April 30, 2011

Putting Words into Mouths

The current free exhibit at the National Showa Memorial Museum is "WWII and Post-war Japan Seen Through Posters". In front of the museum stood a security guard and a bike-riding hippie, engaged in conversation for at least five minutes. Strangers don't usually strike up conversations in Japan, so I'm curious about what these two men were talking about, especially in front of such politically charged images. 

April 29, 2011

View from a Pedestrian Bridge

A nondescript, ugly pedestrian bridge near Etchujima...

...turns out to have some stained glass panels. I love that the local community went to the trouble of making something as commonplace as a pedestrian bridge in a not particularly notable area of Tokyo into something distinctive and lovely, and that no-one has broken the glass or written graffiti over it. The only signs of wear and tear are the rust that has appeared on the bridge over the years. 

Spied from the top of the bridge: a Volkswagen that looks like it drove in straight from following Grateful Dead on the road in the 60s.

April 28, 2011

"Treasure" is a Relative Term

A vending machine in Kameido. For the steep price of 1,000 yen ($12), you have the chance to win everything from an mp3 player to a wristwatch. I was almost tempted to try, but "treasure" in this case is most likely a 6-year-old ipod or sunglasses you could buy for 200 yen at a store.

April 26, 2011

Decorative Pipes at Iidabashi Station

(The stairway down to the Oedo Line at Iidabashi Station.)

After Shinjuku and Tokyo Station, Iidabashi is third on my list of Most Frustrating Stations in Tokyo. All three of them are labyrinthine constructions, with subway lines and train lines all converging in one large area. Going through these stations, you feel like a rat fighting through a maze -- especially with all the shops (read: distractions) that line the pathways.

While Iidabashi is significantly smaller than the first two stations, a simple matter of changing train lines can still lead to a half-a-kilometer walk. Use any of these stations as a meeting spot, and there will invariably be someone who hadn't anticipated it would take so long to find the right exit, and someone who gets lost and requires meticulous guiding over the phone.


Getting to the Oedo Line from west exit of Iidabashi Station is a bit of a trek, but it's a more pleasant experience than other stations, if only because the pathway is clean and relatively new-looking. When you go down the escalator/stairs to the platform, there's a gaggle of green pipes overhead that initially look functional but turn out to be purely decorative.

Bonus: the outside of the station is as batshit crazy as the inside.

Rooftop Shrine

On a rooftop near Etchujima, an industrial area, stands a small shrine. I assume that it's there to honor some kind of contractual agreement ("You can build on this land so long as you don't destroy the shrine."), but I wish the surrounding environment weren't so no-frills. A flowerpot or two ought to make the area seem more sacred.

Eventually a Wisteria Trellis

(The excellent public park right across the street from the private Kiyosumi Garden.) 

Unlike the wisteria I saw in Kagurazaka the other day, this tree is nowhere near blooming. The buds look more like lavender at this stage.  

But in a couple of weeks, you won't even be able to see all the wooden slats.

The poor tree is being fed to the roof.

April 25, 2011

Last Hanami of the Year

Yaezakura (eight-layer sakura) bloom later than your typical sakura, but I was surprised to find one still in its full-blooming glory at Kiyosumi Garden.

And really, there was only one. The tree on the right was showing a bit too much leaf.

In this photo it looks like a giant pink afro, but the real thing was quite majestic.

Time traveler on the right.

The iris japonica were also in full bloom.

The main garden, which I posted photos of before.

But that was before the earthquake.

Until next time.

The No-Barf Zone

(In Tsukishima.)

The yellow sign reads, "Please don't barf here." Or to be more precise, "Please don't barf (throw up) here." I like the insertion of less vivid language.

April 24, 2011

Wisteria Chaser

(Zenkokuji in Kagurazaka.)

In the same fortuitous way that cherry blossoms bloom right in time for the new school/fiscal year, wisteria reach the apex of their beauty during Golden Week. You think this is lovely? Give it a week, and the buds will pop open like popcorn.

On a scale of one to ten, this is about a five.

For Easter

The shadow of a flower?

No, an Easter egg! I like the slightly unwholesome use of colors (too acidly bright), and the hint of strangeness in the pictures.

Easter mantlepiece with ajisai (hydrangea) flowers.

April 23, 2011

Too Lazy to Chop Garlic? Try the...

A bit of product placement: I bought Chef'n's Garlic Zoom as a joke birthday present at Printemps Ginza, not really believing that it would chop garlic as finely as advertised.

