In the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing, The New Statesman‘s Alex Hern makes the case for moving in the direction of a space elevator. The political argument aside, serious forays into space are clearly hindered by the prohibitive costs of leaving orbit more than anything else. If we are going to get serious about this, a space elevator is a technology that’s worth looking into. Right now, only Japan is on the case.
“‘I saw people trying to balance on the rooftops like surfers,’ she said. ‘It didn’t work. It was like hell.’” Boston’s Big Picture offers a survey of the horrifying images out of Japan since the earthquake/tsunami double-whammy of last Friday. [Part 2, Part 3.]
“‘It’s way past Three Mile Island already,’ said Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton. ‘The biggest risk now is that the core really melts down and you have a steam explosion.” And, in unfortunately related news, an animated infographic at the NYT explains exactly what engineers are trying to avoid at Fukushima Daiichi right now. (It’s not as bad as you may have heard, but, Lordy, it’s not good.)
“‘It’s really wet,’ said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.“
In keeping with recent studies, NASA is set to announce that there appears to be quite a lot of water on the moon, which would greatly facilitate setting up shop there. Alas, “the U.S. likely won’t be involved in manned voyages to the moon anytime soon…But other countries are gearing up. China has pledged to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, and India has plans to do the same by 2020. Japan wants to establish an unmanned moon base in a decade.” And, hey, why go to the moon when you can spend a decade in Afghanistan?
“Twice he was captured and escaped, once by back-flipping over a snow bank and running off into the woods before his guards could use their weapons. A third time, surrounded by the Gestapo at a maternity hospital in Oslo where he had set up a transmitter in a chimney, he shot his way to freedom with a pistol.” Via a friend, Knut Haugland, WWII resistance fighter and last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki expedition, 1917-2010.
We may “play” Call of Duty nowadays, but this guy lived it. “He particularly objected to the word ‘heroes’ in the title. ‘I never use that word about myself or my friends,’ he told BBC4 Radio in 2003. “We just did a job.” Referring to the glider crashes and the killing of the survivors, he added: ‘Forty-one men were killed, and it could have been avoided. Because of the loss of life, you shouldn’t glorify the story.’“Update, and via several Twitterers: Also passing very recently, another unbelievable survivor of WWII: Tsutomu Yamaguchi, 1916-2010. “On August 6, 1945, he was about to leave the city of Hiroshima, where he had been working, when the first bomb exploded, killing 140,000 people. Injured and reeling from the horrors around him, he fled to his home — Nagasaki, 180 miles to the west.“
Crazy. He’s like a real-life Pariah for the Atomic Age. “‘I think it is a miracle,’ he told The Times on the 60th anniversary of the bombings in 2005. ‘But having been granted this miracle it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world. For the past 60 years survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can see hardly any improvement in the situation.’“
“This can be a moment of opportunity for North Korea. If North Korea continues to make the right choices, it can repair its relationship with the international community — much as Libya has done over the past few years. If North Korea makes the wrong choices, the United States and our partners in the six-party talks will respond accordingly.” In a Rose Garden statement yesterday, Dubya announces the lifting of trading sanctions against North Korea, on account of Pyongyang seemingly agreeing to nuclear disarmament as outlined in recent multilateral talks. But don’t get the wrong idea, folks: Talking to our enemies is still an act of horrible, dirty appeasement. Update: Slate‘s Fred Kaplan surveys the deal.
“‘Inhumane deeds should be fully acknowledged,’ said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee…’The world awaits a full reckoning of history from the Japanese government.‘” The House passes a resolution calling for Japan to apologize for its WWII “comfort women” program. [Text.] “Lawmakers want an apology similar to the one the U.S. government gave to Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. That apology was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan in 1988.” Well, I’m all for offically recognizing historical sins in the past — *cough* slavery *cough* — but, unfortunately, no mention was made in this bill of our own possible complicity in Imperial Japan’s ugly system of forced prostitution. The resolution might carry more rhetorical force if it did.
