Re(d)Generation: Renewing the Heartbeat of the Earth

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Dancing Earth is an Indigenous dance collective based in Santa Fe, NM, which has been gracing stages around the world for more than a decade with their spectacular shows. Founding director and choreographer, Rulan Tangen, is the visionary behind Dancing Earth’s visually eloquent and emotionally moving productions. What is most remarkable about these performances, on which Tangen collaborates with an array of talented dancers, musicians, and artists, is not only their beauty but also the way in which they perfectly balance the contemporary with the traditional.

The clip that I recorded at the Gammage Auditorium, which is located on the Arizona State University campus in the City of Tempe is a mere glimpse into a poignant production titled Re(d)Generation. For those unfamiliar with Dancing Earth, the performance may strike one as incomprehensible as “Indian dancing,” particularly if one is acquainted with pow-wow dancing, or the assortment of traditional American Indian dances performed at, say, the Heard Museum’s annual Hoop Dance competition or the Saturday morning demonstrations of ceremonial dance at the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center.

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As I stated above, Dancing Earth perfectly blends the contemporary with the traditional. More specifically, Tangen and her dancers express very ancient beliefs, recounted in oral traditions, about the earth as a living being in the undulating forms of modern dance. With that in mind, what you may see in the video clip is an evocation of the earth as a place of animate beings, be they plant, animal, or mineral, which are all alive with the impulse of life and movement. The heartbeat of the earth is the most fundamental rhythm, which generates the Epic of Life, in which everything has a place, a conscience, and a way of moving. In closing, I honestly believe that what I saw on stage Wednesday morning, April 20, 2016 was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. For more about Dancing Earth, see http://www.dancingearth.org/

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Purple Reign: A Few Words From A Non-Fan About Prince’s Mercurial Music, Image, and Legacy

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The first time I ever saw Prince it was on a January 26, 1980 broadcast of American Bandstand. In fact, it might have been the first time I’d even heard of this artist. Since this occurred long ago, I can’t recall why I was watching ABS in the first place. I didn’t really care for the show or most of the music. Yet, whatever the reason, my fortuitous channel surfing enabled me to see something that would become a television event.

More specifically, on that particular Saturday morning I saw this strange little man with a thin moustache and a “woman’s hairdo” prance around to a tune called “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” When Dick Clark introduced Prince, he sat amongst his youthful guests, holding up a copy of For You (1978), which was released the same year as The Ramones’ Road to Ruin and The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. It was a time, as well, when Bruce Springsteen was “the future of Rock and Roll” and Disco was being pushed out by Punk and New Wave. I can’t recall, however, what came out in ’78 that was of significance in the genres of Soul and Funk, since at this time in my life, I refused to listen to “that kind of music.”  To see what I saw, follow the link below:

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So, how did I react to Prince? Quite frankly, I was little weirded out. Back then I was a fifteen year old kid who didn’t like much of anything that wasn’t metal or punk, let alone something like this. As a product of my unenlightened age, historical epoch, society, and household, I was bothered by the flagrant gender-bending that occurred before my eyes. What was also a factor was going to a high school, probably like many high schools, in which cliques were divided along race and musical taste. As an American Indian and Mexican kid, my peers expected me to listen to Donna Summer, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Yet, because I favored Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath, I was considered to be one of the “Surfers,” a “white boy,” in spite of my very non-Caucasian identity. (As a side note, I obviously grew up in Southern California.) In any case, music defined your social status, which in the immature dynamics of teenage society meant that the kids who liked Funk and Soul didn’t like me, even bullying me for my musical tastes. In light of which, there was no way in Hell I was going to let myself like Prince!

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What I didn’t stop to think about amidst my teenage confusion was the rebellion that Prince asserted against the oppressively binary sexual roles in which my generation was raised to believe were our only options. I also didn’t stop about how Prince’s androgynous stage persona had historical precedent, such as David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase, The New York Dolls under the influence of David Johansen, not to mention Little Richard. Even though I knew a great deal about music history, even at fifteen, I willfully ignored my own knowledge and simply decided that I didn’t like what I saw or heard. However, as the aforementioned high school experience became a thing of the past, and my horizons began to expand with college, a little money in my pocket, along with lots of reading and trips to the record store, my recognition of Prince’s talent began to expand as well. Although still limited by certain biases, namely my preference for guitar-driven music (as opposed to a beat you can dance to), I did find myself admitting that I liked the riffs I was hearing during the 80s as Prince released 1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984). In fact, as the video for “When Doves Cry” entered constant rotation on MTV, I remember wishing that Prince would do more music like this! But then the mediocrity of Around the World in a Day (1985) appeared and, “Raspberry Beret” notwithstanding, I began losing interest. Indeed, the only time Prince caught my attention in the intervening years was when he battled the exploitation of Warner Bros, changed his name to that symbol, and deliberately avoided the new media, namely iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and the like. As for his music, despite regularly releasing a plethora of new music, Prince for me was forever sexily coming out of that bathtub in his iconic video.

