Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life Out of Balance

Think I'll grab a bite to...
The one-month anniversary of the Tohoku quake passed a few days ago. It's hard to believe how much has gone down and how much has changed in the short period of time since the quake hit. In Tokyo, trains are less frequent, meaning the overcrowding has worsened, food and drinks, while plentiful (although as you can see from the photo on the left, shelves have been bare), are not as varied and their prices appear to be rising, and its common to see signs saying "1 per person" next to things like water, milk and bread. 

And the darkness...

I can't read my cellphone!
It's as if we went from being one of the brightest cities in the world to one of the darkest. These days, with lights dimmed or off to not overstrain electric generators, Tokyo feels like one of those dreams in which you're walking through a familiar area yet something is not quit right, something is inexplicably different. 

Train rides are the most disconcerting. Lights are kept off when over ground, meaning if a train gets crowded it gets extremely dark inside. Signs that were once backlit are off, making them impossible to read until you are up close. And with all the aftershocks, if you want to travel anywhere it's best to consider that train service could come to a halt at any moment, which has happened to me several times so far. 

Hope I can get a seat...
Sure, while all of this is certainly non-life threatening, it all adds up to an off-kilter feeling.

In the days following the quake there was, understandably, a lot of confusion. When the Fukushima power plant blew its lid, things went from bad to worse. The government and the TEPCO officials in charge offered little more than reassurances and excuses. Few hardcore facts were given. And the word "seems" framed everything. 

Osaka... A lot of people here.
Worse was having to listen to smug scientists (the ones who built and approved the Fukushima plant despite it being an extremely poor location with a proven history of incidents like that of 3/11) on NHK talk as if this was all some sort of experiment in statistical improbability and not a real event affecting peoples lives. As much as the non-Japanese press was criticized for over-reacting, I was annoyed at the domestic press for underplaying everything.

Osaka women
Like a lot of people, I have a family. And like most non-Japanese, my family doesn't live in Japan. They wanted me out of Japan and back home. I balked. But I came up with a compromise: Go to Osaka, a city I lived in for 7 years and where I still have supportive friends. I figured I'd wait there for some real information and then, depending on what emerged, either return to Tokyo or leave Japan. As for work, everything I was doing was canceled. (In fact, I basically lost a 1/2 month of income as a result of the quake.)

The bullet train was a madhouse of people fleeing Tokyo. While some have made a big deal about the many non-Japanese that left Japan (ironic, as Japanese have a long history of doing the same when a crisis occurs in a foreign country), the long line for tickets and the seats on the train were filled by Japanese families getting out of the Kanto region (the area around Tokyo).

Macha at Nanzen-ji
As much as I thought I wouldn't have a good time in Osaka, I had a wonderful time. My buddy Matt Kaufman hooked me up in an inexpensive guesthouse run by a down-to-earth young man who did his best to make me feel at home. I spent the time revisiting old haunts from when I lived there in the 90s and met up with my good friend Michio for a fantastic night of catching up. All in all, I was able to reconnect with my 'Osaka roots' and was reminded that while the town might be a little crass, Osaka is an area with a rich, vibrant history and her citizens are a lot more friendly and outgoing than their Tokyo counterparts.

Dare ye enter... Tenjuan.
After the type of radiation being released from Fukushima became known, and at what levels, and with my family less panicked, I was ready to return to Tokyo a few days later. But not without a stop over in Kyoto, my favorite city in all of Japan!

After dropping my bags off at Kyoto Station, I took a bus to the Higashi-yama area, which has always been my favorite part of Kyoto. Starting with a cup of macha (green tea) at Nanzen-ji temple, I made my way up Tetsugaku no Michi (Path of Philosophy), stopping at Nanzen-in, Chio-in, Honnin-in and, my personal favorite spot in Kyoto, Tenjuan. Although eleven-years since I was last there, not a thing has changed at Tenjuan. That amazing garden and the nifty pond in the back. It was like I'd never left. 

A walk down Tetsugaku no Michi.
Weather-wise, I couldn't have asked for a better day either. Cloudless and cool, I strolled along the cobblestones of Tetsugaku no Michi, eyed with envy the adorable homes in the area, and enjoyed the pleasing sounds of the water rushing beside the slender streets.

My good buddy Erik, also laying low in the Kansai region, joined me for part of my Kyoto day trip. We had a marvelous moment sitting outdoors at a cafe in front of Tetsugaku no Michi, having coffee and sandwiches, and discussing how the events of the month will effect our lives for the coming years. After the sun set (if you've never seen one of Kyoto's brilliant sunsets then you really haven't been to Japan), I was on the bullet train heading back to Tokyo ready to face whatever was to come.

