March 29, 2018

Detective Bureau 2-3

In a society that progressed as rapidly as did Japan during the post-war period, films from the 1950s and early 1960s like those of Yasujiro Ozu preserve a point in time as it mostly was rather than how it is now remembered.

At the time, Hollywood produced some fine films in and about Japan too. Shot on location, a movie like House of Bamboo (with Robert Stack) captures the Tokyo cityscape before modernity swept that sepia-colored world away.

Equally deserving of attention are those entertainment vehicles that won little in the way of high-culture respect (and even less in terms of international attention), and yet created the tropes and types of popular culture that still resonate today.

Unlike the works of Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa (such as High and Low, his 1963 police procedural), these movies have little value as artistic or as historical documents that strove for verisimilitude.

But they have great value as records of how the general public perceived the world around them, the ways in which they were willing to suspend their disbelief in order to imagine that social change in entertaining ways (still true of manga and anime today).

A great example of this is the clumsily titled (in English) Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! released by Nikkatsu Studios in January 1963.

The bad boy of the post-war Japanese movie business, Nikkatsu Studio avoided historical dramas and concentrated on low-budget comedies, teen melodramas, and actioners. Losing ground to television in the 1970s, Nikkatsu became synonymous with the "pink" genre.

But in 1963, though chock-a-block with armies of gun-wielding yakuza and a sky-high body count, Detective Bureau 2-3 (the "2-3" refers to protagonist's office number) isn't any more violent or explicit than Hollywood westerns of the 1950s.

Director Seijun Suzuki gives the film the look of a classic noir thriller. Joe Shishido (who appeared in six of Suzuki's films) is perfectly cast as a debonair detective who infiltrates the yakuza to expose a gun-running operation.

Featuring a sports car (that looks cool today), beautiful women, and heavies that could pass for Edward G. Robinson's cousins, plus the inventive use of what were then high-tech devices, Detective Bureau 2-3 had Miami Vice and Don Johnson beat by two decades.

Speaking of which, Miami Vice did an episode about the yakuza that wasn't half bad. But Don Johnson never wriggled out of tight situation with a song-and-dance routine that Fred Astaire could have choreographed.

Suzuki later got himself fired from Nikkatsu for making films that were so surreal and absurdist that they alienated Nikkatsu's core audience. When you're in the crowd-pleasing business, you do have to please the crowds.

In Detective Bureau 2-3 Suzuki and Shishido get the mix just right. Sporting a plot worthy of Chandler, it skirts the nihilism that came to typify the yakuza genre and supplies an upbeat ending. More upbeat than how the real world was dealing with the issue.

Robert Whiting recalls of the years leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the Japan Times (his fascinating five-part account starts here),

House theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night. Moreover, yakuza were everywhere, their numbers at an all-time high. There were also twice as many places to eat as New York and more bars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world.

The 1964 Olympics initiated a crackdown that was more of an accommodation. It essentially decriminalized the yakuza. Unlike American gangsters, the big yakuza organizations are legal corporations, and the police prefer to regulate them as such.

Sort of the same argument for decriminalizing drugs: stay away from the hard stuff and don't shoot civilians and we won't look too closely at where the hard cash is really coming from.

Capturing the yakuza sub-culture at its apex, Detective Bureau 2-3 makes hanging with the bad guys look cool. And the bad guys look cruel but cool. As with the glamour of the Miami Vice underworld, this comic book view of the yakuza persists to this day.

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March 22, 2018

Constancy amidst change

The character arc constitutes the core of drama designed to entertain, that hopes as well to enlighten the audience (this applies to comedy too, as "all great comedians are great dramatic actors"). The tale being told arises out of conflict, the fruits of which must manifest themselves in the denouement.

Ghost in the Shell (directed by Mamoru Oshii) epitomizes this basic story structure. Major Kusanagi's character arc parallels the narrative arc, to the extent that by the end of the movie she has literally become a different person. Meanwhile, her partner Batou remains a rock of constancy.

This tension between the constant and the variable focuses our attention on the metamorphosis taking place. Mathematically speaking, however, the distance between the two is the same regardless of the POV. In other words, the person doing the changing need not necessarily occupy the lead role.

In Children Who Chase Lost Voice (directed by Makoto Shinkai), the protagonist, Asuna, goes on a great adventure. But she undergoes no great transformation. She simply grows up. Shinkai includes a scene at the very end emphasizing that Asuna is no less an ordinary girl than she was before.

But Shun and Morisaki, who accompany her on her journey, are completed altered. Not only has Morisaki abandoned all the reasons for the journey he began with, he now bears indelible scars as punishment for his presumptions.

