Kino’s Journey – The Beautiful World

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Beautiful, fairytale-like, often inscrutable – a koan in anime form.

In Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World, we follow the enigmatic Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes as they travel across a world like ours but not – a world of walled countries ranging from the primitive to the futuristic, riven by distance and culture. Kino is a traveller; she rides from country to country to experience their customs and see how the people live their lives; but she has one rule – and that is to only stay for no longer than three days. On her journeys, Kino will visit all manner of countries – pleasant ones, unpleasant ones, with cultures both closed and open; and often, her unexpected presence in a country is sufficient to spark change.

This series is, in fact, a semi-remake of an earlier Kino’s Journey anime that I watched way back in 2011, adapting many of the same stories from the source novel, but also including some new material. This current series is, in many respects, an improvement over the original. The character designs are much better (though the original is closer to the LN), the color palette more vibrant – while the stories and the presentation thereof are the same, the production values and quality of animation are better.

At the end of the day, however, visuals aside, the stories that Kino’s Journey tells must be compelling – and in that respect, the show is a bit of an enigma. In many of the places that Kino visits, she observes some kind of quandary or issue, and oftentimes gets caught up in it against her better sense. Often, however, there is no neat and happy resolution to the issue. Kino only intervenes, or doesn’t, and for good or ill, the country changes, or doesn’t. Kino does not ‘fix’ these countries, and although she intervenes, it is very rarely for the sake of the country as it is for its people. She is decidedly above politics and taking sides, except insofar as her inaction might hurt people. But in doing so, many of the episodes end on an ambiguous note, where not everything is resolved before we follow Kino as she rides away.

There is a tendency for us to seek moral or ethical lessons through the media we consume. At face value, each episode of Kino’s Journey doesn’t always offer any kind of moral or ethical assurance or guidepost, even if there is a kind of putative expectation that it should, based on the entire premise. Kino is first and foremost a traveler – and as such, her goal is to experience. It is through that act of witness that we are able to come to some sort of object lesson unique to ourselves, one that the show may only obliquely point towards in its unconventional style of storytelling. It’s a rare trait – and one that Kino’s Journey does with a particular dose of flair.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Colt-esque Revolvers

Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus

 

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Bauhaus Spirit offers occasional shivers of insight, but mostly it is stymied by an inability to effectively communicate its esoteric subject matter to the audience that it presumably wants to inform.

Bauhaus may perhaps be understood as a movement that attempted to bring aesthetic deliberations and people-centric thinking into the structure of industrial society, to create “total art” creations that were both beautiful and functional. In Bauhaus Spirit, Bauhaus is therefore not just a delimited period in the history of modern art, founded by Walter Gropius and suppressed by the Nazis, but a kind of way of looking at the world, a meme transmitted from student to student until traces of it could be found in every building and mass-produced product in the modern age. Bauhaus Spirit profiles a number of these Bauhaus-inspired creators who apply Bauhaus principles into their work, in fields as diverse as architecture, interior design, public transit, dance, and even computer-generated art. There is also a sense that the documentary, itself, tries to be a Bauhaus product, through its many cinematographically composed shots and its interesting use of diegetic music in its soundtrack (e.g. muffling it as a person closes the door behind them).

Bauhaus Spirit ebbs and flows in tandem with the coherence of its profiled practitioners. At its height, the documentary manages to frame the work of one of its subjects that enables us to see the connections between it and Bauhaus. The work done by a team who went to Medellin, Colombia, to build escalators to connect hitherto hard-to-access parts of a barrio, is one such case in which we can kind of understand how the project might have been informed by a sort of Bauhaus-inspired notion of form-function unity acting in service of social empowerment.

But in other respects, the documentary’s untrammelled reliance on its subjects to sell the subject matter doesn’t come through with as much clarity. The dude creating algorithm-driven emanations on his computer, or the ramblings of some other person droning on soporifically while randomly placing blocks on top of each other – these are moments where the documentary seems to lose the plot even as it tries to reach towards profundity.

All in all, this could do with a bit more curation and a better sense of an overall narrative, instead of the many-discrete projects approach. Although in one respect I’m grateful to the documentary for its free-wheeling whimsy – for introducing me to Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer’s amazing and inestimable Triadisches Ballet.

I give this: 3 out of 5 building blocks

The Kleptocrats

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An entertaining but incomplete lowdown of a larcenous tale so far-fetched that it seems the stuff of fiction.

