Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) – Making a Movie So Good it Kills

(Note: Video contains graphic content.)

Indie auteur Sion Sono’s sprawling career and equally sprawling films receive critical acclaim but can be polarizing. 2013’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (released in the US in 2014) has the most critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes of all his movies, suggesting that perhaps this is, as of January 2017, his most widely released picture on the English-language film circuit. So what is it? Judging by the title and Sono’s reputation, is it a controversially gory, emotionally harrowing epic of an indie flick?

Well, not the second part, anyway.

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Photo courtesy of The Japan Times.

This particular feature is stuffed with so many characters and boasts such an unbelievable plotline (the head of a yakuza gang, as a gift to his wife who will soon be released from jail, wants to make a movie starring their daughter) that at the surface it seems impossible for this to be charming, funny, and fun – which it is.

This is due in large part to a nearly note-perfect cast, including Tomochika as the mother (who is exceptionally, subtly funny as the tough wife whose one wish is seeing her daughter on the big – or small – screen), Jun Kunimura as her husband and instigator of the movie (bringing a degree of gravitas with a wink), Hiroki Hasegawa as the enthusiastic movie producer (whose impish smile and maniacal laugh are only matched by an amount of charisma that makes it completely believable when he rallies a room full of yakuza to pose for a shot), and of course a cameo from a comedian or two (I yelled at the sight of Itsuji Itao).

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Photo courtesy of RogerEbert.com.

I preemptively feared this film would be style over substance, but I was quickly proven wrong. The enthusiasm of the characters, matched with the obvious enthusiasm of a director for a script he had written 15 years prior, infected me.

Perhaps most beautifully executed is the scene where Muto, the yakuza boss, describes how he’d like the film’s one and only scene – a real-life fight – to play out, but this is not conveyed through voice over. Instead, it is presented in an exquisitely choreographed sequence that shows, dreamlike, what would happen if the rooms of a castle came apart to reveal a film crew on all sides, surging through the final battle like a swarm of hornets.

Sometimes the film feels too loose. Shots run a little longer than necessary and the dialogue can get repetitive. But this lingering look at the characters places the audience so completely within the world that the length of scenes can immediately be forgiven. The viewers spend so much time with the characters’ relentless zeal that it begins to become something to be cherished, and Sono’s delight in absurdities is infectious (Muto asks a guy plucked off the street what millimeter to shoot on. He answers “about this big” and holds up a thumb and forefinger, which is dutifully mimicked by Muto to show other members of the crew).

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Photo courtesy of AudiencesEverywhere.net.

The violence in the last act is bloodier than the bloodiest imaginable, but after all the setup that leads up to this moment, it feels inevitable. Even if the visuals are gratuitous, the concept isn’t; it makes sense for the story. And if the flying body parts are gratuitous, it is ridiculous in a way that exactly matches the overall tone.

The final shot, extended long past when the credits might be expected to roll, seemed overblown until I realized: Oh, this is about movies. It’s about making the most ridiculous, over-the-top film you could possibly conceive, and loving the idea so much that you would die for it.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in that level of enthusiasm.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) – Making a Movie So Good it Kills

On Comedy and Community

At the beginning of 2016, I posted on Facebook about the Comedy Bang! Bang! Tour coming to North Carolina. Two of my friends, Rachel and Nellie, immediately commented:

Carson!

Come with us!

I said yes. But I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I only had a vague idea of what CBB was. So I started listening to the improvised comedy podcast incessantly.

With such a devoted fanbase, the podcast benefits from inside jokes and callbacks that layer on top of each other. As I listened, I grew more and more to love it. Some of the episodes that make me laugh hardest are probably inscrutable to someone who is listening to the first time (if you’re a new listener don’t know the phrase “hey nong man,” you will soon enough).

The thing about CBB is, it becomes more rewarding the more you engage with it.The more you become accustomed to the style, the guests, and the running jokes, the more you fall in love with the podcast and the people involved, and the more joy you gain from it.

So of course I did what I always do when I love people, which is draw them – that is, the folks going on the tour: Neil Campbell, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Lauren Lapkus.

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The original drawing. This was done, incidentally, before it was announced that Neil Campbell would attend half of the tour and Mike Hanford would take on the other half.

