Samurai Gourmet


Although Japanese television is sometimes associated with wild and wacky antics, Samurai Gourmet also shows that it is capable of an immense tenderness.

Samurai Gourmet is about the food adventures of newly retired former salaryman Takeshi Kasumi (played charmingly by veteran Naoto Takenaka), as he ambles around Tokyo in his newly freed-up time. Defined by corporate convention and etiquette all his working life, his querulousness often manifests in small daily misadventures – hesitating to order a beer at a restaurant in the middle of the day, being scolded by his text-obsessed guitarist niece at dinner, or just by being self-conscious at a fine dining restaurant where all the food names go over his head.

During these times, when all seems lost, Kasumi daydreams of a masterless samurai (Tetsuji Tamayama), who shows him the way to assert himself with confidence and sincerity as he bulldozes his way through feudal Japan.

Samurai Gourmet is essentially a slice-of-life story of an old man who, in his retirement, finally learns how to live well – a lesson that his stay-at-home wife Shizuko has already mastered with graceful aplomb. He overcomes his self-consciousness to eat spaghetti with chopsticks at a fine Italian restaurant. He stays over at a seaside inn by himself and orders extra rice with his meal. Small stakes, but you can’t help but share Kasumi’s triumph at his little victories. Takenaka’s performance as Kasumi is heartfelt, genuine and truly naturalistic, and lends the old man the requisite charm and interest needed to drive a show of this nature.

Food is also a big part of the show’s raison d’etre. Shot nostalgically in soft focus (a stark contrast to the tack-sharp, slow-mo theatrics of Kantaro), the show’s food is a powerful emotional link between Kasumi and his memories of youth, of secretly eating storebought croquettes coming home from school, or learning how to love saba at a seaside minshoku. It is also something that binds people together.

There is one episode where Kasumi eats at a crowded but ramshackle izakaya, but the food is good and the customers companionable – but when it rains and the ceiling springs multiple leaks, the chef nonchalantly brings out a bundle of well-used umbrellas, and the clientele laughingly eat and drink as they hold up their umbrellas together in that tiny restaurant. It’s powerful little moments like these – heartfelt but not cloying, genuine but not banal – that truly form the core of the show’s appeal to me.

There are a couple of things wrong with the show – one of which is its tendency to normalise the kind of relationship that Kasumi has with his wife – who angelically tends to all his needs and patiently suffers his lack of romantic instinct and brusque manner with her – but ultimately, the show is possibly one of the most emotionally nourishing I’ve watched on Netflix, and a comforting soul food for the heart.

I give this show: 4.5/5 extra lunch bento boxes



Black Panther


Black Panther is an immaculately produced Marvel film and a valiant attempt to delve deeper into themes of colonial oppression and race relations.

Black Panther is a film replete in many of the signature Marvel qualities – fast paced, full of visual interest, injected with humor, and bursting with action. In these departments, Black Panther does as well if not better than most Marvel films.

Its vision of Wakanda is visually breathtaking and conceptually fascinating – a high-tech society steeped in old political structures and traditions. Some of its characters, especially the irreverent girl genius and Wakandan chief scientist Shuri, are breakouts who provide much of the humor to an otherwise straight-laced film. And its action scenes are among the finest in Marvel – especially the entire car chase sequence through Busan.

The fact that such a film has seen the light of day is also a bit of a triumph for diversity and thematic complexity in Hollywood storytelling. Black Panther is a vision of a superhero that people of African descent can look up to and adopt as their own larger-than-life figure. That this superhero is also the sovereign of an fictional African country that was not only never colonised, but more advanced than any other on Earth is an added, albeit bittersweet, bonus.

It’s a tale of a king that comes into his own and forges a new path for his country, as the realities of the world encroach upon its once-splendid isolation. Not only does this work as a standalone concept, it also manages to set the stage for some Wakandan action during Infinity War, as we’ve seen in the trailers.

What I like about Black Panther is its attempt to put the idea of Wakanda in a kind of interrogative context in terms of how it sits with the systemic racial oppressions that take place all over the world. A sort of theodicy if you will – if Wakanda, the Afrofuturistic, technological utopia, exists, why does it keep itself isolated, and let suffering exist elsewhere?