What does an Oscar-nominated film featuring Hollywood A-Listers about a corrupt investment banker have to do with the downfall of the Prime Minister of Malaysia at the polls? Quite a bit, it seems. The Kleptocrats traces the bizarre threads that weave a tale of a vast and protracted saga of corruption and venality. In its centre, there is the enigmatic Jho Low, a rotund and shiny-faced billionaire financier and party animal whose bacchanal parties are the stuff of legend in the well-heeled Hollywood set. With Najib’s involvement, Jho Low embezzled billions of dollars from the Malaysian state-owned investment fund, 1MDB, and used the money to finance film studios and throw lavish Vegas parties. But corruption on such a large scale soon attracted inevitable attention from investigative journalists and law enforcement agencies, which soon discovered the rot and set to taking down Jho Low and his cronies. On the other side of the world, the Malaysian body politic rose up against the breathtaking venality of Najib and, led by the phoenix-like Mahathir, ousted him from power.

It’s quite the story, and there is a sort of filmic quality to it that will undoubtedly one day lend itself to a smashing fictional adaptation. The documentary pulls in as much information as was available at the time of production, to construct as complete a picture as possible – one that takes in both the viewpoints of investigative journalists, civil organisers on the streets of KL, and even Najib’s brother, who says all the right things on camera. All these perspectives together paint a fascinating and disquieting portrait of the depth to which human greed is capable of descending.

But at its core, The Kleptocrats doesn’t have the full picture, since the story is live. Najib and 1MDB are still undergoing investigation, and it is unclear what exactly their role in all this was, only how they benefited – and benefit they did, to the tune of $300 million in seized assets. Jho Low, himself, is still at large – said to be traveling in style around China – and we can only guess as to the source of his voracity. Is it a greed borne out of ambition? Inadequacy? The need to be loved and respected? These motivations remain a mystery. And what of the celebrities that benefited from the money of Jho Low – Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese? Did they knowingly take dirty money, or were they strung along too, like everyone else, not questioning the source of Low’s largesse?

The documentary provides suppositions, but in the absence of evidence, they constitute winks and nudges and an attempt to paint a certain narrative. And like everything of this ilk, the viewer must exercise caution not to go down a certain conceptual frame prematurely, before the jury is out beyond the walls of the documentary.

Nonetheless, The Kleptocrats is a compelling chronicle, one that truly basks in the overwhelming drama of it subject matter. Perhaps an example of the Shakespearean lyricism of the tale: the documentary compares Jho Low to Jordan Belfort, the high-living, coke-snorting, protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that Low himself financed. One wonders what Low must have thought when he saw the film for himself. Did he see himself in Belfort? Did he take heed of the films’ denouement? Or did he think to himself that he was different, and king of his own private empire of parties and people that were drawn to him by the universal currency of wealth?

I give this: 4 out of 5 bottles of Dom Perignon 

 

 

The Chef Show (Volume #2)

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This is just more of the same, really.

Volume 2 of The Chef Show is really just part two of the rhapsodic dining duo of Favreau and Choi slumming it with their celeb bros (and they’re almost all bros) in various cities around the continental United States. If that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat and you liked the first season (which I did, in a low-key kind of way), the second season offers a comparable bounty for the soul, and agreeable fodder for one of those “watch while you’re doing something else” sessions that are so endemic to our frenetic, Huel-chugging late capitalism lifestyle.

Memorable moments from watching this season include me serendipitously being in Los Angeles at the day of its release and eating at the same hipster taqueria that Favreau and Choi went to (Guerrilla Tacos in the Arts District) before enough time had passed, and traction gained, for the joint to be flooded by flocks of Favreau-worshipping celebrants in search of overpriced, high-concept texmex grub.

Another particularly worthy episode was the one where Favreau, who is currently Crown Prince of can-do-no-wrong in the Disney Empire and creator of the upcoming The Mandalorian, heads to Skywalker Ranch in Marin Country to cook a bevy of (entirely Star Wars-unrelated) dishes using locally grown ingredients with Dave Filoni of Clone Wars fame. While it was sad that no blue milk was conceived (Babish, looking at you), the galactic confluence of so many of the totem poles of SW geekdom in one place almost caused a hyperspace anomaly to lance brilliantly through the cold, dead cockles of this former SW fan’s heart.

That said, though, the series does ends off in a bit of a bummer – with a cringeworthy extra helping of Babish, who basically gets steamrolled over by Roy Choi’s barely-disguised contempt at this upstart Youtuber cooking amateur and Jon Favreau’s paggro commentary at the interloper in his precious buddy time with bestie Choi. Babish, himself, appears to understand his place in the scheme of things and barely talks, leading to a most awkward situation where he’s just bumming around the kitchen trying and failing to be useful to the other two who are too cool for his school. The second half of that episode is extra helpings with David Chang, whose culinary bona fides and lack of a brain-to-mouth filter stand in start and voluble contrast to Babish’s shrinking violet rendition. It perhaps just goes to show that having and hosting a successful Youtube show is one thing, but to make it to the big leagues of Netflix, you need Ugly Delicious levels of I-don’t-give-a-shit screen charisma.

