Sometimes all you need is seven songs to make a mark. Hiromi Kanda titled her new album ‘Seven Elegant Ballads,’ and it’s not false advertising. It only takes a second to impress me (or not) and I definitely was enamored by her voice quickly. She sings these seven songs (five standards and two originals) with soulful honesty that you cannot help but be taken by her music right away. Her husband, Yusuke Hoguchi has crafted classic arrangement that showcase these songs and her voice impeccably. And that voice – so fully soulful that you know she knows she feels every lyric of these songs even though (I assume) that English is not her first language. Emotion really is universal, it seems. I like that her ‘Smile’ is not too melancholy – there is an uplifting message in her version. And ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ sounds like a song you hear as you look into a big moon. Surprisingly, I even like the originals – ‘Days of Yesterday’ is a pleasant surprise (I read it was a hit for her years ago) Don’t sleep on these seven ballads.
Well, look at me. I was just bemoaning that there isn’t much to see nowadays, and we are in the doldrums of movie releases, when I see a film that is so good that it has invigorated my interest in seeing more films. Hikari’s ’37 Seconds’ is now streaming on Netflix and I cannot think of a better film to watch right this very minute.
The film is about Yuma (Mei Kayama) who is twenty three years old, and is suffering from cerebral palsy. She is mostly confined in a wheelchair, but she can use her upper body, and is in fact working as a manga illustrator, blind ghosting her cousin’s content. She knows her limitations in life, but yearns for more, and this movie explores her journey, and is a unique coming-of-age film, one that humanizes disabled people.
Yuma is stifled by her overbearing and overprotective mom, and the interesting dynamic when it seems like the mother feels emotionally dependent in her child. When Yuma tries to hawk her art to an adult manga company, she is told that her work is impressive, except for the sex scenes, which do not feel authentic. This sets off Yuma in an exploratory journey, which leads her to an experience that not only makes her know herself better, but physically takes her to Thailand.
The film takes a slower pace than usual so you have to be a little patient with it, but when ti does get moving, you will feel instantly engrossed. This is a frank film with adult themes, but it never felt salacious. You won’t be able to resist identifying with Yuma, and when she gets her revelation in the end, I was solely with her, copious tears and all. This is an emotional film that will get you to feel, and feel you must.
Saw two films recently that have very similar themes that come from different countries and I thought, relationship themes are all really universal.
From Spain comes ‘Al Oleo.’ Directed by Pablo Lavado, is a story of a young woman, Maria (Sarah Benavente) who comes home to her family estate and finds that things have not changed since she left it, and makes herself the conduit for things to change for her father and brother. This is one of those movies wherein you just feel like you are observing. There are different family dynamics in these relationships and you see the societal boundaries that prevent the characters from expressing themselves. This was billed as somewhat of a gay film, but that part is subtle – it brews but never comes to a complete boil. It’s there, though – her brother is in love with a straight guy whose wife is having a baby – and I like the fact that it gives a glimpse of how Spanish culture looks at homosexuality, that seemingly sex between two men can be casual and laissez faire. The film all in all is a little slight, but depth can be mined.
There is a lot more complexity in ‘Athlete:Ore ga kari ni obereta hibi,’ which comes from Japan. Directed by Oe Takamasa, it is a story of a man (Joe Nakamura) who is a frustrated swimmer. After his wife leaves him for another man, he wanders into the Tokyo gay district and meets Yutaka (Yohdi Kondo) and falls in love with him, which startles even him. But Yutaka has bigger dreams, like going to animation school in France. I liked this film a lot, and appreciated the tender touch it gave to the story. I felt that two characters fell in love with each other, and Nakamura gives a raw performance. I found it curious that Yutaka looked Korean, perhaps because now all over Asia, the ‘Korean look’ is the new standard of beauty. This film is a lot more meaty than the previous one, and perhaps that’s why I preferred it more.
All in all, I found both films interesting, more for the cultural differences and similarities that are shown.
I was at Luckyscent in search of when this new (to me) line caught my eye – J Scent. I joked, ‘is this perfume for Jewish people?’ but then I realized the J stands for Japan.
This is from their website:
” J-Scent perfumes are created with the theme of traditional Japanese fragrances.