The film pits three different ideas of how Wakanda should react to that question. The traditional view would be to maintain their isolation to preserve Wakanda’s self-interest. The tit-for-tat view, espoused by Michael Jordan’s antagonist Erik Killmonger, is for Wakanda to use its technology to topple the old oppressors and establish a new ordre. And finally, the heroic view, that Lupita N’yongo’s Nakia and later T’Challa later adopt, is for Wakanda to open up and build bridges with the outside world.

There are, of course, many parallels – to American isolationism during the World Wars, the difference between the philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and how various new post-colonial nations chose to engage with the rest of the world after their independence. But I imagine the film must act as a kind of catharsis for African Americans, acutely aware of the historical injustices visited upon them and the structural inequalities that plague America today – that if such a nation existed, the right option is still one of conciliation rather than revenge.

It’s a little shallower than I’d like, especially since I didn’t actually think Michael Jordan’s performance was all that great – he sounded more petulant than anything most times he was talking about his grand plans for anti-colonial revenge and conquest. And his whole grafting beads on his body to mark his kills thing is a little narmy. But it is par for the course for Marvel to have villains that are defined by their single-minded ambitions, and Killmonger, I think, is more interesting and relatable than most in that space.

In the end, Black Panther is a little bit of a bittersweet movie, because although it ends on a hopeful note, the basis for that hope is the utopian fantasy of Wakanda and its technology, which has no parallel today. We don’t have the luxury of having a Wakanda to end oppression. All Black Panther can offer is a vision of a more perfectible world.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 all-purpose communication beads



With Coco, Pixar scores again with yet another thoughtfully-crafted, culturally sensitive, and thematically rich film for all ages to appreciate.

Like Marvel, Pixar has its craft down to a science. There is something about that studio that enables them to “get” that truly art is only truly great when it has something meaningful to say about the human condition. Everything else is just an accoutrement to that core of thematic significance.

In Coco, Pixar weaves in so many different themes – the importance of family,  and of following your dreams, and remembrance as a form of love that transcends death – and synthesises them with grace and an almost casual aplomb. From that core of significance is layered on the immense visual and cultural interest from the film’s setting and basic premise.

Set in a vaguely contemporary Mexico, Coco imagines a world where the spirits of the deceased reside in a Land of the Dead (with equivalent technologies and social institutions), and return to visit their families on Dia de Muertos. Our protagonist Miguel is a boy who is born into a family of music-hating shoemakers, but aspires to be a musician himself, his idol being Ernesto de la Cruz, regarded as Mexico’s greatest musician and performer. When Miguel, desperate to live free of his family’s shadow, steals a guitar from de la Cruz’s tomb, he is inadvertently thrust into the land of the dead, where he resolves to find a way to return back to his world before sunrise, and fulfill his dream of being a musician in the way.

In true Pixar fashion, the premise is creative and different, yet authentic in a way that derives from the actual cultural experience of an entire people (rather than the vague fantasy bona fides of, say, a Shrek). The Land of the Dead is a marvellous wonderland of brightly-lit buildings rising into the skies, populated by the skeletal forms of the dead amongst various spirit animals, both domesticated and wild. It reminds me of Grim Fandango for obvious reasons, in terms of aesthetic and the general notion that even in the afterlife, when you have large agglomerations of people, you are going to get the banalities of bureaucracy and the need for control structures. Somewhat comfortingly, the dead live just like we do.

The film does start out a little exposition heavy, as we are introduced to Miguel and his somewhat contrived music-hating family history, before moving on with the plot. It is just after Miguel enters the land of the dead where the film picks up steam and becomes a dazzling visual spectacle. Miguel is a great protagonist, played with a healthy dose of youthful charm and energy by Anthony Gonzalez, who really shows off his impressive singing voice in the film.  The film soars on the strength of his characterisation and narrative journey.

While Coco does rely on some well-worn narrative tropes, it does so in a way that doesn’t feel stale, but is suffused with sincere significance. The audience knows what’s coming, but when the plot does head in that direction, its predictability does not detract from its emotional resonance. It has a lot to do with Pixar’s mastery of what makes characters tick and the authenticity of their actions as they follow the tracks of the plot that the writers lay out.

Using this tried and tested formula – of being guided by having something meaningful to say, of letting your characters act in an authentic manner based on universal and deep-seated elements of human relations, and of situating the setting in a creative but sensitive interpolation of an actual lived culture with the elements of its folklore – that allows Coco to reach the rarified heights of Pixar’s best work.

