May 13, 2008

Well, various bleak things anyway. Don’t know why I put myself through them, really.


I’m in a phase (that I’ll very shortly be out of it, ref the whole bleak thing) of reading Japanese fiction, and the only real reason I can think of is that I’m trying to find a kind of idealised Japanese cyberpunk thing I can immerse myself into. For my mind, this ideal is a Blade Runner environment salted with the early, capsule-hotel/mad-tech/Chiba City-inspired elements of Neuromancer and seasoned with Cayce’s fleeting, surreal visit to Japan in Pattern Recognition. Trouble is, I can’t find anything like this anywhere. And why are so many Japanese to English translations so bloody flat?

Digressing. Out and Grotseque, by Natsuo Kirino.


Out was interesting. It’s the story of a quartet of Japanese women who work the soul-deadening nightshift at a lunchbox factory, preparing prepackaged lunches for the hungry Tokyo masses… probably a uniquely Japanese concept since we don’t have anything like that here. They have insipid, squalid, nihilistically boring lives and one of them snaps, killing her husband after she finds out he’s gambled away their life savings. Without anywhere else to go, she asks her friends at the factory to help, for money and favours, and they do, dismembering the body and getting rid of it. But one of them, who is pressed into body-part-disposal service very much against her will, doesn’t hide the head very well and things begin to fall apart. Cue an utterly psychotic Japanese mobster who indirectly loses his business concerns because of the murder, a police investigation and, bizarrely, a woman who develops a taste for what she’s done and finds that there’s money in the body disposal business…

It’s noir, it’s dark, it’s grim, it’s miserable and it’s full of sad, brittle, broken characters whose ennui and hopelessness keep them endlessly tottering on the brink. And some most of them fall. Depressing, true, but the twists keep coming and some of them are truly out of left field. Thus: cautiously recommended.


Grotesque, on the other hand, is not. “Cool, angry and stylish,” it says on the tin. Uh-uh. Ostensibly the story of two women who descend into prostitution on the mean streets of Japan and eventually get murdered, it takes forever to get going — endless boring crap about school lives and dysfunctional families and >>yawwwwnnn<< — and then meanders to a creeping, boring halt. Yes, the lives of prostitutes are horrible; yes, the world is a bad place; yes, bad things happen to innocent people.

But it could have been interesting, and it’s not. It’s cluttered with the trivia and minutiae of the lives of schoolgirls and boring nerds and sad, sad people and it doesn’t work. I found myself skipping great chunks of it just to find something actually happening, rather than people just talking about existential grief and the crapness of their lives and how little fun it is to sell yourself for ¥500 or whatever. Frankly, a complete waste of the three hours of my life I took to skim-read this drivel. Sigh.


Autofiction and Snakes And Earrings, by Hitomi Kanehara


Autofiction: more bleakness. Yea, verily? Indeed, although a much shorter book and interlaced with a nicely psychotic turn from the protagonist, who basically goes insane with jealousy whenever one of her paramours disappears out of her sight. The story runs backwards, beginning on a plane when she is returning from a second honeymoon and her husband disappears into the toilet (she thinks he’s shagging the stewardess and her mental state spirals downwards from there) back through three instances of her history as the reasons for her chaotic mindstate are quite eloquently revealed. There isn’t a great deal of closure but it was at least interesting, with the authorial voice quite compelling throughout. Again: cautiously recommended. -ish.

Snakes And Earrings is much better, possibly because it touches upon my idealised cyberpunk Japan as wistfully noted early in this entry. It’s a short piece, a little over a hundred pages, and the author’s first novel: according to the inner jacket blurb she left school at age eleven, started writing at fifteen and fired off her stories to her father who translated for them for publication. If that’s true, it works: it reads very autobiographical and very much the seedy, countercultural side of Japan, with a nod towards the Harajuku Girls and a sordid wink at Cronenbergish body modification horrors, albeit realistic ones (yay, split tongues!). It’s about body piercing, physical mods and the strange, twisted lives of those who live in this culture — and how they end. There isn’t a lot of hope in it, but in this case that works well: a short, punch piece like this is defined by environment and characterisation and they shine through like the edge of a razor blade. Definitely a good read, this one.