This brand of perfume selects traditionally Japanese scents and carefully blends them together. Enjoy “Japanese scents” that embody the beauty of Japan and represent its four seasons.”
But then this also caught my eye:
“Not mixing. Blending. In harmony with nature.
It’s not splashing on a perfume to stand out, but wearing the fragrance as part of your daily life.
Naturally. As part of you. This fragrance becomes one with nature, one with your life.”
Okay, they are perhaps a little dramatic in their copy, but I get it as part of the Japanese aesthetic. I was immediately drawn to ‘Roasted Green Tea’ because tea scents always get to me. I sprayed and it was love at first sniff. The first whiff i slightly smoky from the effect of roasting Hojicha tea, but then the slightly sweet and bitter tea accord instantly broke my heart – there’s a certain melancholy feeling here, but it is also sweet, and the floral jasmine heart just gives it ephemeral beauty. The whole thing smells like an artisan ice cream flavor, akin to a Japanese desert. It’s fruity floral, but a specifically exotic one. And the delicious nutty note (I get pistachio) just rounds up the whole thing perfectly.
To be honest, though, the perfume is on the faint side. And it’s appealing price point ($80 for a 50 ml) shows through its very alcohol-ish blast int he beginning. The projection is on the weaker side as well, but I kind of get that. I doubt if the Japanese aesthetic is on the loud side.
But still, love conquers all. I bought a bottle.
‘Ramen Teh,’ just like last year’s mega hit ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ mostly centers around the Asian experience of Chinese people living in Singapore. But just like the ramen soup dish, the story has both Chinese and Japanese elements. Directed by Eric Khoo, the film is about a young man Masato (Takumi Saito) who searches for answers in his familial history. He goes to Singapore because he wants to learn how to cook bak kut teh, but really, he is searching for what happened to his family. His father passed away cold and unhappy, unable to move on from his wife’s early passing. Their family moved from Singapore to Japan when he was young, and he only has his mother’s diary (written in Cantonese, which he doesn’t understand) as a clue. The movie rolls smoothly, with every reveal at the right place, and you cannot help but get engrossed with these characters. It showcases Singapore pretty well, not just the ‘rich areas’ which was the focus of that ‘other’ movie. And foodies will have a field day with the rich and colorful dishes they make here. Your eyes will be inf or a feast.
And I really liked this film a lot. Sure it’s a bit on the sentimental side, but I am a very sentimental dude. I won’t lie that as Masato reminisces about his deceased parents I couldn’t help but think of mine. This is certainly better than ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in representing this specific culture, and I wish this movie reaches even a tenth of that film’s audience. It deserves it.
A lot of times, when we don’t have blood-related family (or when we have problems with them) we build our own families through friends. In Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Shoplifters,’ he gives he definition of family a very different spin. There are a lot of people in this family, and in the beginning, we think they are all related by blood, and then slowly we see, like an onion being peeled, that there is more layers to how this family become one, even as they add a new member to it. At first, I had a little bit of problem with the film, as I really do not like films that show poverty porn, especially in Asian countries (although, admittedly, they are not many from Japan) Ultimately, this film is much more than what it shows, and it has a big beating heart in the middle of it. I know this film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year, and I do think that this is one of those films that would probably benefit from repeated viewings – it is subtle and there’s skin under its skin. I don’t know, honestly, if I got them all in one viewing, and there are times when I felt it was just a bit more self-indulgent that I could take. But I found myself thinking about the film more as I was walking home from seeing it. I found myself asking, ‘what did I just see,’ and then trying to search for answers.
‘Sway,’ by Rooth Tang spins three interwoven tales of Asians all over the world – stories from Bangkok, Paris/ Three different kid of Asian nationalities are at play here – a Thai couple who just meet wanting to move to Los Angeles, a Chinese couple in Paris who are at a crossroad in their relationship, and a Los Angeles Japanese couple dealing with a young daughter. The stories are a little underwhelming, but the actors are believable making these not a waste of time. You can say these are ‘regular’ Asian stories before they were crazy and rich.
