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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Culture Cafe Podcast Is Coming Soon!

     So I've been working out the kinks for a while now, but it's happening! I recorded a small preview episode to explain what the podcast is about and why I'm doing it, but to put it succinctly: I'm hoping for the show to be a place where people living in Japan can gather together and swap stories of their lives, from the outrageous and hilarious to the sincere and heartfelt.

Welcome to the Culture Cafe Podcast!

I'll be back with the debut episode soon later next week! Look forward to it!


Wednesday, May 14, 2014


  I was honestly planning on writing this just the other day, the same day 
that I found out the original creator of the Alien, H.R Giger, died. 

Rest in piece for your fabulously terrifying work.

            Last weekend I watched Aliens (sequel) for the first time after re-watching Alien as I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. I try not to let reviews get in the way of my viewing experience regardless of whether or not something was met with acclaim or contempt. That being said, Mitsuko told me this was her favorite of all the Alien films, and I caught a look at the Rotten Tomato score in passing as we were browsing the internet and I was astonished to see that it maintains a mighty 98% which is actually the highest of all the films - the original is a close second at 97%. Well we watched it, and I had some thoughts, so I thought I’d share them here. Before that though, I have to say that I’ve never found myself so far on the opposite end of a spectrum as far as reviews go. I wouldn’t have placed this movie anywhere near the original. To be polite, I thought it was a pretty mediocre B-movie spin on what I consider a Science Fiction classic.
            In order to continue I think it’ll be helpful to introduce the concept of “Scientific Literacy” to this discussion. This is basically an abstract measurement of what it means to be scientifically informed which is sometimes by positing a series of questions about basic concepts such as, atomic structures, DNA, our solar system, the natural world etc, and determining what percentage of people within a given populace can correctly identify true or false statements about them. I think in the movie world of the past there tended to be an overlap between B-movie and Science Fiction as a genre. I’m sure many of us remember or have a good idea of these kinds of films, largely to do with aliens, vaguely science based, and very little actual science behind them. Tales of alien invasions, flying cars, and other such tropes of the Science Fiction genre have long been popular it seems. But counter to this, the idea of science being taught academically has not been.
            At about the turn of the 20th century men such as Charles Eliot and John Dewey propositioned to the National Education Association (of which Charles held a chair in the committee) that it would be in the best interest of students to learn in a manner such that he or she could take said knowledge and make it applicable to their future endeavors. Eliot suggested that an education lacking this was “an education which missed its aim”. That was 1898. Over the course of the years scientific curriculum became standard, and by today studying science - while lacking according to many surveys – is fundamental to our education.
            So what was the point of all that though? My point is that I believe stories in the past (including movies) with even semi-science related concepts at heart were not so easily separated from the B-movie classification. Hard as it may be to accept, we’ve increased general scientific knowledge quite dramatically across the world, and it reflects in the less tacky science based movies of the recent past. So now we get to why I’m even talking about Alien, and its sequel.
            Please watch Alien if you haven’t. It was made in 1979 by Ridley Scott and tells the story of a commercial space ship crew who are asked to investigate a mysterious transmission from an uninhabited planetoid on their way back to Earth. Okay. I’m seriously going to talk about the movie now, so be prepared if you haven’t seen it.
Alien seems to hit upon several themes buried under its initial premise including: Gender Politics, Corporatism, and Technophobia. I suppose we can start with the most obvious one, which involves one of the most memorable and infamous scenes in Hollywood history. The Chestburster (as it appears to be officially referred to as) is iconic in many ways and masterfully blended the idea of Sci-Fi and Horror in one fell swoop. But beyond the surface there’s a great deal to think about in terms of that one scene. Officer Kane (John Hurt) was the first to discover the alien eggs and was attacked by the (also very official sounding) Facehugger. It bursts through his helmet and envelopes his face, as its namesake would suggest. Fast forward, he appears to be okay, only to have whatever embryo the Facehugger left in him to hatch and burst through his chest in an extremely violent manner. What might be read into this? Kane never comes across as a character worthy of this fate, but perhaps Kane is only ever meant to represent the idea of man, who suffers at the fate of what are clearly female issues.

The appendages even come off as being finger-like
 The sexual imagery is hard to escape with how the Facehugger forces its way over his mouth, never allowing him to even as much as scream or otherwise protest this invasion to his body. It clearly plants a seed into his stomach, again forcefully and against his will. The chest bursting sequence has been argued to be a kind of reverse rape and with one look at the alien - phallic in shape – it’s not hard to see why.
It's a girl!

