Koreeda Hirokazu was my introduction to live-action Japanese cinema. (Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Japanese media came in the form of anime—specifically, fan-subbed VHS cassettes of Ranma 1/2, Oh My Goddess!, and Video Girl Ai.) The first Koreeda film I saw was Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004), and I was stunned by the power of its silences. The camera lingered on simple, beautiful compositions—a toy piano, light filtering in through a window. The child actors’ performances had a natural, unforced quality to them. The story was heartbreaking, but never maudlin.

I felt the same way about Maboroshi no hikari (1995), with its long, uninterrupted shots and reliance on natural lighting. Afterlife veered toward sentimentality, but it still had that rough-around-the-edges feel that kept it from feeling like a soap opera.

Distance (2001), while intriguing in its premise, seemed more like a filmmaking experiment than a fully-formed movie. Then came Kūki ningyō (Air Doll, 2009). And…yikes. Many people I respect had very positive things to say about this movie, but I loathed it on a deep level. The stilted dialogue, the cliched “message” (we’re all like blow-up dolls, empty and waiting to be filled up), the number of reviewers who called it “sensual” and “erotic,” when to me it was creepy and unpleasant to watch a mostly mute, doll-like woman walk around naked and occasionally have very sad sex.

Koreeda’s trajectory hasn’t been a clear edgy-to-mainstream path–in the past twenty years his films have been a mix of rougher, more subtle stories and very shiny-looking melodramas. Knowing what’s come before, though, makes Aruite mo aruite mo (Still Walking), his 2008 film about a family reunion, hard to watch—mostly because there are frequent glimmers of the artistry that made movies like Maboroshi and Nobody Knows so beautiful. But those moments are mixed in with blunt voiceover, a generically sentimental soundtrack, and characters explaining a situation when the director could have just let the camera linger on their faces.

Still Walking is the story of the Yokoyama family reunion, which takes place over 24 hours in a small seaside town. It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the death of the oldest son, Junpei, who died saving a drowning child. Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and his sister Chinami (YOU of Nobody Knows), with their respective spouses and children in tow, have come to spend the weekend. Ryota has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son, which his superstitious mother (Kirin Kiki) clearly doesn’t approve of (the widow quickly sees through her polite facade). Chinami and her family want to move into the family home to take care of the parents, but the parents are wary. The father (Yoshio Harada) is withdrawn and bitter over the death of his son and heir, who was to take over his medical practice.

There are a few harsh words and heartfelt statements over the course of the weekend, but mostly it’s business as usual, and we get the sense that this is how this family has always interacted with one another—with warmth and affection, but also a great deal of deep-seated resentment and frustration. The film works best in its mundane moments—when the adults and children cook together in the kitchen, when the adults talk while the children run around just outside, or when Ryota and his wife and stepson joke with each other before going to bed.

What’s maddening is when a beautiful moment is created and then ruined with unnecessary dialogue or cutaways. At one point the family is visited by a man who, we learn, is the child that older son Junpei died to save. The man is sweaty, awkward, and doesn’t seem to be making much of his life, and it’s clear in the forced politeness of the father and mother that they regret their son’s act of charity. But then the man leaves, and the father feels the need to explain to us at length that he is a “fat loser” and that Junpei shouldn’t have died for him.

There’s also an unnecessary voiceover before the film’s coda, which tells us a lot that we probably could have guessed. And then there’s the soundtrack—plaintive guitar plucking that sounds straight out of a soap opera. Thankfully it doesn’t appear too often, but when it does it’s a distraction.

Even with those flaws, Still Walking is a very decent movie. In some places it’s even moving, and while it doesn’t have enough of the interesting framing and lighting choices of some other Koreeda films, such images do pop up occasionally and are wonderful to look at—a sunlight-filled window through which the adults watch children playing outside; the house entryway with shoes lined up and some of the family’s faces hidden as they enter; long, single takes of everyone around a table. But it’s hard, knowing that a director is capable of infinitely more interesting things, to see them produce something so safe. This may simply be the kind of film that Koreeda wanted to make in 2008, but I wish he’d make more of the ones that don’t look quite so polished.


