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Killing in Translation

Brian Ruh

When we're in Japan, we feel we've somehow become more worldly and debonair than we really are.

We Americans love Japan. Japan is the perfect foil for our own culture, as both cultures simultaneously amplify and distort one another. We can read into Japan the essentializing nature of not only a Techno-Orientalist future (Japan as robot), but also our Orientalist past (Japan as samurai). We love the unique Japanese use of English on their products and packaging. We love how Japanese cities are lit up like Times Square on amphetamines, causing us to make the ever-so-trite comparisons to Blade Runner to which we constantly cling as a point of reference.

But most of all, we love how we look when we're in Japan. When we're in Japan, we feel we've somehow become more worldly and debonair than we really are. It's all about context — you may be a nobody in your own country, but against the backdrop of Japan, you gain a je ne sais quoi that exudes a cosmopolitan cool. And of course our filmmaking industry has picked up on this trend.

In previous columns, I have examined how subcultures in the US have domesticated the popular culture of Japan to create a unique and robust hybrid culture. Most of my focus has been on material culture directly imported from Japan, such as anime and manga, and I have illustrated that our interest in such products has been increasing in recent years. One need only to go to a large book or media store to see the racks of DVDs and graphic novels clamoring for shelf space. In his article "Japan's Gross National Cool" in the journal Foreign Policy (May/June 2002), Douglas McGray writes of Japan's increasing cultural power on the global scene. Japan has always had a cachet of cool, but it was a type of subcultural cool that appealed only to certain tastes. This notion of cool has long been in vogue with readers of Beat Generation or cyberpunk literature. Now, however, Japan's cultural cool is appealing to a wider base of media fans that are, of course, consumers who express their cultural desires monetarily.

It only makes sense that American films would want to appropriate this cool. Three major films dealing with Japan have been (or will be) released in 2003. Already playing are Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, with The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, to be released in December. The marketing of these films is a shrewd move by the American film industry. Such films tie American cultural products into the rise of Japan as a player on the world cultural market, while simultaneously serving to control the potential threat of Japanese popular entertainment to the American media hegemony. In a single year, the release of three major American films that take place in Japan is an unprecedented cinematic move, attesting to the perceived desire of audiences to see films about Japan.

But can the films really be said to be "about Japan"? Of course not. Lost in Translation, Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai all feature American protagonists fighting their way, either figuratively or literally, across the landscape of Japan. While The Last Samurai is a historical drama, both Lost in Translation and Kill Bill are contemporary fictions and are thus germane to the discussion of representations of modern Japanese culture. (Also, any in-depth discussion of The Last Samurai would be premature, as the film does not open for another couple of months as of this writing.)

Of the two films that have already been released this year, Lost in Translation comes across as a more honest depiction of contemporary Japan than Kill Bill. Lost in Translation is really about the relationship that develops between two lost souls who chance to encounter each other in a swanky Tokyo hotel. Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are both Americans who find themselves overwhelmed by the confusing vastness of Tokyo. The story is about Bob and Charlotte. The few Japanese people they encounter are bit players, supporting actors on a stage that obviously belongs to the Americans. Sofia Coppola contrasts the beautifully vibrant shots of Tokyo and Kyoto (which have the feel at times of a lush documentary) with the inner lives of her characters that are trying to make some sort of connection. Note that this connection is only with one another. Never do these characters really try to connect with the places and people surrounding them.

Coppola is very successful at capturing the essence of being alone in a foreign place. This theme of loneliness requires an essentialization, a certain amount of distance from the subject and the people around the main American characters. Coppola creates beauty in the isolation of her characters, which is actually a rather Japanese aesthetic. However, Lost in Translation is the story of the two Americans more than anything. While the film takes care to not distort its representation, it is still following the trend of appropriating the images of Japan in U.S. cinema.

On the other end of the spectrum is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Never the most subtle of filmmakers, Tarantino throws a wide range of Japanese pop essentialism at the screen — from samurai swords to anime. Unlike Lost in Translation, Kill Bill is unconcerned with the depiction of a "real" Japan — the film is the fantasy of a pop culture otaku (devotee, or more commonly, geek). Seen through Tarantino's eyes, Japan is a land of bloody combat and violent death.

The plot of Kill Bill follows the bride (Uma Thurman) as she takes revenge on her former associates who double-crossed her four years ago. In her quest for vengeance, she travels to Japan to obtain a skillfully-made sword with which she hopes to defeat the head of the Tokyo yakuza (Japan's own syndicate of organized crime). When the bride first steps into the sword-lined attic of Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), Tarantino's reverence for the Japanese weapons is palpable. It there is a moment of transcendence in the film, this is it. It could be said in Tarantino's defense that he is simply showing his influences and paying homage to the ultraviolent Japanese films he has undoubtedly watched many times. While this is true, it does not negate the fact that Tarantino is carrying out his own brand of cinematic essentialism.

The American film industry may be trying to subsume the influence of its Japanese counterpart, but I am not sure that is necessarily a bad thing. It proves the rising power of Japanese popular entertainment in the US, and that makes the holders and arbiters of American cultural power worried about the future viability of their products. As I mentioned, the issue at hand is context. Japanese pop culture provides a way out from the US pop monoculture with which we are deluged every day. The Japanese influences, even in an American film, undermine this limiting mindset by promoting an alternate version of what the media may look like. Granted, it's "only" entertainment, but at least it's a start.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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