  In addition to this there is the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who becomes the most capable crewmember, and is the only one to survive. The real world timeframe in America is also important to keep in mind as the movie was released at the tail end of second wave feminism which included advancements such as Roe v. Wade, which established a legal precedent for the right to abortions. There is one more scene involving Ash (Ian Holm) that we can file in this category as well, but we’ll save Ash for later. He’s important too. Regardless, whether or not the filmmakers were attempting to start this kind of conversation, the movie definitely reversed the ideas of birth, rape, and sexual assault onto its former perpetrators.
Then we have Corporatism. I was born in 1987, so I can’t exactly speak for the America population in the 1970s, but with issues such as Watergate, and the Vietnam War, combined with a record high Misery Index (value measuring inflation, and unemployment rates) it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a general consensus of doubt in the government. The American auto industry was also beginning to suffer on the heels of the Oil Crisis in the early 70s. Cars intended to be more cost effective, fuel efficient, and less threatening to the environment, were built as realizations about the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels slowly came to the surface (Fun side note: The first Earth Day was in April 22nd 1970). The film perhaps isn’t speaking to this directly, but appears to include the desperation of this time in a subplot that involves the artificial intelligence MU-TH-UR 6000 on board the Nostromo. Being that Ash is the Science Officer on board the ship, the captain - Dallas (Tom Skerritt), hands over charge of their current mission to him. Ash’s orders are direct and disturbingly succinct. The crew of the Nostromo is not only to bring the specimen back to Earth for potential profits, but the crew is later revealed to be expendable in this charge.

Well, shit.
 Again, it may or not be relevant but real world issues oftentimes provide a useful window with which to look at the problems we fictionalize on the page, or screen. The deadly and desperate mission of ‘suceed at all costs’ for the crew of the Nostromo seems to reflect the notions of distrust in management (Watergate), and the terror of being a human commodity in the face of success (Vietnam).
So that leaves the Technophobia element. Ash becomes a secondary villain midway through the film shortly before we discover that he is an android. He is seemingly unbothered by his quest for scientific knowledge, and even appears to be fascinated to the point of respect with the Facehugger.
 It is Ash who communicates with Mother – which is also an artificial intelligence – and relays the soul crushing message to Ripley before they engage in a fight that ends with Ash orally violating Ripley with a rolled up magazine.

I think the "men's special interest literature" on the walls there is the strongest argument for interpretation of this scene as a release of sexual frustration
Frustrated Android
 Ash speaks to multiple issues within the movie. The magazine scene could indicate that even though he is not a person, his male identification (and lack of genitals with which to enact his rage) forces him to improvise a way of imposing his authority over Ripley. That aside however, it is interesting to note that much of the duress that comes unto the crew is directly from two non-human entities. At the time of this film, we were merely taking our first steps into the worlds of personal computing. For a few years business model computers had existed but the extent of what consumers could enjoy was limited to things like arcade classics such as Pong, Space Invaders, and Centipede. In 1977 though Apple released the Apple II, which was indeed the first personal computer specifically intended for home consumers. So we have a new era of a brand new concept right around the time this film was released. Perhaps in this case, it was not a fear so much as the initial wonderment associated with what computers might be able to do (or be capable of) in the distant future.
So those are the kinds of things I thought about after finishing Alien again in my post-college-must-overanalyze-everything-from-scratch mindset. I feel however, that regardless of the merit associated with any of this, it is true that the first film inspired more discussion than the sequel. It is Science Fiction in the sense that it deals with things such as aliens, space flight, and androids. It is horror in the sense that the alien wants to impregnate you, kill you, and smile at you as it does so. But it is also thoughtful in that it surrounds these set pieces with literary elements that can be picked apart and thought on.

My impression of Aliens can be summed up via this handy clip. Thanks Youtube!

            My opinion of the sequel certainly seems to be at odds ends with what most people think, but I probably went into it assuming that it was going to be more Science Fiction than Action-Adventure. I believe that Alien is mostly a product of its time whether or not the creators were aware of it. The real world surrounding it shaped the way this story was constructed and conveyed. As for Aliens, I do like Action-Adventure as well, which is when I realized that it would be wrong to lambast it based on what it isn’t. It was a different time, and it's quite simply just a different movie. To quote Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Aliens doesn’t climb trees. But it’s not supposed to either.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Joshua's Corner and the Half Page Column

 Happy Tuesday from Akasaki

Our fish fly

     So there was something I wanted to talk about for a while now. I noticed on my blogger page there was an unpublished draft concerning something called "Joshua's Corner," which is the weekly article I write for my school's webpage. I think in my mind, I forgot that I hadn't published it, but I remembered that I wrote something about it, so it stayed there in digital purgatory for a while.