“‘As expected, after it opened it was elbow to elbow,’ the history says. ‘The comfort women…had some resistance to selling themselves to men who just yesterday were the enemy, and because of differences in language and race, there were a great deal of apprehensions at first. But they were paid highly, and they gradually came to accept their work peacefully.‘” The continuing furor in Asia over Japan’s ignominious use of “comfort women” (re: forced prostitution) during WWII reaches America, as it comes to light that occupation Japan created a similar “comfort system” for American GI’s in the year after the war (until MacArthur shut it down in the spring of 1946.) “An Associated Press review of historical documents and records shows American authorities permitted the official brothel system to operate despite internal reports that women were being coerced into prostitution. The Americans also had full knowledge by then of Japan’s atrocious treatment of women in countries across Asia that it conquered during the war…Although there are suspicions, there is not clear evidence non-Japanese comfort women were imported to Japan as part of the program.“
While I thought most critics lavished too much praise on Pan’s Labyrinth, the very similar swells of appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima are, surprisingly, much closer to the mark. Eastwood’s first crack at Iwo Jima in 2006, Flags of our Fathers, was to my mind a well-meaning dog, one made particularly lousy by the heavy-handed fingerprints of Paul Haggis all over the film. But (perhaps due to the different screenwriter, Iris Yamashita), Letters is really something quite remarkable. A mournful, occasionally shocking testament to the inhumanity and absurdities attending war, and a elegiac dirge for those caught in its grip, even on the other side of the conflict, Letters from Iwo Jima is an impressive — even at times breathtaking — siege movie. And strangely enough, elements that seemed trite or intrusive in Flags — the desaturated landscape, the minimalist piano score — are truly haunting and evocative here. In fact, Letters from Iwo Jima is so good it even makes Flags of our Fathers seem like a better movie just by association, which, trust me, is no small feat.
As you probably know by now, Letters from Iwo Jima follows the famous World War II battle, ostensibly depicted in Flags, from the Japanese side. Here, nobody cares about artfully raised flags or the Ballad of Ira Hayes — the emphasis instead is on honor and survival. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, as captivating here as he was in The Last Samurai) has been ordered to lead the defense of the island against the Americans. To this task, he fully devotes himself, despite fond memories of his earlier days on US soil. But it only takes a few walks around Mt. Suribachi for Kuribayashi to figure out it’s pretty much a no-win scenario — the Americans are too many, too productive, and too strong. And once word leaks out that the Japanese fleet has been broken at Leyte Gulf, Kuribayashi and his men — most notably friendly grunt Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), and former Kempetai Shimizu (Ryo Kase) — must slowly come to grips with the fact that they’re not digging cavern defenses so much as their own tomb…a tomb in which many Japanese officers, and not least the headquarters on the homeland, will expect them to die with honor.
What’s particularly surprising here is how unafraid Eastwood is to invert the usual sympathies of a World War II film. It’s not just that the Japanese are the “good guys” here — True, Letters dramatizes the soldiers’ plight by portraying them, particularly Saigo, as just like our fun-loving GI’s at heart. But it also doesn’t shy away from examining a cultural emphasis on dying well that seems completely foreign to the American mind. And, although a wounded American serviceman shows up later in the film, for the most part the US forces are — surprisingly — portrayed here like something out of The Empire Strikes Back, all gleaming, remorseless battleships and Fiery Death from Above. (Some have argued that Eastwood elides over Japanese atrocities in this film, but I’m not sure that’s really fair, unless I somehow just missed the Dresden firebombing subplot in Saving Private Ryan. This is not to say that all war crimes are equivalent or that both sides are equally guilty (although Lord knows it got ugly) — that gets into a moral calculus well outside the bounds of this review — only that Letters seems more interested in portraying war itself as an atrocity, and that enough reference is made to ugly tactics (aiming at medics, for example) that the film doesn’t feel to me like a whitewash.)
The sobering truth at the heart of the grim, moving Letters from Iwo Jima is captured in its penultimate image. (Alas, like too many WWII films, Eastwood opts for an unnecessary contemporary bookend, but it’s not as distracting as the Greatest Generation stuff in Flags. In fact, you might argue that it plays very well off those scenes, in depicting what little survives the war on the Japanese side.) I won’t give it away here…suffice to say that Letters makes clear that War is a demon that rips lives apart and rends men asunder, no matter what side you’re on or for what reasons. Regardless of race, creed, nationality, or ideology, all who invoke its wrath will eventually come to taste tragedy.
“Is this the right message to be sending to taxpayers in America, Russia, Europe and Japan — that it’s OK to do a stunt like this?” The Russian space agency weighs the financial pros and safety cons of an orbital chip shot from the ISS. “The golf shot is hardly the first commercial venture in space. The cash-strapped Russian space agency has taken three ‘space tourists’ to the orbiting laboratory for a reported $20 million apiece. An Israeli company, Tnuva Food Industries, paid the Russians $450,000 to show two cosmonauts drinking milk, and Pizza Hut paid $1 million to slap a logo on the side of a Proton rocket and have cosmonauts deliver a pizza to the space station. The Russians aren’t alone. Last year, the Japanese space agency arranged for the filming of an instant ramen noodle commercial on the space station.”
