climax was compelling and the end left me with a delightful regret that the narrative had drawn to its conclusion. I wanted more. Needless to say, I’ll soon be seeking out the rest of Liu’s impressive bibliography.

ΑΕπ: Life and Loathing in the Ocean State

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Easily the most obnoxious case of racism I ever faced was at Alpha Epsilon Pi (“the Jewish Fraternity”), which was located on the University of Rhode Island campus, where I was a border 1986-1988. I remember there were eleven of us named “David,” which led to the custom of calling each other, even the non-Davids, by our last names. One of these Davids, who would be the source of my discontent, was from New London, CT: David Keating, who obviously was double-majoring in Business and Weightlifting, complete with a minor in being an Asshole. Actually, it would more accurate to say he was a triple major.

Anyway, Keating was the kind of guy who would ask me, the only American Indian in the house, if I’m “proud to be civilized” or if I used “wooden plates and utensils” and washed my clothes “on a rock by the river.” Naturally, there were also rain dance and scalping “jokes” thrown into the mix, along with the occasional war whoop with a shout of “Indians!” as I was exiting the house to go to class. I should point out that Keating, along with several members of this small, not to mention small-minded, community, was often equally offensive to other People of Color, which somehow was less vile than their attitude toward women. As for the attitudes against minorities that I witnessed, I can vividly recall one of the frat brothers ranting, almost shouting his hatred for the Portuguese community.  Then, there was the time I watched as the lone Japanese-American resident was humiliated for how his eyes looked whenever he laughed.  At this point I should point out in the spirit of fairness–though certainly not forgiveness–that not all of the guys in this frat treated me this way.  If nothing else, the AEPi guys were less despicable than the Neanderthals next door at the ZBT house.

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As for why I was so special to Keating, other than my uniqueness as the only American Indian he ever met, I think two things bothered him the most. For starters, I never showed him any fear. I don’t intimidate easily to begin with, so if he wanted to see me tremble, he was out of luck. Also, I could dish back on the trash talk when needed. For another, I was by far more academically capable than he. In fact, I got the highest grades of anyone in that whole house. Plus, I think Keating saw me as befriending girls more easily than him. The only girls I ever saw him with were usually drunk as hell! In fact, whenever he spoke of females it was clear that they were more sex toy than equal to his dysfunctional mind.

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In the end, I defeated Keating using my brain. This happened sometime during my senior year, after I’d been hired as an undergraduate teaching assistant by the Philosophy Department. One day after whispering the threat of “I’ll kick your ass”—without looking me in the eye, of course—as he passed by me one day, I told a friend about Keating’s behavior. Not the kind of friend who does your fighting for you, on the contrary, I didn’t need that kind of favor. Instead, I told my friend that if Keating threatens me again, I’ll have him suspended, and if he takes a swing at me, I’ll have him thrown out of school altogether! Of course, I honestly had no idea if my status as a TA meant anything to anyone, let alone when it came to pursuing disciplinary measures against another student.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. By the time I saw Keating the next day his tone had completely changed. All of a sudden he was friendly, albeit in his boorish, lug headed way, and conspicuously far less belligerent. Obviously, word of my power as Philosophy TA made its way to him and he took it seriously. Ha! It was only after this that I realized that one major advantage I had over this dimwit was being able to effortlessly fool him into believing I had more clout than I actually did. In other words, I manipulated his foolishness to my benefit. Awesome. Martínez 1—Keating 0!