Archive for January, 2008

She’s Got Moxy! New Surge in Alternative Medicine?

Kampō is the Japanese adaptation and re-invention of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides herbs and acupuncture, kampō includes the art of moxibustion to help treat pain, stiffness, and other ailments.

“moxa” use is making a comeback among younger Japanese, with updated packaging for the next generation.

With the do-it-yourself kind of moxa, the instructions are simple. You peel off the adhesive pad, light the other end (which looks like a fat, squat incense stick and comes in different scents of dried mugwort) and place the heated circle on the part of your body that requires energy flow or circulation. The dried mugwort — which sounds like something Harry Potter would use in herbology class — burns right above your skin, “triggering natural healing responses in the body.” Like acupuncture, it pinpoints a specific area of the body. Unlike acupuncture, it warms your skin and muscles and releases healing herbs to boot.

At first I thought moxa looked like a silly trend, like “hot stone therapy” or cupping from the days of Gwyneth Paltrow’s tabloid dominance:

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Turns out she stole it from Eastern medicine, too! Maybe there’s something to it…

You’ll never get me to try magnet therapy, though.

Sarah S.

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January 28, 2008 at 8:34 am 1 comment

Manga and the Cloverfield Monster

Viral marketing made J.J. Abrams’s film Cloverfield a box office hit, and after I caught wind of a manga prequel to Cloverfield, exclusive to Japanese audiences, I know it’s bound to get bigger.

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The movie has been described as your classic monster thriller, seemingly shot from a Handicam a la “Blair Witch Project.” (Prepare a barf bag.) It’s a love-it-or-hate-it genre. After all, we have Godzilla and we already know the hero will survive while businessman #2 and #3 will suffer a gruesome death, either A) struck by a falling taxi cab or B) flattened by the big dude himself. So why bother, right?

But then a friend tells me about this rumored prequel. I go to the Kadokawa manga company website which has a link to the online story. I’m used to reading manga with two sweaty hands clenched over my lap so it was hard getting used to clicking pages and zooming over text. But the story proved fascinating. It revealed a sad story of a Japanese boy wanting to give up on life. His mother is dead and he’s the constant target of bullies. The illustrator hints at a correlation between this boy and the monster. A boy turning into a monster? But how?

When Cloverfield’s mysteriously short but silly trailer came out last summer followed by word of Abrams as its producer, I admit, I was perplexed. Abrams is a genius at intricate storytelling. Why this? Now I’m starting to understand.

The manga is a four-part series and so far only one has been released. The next one comes out in February. I’m looking forward to unraveling the mystery. J.J. Abrams is a master of suspense. I just hope Sprite isn’t involved.

Himawari

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January 23, 2008 at 10:03 am 2 comments

Murakami at MOCA: Subversive or Commercial?

I finally got a chance to visit the Takashi Murakami pop art exhibit at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Los Angeles. This was no ordinary museum visit full of staid paintings; installations ranged from statues of risqué anime figures representing the absurdness of otaku culture to large, colorful mushrooms with hundreds of eyes. There were also enormous balloons, eerily mesmerizing wallpaper, wall-sized acrylic paintings and a Louis Vuitton store on the second floor of the warehouse! (Murakami designed the company’s logo and asked to keep the rights to it. For half a million dollars, wealthier patrons of the arts can leave the show with a suitcase full of designer handbags.)

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From room to room the same motifs appeared but in vastly different contexts. Kaikai Kiki (which means cute/bizarre) and DOB the mouse (who looks like a dark, scary Mickey Mouse sporting acres of razor sharp teeth) evoked contradictory emotions, from sweet to disturbing. Flowers with wide smiles seemed innocuous if overly happy at first but grew to encompass a sort of madness later on. There were also modern updates of Nihonga-style Japanese paintings.

According to my tour guide, Murakami spent eleven years in art school, earning every degree under the sun including a P.h.D, but never felt confident about his own drawing abilities.

Today he believes in mass production. He prefers to design on computer the images he wants and then outsource the creation of paintings and sculpture to his employees. Savvy to the possibility of making real money from his efforts, he developed a brand name right off the bat, both as a way of subverting trademarks and of becoming one himself.

The last room on the Murakami tour was devoted to merchandise and T-shirts, but curiously, none of those pieces were available at the gift shop. Oh well, it was still fun to look.

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The show runs through February 11th at the Geffen Contemporary branch of MOCA in Little Tokyo.

Sarah S.

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January 17, 2008 at 9:27 am 8 comments

Japanese New Year

At the stroke of midnight into the new year everyone across Japan turns to each other and says…

あけましておめでとうございます。(Happy New Year!)
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.

Followed by…

今年もよろしくお願いします。
Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

That’s a little harder to translate but it’s akin to “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” – a kind of camaraderie you verbalize with people when you first meet, and again at the start of the new year. It’s not as warm as a big hug and kiss, but these two phrases carry a lot of weight on the esprit de corp scale.

I said these phrases to my grandma on January 1 as she handed me a plate of beans, another Japanese New Year tradition. The sweet, black legumes are regarded as a force of good (not evil) and you’re supposed to eat one for every year you’ve been alive. Pink and white fishcakes and soft-boiled vegetables are other fortuitous items. Who knows what’ll happen if you don’t eat them? I sure don’t, but I’m not willing to find out.