To hell with the quake!
One of the first things up upon my return was a party organized by filmmaker friends. About 30 of us – actors, directors, cameramen, stunt performers, models, etc – met in Shinjuku to raise our collective middle finger to the quake by getting drunk and reaffirming our commitment to the filmmaking craft.

As expected, I had a blast. A real blast. I spent much of the time huddled with my buddies Nishimura, Marc, Alex, Cay, Kazuno, Nishina, Asami and Nakoshi.  One of the highlights of the night was me demanding tequila, Nishina getting two bottles, and Nishimura making us drink it out of ashtrays. He dubbed it "Ebizo style," referring to bad-boy Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo. I made a lot of new friends this evening and went home thankful that I'd made the decision to remain in Tokyo.

What are friends for?
A few days later, just when my hangover had dissipated, it was director Nishimura's birthday. Once again, another party was called to order, this time consisting of those of us who have worked on his films. Many of the staff and cast of his productions where there to wish the one-of-a-kind filmmaker best on his birthday.

Though not as insane as the previous party, it was loads of fun. I hung with buddies Chiba and Emico from Nikkatsu, director Iguchi, Nanae and cute as a button actresses Yumemi and Naoi. The surprise of the evening was the unpredictable Nakoshi and some kind of a cream cheese cake she made. I managed to survive a slice to no ill effect.

Make room for the tequila!
A few days later, I attended a press screening of Shusuke Kaneko's new film "Pole Dancing Boys," which I spent a day on the set of a few months back. Last summer, I introduced Kaneko to my friend Cay Izumi, who is not only an actress (Mutant Girls Squad, Helldriver, Yakuza Weapon), but is also a high profile pole dancer in Tokyo. Call it typecasting, but he cast her in the pivotal role of a woman who teaches the idol boys in the film how to pole dance. I went to the screening with Cay and afterward we joined director Kaneko and three of the film's actresses for dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Ginza where we drank expensive wine and ate great pizza. Another truly fun day.

Birthday boy.
I also managed to put in some cherry blossom viewing. The first was with a group of filmmaker buddies from Yubari Film Festival. Although I didn't go this year, my work was well represented. I subbed several films that screened and acted in two. Considering the quake, I almost wish now that I had gone this year! The next cherry blossom viewing was a week later with a walk through Yoyogi Park at the absolute height of the season. I don't think I've ever seen so many people at one time in my life. Both were lots of fun and pretty much just what the doctor ordered, all things considered.

One thing I'm happy to announce is that I've decided to make a new short film. I'm getting sick of waiting for financing to come through for a film proposal I have out there, and with the quake having a negative affect on the business, I can't expect anything to materialize as fast as I'd like. Also, I've had a few short film projects aborted because of the usual flaky people you meet in this field. The biggest danger to filmmaking on the semi-pro level is getting involved with people with good intentions yet no clear idea of the massive effort and the risk involved in making film. So, I am raring to do something.

The cool table.
As of this writing, I'm very much in the scripting stage of this new film. I have my lead actress picked out, too, an incredibly lovely and talented young woman I met last year at the premiere of a film she starred in. We've come to be good friends and have an equally good rapport going. I've caught all her stage performances over the past year too and am really excited to work with such a quality actress. In fact, I saw her latest play just this past weekend and enjoyed her performance very much. This week she finished photography on a new photo book that she tells me will be selling next month.

After "Pole Dancing Boys."
That she loves and wants to be in "extreme cinema" is a total plus as well. This is good because while many of my previous scripts dealt with inhibited people trapped in dysfunctional social systems this is no longer the case with my work. Where once I felt great sympathy over the sensitive percentage of the human populace, more and more it's become clear that those of us who appear to be highly sensitive are simply sensitive to their own plight, that their depression over the state of things is simply depression over their position. Seemingly selfless, they are entirely selfish, and worse, they are egotistical in their belief that somehow they alone are attuned to the horrors of the world. It's a fine line, but great confusion exists between the terms 'sympathy' and 'empathy.' Empathy is the highest human emotion there is. It's also, unfortunately, the rarest.

Not sure what my point is other than to say that I'm interested in making films that say nothing more than what you see on screen at any one moment, as this seems to be how it is in real life. Literature and poetry are great artistic abstractions where thinkers can ponder life from a higher POV that they can then sell to educated rich people seeking to alleviate guilty feelings over their fortune. Me? As a lover of genre films, I'd rather make stories about people dealing with fantastic, blood thirsty alien creatures, tales of people getting ice picks smashed through their brains, or bizarre examples of human sexuality than produce fodder for the leisure class and the so-called sensitive.

Until the next time...

Keep the fire burning...


  1. Mr. Norman England,

    Do you know me?
    I'm Misaty live in Kamakura.