I am lucky that my friend Rachel took the initiative to tweet the drawing to everyone in the picture (I was too hesitant to tag anyone outside the official CBBTV account). Scott retweeted it, then Lauren, and later Scott reblogged it on tumblr. He was the first person to reblog it, and it quickly became my most liked and reblogged drawing ever. More people shared it, comedians and otherwise, and it kept going.

It’s a little thing, maybe, to retweet a drawing. But nobody had to do that. They did it because they wanted to. It’s a little kindness that lit up my entire year.

Which brings me to the fans. There’s a feeling of comraderie that comes with bonding over an improv comedy podcast.

I loved reading online posts from people who had attended the tour and post-show meet and greets, saying “I was so awkward meeting them!” because I felt like that, too. I loved seeing photos from the shows that people took. It felt communal, joyful. Much like the show itself.

If you want to listen to the live show I went to (the May 10 date), you can find it on Howl. I remember the simply-set stage with three barstools, a number of Blade Runner references, and a loose, improvised feeling (because that’s what it was). But it felt right. It felt like we were supposed to be there, as an audience: a part of this weird, joyful experience that would only happen for us.

After the show, we hurried to the meet and greet. I had copies of the drawing to give as gifts and get signed. I was nervous. We could hear Paul laughing as we inched closer in line.

Photos by Rachel & Nellie. I’m the one in the glasses.

When we made it to the table there was Neil. After a quick hello, Nellie put her copy of the drawing on the table and pointed to me. “She drew that!”

I dropped four copies of the drawing on the table and felt a heavy, awkward pause linger in the air. I hurriedly explained that I had brought four extra copies if they wanted them.

Neil, kindly, said, “Of course, I would be happy to have one.” He turned to Paul: “She drew that!”

“What! You drew that?” Paul extended his hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

I greeted Paul, Lauren, and Scott, falling into the rhythm of saying hello-my-name-is and shaking hands but at a loss for words, too nervous to think of anything and hoping somehow my “hellos” would convey how grateful I was to see greet them at all.

“The drawing is beautiful,” said Scott.

In the back of my mind I knew I wanted to say how much it meant that he had shared it, but it simply came out as “Thank you.”

After the three of us said our final thank you‘s to the four comedians at the table, we headed back to the car. There was an energy in the air. But there was something in addition to than the giddiness that comes with talking to people you admire. Driving back with my two friends without whom I wouldn’t have been able to meet those four at all felt communal, joyful. Much like Comedy Bang Bang itself.

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P.S. For an article that expresses better than I ever could why fans feel so connected to this  podcast, please read “‘Comedy Bang Bang’ Is the Jam Band of Comedy” by Nathan Rabin on Splitsider.

On Comedy and Community

Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi

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Image from bltdsports.com.

I have been trying to write about Arrival but I keep failing.

It’s an intense slow burn. At first, I didn’t quite like it. I didn’t feel like I got it. I categorized it in the genre of cold, distant science fiction that has been popularized lately (all of which I have enjoyed: Midnight Special, Interstellar, even The Martian) and left it at that, chalking the critical acclaim up to the steely touch of a logical narrative, a new approach to mature storytelling.

But then the humans met the aliens, and I realized I was wrong.

This is not a distant film, holding humanity away from the viewer. It is one of the most human I have seen.

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Image from Esquire.

When Amy Adams’ character removes her protective suit to stand, blinded by inorganic light, in front of the aliens, an actor has never appeared more human.

In addition, although the film looks epic, this global scale does not come at the cost of intimacy.

Comparisons to 2001 and Close Encounters are relevant and apt. But instead of a broad portrayal of the universe, the film opens and closes with the most personal of moments. The audience is gifted not with an image of an entire Earth, but with a single character, her experience, and her life as it stands outside of the event covered in the two hours of Arrival.

What makes us human?

Is it our planet, our language?

This film would posit that the answer is something simpler.

What makes us human is our pain, and our desire to live despite it.

Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi

Goodbye Japan

Tomorrow is my last day in Japan.

