Writing Inspirations: Netflix


As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.

I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.

Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.

Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.

Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.

The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.

And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.

Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.

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Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world


Speaking loudly
Speaking loudly

We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.

As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.

Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.

The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.

This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.

Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.

Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.

Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.

Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.

Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of  independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.

Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 – (largely) spoiler-free review


How-to-Train-Your-Dragon-2-Hiccup-Toothless[1]

I don’t watch a lot of Western animation. Most of it does nothing for me, a lot of it irritates me. My general grumpiness and cynicism mean the strings of my heart remain firmly untuggable. I despise musical numbers in movies, I can’t abide by dancing mascots and animals must have a valid reason to talk. Even the first HTTYD movie had left me largely underwhelmed, even though it was, arguably, the first successful dragon-franchise since Dragonheart (let’s not mention Eragon), and even though it largely inspired the relationship between Bran and Emrys. In short, I am definitely not the right target for those sorts of movies.

So, after all that is said, it may seem a faint and indeed damning praise for me to say that HTTYD 2 (or “Draktranaren” as it’s called here in Sweden) is probably the best Hollywood animated movie I’ve seen in years, certainly since the best since Wall-E. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much watching anything produced by either Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks – and I’ll try to explain why in these three points:

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1) Valka

Much is always said every time Disney decides to create a heroine somewhat different to their usual Princess line, or put them in a situation or relationship other than Princess vs Prince, or man vs woman. But no Disney woman, not Merida, not Elsa, not even Mulan, have ever gotten close to the level of the epic bad-assery shown in the opening scenes with HTTYD2’s main female character, voiced by Cate Blanchett struggling with what, I think, is supposed to be a Slavic accent.

In fact, Valka is at the moment probably my favourite female character in all of recent Hollywood output (I haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet), precisely because the movie makers manage to retain that crucial, and difficult balance between strong and weak (wrongly called “manly” and “womanly”) traits that make a character three-dimensional instead of paper, and that make Valka a  real, complex female instead of a man in drag; and also, because the script writers refrain from any moralizing in presenting her and her life: Valka is who she is, unashamedly and with only a (realistic) hint of self-doubt, and both the audience and other characters have no choice but to accept that.
True, it’s been argued that she suffers from Trinity Syndrome later in the movie, but I disagree with this assessment: HTTYD2 is not an ensemble cast movie, it’s a movie about Hiccup, his friends, and their adventures, so naturally everyone else must eventually be overshadowed by the protagonist and the plot; and the first hour of Valka’s presence more than makes up for the script’s later short-comings in my mind.

And that’s even without getting into Astrid, who, in a side-plot crucial to the main story, does her own thing, becoming at some point a much more capable and active protagonist than even Hiccup, and proving that, eventually, she’ll become much more than just a “chieftain’s wife”; and without mentioning Ruffnut, who, though largely a comic relief, does things in the movie that no Western animated female character has ever, to my memory, done before.

how-to-train-your-dragon-2-still-drago[1]

2) Serious plot, serious threats

HTTYD2 is that rare, in the West, breed of an animated movie: neither a fairy-tale, nor a comedy – though there’s plenty of laughs thrown in; a true fantasy movie, though still aimed for a younger audience.

What we have established in the first movie, despite its much more childish outlook, was that the Vikings of Berk are real Vikings, not fairy-tale ones. They fight, they loot, they kill, they get hurt, and they die. This sequel, moving on five years, deals with young and old adults, instead of kids, and the situations they’re in, despite some comic relief, are serious and truly threatening.

And though Hiccup retains his resolve to change his people and his world, we are shown clearly how difficult it is, and how no amount of “power of love” or some other sentimental invention, can change everyone, everywhere – because Hiccup’s world, despite the presence of dragons and some clockwork-punk technology, is not a fairy-tale.

how-to-train-your-dragon-2-astrid-and-hiccup[1]

3) Treating the audience as (young) adults

Tied to the above, HTTYD2 never stoops to patronize its audience. It’s lacking all the paraphernalia that render Western animation unwatchable for me – as mentioned above; the characters don’t burst randomly into song and dance (except one scene, which makes narrative sense, though it’s a bit too long for me, and a blatant shot at the Oscars nomination). No animals or inanimate objects speak, and not even the largest and smartest of dragons utter any discernible words.

