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: This story is about sumo, but it begins in the back of a van.

This story is about sumo, but it begins in the back of a van. There, "Knock" Yokoyama, a comedian-turned-politician, assaulted a campaign staffer three days before winning re-election as Governor of Osaka. It was no laughing matter. The staffer filed sexual harassment charges and sought 15 million yen (about $150,000) in damages. While Yokoyama vigorously denied the charges — calling the woman a liar outside the courtroom — in quick succession he was censured by the local assembly, fled to a hospital claiming ill health, tendered his resignation, saw his residence and offices raided by public prosecutors, and was then indicted on charges of sexual molestation. Prior to the subsequent criminal trial "Knock" admitted to "touching but not groping" — a distinction proving Japanese pols are every bit the equal of their American counterparts. Once inside the courtroom, Yokoyama finally relented and allowed that his hands strayed first onto skin and then into genitals.

What does this have to do with sumo? We're getting there. In the ensuing special election to fill Knock's slot, Fusae Ota, a woman supported by both the ruling coalition and the opposition's main parties, became the nation's first female governor. Progress! (Sure, it's only 2000 and, okay, it took an act of molestation to result in the fielding of a female candidate; but why nitpick, right?).

So, now Osaka has a female governor. This is an important fact in our story about sumo, because the governor is the highest-ranking public official in that city... which is important because Osaka is one of four regular venues for sumo tournaments during the course of a year; and, unlike Tokyo, Osaka doesn't have a privately-owned sumo-only facility within municipal limits... meaning that when sumo hits town, a public facility must be rented for the tournament's fifteen days. This, in turn, is significant because, being a public facility, the task of conferring awards on the penultimate day has traditionally fallen to the highest-ranking public official... which is all well and good as long as the highest ranking public official is a man. But when that designation belongs to a woman, well... suddenly the entire universe goes flipsy-flopsy.

Time for ReDotPop to suddenly grow up. Time for Japanese society to enter this past millennium.

For those of you who don't know, sumo is a traditional Japanese "sport", one of the earliest forms of popular culture in Japan, with key philosophical threads woven out of Japan's animist past. One such thread is the belief that the dohyo — the ring of combat — is a space of "spiritual purity". As such, it is a domain from which women are barred, for fear they will contaminate the sacred. Only now, you see, the governor in Osaka is a woman. Even better: upon taking office, the governor boldly declared her intention to fulfill her public duties and hand out the awards come sumo time.

Ah yes, RedotPop: fraught with the ironies and exigencies of the modern world.

Sumo is a martial art involving speed, grace, technique, concentration and brute force. Giants easily averaging 190 centimeters (six feet and six inches) and 150 kilograms (330 pounds) propel out of three-point stances in the center of a circular ring no more than dour and a half meters in diameter. Their impact is enough to reduce your average computer terminal to the size of a microchip. Impact can result in unanticipated incisions and unintended pratfalls, but generally following contact the wrestlers grapple, their chunky fingers struggling to reach around steroid-enhanced biceps, barbell-inflated chests and four-meal-daily extruded bellies, and insinuate themselves around a sash securely cinched around their opponent's waist. This essential maneuver provides leverage capable of unbalancing the most massive behemoth and sending him either: (A) crashing to the hard-packed dirt surface, or (B) careening out of the roped ring, off the raised platform, and into the surprised, but gleeful arms of the adoring audience.

Sumo is, in many respects, Japanese society incarnate. It features strict hierarchy, military precision, arcane rules, ritual performance, centuries of tradition, Zen philosophy, regulated brutality, and equality of opportunity amid rivals who often embody extreme resource disparity. Because sumo is Japanese society incarnate it is one of the reasons why we care about it in this column; why we're talking about it here, now. For, what ReDotPop is about, above all, is the myriad, cross-cutting, intersections between the forms and content of popular culture and everyday life. ReDotPop is about how social practices and values, politics and economics flow into, through and out of Japanese popular culture.

Let's put the Osaka governor flap aside for a moment and consider another example. About seven years ago sumo crossed the threshold into the realm of popular popular culture. Popular, as in "hip", au courant, cool, of the moment, kitschy, the latest craze. It only lasted for a blurry moment, perhaps, but in that nanosecond of rising public cognizance, sumo was tried on for size in that wider cultural domain. Its popularity has since waned, but at that time sumo was on everyone's wagging lips. Its zenith was the engagement of its crown prince, Takanohana, to one of ReDotPop's reigning princesses: the model-cum-actress Miyazawa Rie. For better and worse, a major transformation was in the offing. In the face of this unlikely coupling between the son/nephew of a pair of fabled rikishi (wrestlers) of yore and the bulemic, "ha-fu" (mixed race) "Rie-chan", the staid sumo association was forced to consider a reconfiguration of its heretofore "pure domain". Perched on the doorstep was not just by a pop idol, but a foreign one at that.