I give this: 4 out of 5 hangtown fries

Zombieland Saga (Season #1)

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Never have I been happier to have indulged in a moment of idle curiosity.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a show like Zombie Land Saga, with its idol bona-fides. But it appeared on so many ‘best-of’ lists, featured such a head-turning plot hook, and was featured so prominently on my Netflix recommendation queue that I was compelled by my reptilian hindbrain to click on it to see what the fuss was about. And boy, am I glad I did.

Zombie Land Saga, abbreviated ZLS, is a comedy about undead idols that knows exactly how to maximise its ridiculous conceit. In 2008, protagonist and aspiring idol Sakura Minamoto runs out of her house and is killed by a speeding truck. Ten years later, she awakens in a creepy old house and finds that not only is she undead, she’s also lost all memory of her previous existence. It turns out that a mysterious and utterly unhinged idol producer, Kotaro Tatsumi, has reanimated her and a bunch of other legendary girls from various time periods in Japan to form an idol group…for the sole purpose of saving a depopulating, declining Saga prefecture.

The great thing about ZLS is how it melds its various disparate parts into a cohesive franken-whole of a show that is at turns zanily comical, shockingly heartfelt, and self-aware yet earnestly passionate about its idol subject matter. It may feature a bunch of girls coming into their own as the idol group Franchouchou, but it’s so much more than just a bog-standard idol show.

A big part of it is the fact that they’re zombies – a plot hook that provides a much-appreciated source of humorous tension in seeing them perform their idol-ish duties while trying to hide the fact that they’re actually undead. It also provides for some great visual comedy, like their heads falling off at the most inopportune moments, or one character’s undead heart literally beating out of her chest. But there is also an element of the parodic. Some might call the whole zombie conceit a sly elbow-ribbing at the oft-criticised idol industry in Japan – an insinuation that idols are worked halfway to death. That they are zombies is also a subversion of the notion that idols should be pure and perfect – conversely, zombies are the very personification of corruption and decay.

But where the show really shines is how it takes that zombie hook to its thematic and emotional ends. The mechanics of how the girls become zombies is not explained, but what is slowly revealed over the course of the show is how they lived – and how they died, leaving behind people they loved and cared for. The show explores how the idols reconcile their pasts with their present with a humor-tinged gracefulness that is surprising for a show that often relies on absurdist slapstick as a source of (admittedly well-deserved) laughs. And in the process, these characters are filled out in broad-painted, yet expressive, strokes that have endeared them to their audience. I’ll admit there were moments in the show where a speck of dirt in my eye caused my vision to water a little.

ZLS may take unfettered joy in parodizing the idol industry, but it’s clear that it sees idols as a force for good – and how could it not, as a show about idols? It sounds cliche, but ZLS’ thesis is that there is no problem, no challenge that can’t be defeated by a bit of coordinated song and dance to the tune of some catchy J-Pop or J-Rock melody. The music and dance peddled by idols in Japan have the power to entertain and brighten peoples’ days, even if idols are often driven to the brink to be able to deliver that seamless, glittering package to their audience.

And speaking of the music – many of the songs produced for ZLS are actually really good – from the sentai-esque opening song, Adabana Necromancy, to the J-Rock inflected Tokkou Dance and a rap battle delivered to the surprisingly sick beat of a koto. ZLS’ musical influences are as eclectic as its zombie characters, and some of the songs have pride of place on my Spotify playlist.

Over the course of twelve episodes, the audience – both fictional and real – watches Franchouchou develop from a bunch of underad misfits to a cohesive and tight-knit collective of (undead) people who have internalised a powerful sense of mission to deliver joy to their fans. It’s a powerful and well-executed narrative arc that has no doubt contributed to the show’s massive commercial success, and sparked a wave of anime tourism to Saga that, while not quite saving it, has actually led to a decent uptick in tourist revenue to the region, due to its aggressive showcasing of Saga’s attractions – such as the famous Drive-In Tori yakitori restaurant and the mud-frolicking Gatalympics. How many shows can be said to have broken the fourth wall like that?

In short, ZLS is a surprise breakout and one of the most hilariously heartfelt anime series I’ve watched in a long while. I look forward to what the upcoming second season has to offer, especially after that banger of a sequel hook in the last episode.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 mikes

 

 

Tokyo Godfathers

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Tokyo Godfathers abounds with the warm-fireplace cheer you’d expect of a holiday movie, but its coincidence-heavy plot feels much too unrealistically optimistic to make me believe in its particular brand of Christmas magic.