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So, as Prince became more of an historical figure than a symbol of my teenage discontent, did my attitude toward Prince change as I also got older and supposedly wiser? Somewhat. Although I’m able to listen to a lot of music today that I genuinely couldn’t stand throughout high school and college, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten how I felt when I first heard particular artists and their music. At this point I should confess that in spite of my sincere shock at Prince’s sudden death this past week, my shock was mostly at the level of realizing that a major cultural icon had died. I liked some of his songs, some of them very much, namely “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Raspberry Beret.” Nonetheless, he was never really a part of the soundtrack of my life. Yet, what I couldn’t deny and did grow to admire was that he was probably the best R&B/Rock guitarist since Hendrix, who possessed a brilliant capacity for reinventing himself at each stage of his musical career. In other words, I knew that he would be an Icon for the Ages, even if he wasn’t exactly iconic for me. I did, of course, really dig his half-time performance at Super Bowl XLI. In fact, like many, I was blown away. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since that happened.

 

The Sublime Beauty of Revenge: ‘Lady Snowblood’ (1973)

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For many westerners, Asian action movies are limited to the exploits of Jackie Chan and, if you were a child during the 1970s, a healthy diet of Saturday Morning Kung Fu Theater. However, what such a limited cinematic horizon may preclude you from seeing is the range of works that appeared during the early 1970s that set a radically new aesthetic agenda, which included anti-heroes, social outcasts, and subversive storylines. Unique among these works is Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 revenge film Lady Snowblood.

Released in the aftermath of Kenji Misumi’s 1972 Lone Wolf and Cub and at a time when Bruce Lee had become a global phenomenon—Enter the Dragon also appeared on screens in 1973—Lady Snowblood was a gendered and eloquent response to a male-dominated world of sexual exploitation and violence. In a sense, “Yuki Kashima, aka Lady Snowblood” (Meiko Kaji) is a female counterpart to Toshiro Mifune’s “Yojimbo,” a ronin and social misfit, whose sense of justice in a degenerate and unjust world led him through two spectacular films, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). As a female avenger, Lady Snowblood is also the counterpart to Pam Grier’s “Coffy,” a vigilante character introduced in 1973 in the eponymous Jack Hill movie.

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Like its peers, Lady Snowblood gives life to a unique character cast into extraordinary circumstances, replete with an unforgettable visual manifestation in which Meiji Era Japan becomes the backdrop for a balletic display of righteous violence. In its essence, Lady Snowblood is a classic revenge tale. Before she was even born, Yuki’s mother Sayo was sexually assaulted by four malicious con-artists, who had swindled several poor and uneducated villagers out of their meager savings. The four crooks, three men and a woman, then encounter Sayo and her husband on a road into the village. Her husband is the new school teacher, who the crooks accuse of being a corrupt official as an excuse to attack and kill him. Sayo is then held against her wishes by one of her dead husband’s assailants, whom she eventually murders. Consequently, she is sent to prison in spite of having been kidnapped and forced into what was little more than a life of sexual slavery.

Because of the egregiousness with which she has been treated by her tormentors, Sayo vows her revenge, which she pursues by seducing every male prison guard she can get her hands on. She does this in hopes of getting pregnant and birthing a son who will avenge her. Instead, she has a baby girl she names Yuki for the snow that is falling on the night of birth. More important, Sayo anoints her daughter as an “asura,” which is described in the movie as a “demon,” a being defined by an attraction to the baser of human passions, which means an unhappy life for Yuki, yet necessary for a life devoted to killing.

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Upon completing her training for assassination under the tutelage of “Priest Dokai” (Ko Nishimura), which began in childhood, Yuki sets on her path of revenge. Yuki’s saga is divided into four chapters, which are highlighted by her encounters with her three living nemeses. What ensues is a remarkable journey of daughterly devotion, the loneliness of the Asura way, and the law of Karma, which can wreak bloody upheaval. Profound without being preachy, Fujita doesn’t want to teach his audience anything, but rather let Yuki’s story speak for itself. Yuki never questions her objectives. Her mother’s rape and suffering, not to mention the life that that created her daughter, leaves an indisputable sense of rightness of purpose in Yuki’s heart.