“I was trying to escape. Obviously, it didn’t work.” If it’s any consolation, Dubya, we all feel just as trapped. In one of those resounding visual metaphors that capture a presidency and that life occasionally kicks up for all to see (the last one being Dubya’s fiddling during Katrina), our leader gets stymied by a locked door while trying to evade a reporter’s questions about his China trip (which were pretty softball, given all the things he could’ve been asking these days.)
In somewhat related news, in the relatively sanguine Post story about the door incident, the following depressing information is included: “In five years in the presidency, Bush has proved a decidedly unadventurous traveler…As he barnstormed through Japan, South Korea and China, with a final stop in Mongolia still to come, Bush visited no museums, tried no restaurants, bought no souvenirs and made no effort to meet ordinary local people…[Laura Bush] once persuaded him to go to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, only to see him burn through the place in 30 minutes. He dispensed with the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow in seven minutes. He flatly declined an Australian invitation to attend the Rugby World Cup while down under.”
And, would you believe it? Boss DeLay wasn’t the only nefarious and nightmarish tentacled creature to be captured in the past twenty-four hours. For the first time ever, Japanese scientists have succeeded in photographing a giant squid in its natural habitat. (I read about this late last night and had some very disturbing dreams about it. After all, there are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.) [Last link inspired by MysVamp.]
“In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the ‘age of the robot.‘” And to think I was geeking out over the Roomba just a few weeks ago.
Some food for thought for my Asia-Pacific sections today (by way of Prof. Armstrong): Historian John Dower compares the Iraq imbroglio to Japanese expansion in Manchuria. Before rejecting his argument outright, at least consider the source. Dower knows a great deal about America’s experiences in postwar Japan — more, I’d wager, than anybody working in the Dubya administration.
An angry and confused American man, disgusted by the valuelessness, rapacity, and interminable selfishness that he believes characterizes the United States in the throes of unfettered capitalism, finds meaning and community overseas in an antimodern movement dedicated to tradition, discipline, martialism, and fighting Westernization. Taking arms against the side his mother country supports, this scruffy, bearded fellow watches proudly as his comrades-in-arms attempt to achieve honor and purity through a wave of suicide attacks against superior American-backed firepower. The John Walker Lindh story? Nope, The Last Samurai. Funny how the same narrative looks completely different once Tom Cruise gets involved.
Ok, ok, I should say that The Last Samurai is both very well-made and for the most part very enjoyable. Despite having the straightest teeth in the nineteenth century, Cruise is quite good in the lead (give or take the first five minutes — somebody should have already figured out by now that, after Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky, Cruise should never, ever, play a drunk.) Moreover, Ken Watanabe in the semi-fictional title role is a revelation — he commands the screen’s attention and suggests comparison with some of Kurosawa’s stars of yesteryear. There’s tons of solid supporting performances here, particularly by the residents of Katsumoto’s village. The cinematography and the New Zealand scenery (while obviously recalling Middle Earth) are often beautiful, and the action scenes (if not the CGI) are first-rate. And, there’s ninjas in it, and, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool.
But, still, something about the film ultimately left me hollow, and it wasn’t just the drawn-out, increasingly Hollywood-y ending. In some ways, the movie seemed like a textbook-case fictionalization of T.J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: An American seeks meaning and refuge from the vicissitudes of Gilded Age capitalism in the antimodern, the martial, and the Orient. So, in that sense, the history checks out.
But, as Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club points out, many – if not most – Americans who’d fought in the Civil War had soured on the purported romance of dying for a cause (In fact, Menand argues, perhaps a bit dubiously, that it is this realization, borne of Antietam and Cold Harbor, that undergirds the philosophy of pragmatism.) And you’d think that after the carnage of Pickett’s charge and Petersburg, most Civil War veterans — particularly ones as disillusioned as Tom Cruise’s Algren — wouldn’t think charging a Howitzer is a particularly valiant way to go out. (Although I haven’t read the book, I expect Cold Mountain to make some hay of this come Christmas Day.) Besides, c’mon y’all, didn’t we learn anything from WWI?
I know, I know, I’m probably thinking about this way too much. After all, the “fight to the last man in the name of the cause” suicide charge is a staple of both samurai films and war movies (including Edward Zwick’s own Glory), and The Last Samurai is both a very good war movie and a superlative samurai flick. And, of course we’re going to see a few variations on this trope next week in RotK, a film I was lavishly anticipating just one entry ago — in fact, change the costumes a bit and we’ve got the Ride of the Rohirrim here.