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And an even better tradition than eating is receiving money envelopes from elders, which can contain anywhere from a quarter to a couple hundred dollars. I look forward to getting them but as I get older I realize I should eventually switch from receiving them to giving them. Eventually…

It’s still cold outside so I hope everyone bundles up and sips hot chocolate in front of a crackling fire. Have a tangerine while you’re at it. That’s a Japanese tradition as well.

Himawari

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January 14, 2008 at 8:50 am

Birds of Prey Ring in the New Year

On January 2nd and 3rd in Minato-ku, Tokyo, as part of an annual New Year’s tradition called Hoyojutsu Jitsuen, there was a cultural demonstration of falconry, in which beautiful, majestic goshawks show how they catch prey.

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In this video (from November), large birds swoop low to the ground from trainer to trainer. Check out the windmill action as one of the trainers (or falconers) flings a tempting treat sky high for the hawk to catch. The birds move so fast that for a brief, horrifying moment, I thought the guy was throwing the hawk into the air after violently swinging it in a circle.


A leisure sport with military roots, Japanese falconry (takagari) dates back to the 6th century, where it was viewed as a status symbol and reserved for emperors and other nobility. Besides being dangerous, it was also extremely expensive, since it’s a pretty pointless exercise unless you have a lot of land! Takagari reached its peak popularity in the Edo period (1603-1868), but even today there are still falconry schools that claim to teach traditional methods.

Sarah S.

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January 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

Love Hotels: Japan’s Home Away From Home

A couple years back I found myself testing out the mattress of one of Japan’s notorious love hotels. I wasn’t exactly bouncing on the bed. It was more like checking for stains, wet spots and, heaven-forbid, curly hairs. I was there with my little brother, and before you jump to conclusions, know that we were there because it was the only place in Tokyo with an opening at a half past midnight. We were on a low-budget vacation and I’d foolishly assumed we could crash at a friend’s apartment. Next thing I knew, that friend was dropping us off at Hotel Cupid.

Among Japan’s densely packed households, love hotels serve an integral purpose of allowing couples time away from the rest of the world. High rent and free meals compel most single adults into their 30s to live with parents. So when they finally meet that dream guy/girl, love hotels become their home away from home.

The registration counter resembles the bulletproof kiosk of a gas station with window plastered in paper so you can’t put a face to the attendant’s voice. After you select a room – images are posted on a wall – you exchange your money for keys and head upstairs. You can either pay by the hour or pay for the night which amounts to no more than a luxurious night at Motel 6.

Our room came with its own Vegas slot machine (in case we really wanted to get lucky?), Jacuzzi bathtub and porn TV. Bathroom amenities included various creams and lubricants. Flavored condoms were undoubtedly sold separately in the hallway next to the soda machine. And though I’m sure most other love hotels smell of perfume and roses, ours room reeked of passion-laced funk. That’s why at 1 a.m. my brother and I were doing a thorough inspection of the place; lifting sheets, the mattress, the bed itself. I wrapped a bath towel over my pajamas just to be on the safe side.

Love hotels join the ranks of perverted oddities that make Japan such an interesting place to foreigners, and although I assumed it was used exclusively by two-timers and prostitutes, the more friends I made in Japan the more I realized it was far from that. It’s just a room with sound-resistant walls. And it’s located miles away from your mother.

Himawari

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January 8, 2008 at 9:04 am 1 comment

Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? U.S. Remakes of Asian Films Are a Mixed Blessing

 

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One of my favorite foreign films is “Shall We Dance?” (1996), a small, slice-of-life story about a Japanese salaryman who secretly takes ballroom dancing lessons but has to hide his hobby from everyone in his life, especially his co-workers and spouse. It was critically acclaimed and won the Japanese version of an Academy Award. My friends couldn’t understand why I was so upset when I heard it was going to be remade in 2004 for the U.S. market, starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon.

“There’s no way the central conflict will be convincing in a U.S. remake!” I insisted. “The subtleties of the original won’t translate.”

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Here’s what film critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said: “Miscast, misguided and woefully misbegotten, this clumsy American remake of the deftly delicate sleeper hit from Japan is too blah to bludgeon.”

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On the other hand, remakes of Asian horror films have fared quite well. I loved “The Ring” (from Japan’s “Ringu”) and “The Grudge” (a remake of Japan’s “Ju-On”, with the same director) and both were huge hits with sequels in the U.S.

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The trend continues in 2008. First up is “One Missed Call” (tonight) starring Edward Burns and Shannyn Sossamon. It’s a remake of the 2003 Japanese film “Chakushin Ari” in which voice mails from the future reveal the dates, times, and circumstances of people’s deaths.

Next is “The Eye” (February 1st) starring Jessica Alba. In this remake of the Hong Kong movie “Jian Gui”, a young blind woman’s cornea implants come with a terrifying side effect: she can see ghosts.

Not to be outdone, Sarah Michelle Gellar will return in “Possession,” (February 29th) a remake of a Korean thriller called “Jungdok.” Gellar plays a wife whose husband dies but seemingly returns to her in the body of his brother.

Next time you find yourself re-arranging your Netflix queue or actually browsing titles at a rental store (I admit I do both) consider picking up an original Japanese film with subtitles. That way, when the remake comes out, you can tell all your friends you saw it first.

Sarah S.

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January 4, 2008 at 9:08 am

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