In the end, Lady Snowblood is one of these films, when you see it long after its original release, evokes a sense of amazement that such people, places, and stories existed. Masaki Tamura’s cinematography is impeccable, in which every frame is a work of art. Unsurprisingly, Lady Snowblood was one of Quentin Tarantino’s inspirations for Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2. For aficionados of Japanese art and culture, though, “Yuki Kashima” will easily be seen as a precursor to subsequent generations of katana-wielding heroines, who are often social outcasts in their right, not to mention young, and misunderstood harbingers of cosmic justice.

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Ringu 0: Sadako’s Birthday

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Norio Tsuruta’s 2000 prequel to Hideo Nakata’s 1998 J-Horror classic takes on the daunting task of telling the story of Sadako Yamamura and the events leading to her murder at the hands of her father. What one sees in Ringu 0, however, is less a chapter in the Hideo Nakata-Koji Suzuki narrative and more of an homage to a favorite movie franchise. There are scenes of compelling terror in Tsuruta’s portrayal of Sadako’s ineluctably tragic life, which are unfortunately off-set by an array of uninspired plot developments. Ultimately, I felt like I was watching a movie based on a fan-created script, which relied more on the enthusiasm for favorite elements of the Ringu tradition, if you will, than on the original vision of the 1998 film, which succeeded the most at capturing the spirit of Suzuki’s psychological ghost thriller.

So, what went wrong with Ringu 0? In the 1998 film, directed by Nakata, although Hiroshi Takashi’s script strayed from the book, enough of Suzuki’s brilliant storytelling was retained, complete with superb performances and skilled editing, resulting in a horror masterpiece. In turn, in Nakata’s 1998 sequel, Ringu 2, Takashi’s script was a complete departure from the book. Nevertheless, the film still exhibited an aura of believably supernatural characters and events, demonstrating the richness of the Ringu universe. Unfortunately, in the case of the 2000 prequel, even though Takashi is once again the screenwriter, it seems that Nakata’s departure as director consequently led to a film that, regardless of remembering its narrative origins, lost its way at uncovering the truth behind Sadako’s legend.

More to the point, “Sadako Yamamura” (Yukie Nakama) is trying to escape her past by joining a theater company that is staging a production of “The Mask,” a reinterpretation of the 1960 French film, Eyes Without a Face. When Sadako is chosen for the lead, she immediately incurs the resentment of the other actors, in particular those who felt that the director, “Yusaku Shigemori” (Takeshi Wakamatsu), had chosen her more for her beauty than for her talent. When another actor suddenly dies, “Aiko Hazuki” (Kaoru Okunuki), Sadako is blamed for the tragedy. Also, because a journalist, “Akiko Miyaji” (Yoshiko Tanaka), is doing a story about Sadako’s now infamous psychic abilities, it isn’t long before Sadako’s past begins to catch up with her, instigating what, for lack of a better term, one may call a witch hunt. As Sadako’s fellow actors turn into a mob, the psychic outcast eventually winds up at the country home where her “father,” “Dr Heihachiro Ikuma” (Daisuke Ban) is awaiting her. It is here where she meets her destiny, as foretold in the original book and movie.

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The most memorable parts of Tsuruta’s film are those moments when Nakata’s filmic vision is recaptured in scenes portraying Sadako as a little girl, her mother, “Shizuko” (Masako), peering into the now iconic mirror, brushing her hair, on the brink of madness. Equally effective are the scenes in which Sadako wanders like a hungry ghost, her hair mangled from years of being submerged at the bottom of that terrifying well. On the other hand, the least satisfying parts of Ringu 0 are in the theater, which come across as a bit contrived. Perhaps Tsuruta thought that the theater company scenes ought to evoke the aura of an amateur community theater, but alas his direction went too far in making his movie seem more amateurish than necessary. There’s even a climatic scene when “The Mask” is being performed on opening night that is clearly inspired by—some would say rips off—the high school gymnasium scene in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie.

For all its flaws, Ringu 0 is an earnest attempt at revealing the story behind Sadako’s unforgettable murder. For those who have been haunted by Sadako ever since she clawed her way out of that lonely well and into our living rooms through a television screen, this was a story that many of us wanted to know. And the film might have been more satisfying, if the director and screenwriter had revisited the Suzuki narratives and realized that a large part of Sadako’s power as both a spirit and a character lies in the mystery that she embodies as an abused and forgotten child, who was made to suffer and live in the shadows of society simply because she was born different.

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