For some, sumo is the repository of the defining elements of Japanese mythology. As such, it often serves as one of the weapons in the arsenal of Nihonjinron: the view of Japanese cultural/national uniqueness. How, many insiders fretted, could our royalty actually consider marrying a woman who had published a book of nude photos? The association quickly mobilized; the planned marriage never had a chance.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the crown prince canceling the engagement, sumo was now forever part and parcel of the material world of ReDotPop. There was no longer a hermetic, pristine, mythical domain into which sumo could retreat. Takanohana quickly became engaged to a safer "talento" — a former TV announcer. Nonetheless, the scandal sheets and afternoon "wide shows" were soon abuzz with the salacious tidbit that the bride-to-be was already with child. Although the bride and groom's loosed a carefully scripted denial at their post-nuptial fete, when the baby came to term less than nine months later, the pulp press crowed: "after all, they lied!"

Takanohana is blessed with awesome abilities in sumo. His personal skills are another matter. He has been stalked by the same kind of petty brouhahas we have come to expect of other popcult icons. A year ago he shocked the press and sumo insiders, alike, by lashing out at his older brother, Wakanohana — another sumo prince — who, he claimed, lacked the requisite skills to occupy sumo's highest rank. Forget the fact that this was Japan where one never speaks ill publicly of another; never mind the rule that in Japan one never speaks ill of an elder; this was tantamount to a palace coup. Of course, it was a boon for the gossip shows. The frosty moments that ensued during daily practice in their father's "stable" received wide-spread coverage. Many sought to attribute this sibling rivalry to Takanohana's lack of formal education and his impressionable nature. They claimed he had fallen under the spell of a charismatic physical therapist who saw a chance to turn star against family and, by so doing (if done just right), end up turning a pretty profit for himself. It didn't work out that way: sumo federation to the rescue once more. Takanohana was extricated from his new shady alliance and returned to the family fold.

Consistent with the imperatives of any advanced mediaculture, the Taka/Waka incident became fodder for ReDotPop. It led to extended hand-wringing in the popular press about the suggestibility of Japanese people and the rise of exploitative elements in the society. Parallels were drawn to the recent mind-control excesses of the religious cult, Aum Shinri Kyo.

Since the days of Taka and Rie, it seems, sumo can't escape the high-speed, low-brow, controversy-peddling logic of contemporary popular culture. Aside from the Taka/Waka conflagration, there was the much-ballyhooed controversy surrounding Waka's wife's micro-mini. For some reason, the former airline stewardess is simply not perceived as demur enough (at least in the eyes of the sumo federation) to serve as wife to the highest-ranking rikishi. Her increasing frustration with the straight-jacket existence of a sumo-wife led to her recently fleeing the family residence. Or else, was that her husband's possible infidelity? The word "divorce" wafted over the public airwaves, only to be squelched by a hastily-orchestrated public reconciliation. In the same way, yokozuna Akebono's marriage to his pregnant lover — a (Japanese-American) "ha-fu" — was of certain public interest; though, perhaps because Akebono is American, himself, the marriage, the child, and their lifestyle (they live on a U.S. Military installation and, therefore, are not actually of the Japanese world) has commanded less attention in the realm of ReDotPop. In fact, rather than controversy, Akebono has come to serve as a rather positive presence in ReDotPop: he has become a frequent guest on TV shows, thereby helping to re-popularize the flagging institution of sumo.

The foreign dimension is one aspect of contemporary sumo that is working to fuel ReDotPop, itself. Less in terms of the "impurity" introduced into the traditional Japanese art by foreign invaders — for that is the province of Nihonjinron and cultural nationalism. Less, too, in terms of "internationalization" (or globalization) which is the steady backbeat of most contemporary ReDotPop. No, despite the fact that two of sumo's four highest rank-holders are foreign born (Samoan and Hawaiian) and a third up-and-coming star, is from Mongolia, the greatest force working to fuse sumo to ReDotPop is a former foreign star: Konishiki. All 200 kilograms of him. Since retirement Konishiki has become one of the most recognizable, liked, and visible spokesmen in Japan's commercial culture. He has parlayed that popularity into multiple product endorsements (Sanyo electronics, Suntory alcoholic beverages, Lawson convenience stores, Hawaiian tours, portable telephones), as well as regular appearances on nightly TV. Proving that sumo's relationship with contemporary Japanese society is substantial, on-going, and not entirely negative.

For that assessment, though, don't ask Osaka's enterprising Governor Ota. Despite her insistence on entering sumo's hallowed ring and presenting her city's awards to Japan's sacred warriors, she was stared down by the powerful sumo federation. A compromise was brokered in which the highest-ranking male public official would fill in for his higher-ranking female boss.

Thus ensuring that the ReDotPop universe would remain in alignment.

If one of the defining features of popular culture is flux, when it comes to RedotPop, we have to acknowledge that some things change faster than others.

If they change at all.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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