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Over the past year, I’ve dealt with excessive anxiety caused by financial problems, dissatisfaction at work, and the college classes I’ve been taking on a part-time basis. Also, I’ve had to decide on a whole new career plan, which has plagued me with indecision and doubt, and my car keeps breaking down. I feel like these kind of stressors are particular to the age we live in, and it’s enough to make me often want to return to a simpler time and place. 18th century America? A dusty, racist hellhole. Feudal Japan? Now that’s much more appealing to my escapist fantasies.
No, my attraction to Japan and “Japanese things” wasn’t spawned solely by my fondness for anime. Rather, I personally identify with many of the social values that seem to be so prevalent in Japan, at least when compared to life in America. I think I’m a pretty polite and reserved person. I think most people who know me would say the same thing. I find myself identifying more with the way that the typical Japanese person conducts themselves than I do with any Americans, and I base that on observations I’ve made of real Japanese people and the interactions I’ve been fortunate enough to have with them at my job (customer service work in an international business setting, I’ll leave it at that). What Americans consider “quiet,” Japanese people consider “polite” and perfectly normal. It’s little wonder that I often feel like I’d fit right in to their society, or at least in most of the ways that I feel I don’t fit in here.
I’m also drawn to the aesthetics of Japanese life. I’m talking about homes, interiors, furniture, the way dishes and cups are designed, etc. On a larger scale, the way towns are planned and the look of the average city street is both more pleasing to look at and simply function more efficiently. American cities and towns are designed for automobiles, are inconveniently laid out, favor ugly architecture, and breed feelings of contempt and isolation. Japanese cities, on the other hand, seem to be built for people to actually live in and have a sense of integration and purpose in their layout. Even the average city block is more functional and visually appealing, conveying a sense of coziness and harmony without looking excessively cramped or cluttered. I’ll admit these are all media-based impressions taken from video and photographs. I’ve never visited Japan and, let’s face it, probably never will.
What I’m getting at is that there seems to be a set of deeply-held cultural values that guide life in Japan, which, more or less, don’t really exist in the US. Once in a while, these are really reflected in anime: I’m thinking of Miyazaki’s more pastoral films and the more recent work of Makoto Shinkai. Perhaps you could count House of Five Leaves, which I had the fortune of watching last week when I was sick, in the same company. It channels many of my fantasies about life in Japan in its quiet tone, slow pacing, and lush, soft visuals. I ‘m guessing that it takes place in the 17th or 18th century — long enough ago that Tokyo was still called Edo — firmly during the feudal period, at any rate. Yet it’s surprising just how modern and familiar it feels, thanks in a big part to the characters.
The series follows a band of robber-kidnappers who make a living collecting ransoms from the wealthy families of their victims. But they’re actually a rather pleasant group of folks, at least once you get to know them. The main character, Masanosuke, is an unemployed samurai whose shy demeanor keeps him from holding down a job. He’s eventually approached by the mysterious but charismatic Yaichi, who offers him much-needed work in his operation. Masa is reluctant at first to take part in such rogue business, but finds himself slowly growing more and more involved with Yaichi and his comrades, until he’s finally one of the gang, finding both the work and the personal companionship that he’s sorely needed.
I love the atmosphere and the serene mood of this series. The attention to detail in the settings, costumes, and other visuals make it a very relaxing and soothing watch. The world of House of Five Leaves is unspoiled by modern progress, providing lush backdrops of dense forests, grassy fields, and quaint-looking but bustling cities. The city of Edo, the principal setting of the series, is — despite its share of roaming thugs — a very peaceful town, not to mention beautiful in its preindustrial simplicity. There’s special attention paid to the characters’ ordinary, everyday lives; we watch Masa and his companions making business deals, cooking meals, drinking sake by candlelight, and just going about their days. There’s a “slice-of-life” feel to this series, but with a more sinister undercurrent than we’re used to from that genre. As the series goes on, there’s a mounting sense that the characters are living on borrowed time. How long will the gang stick together, and at what cost?