But, in the end, all such analysis pales in the face of one’s affective reaction to the work – and for me, Coco worked its magic on me on an affective level, even as I knew to some extent how Pixar was deliberately using old tricks and recycling plot developments to tug at my heartstrings. It’s hard to describe or define, but it’s that sincerity, that care, that Pixar puts into making its work human that shines through and makes it one of the greats in its oeuvre.

And the music is great, too.

I give this film: 4.5/5 guitars






I bought Hitman on the assumption that assassination was a super apropos way of giving significance to sandoxy, emergent gameplay, in the style of Dishonored. But Hitman is, in the end, more of an arcade experience than I anticipated.

Hitman is an episodic game that plays out over a series of brilliantly-realized maps depicting realistically-scaled environments. As Agent 47, you as the player must find ways to navigate the environment to put the drop on your targets. There is a campaign that features a plot filled with shadowy power brokers and clandestine conspiracies – while it’s paper-thin and light on character development, it does lend the gameplay sufficient narrative resonance to keep it interesting for someone like me.

The environments may be the best part of the game – beautiful, varied, full of life and vibrance and sense of place. From the tranquil snowy heights of the Hokkaido level to the dusty, crowded streets of Marrakesh, Hitman’s level design provides the perfect mix of complexity and eye candy to provide interest and exploratory potential for a game of this type.

In terms of gameplay, Hitman is an exercise in obtaining environmental mastery of the map, and exploring its nooks and crannies to find the various ways of achieving your assassination goals. In classic (or so I hear) Hitman fashion, one of the most common ways to do so is to basically steal disguises that enable you to get close to the target. In many cases, these disguises, when worn by a dead-eyed six foot bald dude with a bizarre barcode tattoo on the back, can come across as rather outlandish – lending this aspect of gameplay a rather bizarre ludo-narrative dissonance.

More broadly, while Hitman is often described as a sandbox, I see it more like a maze with many paths. While playing the game, it was not that clear to me that the game offered real freedom of expression in creating creative ways to manipulate game systems to achieve the target – it was more like just finding out the secret path to achieve the goal. Once you’ve found a way, you tend to stick to it – because it’s generally simpler to do so than to jump to another course of action, which would require you to “start over” on another path.

The game tries to encourage people to approach each level in multiple ways – once you’re done with the level, you get points that unlock new weapons, starting locations, and tools. There are also challenges, such as to play the entire level wearing a certain costume or to assassinate the target using a particular weapon.

Honestly, though, the different routes are so similar to each other in broad substance, and the various game systems so non-intersecting, that I find myself lacking the motivation to replay a level I’ve already finished. That’s not the fault of the game, but in the end, it’s really just a function of the limitations of this particular style of game in piquing my interest – the lack of true systems-based emergent gameplay and the reliance, by and large, on crafting a large number of parallel but non-interacting linear paths to achieve your goal.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 distraction coins

Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman


And thus begins my foray into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese Netflix TV shows.

At first glance, Kantaro might be regarded as a cross between your usual stereotype of Japanese TV weirdness with heavy doses of product placement. The premise is simple: a straight-laced salesperson (Kantaro, played by the doughy-faced Matsuya Onoe) working for a publishing company leads a double life: in between his sales visits, he secretly sneaks off to indulge in his life’s passion – to sample (and blog about) the many delectable confectioneries that Tokyo has to offer. (In fact, the show’s Japanese name is a pun on this – rather than sarariman (salaryman), it’s saboriman – where saboru means to slack off).

The first episode hits you on the head with its weirdness. Kantaro, who has newly joined the company, sneaks off to eat anmitsu; upon his first bite, he is subjected to a bout of orgiastic bliss that sends him into a fantasy in which he is splashed, in ritualised fashion, by cascading anmitsu syrup. Later on in the same vision, he’s surrounded by his colleagues, whose heads have mysteriously turned into anmitsu ingredients.

It’s a type of Japanese humor that is culturally situated and hard to understand if you don’t get the things they are parodying; I usually skipped these fantasy portions whenever they appeared in later episodes. Some can be slightly disturbing – like the episode where Kantaro’s psycho sweets-hating mother comes to visit and he enacts a bizarre fantasy of eating eclairs in front of her while she is sleeping.