‘Porto’ by Gabe Klinger is set in Porto, in Portugal and that place as been in my zeitgeist lately because a friend just moved there. It is shot beautifully here, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Anton Yelchin and Lucie Lucas play a couple who just meet and have an instant connection. this is one of those films that you either like or not – count me among the former. I have always liked stories about ‘two ships that pass in the night,’ and how an instant connection could blossom into something else – it’s that potential that appeals to the hopeless romantic in me. Yelchin is fine here, in one of his last roles before perishing, and it makes the film more poignant. This is one of those films that will make you think long afters teh credits have rolled
The title ‘All These Small Moments,’ perfectly describes this film about adolescent angst. Brendan Myer plays a teenager who is enamored by a girl he sees on the bus (Jemima Kirke) while he deals with familial problems in his household. Somehow, though, neither of the stories are fully formed enough for something to really resonate. While there are sweet and tender moments. but these small moments are too small to matter. On another note, I still have a difficult time grasping that Molly Ringwald is doing all these mother-of-adults- roles. I mean, she is amy age! Cue violins.
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s ‘Oh Lucy’ is one of those movies that is a portrait of the art of melancholy, and that’s one of my favorite genres. It tells of how loneliness shapes a person’s life, and how one can react to an escape from it. This film is bookended by scenes at a Japanese train station, presumably a metaphor on how people come in and out of our lives in myriads of ways, and most of the time, they serve a purpose. Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, alonely woman in a boring job. She gets enrolled in an American English class and meets a handsome teacher John(Josh Hartnett) and from there gets tangled in a spiral of a story. The journey takes her to Southern California with her sister and niece – and John, and in the process she finds herself, but not without some emotional collateral damage. If there is one word I can use to describe the film, it’s unpredictable. The film takes you different places, but they never seem gimmicky, and you even feel like everything makes sense and believable. This is mostly because of a great performance from Terajima, who transfers from a shy and meek Japanese woman to one thrust in California sunshine, hanging out at seedy motels and dirty tattoo parlors. Hartnett is great here, too a boorish ugly American, but much more than that, thanks to his sensitive performance, showing sensitivity and vulnerability, and he is still fine as freak, too. I really do wish he becomes more visible. I really can’t help but really be taken by this film, and even relate to it, as I have started this new chapter of living life truly alone. This is a great film filled with sadness, and for me, a reflection of what is real in life a lot of times.
Marica Hiraga is a Japanese jazz singer whose name I have encountered numerous times over the years. But somehow someway I never really appreciated any of her previous albums before. They all seemed generic, though admittedly I never really gave it a real chance. So what I did was sat down and listened and paid attention to the music.
Voila! This is a delicious little (or maybe big?) album that engaged me. Even i Japanese and with an accent, this album engaged me and I felt Hiraga had total command of the lyrics as she navigated the creative arrangements. I especially loved the take on Cole Porter’s ‘So In Love’ as I felt like she was running to the one she is on love with, which I think matches the feeling of your heart beating as you think of the one you are in love with. And that’s just the highlight. Splendid performance also highlight other tracks like ‘As Time Goes By,’ and the fun ‘Golden Earrings.’
They love jazz in Japan. I remember when I was collecting compact discs, I would only find obscure hard-to-find titles in Japanese pressings. So whenever I see a Japanese jazz singer, I always pay attention. There’s not much information about Mico O-kura on the internet, which in this day and age, is weird, almost unthinkable. This is the extent of what I found:
She start study piano at age9. She start to singing jazz at age 20. Released 1st album Nobody Else But Me on 2016. She Based perform in Jazz club at Tokyo and Yokohama area.
Perhaps that’s better, as I can listen to her with an open mind and open ear. O-kura has great musicality, and her band consists of pianist Eisuke Kato, and Kiyoshi Ikeda on base and Kazuaki Yokoyama on drums. They certainly know what they are doing, and one can sense O-kuna’s love of the material. She sings with a stronger accent but I do not mind that all. I always say I think accents personalize singers’ interpretations of songs. But I wonder how much of these words O-kuma understands. While she displays technical musical proficiency, I sense a detachment to the material, treating these songs with gloves. The scat portion in ‘Nobody Else But Me,’ felt memorized instead of free-flowing and I never got the poignancy of ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and its lyrics. The record is easy on the ears, but also low on depth.