Also, while the main character might be a samurai, this is definitely not an action series. Episodes play out slowly and conflicts are gradually resolved though nonviolent means. Viewers expecting a battle-of-the-week against a series of conventional antagonists might come away confused or disappointed by what they find. Rather than concentrating on samurai-style clashes, House of Five Leaves is more concerned with developing its characters and slowly revealing their pasts. Yaichi, the leader of the Five Leaves, keeps his past a secret from his comrades. His history and motivations for forming the group form the dramatic core of the series. By comparison, Masanosuke’s troubling past is just water under the bridge, but he continues to struggle with his own lack of confidence and social anxieties. This makes him both the polar opposite of the standard anime hero and one of the more unique series leads that I’ve seen in some time.
House of Five Leaves is a real slow-burner, one that takes its time to draw the viewer in and rewards patient and attentive viewing. It’s a very low-key series, one that will probably come as a relief for anyone who’s feeling burned-out on hyperactive shonen anime and looking for something completely different. It’s also a thoughtful portrait of life in a bygone era, which will be particularly attractive to anyone fascinated by Japan and its culture. Recommended!
Even though it’s been going strong under one name or another for more than a decade now, this was my first time at Movement, a festival that’s pretty much tailor-made for my love of electronic music. I’d wanted to go last year, but hemmed and hawed until the last minute and ultimately didn’t make it happen. Detroit is a day’s trip away, tantalizingly close enough to make a trip feasible but still somewhat complicated to prepare for. This year, I just decided that I was done making excuses not to go, so I booked my weekend pass, train ticket and hotel room a few months in advance. A few last minute challenges aside, I somehow managed to get myself there and back in one piece, and had a pretty fantastic time.
I liken the experience to the first time I went to an anime convention. It’s quite a shock to step into a place where everyone shares the same passion as you, particularly when it’s one as culturally marginalized in America as anime or techno. Sure, lots of people think they know what “techno” is. But ask the average person here and they’ll likely imagine club remixes of modern pop hits or trance-pop like Groove Coverage. (As for anime fans, the idea of “techno” appears to run the gamut from this to this… so much for two misunderstood subcultures finding common ground anytime soon.) Even in the world of indie music, which the standard indie rock model has slowly been supplanted by more dance-friendly fare — I’d say that Daft Punk now occupy the same legendary/influential niche that Pavement did a decade ago — authentic techno remains one of the last branches of dance music that the Pitchfork nation has yet to absorb or understand. Disco, electro, house, even dubstep are now part of the fabric of indie music in America and have been well-plumbed by both indie rock bands and indie rock media, but techno (particularly Detroit techno) remains largely untouched (not that I’m looking forward to the day that Animal Collective or Spoon fans start namedropping Underground Resistance). Anyway, this is all just a longwinded way of saying that techno — think music on M-nus, Planet E, Basic Channel, etc. — is pretty much invisible in America. How strange it was find a giant a giant carnival devoted to it right in the heart of a major US city.
Maybe that’s a little misleading, as Movement’s roster of artists represented a variety of electronic styles. But techno remains the central idea that the festival is based on, or at least where it finds its “heart.” Despite the necessary corporate sponsorships that makes the festival possible or at least reasonably priced — Red Bull and Vitamin Water get their own stages — there’s a sense that the festival represents the uncorruptable spirit of electronic music, which has enjoyed occasional periods of great success but largely thrived on the margins of culture for decades. It feels like no small miracle that such a fragmented world could actually come together for such a big event, and one that people would actually come out for.
The visitors at Movement came from all sorts of backgrounds and subcultures. There were lots of young people there, the sort of kids that might have been called “candy ravers” at one point, but who defy such easy categorization today. There were plenty of older folks on hand too, veterans of both festivals past and the golden days of house and techno, and for whom the classic tracks represented not just “know your history” landmarks but real, tacit memories. There plenty of hippies, people in spectacular/ridiculous costumes, and glowstick wavers, but most everyone there was simply dressed for a hot summer afternoon. Saturday’s rain didn’t put a damper on things; everyone seemed eager to take the dreary afternoon as a challenge to have fun.