I’ve done everything I needed to do. I turned in my student ID, I cancelled my NHK contract (with the kind, patient help of people in ICU’s International Office), I cancelled my residence and insurance at Mitaka City Hall, and I packed everything.
So now it’s farewell.
Goodbye to the walk to school every morning and the cheerful ICU guards who said hello every day
Goodbye to the ICU cats with the missing ears and the crows that hang around the campus exit
Goodbye to that easy walk to 7-11 and the frozen yakisoba I started eating my first week here and then continued to eat once a week since then
Goodbye to train rides to Kichijoji and the comfort of knowing how to walk to the bookstore from the station
Goodbye to my Japanese class, the terrors of having to memorize dozens of kanji and vocab every week, the amount that I learned despite the feeling that I could never learn it all, and how our class got became closer and how we started laughing at everything
Goodbye to History of Asian Music I and coming alive hearing songs I would have never been exposed to before
Goodbye to Modern Japanese Literature in English Translation and coming alive reading stories I would never have been exposed to before
Goodbye to my apartment
Goodbye to Nogawa Park
Goodbye to music and music and music and music, so much music
But at least the music and the friendships will carry through.
Goodbye Japan

On Music, Photography, and Blogs

This was the personal statement I wrote for a film school application. However, I ended up changing my approach and submitting something else. This is my original letter.

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Almost every Monday of my college week is been spent in a particular room in Guilford College Founders Hall. This is where the Guilfordian newspaper staff meets. My first week of school, I became a part of the videography team, and spent our evening meetings with my ears pricked for interesting events. I had never been part of a community with so many resources before.

One evening, during weekly announcements, a young man in a colorful collared shirt raised his hand.

“Gabe, with something to add, as usual,” noted Jeff Jeske, our faculty advisor.

“There’s a punk show at Empire Books this week, if anyone wants to cover it with me,” said the guy, naming a bunch of bands I’d never heard of. Meeting adjourned, I immediately crossed the room to Gabe and offered to join him, camera and tripod in tow.

One cold February night, four bands blared noise into a sparsely populated bookstore. In between sets, the mood was relaxed. Attendees’ conversations were absorbed by the shelves of novels and old records for sale. Best of all was having to keep my tripod from being toppled by the only non-North Carolina band, Designer, as they demolished their own equipment during the screams of their last song.

I was hooked. Gabe and I became frequent collaborators and co-created the NC music blog Carolina Soundcheck. Concocting creative ways to cover music became a monthly puzzle: should we script sketches to announce upcoming shows? (Yes.) Should we work with the Guilford radio station to cover festivals? (Yes.) Should we send each other music-related postcards over the summer and post them on our blog? (Yes, although this didn’t last long after postcard number two got lost in the mail.)

I learned good collaboration. We figured out how to communicate, listen, and compromise so we both did things we wanted and accomplished each other’s goals to boot. Plus, keeping positive in the face of frustration, whether it was one of us frustrating the other through miscommunication or something gone wrong in our plans (because something always goes wrong, you just have to learn to expect that).

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David Wheaton performing at our Carolina Soundcheck launch party in 2014. 

I got to do one of my favorite things: discover art no one else knows about and share it with a wider audience. What are the stories and points of view that nobody else knows about? What are the bands that, if I don’t take out my camera, will probably stay unheard? What, if expressed in an artistic format, will people be able to engage with more easily? This is what I am always trying to share. Sometimes it’s for fun, and sometimes, it’s through an obligation, like knowing that not many people will get to hear Reggie Watts and Janelle Monae talking about race, music, and history at Moogfest. So I whip out my camera and my notebook and start documenting. Start writing down their stories, which are so important, so I can express them to other people.

Through my work, I got better at handling a camera and expressing information in a way that is brief, entertaining, and informative. I learned good visual language, how to use my equipment as well as others’, and how to solve problems should they arise (tip: do not leave a tripod-affixed camera within arm’s length of a drunk audience, unless you want a series of blurry selfies on your memory card).

My writing became stronger, and with Gabe, a fellow English major and sharp journalist, editing my work, I learned how dynamic language can effectively describe an auditory experience.

My editing and revision of articles, both for the Guilfordian and the blog, helped me understand how to edit content in a video interview as well. I managed to edit a 20-minute band interview to one-fifth the length, including only the best and most informative quotes, and put it out on YouTube just in time to promote their album release party.

The success of our work covering local music inspired me to do something I’d had in mind for a long time: start a blog about Japanese music. As a double major in East Asian Studies and English, I was frequently discovering art that no one around me knew about, and to share that with a wider audience? There could be nothing better.