Finally, still in Bleak Genre but well out of Japan, we have a film: Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King novella The Mist:


The Mist



Darabont did two of the best Steve King adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Here’s his opportunity to cut loose a little and just make a balls-out horror film, and he did it in style. The Mist is about what happens to a little Maine community when a mysterious fog envelops the town, trapping most of the residents in the supermarket, who then find out that bloodthirsty monsters lurk in the bleary white world without. As per usual when people are put in a confined space and forced to try to get along to survive, it invariably turns into disaster.

The special effects are marvellous (although people really aren’t just thin balloon-skins of meat with hundreds of gallons of high-pressure blood waiting to spurt beneath it… however since I’m quite happy to see blood and guts in a movie I’m prepared to overlook this, and indeed even encourage it), the acting is more than acceptable (occasionally a little over the top or wooden, but that’s often a problem with Stephen King writing as source material: his dialogue doesn’t always translate well into what someone would really say), and the inexorable rising of the horror and despair is deftly handled.

And then there’s the ending, which… let’s just say that in the novella, King left things rather open. This doesn’t. It’s one of the most brutal, bleakest things I’ve seen in a long, long time. Brrr. And well done.

Enthusiastically recommended — but you won’t walk away with a smile on your face. You may, however, not want to drive into fog again. Ever. :O







April 3, 2008

Apologies for the long delays in updating, my nonexistent audience. The embuggerance of work has kept me away from a computer.

That said, this is a Bad Review Post because sometimes things are just bad. In the tradition, however, of trying to be generally nice I will try and keep it short:

Winkie, by Clifford Chase 

Winkie, by Clifford Chase.

The story of a plush bear who, for reasons never adequately explained, is alive and then rather implausibly gets arrested for terrorism under the Homeland Security Act and charged with thousands upon thousands of offences. Winkie is given the world’s worst lawyer, won’t speak up to defend himself, has the most biased judge imaginable and… oh right it’s satire. Gosh, guess I missed the satire brick falling on my head. Some Americans aren’t happy with the way their government deals with terrorism? Homeland Security pisses them off? Well sure, but this doesn’t work. Not as a framework, not as an allegory, not as anything really.

Strange bothersome thing about Winkie: the author seems to have a fascination with bowel movements. One of Winkie’s goals in life is, when he strikes out for his own, to learn to crap. This segues rather weirdly and uncomfortably into him apparently crapping out a baby bear a little later on via some kind of faecal plush immaculate conception. Er… right. There’s also a rather exorbitant number of pages and little vignettes dealing with Winkie’s owner having difficulty toilet training himself. I mean, I can see the connection, the irony and the relevance but eww. Guess analytical crap isn’t my thing.

It’s a strange, sad book and the satire was both very obvious and frustratingly irrelevant, at least in parts. Too much emphasis on faecal matters for my liking. There were some strengths, but it’s a first novel and shows a bit, unfortunately. Although very occasionally, when he wasn’t being endlessly miserable or crapping, Winkie was quite cute and likeable. A shame the surrounding cast and story weren’t. 😦

And now a movie review, also brought to you by Crrrrrrrrrrrrap:

Beowulf (2007) 

Beawful Beowulf (2007) — screenplay by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, directed by Robert Zemeckis.


Everyone says that Beowulf should be seen in 3D: it was designed that way, they say; without it you won’t get the full experience and it will look crappy, they say. Well, being stuck in the desert in the monsoon season and seeing it on a caravan park television movie channel, I unfortunately did not get to see it in 3D. Funny that I forgot to pack my trusty 3D glasses when I was sent to the middle of nowhere. So I will throw in a caveat here: perhaps Beowulf is indeed an utter masterpiece in 3D.