But…riding against Sauron is one thing — riding against the United States is (hopefully) another. (For that matter, while they both embrace the antimodern, I’d say the overarching theme of LotR is fighting so your friends can live, not fighting for the sake of dying with honor.) I suppose it’s probably good for a lot of people’s sense of perspective to see an American-made Alamo-type story where the US are the imperialist heavies rather than the freedom fighters (even if nobody seems to be taking it as such.) Still, something about the naked adoration this film displays for its suicidal warriors against Western modernity struck a discordant tone with me.
In short, I thought the movie goes only half the distance — it makes the West morally ambiguous without doing anything but idolizing the martialistic, traditionalist, and antimodern culture of the samurai. In our time, when the clash between antimodernism and the West seems more pertinent than ever, you’d think a movie like this one wouldn’t find so much to relish about suicide charges against American values. And, while Western modernity undoubtedly has a lot to answer for in Japan, there has to be some sort of irony to the fact that US audiences thrilled to the final scene in the Emperor’s chambers on the same weekend as the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Be careful singing the praises of anti-Western martialism, because it may just come back to bite ya.
But, in case you get the wrong idea from my post here, the film is definitely worth seeing. If you see only one movie about Americans in Japan this year, see Lost in Translation. But I’d check this out before Kill Bill. And, in case I didn’t make it clear before, this film’s got ninjas, y’all, ninjas.
Via a friend of mine in the dept., who enjoyed Kill Bill only slightly more than I did, Quentin Tarantino lists his homages to Japanese cinema in the movie. An intriguing article, both for the film knowledge and massive ego on display.
Fresh after making his pitch for the Sox, Seth Stevenson tries to wrap his mind around manga. “As for the animated porn I did watch in hopes of gleaning some insight into the Japanese id? I have this to say: Go away, Japanese id! You are scary! I am scared of you!“
So I finally broke my month-long movieless streak last night with Lost in Translation, an unflinching look at the agony and torment of the human soul that is lying around your five-star Tokyo hotel with nothing to do. I’m a bit conflicted on this one…It’s definitely worth seeing – The film is funny, touching, sweet, often entrancing, and Bill Murray is really wonderful in the lead. It captures the disembodied detachment of travel insomnia and the exquisite anticipation of a newly-made connection in ways that belie the standard Hollywood older-man-meets-younger-woman narrative (Re: mogul wish fulfillment.)
All that being said, I do have nagging problems with Translation. For one, as I alluded above, this story could only have been written by deeply privileged people: I found it hard to empathize with Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, who responds to being alone on the far side of the world with all kinds of time on her hands mainly by sitting in her hotel room and feeling miserable. (It makes more sense with Murray’s Bob, who’s clearly seen and done it all by now.)
Plus, it often seems like Sofia Coppola is calling out a few hits on people throughout the film. Charlotte’s busy, self-absorbed photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) seems less than a degree of separation from Spike Jonze, and the story takes time out to bag on white hip-hoppers (the Beasties?) and film starlets (Anna Faris of May, basically playing a cruel version of Cameron Diaz) in a manner that I found more vindictive than funny. (There’s an exchange involving Evelyn Waugh that – perhaps it’s meant to be this way – makes Charlotte seem deeply unsympathetic, exactly the type of know-it-all snob you wouldn’t want to spend a week in Tokyo with.) In fact, the movie wants to have it both ways – when Bob and Charlotte karaoke classic songs by Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, and Roxy Music (One of the best uses of music since Donnie Darko, even if the choices seem more like Coppola’s than the characters), it’s relationship development…A few scenes later, when the starlet character belts out Carly Simon, it’s a sight gag. Finally, while Translation makes a great postcard for Tokyo, there end up being just a few too many “zany Japanese” engrish jokes and setpieces.
But, not to lose the forest for the trees, I did quite like Lost in Translation. The film is honest and poignant in its depiction of two ships passing in the night, and Bill Murray – almost always good these days – is outstanding. Only once in the film, when he and Charlotte chase the Suntory whiskey bus, did he seem to slip into traditional Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray-dom. The rest of the time, Murray’s a sadder, sleepier, and more resigned fellow than the wiseass we’re accustomed to on the screen. Even scenes with patently unbelievable dialogue (Bob talking to his wife in the bath, for example) are redeemed by Murray here. His performance alone makes the movie worth seeing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s given a nod somewhere come award time.
A Japanese writer finds himself quoted in Dylan. Sounds like he’s got the right attitude about it…I wouldn’t think this really constitutes plagiarism.