The mechanism seems almost too easy -- three blades rotate on a wheel, slicing the garlic that you put inside the contraption, over and over. It's like a violent version of a toy car.

Chef'n Garlic Zoom
I'm going to try it with ginger next, but the fibers may be too tough for the small blades.

April 22, 2011

Coffee Shop with an Identity Crisis

Until very recently, this coffee shop was a part of the hamburger chain Fire House. They've since morphed into a cafe/takeout place called Qino's coffee shop. But the decor still owes much to its past, seeing as there are no burgers on the current menu.  

The takeout menu, featuring some mind-blowing Engrish.

Qino's has an Ueno branch that sells tarts. The shop's official name? "Qino's the TART st, Blooklyn, NEW YORK", in all its misspelled, incomprehensible glory.

Banania Revisited

Taken at a deli in Montreal, March 2008. Banania is a French hot cocoa-type mix containing banana flour. The logo in its many incarnations has always been a subject of controversy, accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes. It's been around since 1912 -- I wonder if there are any special plans for its 100th anniversary next year.

I was quite surprised to see a vintage Banania poster at the French restaurant Aux Bacchanales in Shinagawa. But then, perhaps this is all too far removed for the Japanese to see it as an issue.

Also in the photo is actress Scarlett Johansson's Moët & Chandon ad. Why a company would go to the trouble of paying millions for an actor spokesperson and then go on to Photoshop all of the distinctiveness out of them is beyond me. (Witness Zooey Deschanel's recent Rimmel ad. I would sue.) Johansson here looks like a common "hot girl".

April 21, 2011

On the Train

Another secret shot taken on the train. This twentysomething girl was carrying two hula hoops, for some reason. The hoops were blue and pink, and perfectly complemented her light blue ruffled skirt ad her dusty-pink ruffled heels and leather jacket. It's a shame I can't show her two pigtails. The inspiration may be infantile, but as a look it's sharply put-together.

April 19, 2011

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox (2002)

 Dr. Bronner's Magic soap (tea tree oil) and their mint chapstick.

If you've ever bothered to look closely at the labels of Dr. Bronner's 100% organic bottled soaps, you've probably had to do a double take. They look great from a distance, solid-colored labels with words crammed every which way. But it's not just ingredients and company information written on them, they are honest-to-God rants and ramblings of Dr. Bronner himself.

For example:
"...Within 9 minutes you feel fresh and clean, saving 90% of your hot water & soap, ready to help teach the whole Human race the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith! For we're ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE!"

"To dream that impossible dream! To reach that unreachable star! 'Til All-One, All-One we are! To fight that unbeatable foe! To go where the brave dare not to go!..."

So many questions arise when you look at the label, it makes sense that someone would attempt to have them answered, as Sara Lamm did in her 2002 documentary, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox. It's a genius idea -- you can't imagine the end result not being quirky. But as it turns out, there is much darkness in the real story.

The rundown: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps were created by a man named Emanuel H. Bronner. Originally from Germany, where his parents owned a soap factory, the Jewish Bronner emigrated to the US in 1929. (His less fortunate parents were killed by the Nazis.) He embarked on a tour across the US, calling himself Dr. Bronner and preaching the "Moral ABC", a personal religion that has its basis in the idea that all the gods come from one origin (hence his favorite sentence closer, "All-one!"), and then freely adapted by Bronner throughout the years. During this time, he also phoned the FBI repeatedly to file complaints about Communists taking over, which led to a stint in the mental hospital in 1947. Upon his escape, he started making his famous all-natural peppermint soap, through which he further espoused the Moral ABC.

Dr. Bronner with his youngest son, his clear favorite.
It's a hell of a story, one that is relayed mostly through his heirs through interviews and older footage. The company is currently managed through his family, who honor him (he died in 1997 at the age of 89) by keeping his words on the labels. Some work directly for the company, while his oldest son goes around giving talks about his father and generously handing out free samples.

 A hippie-ish drawing for the soap, way back when.

For all the rich material, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is a surprisingly timid film, refusing to put an angle on Bronner's controversial religious beliefs, or his role in the counterculture. The Moral ABC pops up incessantly throughout the film, but Lamm does not attempt to make any comment on it, essentially brushing them aside in the same way his family does. It's a curious rejection of an opportunity to understand how and why he came to believe in the All-One religion so fervently, and the relationship his family has with their father's religion. It's stated that they once ridiculed their father's beliefs, but looking at the direction the company has taken, it would seem that they have made a conscious effort to adopt his words in their own ways. We find in the closing credits that the company has incorporated environmentally friendly practices such as using 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, and has given away over 70% of its net profit. In addition they insist on fair trade and organic materials. Yet, there is no interest in elaborating why or how they came to make those decisons. Similarly, Bronner's role in hippie culture is explained, but not analyzed. (A more shrewd director would have positioned him as an early counterculture guru.)