(Note: I’m spending some time during the inter-semester break catching up on unseen films and unread books & articles, and will be using this space to get some thoughts about them down on paper [not literally on paper, but you know].)

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It’s that rare blend of artistic visuals and compelling narrative that manages not to shortchange either—you’re sucked in by the story, but in the meantime you’re able to appreciate some absolutely stunning images, not to mention remarkable set pieces and visual effects for a film made in the 1960s. It’s an arthouse film that never feels pretentious, a story that’s obviously a parable but with characters and a setting that feel real and immediate.

I remember reading Abe Kōbō’s novel for the first time about ten years ago and being blown away, but also feeling a deep sense of revulsion. This was a novel that did a very, very good job of describing what it was like for two people to be constantly covered in grit—bodies covered in sand and sweat, constantly brushing sand out of their hair, sand falling into their beds and the cracks in the ceiling, brushing it off of their food. It was viscerally real, and as someone who’s always been a bit squeamish about dirt, it stuck with me.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, though, places Kōbō’s story so squarely within the realm of myth and parable that the close-up images of skin covered in sand take on an aesthetic quality. You can still imagine the gritty, unpleasant feeling, but it becomes just another piece of the bizarre world that the characters inhabit.

(Note: If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading and go watch it. Don’t read about it, just watch it—the effect is best if you can just watch the story unfold without knowing what’s coming.)

The film opens with shots of a man (Eiji Okada, star of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour) climbing up and down sand dunes as discordant music plays in the background. He’s a teacher from Tokyo who’s come to the countryside to collect insect specimens. Having missed the last bus back to town, he’s offered a place to stay for the night by some local villagers. He descends by rope ladder to a house surrounded on all sides by walls of shifting sand. In the house is a woman (Kyōko Kishida) who serves him dinner and speaks cryptically about why he’s there—he corrects her when she mentions what he’ll do “the day after tomorrow,” saying that he’ll be gone in the morning. As night falls she goes outside to shovel sand into buckets which are then hoisted up above by the villagers.

In the morning the man discovers that the rope ladder is gone. Initially confused, he asks the woman to send for the villagers, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve trapped him: he must help the woman shovel sand so that her house—and the entire village—isn’t swallowed by the dunes.

The story’s logic doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supposed to—of course endlessly digging sand that will only continue to bury the village is a Sisyphean task. Of course the villagers should just abandon their slowly disappearing homes and move somewhere else. But the woman’s reasons for remaining—and ultimately, the man’s reasons for not trying to escape—are heartbreakingly logical.

Akira Lippit’s “Atomic Light: Shadow Optics” points out some fascinating details about The Woman in the Dunes’ atom bomb-related imagery (the film is set in an utterly desolate landscape, and at one point there’s a close-up of the protagonist’s watch, which is stopped at 8:15, the moment that the bomb exploded). Though we are given clues that the story takes place in the modern world—the man mentions a bus and says he is from Tokyo—the bleached and barren visuals give the sense of being nowhere, or miles away from anything resembling civilization.

The film’s combination of surreal imagery and sound serves as a fascinating backdrop to the story, but it also IS the story—when images of the woman’s nude body are layered over images of shifting waves of sand, we start to realize that there’s very little that separates the woman from the dunes. (Akira Lippit points out that the film’s title, “suna no onna,” could also be translated as “the sand woman.”)The famous opening sequence, which shows a mess of fingerprints and inkan stamps layered over the opening credits as ominous music accompanies shots of the man climbing sand dunes, drives home the disconnect between the man’s pitiful claims—“I’m registered with the city office!”—and the indifference of the landscape.

The performances are incredible. Kyōko Kishida embodies her role so completely that you half wonder if the director simply happened upon her in her cottage and started filming. Her large eyes have a perpetually haunted look, even when she’s putting on a cheerful front. And yet at times she IS cheerful—she has accepted her situation so completely that she seems content.