Because it sure wasn’t in 2D. If this is the future of computer-generated animation (CGI, for the 0% of the population who don’t know), we’re buggered. The occasionally well-rendered scene were buried beneath marionette people with stiff and unmoving faces, hair that stayed absolutely still except for the last quarter-inch which moved a little like a curtain’s edge, Angelina Jolie’s breasts digitally enhanced to the size of watermelons and pointing upwards so high they were close to poking her eyes out, and the most APPALLINGLY CRAP DRAGON ANIMATION EVER. It had a head like a gold potato and it flew like a bloody rod puppet and did I mention that it had a head like a GREAT BIG GOLD POTATO AARGH MY EYES MAKE IT GO AWAY

Oh God the Giant Space Chicken Monster in this 1950s movie was more convincing than Beowulf’s dragon. (Scroll halfway down that page to see the Giant Space Chicken Monster: it’s worth it)

It astonishes me that technology has come so far, and yet we can’t do the kind of seamless animation with a computer that we got with models, full-scale and miniatures and stop-motion in movies such as Dragonslayer. Which had a very impressive dragon indeed.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the dialogue or the story either: conversations between the players invariably came out stilted or lame, and the plot was sketchy and a little messy, with at least one very significant deviation from the original tale that kind of, in my opinion, rendered the original tale pretty much useless. For spoilery’s sake I will only say I’m talking about Grendel’s mother here and leave it at that. Sorry Neil and Roger: you’re both very talented people but this didn’t work for me.

Something that perplexed me even though I’m sure they had a reason was why Ray Winstone as Beowulf was digitally rendered to look exactly like Sean Bean. To the point where Bean must’ve approved his likeness or considered suing. Winstone apparently no longer has action-figure looks (according to the commentary on the DVD, I note, from his own lips) and so, fairly enough, didn’t necessarily want his character modelled on him, but why not create something new? And if you are using Sean Bean, why not have him voice himself…? And then there was the frankly surreal Matrix-y acrobatics fight between Grendel and Beowulf and AARGH THAT DRAGON IS BACK IN MY MIND GO AWAAAAY

I must say that I was under the impression it was supposed to be very violent and bloody and pretty much entirely for adults, but the version I saw looked very tame and there was surprisingly little blood. Also, when Beowulf was fighting naked (was that a spoiler? ah sod it) it was laughably bizarre to see objects just ‘happening’ to continue to cover his ‘manhood’ all the time (eg: someone holding a carefully positioned helmet or sword, Grendel’s arm in the way, etc etc ad infinitum). However, there is apparently an unrated version out there that is far more graphic, so perhaps the one I saw was a soft’n’squishy edited-for-mindless-TV-pap version. Which just made the whole experience even worse

Er, sorry. Not being very objective here, am I. Very well. In the interests of pure objectivity: I admit that I did not adore Beowulf, but I’m sure if I saw it in 3D, all of the previously mentioned issues would disappear in a puff of elegant perfection.

No, really.

OK, back to the book reviews next time, and something I hopefully did like. 😀

Abandon all hope

January 11, 2008


A slight diversion from books, but I really wanted to mention this.Picked it up on a whim and finally sat down to watch it yesterday. Always been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and though I knew this one basically centered on the apocalyptic, I’d always been curious. I had seen the American version, The Day After, years ago, which was well-meaning but a touch too Hollywood to have much impact, at least on me.And so I watched this.

Threads is a 1970s BBC drama that deals with a nuclear bomb targetting Sheffield, England. It traces the lives of two families before, during and after the fall of the bomb. It is shot in a pseudo-documentary style, intermingling stock and live footage with the ongoing storylines.

Threads is probably the most horrifying television I have ever seen.

If anything you ever do or see will make you take an anti-nuclear stance, this is it.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, but then enjoyment isn’t the right word for what I saw.

What I can say is this:

If you haven’t watched this, do so. As soon as you can.

And when you’ve finished, when the DVD has stopped and you’re shaking and wide-eyed in the aftermath, think a little about the state of the world today, and what you just watched.


And be afraid.