A steadfast protagonist that anchors the narrative holds especially true in television series. By contrast, the soap opera (and many a sit-com) is typified by the constant pursuit of shock and surprise, that inevitably inflicts more change than the suspension of disbelief can bear.

Which is not to suggests that stolid staples of genre storytelling like the detective drama lack character arcs. Quite the contrary. What makes them so enduring and endearing are the circles of fate that turn through each episode.

The antagonists are so often drawn the ranks of the rich and powerful because the decline and fall is so much greater. The man who had it all at the beginning of the episode loses everything in the end. We observe this decline and fall through the eyes of the detective, who serves as the Chorus.

A role epitomized by that of Watson, far more the observer of the human condition than Sherlock.

Staples of the television crime drama like CSI and Law & Order have less to say about actual crime and punishment than about the wages of sin and the costs of hubris. They are secular homilies for a modern age.

Like the preacher at the pulpit, in an anarchic world, the protagonist of a series must steer an outwardly steady course, evolving in a measured manner while remaining true to the constraints of the genre. By doing so, he casts the moral of the story into even bolder contrast.

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March 15, 2018


The genus of science fiction has difficulty defining its various species. Actual science fiction is the rarest of the breeds, dominated of late by space opera and unimaginative cyberpunk. Space opera is a chameleon genre, masquerading as science fiction when it contains hardly a spec of science.

Fantasy, by contrast, rarely pretends to be anything but imaginary.

Space opera wears the label of "science" the same way the female scientist in the James Bond movie wears a pair of glasses to convince us she's smart. On the other hand, maybe she really is gorgeous, brilliant, and nearsighted. Space opera, too, can be dumb about science and smart about Life, the Universe, and Everything, about how the human mind works.

My name for this particular creature is "psy-phi." The term occurred to me watching Guardians of the Galaxy II, a silly movie in which worthy explorations of psychology and philosophy can be found lurking between the gaudy comic book covers.

Star Wars stumbled into this psychodramatic niche with the first two installments. Alas, the franchise has been drained of all substance since, prompting the need to add another entry to the taxonomy: "space soap opera." Not only scientifically illiterate but equally empty-headed as well. Nothing kills "psy-phi" faster than the pretentiousness of pretend profundity.

Well, except for conflict created solely to generate drama. Any given Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon can entertain in the short term. But only the short term. No matter how much tragedy and pathos is slathered on top, it'll never add up to "drama."

The endless cycles of such melodramatic contrivances echo the traditional (gloomy) definition of samsara, a "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end." However "realistic" pessimism may be, without learning, growth, and resolution, there is no point to art.

Han Solo was a better person at the end of the first Star Wars movie than he was at the beginning. Luke Skywalker was certainly a wiser person at the end of the second Star Wars movie. But as far as I could tell, everybody still alive at the end of The Force Awakens is the same as they were going in.

Rey, Finn, and Kyo Ren start off as end products, the meaningful transformations having taken place in unseen prequels. Which may explain how forgettable the whole thing is.

So, sure. Space opera can be dumb as a rock about space. But if I can grab onto a rewarding character arc that goes somewhere with some hope of positive change, I'll keep watching.

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March 01, 2018

The life of a salesman

The most beloved stereotype of the Japanese salesman is that of a mild-mannered carnival barker as portrayed in the long-running Tora-san movies. Persistent and endearingly ingratiating (almost to the point of being annoying). Not hard-sell.

The business of business-to-business—a popular subject of Japanese television melodramas—combines persistence and supplication in the face of rejection. The objective, it seems, is to be inoffensively irritating to the point that the other side caves to get rid of you.

Sort of like stalking. In a good way! Ganbaru—to patiently persist, endure, never give up—is intrinsic to the character of the ideal Japanese striver. A good salesman is NOT Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. That's how yakuza behave. That's why yakuza terrify the average Japanese.

In Japan, one such feared "hard sell" technique is known as "catch sales." It uses an aggressive approach (invading a person's space and getting in his face) to physically move the conversation to a "home ground" where the salesman controls every aspect of the interaction.

You know, like a church.

As I recount in Tokyo South, back during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mormon missionaries deployed catch sales techniques with enormous success. In the short term. In the long term—well, by design, Mormon missionaries aren't around for the long term.

So the whole thing fell apart in a few short years. The catch sales approach treats people as disposable. The bird in the hand is never worth as much as two in the bush, and for good reason. It's a lot easier to sell the idea of joining a community than to create one.

Or as Groucho Marx famously said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." If it's that easy to join, why join? Besides, all Japanese already belong to a club. It's the Japanese club, and being a member is a full time job.

If you can sell that, then you are sure to "always be closing."

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