Since the main characters are 20 years old already, this is not a “coming of age” or “character development” movie – another rare; Hiccup is an almost fully formed human being, Astrid even more so; all they need is just a confirmation of themselves and their life choices, rather than discovering them from scratch. This, too, is a rare thing.

But most important of all, the characters ACT like real, adult human beings. Not only is there plenty of proper violence (though wierdly bloodless – a compromise, I’m guessing, aimed at getting a PG rating, though what 10-year old can comprehend the movie’s plot and still be squeamish about blood, is beyond me) but there is more than a hint of s.e.x. and budding sexuality, both  male and female, even if played largely for laughs, is shown as a perfectly normal thing.

The relationships shown are so natural and realistic, it’s almost shocking. When a 3D-animated character appears on the screen, you’re expecting some level of cliches and simplifications; it’s part of the package. But the scenes between Astrid and Hiccup could not be more real if they were played by live actors – even despite the still glaring drawbacks of 3D animation and DreamWorks in-house character design style, which I’m not terribly fond of.

HTTYD2 is not a movie without its flaws, naturally. Most of them concerning the plot. It’s a bit too long – not in terms of time, but in terms of pacing – though that’s my complain about all recent movies; the plot is rather disjointed, especially near the end, and there’s quite a few “but what about…?” moments (though not as many as in, say, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). But these are just nitpicks in a movie that’s so overwhelmingly superior in almost every other aspect compared to its immediate competition.

Snowpiercer – Review (spoiler-free)


Snowpiercer (or “La Transperceneige”, which is the much stronger-sounding title of the original French graphic novel) is a difficult movie to review. Going by the gut feeling, I’d have to say I enjoyed it a lot. When I left the cinema, I realized I was actually holding my breath throughout most of the second half, and my hands were shaking with tension: that is a very rare thing to happen, and mostly after watching an Asian horror.

The visuals are nothing short of stunning, especially in the second half (of both the movie and the train). Of the many recent graphic novel adaptations, this one does probably the best job of having a strong “comic book” feel without over-stylizing to a fault.

On the other hand – somewhat consistent with previous of Bong’s work – there’s a lot of wtf-ery and facepalm-worthy moments; the plot is shot through with holes like Swiss cheese, and despite what must be the third of the film spent on lengthy exposition dialogue, a lot of the symbolism, including most of the secondary characters’ backstories, remain unexplained. If you try to engage your analytic part of the brain too much, you may leave the cinema disappointed. Too many things just “do not compute”.

But if you focus on those, you focus on all the wrong things. The best review of Snowpiercer I’ve read so far (The Philosophy of Snowpiercer) says this:Snowpiercer is as good a sci-fi movie as Animal Farm is a farming manual. Despite the sci-fi trappings, this movie is an allegory, a brutal fairy-tale. Trying to over-analyze Snowpiercer is like trying to scrutinize Terry Gilliam’s movies for plot-holes and lack of realism. Indeed the closest cinematic equivalent to Snowpiercer I can think of would have to be “Brazil”.

The plot is linear almost by definition, as straightforward as the train’s relentless run, but that doesn’t mean it’s not smart. The movie has a lot more to say about tyrannies and revolutions than the average simplistic Hollywood fare in the vein of “V for Vendetta” and “Elysium”, and what it says rings more true. It is also much grander in the scope of its satire; even the very ending reveals still another layer of social criticism (hint: who dies, who survives?).

I can’t find much fault with the acting, given the material, though characters here are secondary to the plot. Chris Evans plays pretty much a gruff Chris Evans, or a less-crazy Christian Bale – imagine Captain America who had to live through a death camp. Tilda Swinton’s “Thatcher” is a delicious caricature. Hurt and Harris give decent, but unremarkable performances. By far the best are the two Korean actors – Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko – who shine throughout; you can tell they struck the best rapport with the director. I also enjoyed the largely silent performance of Luke Pasqualino (Skins, Musketeers), and I hope being in this movie will kick-start his career in Hollywood.