Nearly fifty years after it was filmed, The Woman in the Dunes remains a potent allegory—for our slavish devotion to the status quo, for the ephemeral nature of human existence, for the pointlessness of tasks that seem incredibly significant. What sets it apart, though, is the very real story at its center, of two human beings caught up in forces beyond their control. The philosophical questions that the film explores are powerful, its images stunning, but at its heart it’s the narrative—the characters, the brilliant performances by the actors, and their painful existences—that makes it memorable.

1. Fuck nice shoes. Seriously, fuck them. I made a point of getting nice black work-appropriate shoes with slightly pointy toes and low, thick heels (no way am I ever wearing anything spiky). I put said shoes in my office thinking that I would come to work in my more comfortable boot-sneakers and then change shoes to look more, you know, professional. Nope, not gonna happen. With all the running around I do from place to place and back and forth there is no way I’m doing it in heely shoes, even if they are low, thick heels. I am officially over caring too much about my appearance—if my clothes and my body are clean, my hair is brushed, and my outfits aren’t crazy enough to distract my students, it’s all good.

2. Hello, impostor syndrome, my old friend. Time away from academia has reduced the number of fucks I give about certain things, but I still want to seem like I know what the hell I’m talking about. And whoa, I am way, way behind. Of course teaching eight courses hasn’t exactly given me much time to catch up on all the research and unread literature and unwatched films of the past two and a half years. Sometimes it seems like there’s a little mini-exam every week. I’ll get into a random conversation with a colleague and it’ll turn out they know way more about recent developments in lit theory and Japanese film than I do, and I’ll try to recall the names of important authors and directors and will draw a complete blank and will then want to curl up under my desk and not come out anymore because oh God, they’re onto me, I’m a fake.

3. What the hell is wrong with my memory? I seriously thought I was having a stroke at least a dozen times during this semester. I couldn’t remember people’s names, I couldn’t remember my classroom locations, I couldn’t remember if I had met someone before (I usually had), I couldn’t remember who was in which department, I couldn’t remember my course schedule, I couldn’t remember if I’d brushed my teeth that morning. It was like a brief glimpse of what it must be like to gradually start losing your memory, and it was enough to make me head over to the Luminosity website or do some Sudoku or some shit that would create more synapses and keep the wheels running at a regular speed.

4. Not giving a fuck (when you can manage it) is really nice. It’s shocking how being immersed in academia can really convince you that your entire identity and sense of self-worth is tied to how much and where you publish, whether you get tenure, where you rank in your departmental hierarchy, etc. Maybe it’s just because I got a bit of distance from it for a couple of years, but I just don’t freak out as much about climbing the academic ladder or impressing people anymore. I’m happy in the position I’m in, and I can see myself being happy there pretty much indefinitely. I have no designs on prestige. I love to teach, and I love to write about literature, and I get to do both of those things. The money’s fine (it helps that I don’t have kids), the benefits are great, I have my own goddamn office, all’s good.

5. Oh, just WRITE. I can only help you so much. Yeah, I know it’s my job to teach college students how to write effectively. But on some days I just want to throw up my hands at them and admit my limitations. If you’re a shit writer at the age of 19 or 20, there’s really very little I can do to help you, especially if you don’t really have much desire (or incentive) to get better. See, I can write decently—it’s one of the few things that I feel pretty confident about—but some days I have NO FUCKING CLUE how to TEACH people to write. I can’t recall ever being TAUGHT to write, though I know there were some teachers and professors in my life who guided me in the right direction. It’s a bit like being born a beaver and then having to teach kangaroos how to build dams. I can’t TEACH you to build a fucking damn, I’m a beaver, it’s just what we do. But of course there are SOME things I can teach people, like how to distinguish shit writing from good and how to polish a so-so paper and how to make awkward sentences less awkward, so I do that. And occasionally students turn in really good work that is at least slightly better because of my guidance, and that feels great.