The first time I studied in Japan with the Montserrat College of Art, I was prepared for what to do when I learned that the restaurant we were staying above, the Longboard, was holding a punk festival. From the first all-too-grainy photography when I started taking concert photos, I now knew the best place to stand, the best aperture to set, and what I could and couldn’t fix on my Mac later. A successful photo album was created and uploaded for Smashfest 2015, featuring three different bands based in Japan. It was a small accomplishment that meant a lot.

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Toshiyuki Homma of Night of the Vampire performing at Smashfest.

My experiences in college, and these two blogs, have taught me how to successfully, creatively express information through words and visuals. I consider this to be one of my strengths. I discovered that not only is it something I want to do, it’s something I do, day after day. Video keeps following me around and I realized that my camera is a powerful tool. As my photography professor Maia Dery once put it, paraphrasing C. A. Bowers, through a camera we can participating in “making special”: the ordinary becomes extraordinary through how we angle our lens, and we create new meaning through the photos we take. It means something to make something. So I will keep pressing the shutter at every opportunity.

On Music, Photography, and Blogs

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and Stories

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Image: Wikimedia.

I had planned to write an unbiased review of Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but that proved to be impossible, for a number of reasons.

The evening before I made the trip to Roppongi for the Tokyo International Film Festival, I was sitting on the floor of my room, trying to respond to an essay prompt from a film school graduate program.

“What kind of stories do you want to tell?”

I was stuck. I wrote about the camera I use, things I know about teamwork, and everything about film production but stories. What kind of films do I want to make? How could I know?

The next day, I made my way to Toho Cinemas and found my assigned seat before the lights went down in the theater. Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 film began to play.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is about a high school girl. Her life is ordinary. You could call it mundane, but her life is a story in itself. It’s told very carefully, marking the important moments in her school year when she struggles trying to make things easier on herself but, in the process, hurting her friends and family. She experiences something extraordinary in realizing she has the ability to time travel, but this miracle is not the focus of the film. How could time travel be the main thing in her life, when she is struggling with what it means to build good relationships, make choices for the future, and be herself, but not be selfish?

Sitting in the theater, it hit me. This is the kind of story I want to tell.

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Image: tumblr.

The image I’ve always had in my head of a “filmmaker” is a dramatic auteur, spinning dark, traumatizing tales that leave the viewer shaken yet applauding at the end. But when I sit down to write, or even edit, this kind of dramatic flair doesn’t make itself known. What does appear is something careful, or simple. Something to do with finding joy in the mundane.

In the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, another master of animation, Hayao Miyazaki, mentions that he likes to collect ordinary moments from life. He flips through a photo album filled with images of a small town and its inhabitants, filled to the brim with notes and diary entries.

In the behind-the-scenes of his most well-known film, Spirited Away, Miyazaki is seen explaining to Studio Ghibli animators how to convey fantastical things in the film based on what he has observed in everyday life:

“The dragon falls from the wall like a snake falling out of a tree,” he says.

“The river spirit is filled with junk and even a bicycle, like the river near where I grew up.”

Miyazaki’s films are often placed in an extraordinary, magical world, but the stories and characters are grounded in the ordinary.

Similarly, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time features a character who, despite going through something unusual, is living her life in the same ordinary way as any other person who has to grow up. She is learning for the first time what it means to make important choices and hold other people’s feelings as important as her own.

Instead of using time travel to dramatically convey every aspect of the protagonist’s growth, the small moments in her life tell the real story: she wishes her sister hadn’t eaten her pudding, she plays baseball with her best friends, and she tries to avoid making decisions that would change her entire life. As Mamoru Hosoda said at TIFF, what people relate to in the story is not that it’s about time travel, or that it’s about a Japanese high school girl. It’s a film about regret.

Hosoda also noted that human beings don’t always realize until later how important the ordinary, everyday moments and everyday people that make up our lives are. The mundane, the unextraordinary (even in extraordinary circumstances) is what makes us ourselves.

I want to tell stories like this: thoughtful, careful stories. I know, already, that I tend to do so. It just didn’t hit me until this moment.

I cried through the entire film. And, judging by some of the audience’s reactions during the Q&A, I was not the only one.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and Stories