Dr. Bronner getting his morning exercise by hanging on to a car.
The film's refusal to take a stance is most apparent in its portrayal of Bronner. In grainy 80's footage, where he talks with a heavy German accent about how to wash yourself using his soap, he can appear comical, and certainly, his family reminisces about him as if he were a mostly lovable kook. Yet, this is a man who would leave his kids to spend horrific stints in orphanages and foster homes while he took on the task of "uniting spaceship earth". As the film goes on, the religious rants become increasingly uncomfortable to listen to, both for their relentlessness and lack of actual insight.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox
Incidentally, in Japan, Dr. Bronner's is fairly popular and can be found in major drugstores. The labels are the same as the US versions, except for a sticker in the back that states the major ingredients, its certification as an organic product, and that it can be used as a face soap, a body wash, and a makeup remover. No how's that for All-One?

Shots from a New Zealand Farm

These photos were taken in 2001 on a farm in New Zealand an hour or so outside Auckland, back when digital cameras hadn't yet taken over. As convenient as digital cameras are -- an really, their virtues can be summed up with that word -- I miss how exacting you have to be when taking photos on film.

Despite the change in format, though, I find it amusing that I am still essentially interested in the same things as I was ten years ago. I don't deplore this lack of development; it seems so long ago that I can simply appreciate the images anew. 

One common vein is capturing animals looking funny. In the above photo, a team of roosters and chickens rest on top of a pig.

 They scattered as soon as I came nearer, except for one straggler.

A pig, nearly camoflauged in the mud.

A treehouse, an absolute delight for someone who grew up with only stunted trees in the backyard.

April 17, 2011

"Looking for Alibrandi", Looking for the Eye Candy

Pia Miranda faces off with Anthony LaPaglia in Looking for Alibrandi.

Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetti's beloved 1992 coming-of-age novel about a 17-year-old Italian-Australian girl, is a staple in Australian schools. The book follows Josephine, the smart, outspoken protagonist through her final year of school as she comes to terms with her illegitimacy, her Italian roots, her friendships, and her first serious relationship. Marchetti renders her characters with absolute sincerity and carefully tackles issues such as racism, religion, depression, and social class, giving us a vivid portrait of Australia in the early 90s. 

Looking for AlibrandiLooking for Alibrandi

A film adaptation was released in 2000, but sadly retained none of the novel's nuance and careful characterization. Ironically, the screenplay was penned by Marchetti herself, and she even won an Australian Film Institue award for her work. (The film received a slew of other awards as well.) Yet, the film makes the fatal (rookie?) mistake of turning the book’s first-person narrative into a voiceover, clumsily hammering home what could have been expressed through the performances. I blanched as the protagonist-narrator started announcing lines such as ("This might be where I come from but do I really belong here?" "I have go to get out of here.") not two minutes into the film.

Pia Miranda, perfecting the teenage eye roll.

The performances also suffer from the blunt storytelling, and the characters seem to go from one emotional state to the other without the scenes to sufficiently explain them. Josie is portrayed by Pia Miranda, who was 27 (!) at the time of filming. She looks at home playing a teenager and pulls off her character's spunky, frustrated side, but fails to display any of the restless intelligence that gives her the aforementioned spunk. Like too many other teen films and TV films, we can really only take the script's word that this is a smart girl.

Matthew Newton as John Barton, a well-to-do politician's son.

Kick Gurry as Jacob Coote, the working-class school president.

But I had a bigger issue with the casting of Kick Gurry and Matthew Newton as Jacob Coote and John Barton, respectively. As polar opposites who are both drawn to Josie, the two boys play crucial roles in the story. I expect I was not the only person who was left disappointed when the two made their appearance. This isn't an escapist teen comedy, like say, Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging, in which the 15-year-old protagonist snags a teenaged Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Kick-Ass) in the end. But as the romantic interest (Gurry) and the untouchable good guy (Newton), it would make sense for the charactes to be physically appealing. What kind of eye candy is this?

Matthew Newton as John Barton.

 Kick Gurry as Jacob Coote.

My desire to dissect the film more or less fizzled after I got wind of these two. I could have forgiven the annoying voiceover and clumsy story development, but without aesthetic pleasure, the redeeming factor, there was just too little to go on.