But the whole thing is beautifully shot, especially the exquisite sweets, which are captured, glistening, tremulous and perfect in high definition and luscious slow motion as they are prepared by master craftsmen. The visceral visual appeal of the show when it comes to showcasing the sweets cannot be overstated.

And the funny thing is that all these shops are real – you can find them in Tokyo and they are purportedly every bit as famous as the show makes them out to be. Product placement or tourism ad? Maybe both. But all aspersions to wit fade away before the tantalising food porn on display and the sincere presentation of the down-to-earth nature of these shops and their food.

As one gets used to the weirdness of Kantaro as the episodes go on, the show turns from bizarro sweet-shop advertisement to a genuine comedy that delves more deeply into the lives of its various characters – even the comically brazen manager Miyake and his excessively long sideburns. And at its heart, the show propagates an aphorism that is sure to resonate with the legions of overworked corporate suits in Japan’s still-stifling traditional business culture – after an honest and hard day’s work, it’s good to indulge in the sweeter things in life, too.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 bowls of mont blanc

Season of the Witch


Of the many historical narratives I’ve read, Season of the Witch is perhaps the most compulsively readable. More than just a dispassionate historical account, it seethes with the energy of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and is suffused by the evidence of the author’s own passion for his hometown, one whose tumult in the 1960s and 1970s served as a crucible to create its unique character and legacy.

Season of the Witch is a people’s history of San Francisco, told vibrantly through the ages through the quotes, written records, and oral accounts of the city’s many larger-than-life figures. San Francisco, more than any other city in the US, seemed to act as a haven for the dispossessed, the outcasts, and the dreamers, and it was replete with many community heroes – lawyers, doctors and public servants – who used their powers to help them.

In the 1960s, the city’s famed progressivism made it a beacon of hope for thousands of America’s lost children as they flocked to Haight-Ashbury in and after the Summer of Love, and it was up to San Franciscan heroes – faced by a callous municipal government – to help them as they came in their thousands, needing shelter, medical attention, and spiritual succour.

San Francisco became a haven for gays and lesbians long before it was even remotely kosher in the eyes of the rest of the nation or the world, who would band together with other communities and rights groups in the city to create a formidable progressive political movement – one that would eventually cascade throughout America in a rainbow wave.

But San Francisco could sometimes be too open, especially to dangerous ideas and people. The city was wracked by waves of terror during the racially motivated Zebra murders in the 1970s, bringing the city almost to its breaking point, as black and white started to eye each other with fear and distrust. Truly bizarre cults and movements arose, from the infamous SLA that brainwashed newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult that ended in such horrific tragedy in Jonestown.

These events reverberated up and down the city and even affected City Hall, implicating even heroic and well-respected figures as George Moscone, Willie Brown, and Harvey Milk, all of whom were overly cozy with Jones because of his ability to come off as a bleeding-heart liberal, espousing at face value the principles of diversity and acceptance.

The tumult between the city’s liberal bona fides and the vestiges of its conservative Irish roots came to a head in the infamous episode when Dan White took a gun to Moscone and Milk, killing them both, and then escaped a long prison sentence, largely by dint of his aura of white-bread wholesomeness.

After this terrible climax, San Francisco was beaten back on its heels, but in true San Franciscan fashion, it recovered on the strengths of its ethos of acceptance and togetherness in the face of adversity – first through the vicarious euphoria of the 49ers’ celebrated victory against the Goliath-like Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs, then as the city suffered through an AIDs epidemic, when whole communities pitched in to provide comfort and succour to young men who were perishing due to the then-mysterious disease.

Talbot’s narrative brings these events, and the people that lived them, to vivid and pugnacious life; his staccato prose leaping off the page like a broadsheet of the times, spinning a narrative of San Francisco and its heroes as possessing a number of virtues, chief of which is their willingness to embrace difference, a virtue displayed multifold during its many tribulations. Though Talbot has done a very creditable job of showing the many faces of San Francisco’s heroes – from Moscones’ inveterate womanising and the intimations that vote rigging by the People’s Temple helped in his mayoral victories, to concert promoter Bill Graham’s unscrupulous business practices. These are fully-formed people – heroes to some, villains to others; larger-than-life personalities seemingly driven by the city’s boundless aura.

For sure, the actual historical truth of things may not be so beautifully resonant; it is probably more staid, prosaic, and ambiguous. But Talbot has created a beautiful, haunting, unputdownable tale of San Francisco at its worst and best, one that deserves to be included in the hallowed annals of great historical writing.