     Having lapsed all that time, I've become slightly disinterested in talking about why "Joshua's Corner" is a bit more challenging, but in classic bullet point fashion let me outline a few reasons:

  • I can't write too much.
  •  The picture I must submit to go with it needs to be 160x120 pixels in size - for perspective, a screen cap of an iPhone (first generation even) is bigger than this.
  • I later found out it is translated via Google Translate.
     There's also the town article that I write as well. This one has similar limitations, but the audience is my entire town, so I try to write things that are universally appealing and less silly. I write it in English then I hand it over to one of my JTEs who translates it. I could probably take a fair whack at doing the latter myself but I'm happy to turn that over to someone else. Lately it's been a bit hard to find things to write about; being right in the middle of the school year offers little beyond quotidian observations. So for the latest entry I used exactly that and wrote an entry that was very personal and tried to flex the literary muscle a bit more than I have before. I'll probably stick to that method from now on seeing as my JTE enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed writing it.

Here is the article from last month:

The Most of The Rest

May has arrived, seemingly out of thin air. Just the other day I was walking up the halls towards a class with another teacher and commented on how surprised I was that we have already entered the fifth month of the year. I barely noticed that spring had begun and it would appear that we are already about to leave it behind. In that moment I thought about how long I had been here, and that it would only be three more months before I will have officially been living in Japan for one whole year as an ALT. Sometimes it feels as though all my experiences up to this point have fused into a singular memory of “yesterday,” or some other time in the past. For as much as I try to combat that syndrome by keeping a daily journal I imagine that much of the everyday slips through the cracks. As I reached the 3rd floor I realized that similar to how easily everyday life can pass us by, so too can the duration of my time in Japan, which is just as ephemeral. To that end, I was reminded of how important it was to make the most of my stay. By that time we were at the classroom, and we headed in.

     She said that it reminded her of a Chinese poem she once read about a man who went to sleep and had a dream that lasted his whole life. I filed it under "compliment" but let me know if you feel differently. 

On a completely unrelated note, there is a teacher here who stuffs his tie in his shirt pocket. All the time.


The End of the Beginning

I started a new journal a while back. My first one is full and now shelved. In an oddly ceremonious way (for me at least) I even wrote a sendoff for that volume, which I'll retype in an edited form here for you.

Final Entry

Wednesday April 23rd 4:24 pm

It's been a while. Looking back on the first entries up to this point is bound to be fascinating. I definitely could not have predicted that I would have had as many experiences as have been documented within these pages. My story is both long and new. Still 4 months out from having completed one whole year on this program, there is much left to tell I'm sure. Even when that point comes I'll still be within what I hope is the infancy of my time in Japan. I don't know what to expect and I'm unsure of what I will do but rest assured that I will do my best to preserve it much as I have just done here. 


     I started that journal on July 27th 2013 2:07 am, likely in my own room, definitely after the "Bon Voyage" party. This is what I love about the journal. I feel as though I'm the archaeologist of my own life. With the unearthing of each entry I gain more knowledge as to who this person was, and how the stories recounted on the page tell me little things about him. It's of course possible to read through the journal and just enjoy the entries for what they are; ingesting one at a time following a steady course of events day by day. But it has become far more interesting to wander the nebulous regions of why I chose to write what I wrote; to be a critical thinker of my own thoughts.

Before that starts to sound too pretentious allow me a chance to explain.

     Let's talk about the time stamp. It was something that I started when I kept a journal in Kofu-cho. The Kofu-cho experience (which sounds like a laser light show now) is a huge story for another time, preferably by camp fire with marshmallows and no chocolate, because I'm boring. The short version though is as follows: I was living there with my girlfriend in an attempt to pad out the resume by volunteering at - honestly - whatever school would let me. But back to the time stamp: I'm not sure why I decided to do it. Nevertheless, it carried over into the way that each journal entry opens now. That '2:07 am' says a lot more than the entry does, I think. This is what I mean by studying my own thoughts.
     It's extremely precise for whatever reason, but moreover it seems to indicate that I was deeply intent on carefully detailing every minute (quite literally) of my experience. This may be thought of as nitpicking, but I think the level of excitement I was trying to contain was captured in as little as simply writing down the time. The day I started that journal was the day before I had to fly out of LAX. That was also the day when we had our previously mentioned farewell party. I know I didn't stay late, but what I know from that entry is that I certainly didn't go to bed quickly either. I was up, alert and attentive enough to write down my thoughts in a journal, which in fact requires a lot more concentration than one thinks. There are no backspaces with ink. You can only scratch out what you've written, and I think I admire that aspect of writing with a pen and paper still.
     That was only one example of studying myself, but I'll keep this one short for today. It's fun to write down thoughts and I encourage more people to do it, especially by hand despite how tedious it may first appear. It's a bit like exercising, and if you met me in person you'd know I'm all about that with my one-pack; continuity is easier than starting off.     
     Based on what I read so far, here's a final thought: If I divided the journal entries into binary distinctions of either positive or negative impact, and then plotted those against time on a Cartesian Plane of my existence here in Japan, you'd end up with one hell of a differential equation.

Which is to say that my life is truly a roller coaster here.