A few of my personal highlights:
Space Time Continuum — I only caught the end of this set, but wow. I thought this was supposed to be some dated-sounding electronica for hippies. Instead it was a totally banging set just wouldn’t quit. This guy (Jonah Sharp) apparently hasn’t recorded anything for a while, but he clearly knows how to work a room or at least end a set on a high note. RYM reviews of his albums suggest that his work is more psychedelic and conceptual than the ten minutes of music I heard on Saturday, but I’m still curious to check it out.
Cio D’Or — Whenever I play my “recommended” radio on Last.fm, a Cio D’or track or two usually pops up. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard of her so far, and her set (abbreviated by technical problems?) didn’t disappoint. Smart techno with a real punch that was slow to lift off, but once the beat dropped, she had the crowd moving for more than an hour. The (literally) underground Movement stage boasted a few acts that I enjoy but who didn’t do much for me live, but this set was extremely compelling.
Tortured Soul — I don’t listen to much funk or “live dance” music, but these guys were really good. I expected something like Galactic but they sounded closer to Tortoise, The Roots, or even The Rapture. They definitely earned their main stage spot.
Kerri Chandler — Simply a great set dripping with soul. I know he’s a legend, but how much does the crowd really care? All I know is that the bowl at the park was half filled when he began playing, and was positively packed less than an hour later (in the rain, no less). So many people are skeptical or misinformed about what electronic dance music is and what it’s like to experience on a large scale. I wish those kind of people could’ve been there for this set.
Margaret Dygas – Just a great DJ set, good mix of classics and new tunes. Had the fortune to be up front for this and was really, really feeling it. I’m usually too much of an introvert to dance, but I couldn’t help myself here. I don’t think she’s got superstar status or anything yet, so it was nice to see so many people coming out to see her, even before the latecomers began pouring in for…
Ricardo Villalobos — I thought this was his first US show, but apparently he’s played here before (in Detroit, no less). Nevertheless, his appearance at this year’s festival was still a big deal! And the hilarious thing about it was that it seemed obvious that he couldn’t have given less of a fuck about it. Bringing out at least 20 people on stage with him, who proceeded to have a drunken picnic, he eased into his brand of mind-warping minimal, Latin techno that seemed to have sound engineers going bananas. I think they were pleading with him to turn it down, while he either didn’t understand them or simply pretended not to (for about five minutes, this was great comedy). I’ll admit this wasn’t as amazing of a set as I’d been anticipating, but my expectations for him were simply too much for him to ever deliver upon. I mean, I’ve actually dreamed about seeing him play before (in a setting too bizarre for me to possibly describe), so it’s little wonder that reality can’t quite live up to the fantasy that I’d concocted for it well in advance. I actually left his set after an hour, for fear that my facial cartilages were slowly being liquified by the bass.
69 — A real feast for the eyes and ears. I really like Carl Craig but had no expectations for this going in. Was there a reason he was performing under this name? I still don’t know. All I know is that this was the most potent techno I heard all weekend long. Just electrifying stuff. The crowd was going crazy for this, and rightfully so. My camera had run out of memory by this point, but I’m not sure a little video would do the whole experience justice. I hate to say it, but you really had to be there for this. To think that one man could put on a show like this, and that such a massive audience could come together to appreciate it, sort of gives me hope that the world really isn’t as hopeless of a place as it sometimes seems. I know that’s a tremendously corny sentiment, but that’s why the optimism and excitement that’s so inherent in techno is also so ineffable to try to put into words. You either know it or you don’t (yet).
Here’s hoping I can come back again in the future. The next few years look pretty bleak, financially, but I’d hate to think that I’d never have a chance to have an experience like this again.