I give this book: 4.5/5 footballs


Black Mirror (Season #3)


Black Mirror is a cultural phenomenon at this point. While the reasons for its popularity might be distilled by many to be symptomatic of a general public discomfort with the excesses of unfettered technology, I find such explanations overly eager to posit narrative significance. I prefer to think of Black Mirror as being popular because most of its episodes tell compelling, unsettling stories using technological excess as a source of narrative conflict. 

In other words, it’s not because it’s cautionary sf (that reflects our primal fear of the unknown) that it is compelling, but because its formula is to tell unsettling stories that just so happen stem from technological excess, as a matter of branding.

Season 3 of Black Mirror has its share of good and mediocre episodes. Overall, it has a hit rate about the same as Seasons 1 and 2 – three better episodes and three that were somewhat mediocre, or showed promise but just kind of fell flat at the end.

Nosedive is not like your typical episode, which starts by mystifying the viewer with a technological innovation and slowly peeling back layers of mystery to arrive at an unexpected conclusion. Rather, Nosedive is, as its name suggests, the slow-burn story of a woman’s inevitable descent into the shit. In that sense, it’s a well-told episode that doesn’t rely on the whole “twist” shtick for its own sake, though if you’re not a fan of watching people make fools of themselves, it could be quite painful to watch. Set in a world where public standing is gamified through a public rating that is determined by the opinions of other, Nosedive is the rare Black Mirror episode that is actually a little too close for comfort to the real world – one in which one’s extrinsic social and economic standing is not only quantified (which it is today), but also directly manipulable by everyone around you (which it isn’t quite, but is starting to happen with China’s social credit rating). The tyranny of the majority is one of the most stifling.

Playtest is an intriguing episode with many brilliant moments – like the entire haunted house sequence, but ultimately falls a bit flat because of its muddled message and overreliance on weird plot twists, an unfortunate staple that can come off terribly if not done right. It’s an episode, I suppose, about video gaming and how overly realistic games could one day blur the distinction between what is real and what isn’t, but somehow, the resolution doesn’t really justify all that buildup.

Shut Up and Dance is actually a genuinely disturbing episode with a twist that is actually genuinely discomfiting and changes your entire impression of the events that came before in macabre fashion. The whole blackmail through spyware thing is also quite genuinely frighteningly plausible, which is actually quite rare for Black Mirror, which is generally more satirical than anything in its depiction of technology and is meant to provoke parallels to more grounded technological developments today. But the scenario in this episode could actually happen in real life.

San Junipero is that universally lauded episode that is about as un-Black Mirror as they come, when it comes to Black Mirror episodes. It is genuinely beautiful, evocative, dreamily shot and actually quite thought-provoking in terms of how it makes the “rightness” of Kelly’s choice ambiguous. While most people would see it as a happy ending, it asks the question of whether Kelly chose what she did because she thought that the version of her that would spend eternity with Yorkie was a simulacrum and her real self joined her husband in death.  The last shot of the blinking servers also serves as a chastening final note to highlight that in truth, paradise is an eternal row of whirring machines. San Junipero deserves the chops not just because of its evocative story, but also how it gracefully peels back the layers of mystery to reveal the truth at the core of its world, a “twist” that isn’t one at all because it feels so inevitable in the telling.

Men Against Fire is mediocre Black Mirror and is mostly stuff we’ve watched before – soldiers getting misled by brain implants that the enemy is subhuman when they really are just normal, just to remove their sentiment in the middle of a ethnic holocaust. The cause of the war is never really explained and the story is just not particularly engaging to start with, leaving the viewer somewhat empty once the “twist”, which is telegraphed quite early, is revealed.

Finally, Hated in the Nation fields an initially interesting premise – robot bees that replace real ones after a nationwide collapse of bee colonies – but is also Black Mirror at its meh-mediocre. We’ve seen this all before – crazed genius loner that uses technology to teach the population a violent, bloody lesson about the evils that arise out of the misuse of technology. Nothing new, and plays out exactly as you’d suspect. It’s watchable and even engaging, but isn’t Black Mirror at its most provocative.

Verdict: Some big hits, some misses, Season 3 nevertheless continues to exemplify the franchise’s core elements of cautionary-sf tropes motivating its disquieting narratives.

I give this: 4/5 ADIs