Snowpiercer had the potential for a 5-star masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the more engaging, thought-provoking and original sci-fi movies of recent years: it could be easily marketed as “The Matrix” of the new generation. If it falls short it’s because of too many unexplained quirks in the plot, and the fact that there’s simply way too much of the story left to tell, even for the full uncut 125 minutes. Perhaps if Snowpiercer was made into a trilogy like Matrix, or a high-budget TV series instead, it could have reached true brilliance.

5 reasons why Tarantino is the new Kubrick – and 1 why he isn’t.


spartacusdogs

I’ve recently come to terms with the idea that Quentin Tarantino is the only possible heir to Stanley Kubrick’s crown of the best Hollywood director of his generation. He’s not quite there yet – his hit-to-miss ratio is bigger than Kubrick’s – but I don’t see anyone else emerging from the herd at the moment. Now bear with me, as I explain my reasoning.

5. Turning pop culture into art

clockworkdjango

Kubrick’s choice of movie genres was far from orthodox for a respectable director at the time. Space Opera. Horror. Anti-Utopian Sci-Fi. Apocalypse comedy. Sword and sandals. He even came close to making a high-budget porn movie, and adapting the Lord of the Rings. It’s all well and good for Ridley Scott to do this kind of thing in the 80s and 90s, but an artistic sci-fi movie in the 1960s? That was nothing short of revolutionary.

And of course, this is Tarantino’s trademark as well. His own generation’s idea of pulp: trashy crime dramas, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns… and he’s turning it, in his own idiosyncratic way, into pure cinematic art.

4. Taking his time

deathprooflolita

After the initial burst of creativity in the late 50s and early 60s, Kubrick started taking his time with new releases. In 70s and 80s he did only two movies per decade, polishing each to perfection.

Tarantino made five movies in his first 10 years of career – and then only four in the next 15, including a half-hearted effort in Grindhouse and a six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill.

3. Innovative soundtracks

fullmetalbasterds

Ever since 2001: Space Odyssey, Kubrick disposed of the traditional soundtrack, preferring to use ready-made songs and instrumentals to great effect. His music choices were revolutionary, both inspired and inspiring, producing sequences which have no peers in cinema: the Blue Danube from Odyssey, the Singin’ in the Rain in Clockwork Orange, the Women of Ireland in Barry Lyndon.

Tarantino does exactly the same; reaching deeply into his personal collection of records, he creates the best and most innovative soundscapes in modern cinema. Never content with what the likes of Hans Zimmer or John Williams can give him, he plays with ready-made tunes to astonishing effect, and creates as memorable scenes as Kubrick: the twist in Pulp Fiction, Stuck in the Middle With You in Reservoir Dogs, Woo Hoo in Kill Bill…

2. Getting the best out of actors

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Even in the weakest of Tarantino’s movies, I am awestruck by what heights of talent his actors strive for. Of course, they are always good or great actors in their own right, but you still need a skilled director to carve the diamond of an actor’s talent to perfection. I mean, just look at John Travolta. People say he got his career restarted after Pulp Fiction, but the truth is, he’s never had a better role since. Samuel L. Jackson is an all-around entertaining and fantastic actor, no doubt, but only Tarantino gave him an Oscar nomination.

Kubrick’s casting was always flawless – and often idiosyncratic. You can’t really imagine anyone else play Jack Torrance, David Bowman or Alex, even though Keir Dullea or Malcolm McDowell were back then as unlikely choices for leads as Travolta or Pam Grier were in Tarantino’s days. Kubrick was the first (and for a long time, only) director who got Peter Sellers to play straight, to great acclaim. Finally, both Kubrick and Tarantino allowed their actors improvisation in key scenes, a trait shared with many other great directors, but which in their case made movie history every single time.

On one curious occasion, their tastes in actors almost converged: it may well have been Kubrick who gave Uma Thurman her great breakthrough role, in Aryan Papers, rather than Tarantino.

1. The painter’s eye

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There are three parts that are necessary for a movie to be considered great: script, acting and cinematography. Kubrick’s movies had all three – everyone knows that. His movies are pure visual bliss; but so do Tarantino’s, perhaps surprisingly for those who only regard his work as over-ambitious schlock.