Tokyo Godfathers stands out in the late, great Satoshi Kon’s oeuvre as the most grounded, least reality-bending, and most heartwarming of his feature films by a country mile. On Christmas Eve in Tokyo, three homeless people – alcoholic vagrant Gin, former drag queen Hana, and teenage runaway Miyuki – find an abandoned baby in a dumpster, with only a few scattered clues as to where she may have come from. Nicknaming the infant Kiyoko, they set out on a quest across Tokyo to return the baby back to her parents. Their journey will involve all manner of bizarre and interlinked adventures and, in the process, help the three vagrants come to terms with their own respective stories, as well as teach them the meaning of family.

Tokyo Godfathers is the quintessential Christmas film, insofar as it underscores the importance of human warmth and kinship in the face of a cold winter’s night. But there is a small variation on the usual formula, because the people to whom it teaches this lesson are not members of some middle-class WASP family, but a trio of misfits who first wind up together by happenstance and necessity but end up forging a kind of family through the process of overcoming adversity. In a sense, it feels like a spiritual predecessor to such films as Shoplifters, in which kizuna – the ties that bind – are depicted as being able to exist outside of conventional family structures – and in some ways, surpass them in their genuineness and intensity.

And the film is great at communicating that thematic essence through its compassionate portrayal of its misfit characters. The film doesn’t shy away from the foibles that have caused them to end up living in such marginal circumstances – but it doesn’t detract from their basic dignity as people. Even the portrayal of Hana is, in my (admittedly limited) view, handled well enough – although she’s portrayed as a bit of a diva, her status as a trans person is not rendered a source of mean-spirited humor. There is even a kind of sad, wistful sweetness in Hana seeing the baby as a chance to exercise the kind of maternal behavior that she had been denied by the circumstances of her biology. Juxtapose the essential warmth and humanity of characters like Hana against the cold, wintry, tight-bundled urbanity of Tokyo in December and we have the rudiments of the modern Christmas film a la Die Hard.

But where Tokyo Godfathers falters somewhat, in my view, is in how it overly plays up the notion that merely grasping the meaning of Christmas will lead to good ends. It does this by positing the entire plot as a series of bizarre coincidences that essentially end with them neatly resolving their own stories. It’s in keeping with the theme that everyone should have a happy ending, of course, but in Tokyo Godfathers, the plot contrivances come so often and so blatantly that it kind of wrecks suspension of disbelief, especially in the earlier parts of the film, when the characters have not learned enough of the Christmas spirit to have earned the kind of ‘grace’ commensurate to the extent to which they benefit from the film’s coincidences.

The contrivances also give the plot a kind of overheated feeling – so many things happen and with such density that it was at some points slightly difficult to figure out what was going on. In that sense, at least, the dense plotting of Tokyo Godfathers bears the stamp of a Satoshi Kon movie.

Ultimately, by the film’s end, amidst the warm and cosy afterglow of its emotional climax, left with the nagging sense that perhaps these characters’ happy endings came a bit too freely and easily, even for a Christmas film. Perhaps, to a more religiously minded person, that grace could have been attributed to the film-universe version of God or the Christmas Spirit. But to me, the heavy directorial hand is an implacable dampener on the film’s Christmas bona fides.

I give this film: 3.5/5 lottery tickets

The Cat Rescuers

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A wonderfully understated and, at times, bracingly honest glimpse into the lives of a community of cat lovers in Brooklyn.

The Cat Rescuers is a documentary about people who love cats to the point of willingly devoting large parts of their lives to their care. And in Brooklyn, where untold multitudes of abandoned and feral cats live marginal and precarious lives on the streets, these people have their work cut out for them.

There’s Sassee, a claims investigator who spends her weekends staking out known cat congregation areas to trap at-risk cats to send them for neutering, before releasing them back into the wild. It’s an important part of the strategy to improve the lives of street cats by humanely reducing their numbers. And then there’s Tara, who operates a kind of halfway house for stray cats rescued off the streets, while finding forever homes for them. There are others, but the documentary focuses most on these two.

Like all great documentaries, The Cat Rescuers lets its subjects speak with their own voices. Through their testimonies, we get a powerful, yet not overly narrativized, sense of what motivates them to do the things they do despite the challenges they face. In short, we come to know them as people. Sassee, a single mother whose own father ran out on her family when she was a kid, approaches life with a kind of tough, platitude-laden humor that both entertains and endears. We get the sense that her concern for the cats is just an inevitable consequence of the kind of person she is, shaped in complex ways by her upbringing and social circumstances. Tara’s own story takes on more of a thematic significance – by her own testimony, her love for cats is a kind of obsession that supplanted a much less healthy crack addiction when she was younger. So on and so forth.

For those expecting a deluge of cute cat moments – be warned: the cats themselves – these stray victims of their own fecundity – are surprisingly not the focus of the show’s emotional impact. They’re more the beneficiaries of a very human grace – the special, proprietary kindness that people accord to those not of their own kind. Ultimately, it is the human interest angle, so understatedly depicted by this documentary, that keeps us invested.

I give this: 4 out of 5 TNR cages