The way Tarantino works with the camera, when he’s at his best, surpasses pretty much anything other block-busting directors currently achieve. “Impeccable” is a word often bandied about when describing his craftsmanship in Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Django. There is an almost baroque lushness to the way he plays with angles, lights and sets – much the same as with Kubrick.

Both directors have their famous trademark shots: Kubrick’s point perspective, Tarantino’s “looking up”. Both like to set their scenes like paintings. And Tarantino of course wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t sometime quotes Kubrick’s scenes verbatim (parts of Django are straight out Barry Lyndon).


And one reason why Tarantino is not quite yet Kubrick:

1. Technical innovation.

Kubrick was the James Cameron of his day and age; for every movie, he came up with a new toy; although never as flashy as Avatar’s 3D or Titanic’s CGI water, his technological innovations were recognized by the critics and picked up by the moviemakers.

Tarantino’s innovations are limited to editing and scripting; he lets Cameron be the Cameron  of his age, focusing instead on the fun of film-making. In fact, in his love of the old cinema, he’s positively a luddite: he loathes CGI. Paradoxically, his use of old school gimmicks, like the car chase in Death Proof, could be just the kind of technological revolution modern cinema needs.

The end of the world, and how we survived it.


“Seven Days to Rhine” Warsaw Pact strategy

I lived through the 80’s on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain. Like the West, we always knew the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. We were taught civil defence in schools: how to recognize siren signals, what to do in case of a blast (not much). There was a nuclear shelter at my school. The official war doctrine was of course secret, but enough of it got through to know that Warsaw would be one of the first targets.  It was too strategically important; its main thoroughfares and rail lines were built for the sole purpose of taking Soviet tanks from East to West as fast as possible.

Both sides had their own cultural reactions to the fear. In Poland we treated the apocalypse with humour, making mostly wacky, surreal post-apocalyptic comedies.The US movies that we were getting through on bootleg VHS tapes, and later were even shown on TV (as a warning, I suppose)  – like War Games – focused on the military or action side of the conflict, rather than the aftermath. The main exception was the terrifying The Day After.

The Brits, uncharacteristically, seem to have lost all their sense of humour in the 80’s. I suppose being faced with total annihilation makes one stop quipping for a while.

Here are the two most important movies of the era: Where the Wind Blows and Threads. Warning: they are drastic and bleak, and likely to spoil your Christmassy mood for good. You probably really don’t want to watch them. But they serve as a tragic reminder of how close we got to the real end of the world.

This would be no Mayan Apocalypse. There would be no heroes to stop that asteroid. This was the real deal – and somehow, miraculously, we survived.

If you want to be thankful to any deity for anything these Christmas, be thankful for that.

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS:

THREADS:

and the one I remember watching as a kid, the American THE DAY AFTER:

Senna


I was fresh out of kindergarten when Senna had started racing in F1. I was in the middle of high school when he died. I can’t remember if I watched him die. I do remember nothing of even remotely similar significance happening in that year.

All of my, what is called, ‘formative years’, Ayrton Senna had been a presence. The 1988-1992 GP seasons were, for my generation, the peak time in the history of the sport. In the bleak years of late communism and early transformation, there was simply no better television. The rivalry between Prost and Senna. The year-long reality show, always with a gripping finale in Japan, was better than any reality show any tv exec would ever dream of in the future. Our mothers had their first soap operas, we had Formula 1, first on the television screens, then shoddily re-enacted on our Amigas and Ataris and first PCs.
I was always driving Williams. My brother preferred McLaren.

The drivers back then were like superheroes, even their personalities were straight out of comic books. An evil, arrogant Frenchman. A youthful, Luke Skywalker-like protagonist from a poor but proud country. A mustachioed English gentleman, always proper and always just, and his trusty Italian sidekick who tried hard but never amounted to much. And, by the end of the period, the slowly growing shadow of the German-built cyborg that would once conquer them all, the Schuminator.

Watching them all fight was like watching the Gods bicker.

The movie “Senna” is now available on Youtube Films in UK.