6. Trust is nice. As in it’s really nice to not have to clock in and clock out and just sit in an office building even if I don’t really have any pressing work to do, just because I’m required to be there 8.5 hours per day. And the irony is that I am actually working LONGER hours now than I was in my corporate job, but they don’t feel longer because I have a ton of autonomy and I’m doing the work that I need to do on my own schedule. Most days I come in around nine and stay till after six, but some days I have a dental appointment or I need to go to the bank and I come in at ten and stay till seven. And no one, to my knowledge, is peering at me through a surveillance camera and counting my hours. They just trust that I’ll teach my classes and get my work done, and I do. And it actually motivates me to work MORE.

7. Head, please talk to the hands. Oh, the joys of that special form of bureaucracy that is state institutions. At times it can feel like I’m living in the midst of a collection of feudal states, none of whom communicate with each other. One course that I’m teaching might be cross-listed in three other departments under three different names, so I’m getting emails from three different people about what I think are three different courses but in fact it’s the SAME COURSE, though naturally there’s no way for me to know that since the course names bear no resemblance to one another. The good news is that everyone is really, really sweet and really, really patient. They all seem to understand that things are a little bit insane, they’re just more used to it than I am. One of my colleagues called it “friendly chaos,” which I guess is better than unfriendly order.

8. Guilt. Oh, guilt. I have a job and health insurance and LOTS of people who deserve jobs much more than me don’t have them, and it sucks. On a day to day basis I just pray that I’m not part of the problem and that I will never become that horrible person who rolls their eyes at other people’s struggles and adopts that head-in-the-sand philosophy of “Well, I have a job, so everything must be fine, quit your whining!”

9. Fuck it, I will never read and watch all the things. But until I do, I will feel like a dilettante. That seemingly endless list of books and films that every PhD in my field is supposed to have read and watched just keeps getting longer, and I will continue to try to chip away at it, but it will keep growing.

10. Day to day, it’s awesome. Sure, there are days when I spill tea all over my desk and can’t get the audio equipment to work and want to strangle that arrogant kid who always shows up late and glares at everyone. But most of the time I’m just really happy, tired in a good way, and feel really lucky.

Friendly chaos suits me, I think.

Door Closes, Door Opens

The short of it is that I’m back in academia, as those who know me already know.

As I’ve chronicled here on this blog, I entered a PhD program in 2006 and completed it in 2012. In 2011, for a lot of reasons, I decided to take a non-academic job. At that point I had pretty much accepted that my chances of landing a tenure-track position in the U.S. were very remote, and that my only option for university teaching in the U.S. was to become an adjunct, which I really didn’t want to do.

By early 2014 I had made peace with the idea that academic doors were likely closed to me. No one goes away and comes back, unless they’re already an established academic rock star. I had continued to keep in touch with various academic communities, but my publication list was still small (no access to JSTOR and other online journal databases, no real time to do concentrated research). I missed academic life, but I just didn’t think there was a way back in without making huge sacrifices when it came to my salary, my living / working conditions, and my relationship with my partner.

At the same time, by the end of 2013 I had realized that I was ready to leave my non-academic job (as an editor / educational consultant / teacher / curriculum developer / goofy prop maker for a company that sells ESL educational materials for children). It wasn’t that I hated it, I just wasn’t particularly passionate about making things for children (I’d originally been hired to make things for adult learners). I was also a bit weary of corporate life and all the restrictions that working for a Japanese company imposed on my free time.

And then in early May a friend sent me a job ad for a position at a Japanese university.

My first instinct was to ignore it, simply because my impression was that jobs for native English speakers at Japanese universities aren’t always that desirable. They tend to be short-term contracts or part-time gigs. You may be told that you’ll be teaching literature or film, but in reality you’re teaching conversational English to students whose English levels are fairly low. Many positions require some kind of TEFL or other teaching certificate, or a Master’s degree, but many don’t require a PhD.

When I looked more closely at this job ad, though, it seemed a little different. The university in question was a prestigious one. The contract was for three years and the position was full-time. The responsibilities included teaching literature (again, I was skeptical on that one, but also hopeful).

I did a bit of digging and found a friend of a friend who actually worked for the same university. We met up and he gave me a very positive impression of the working environment. (I was really, really grateful to have the insider knowledge, because it can be tough to get a real sense of what a particular university’s working environment is like.)

I brushed off my dossier and sent it in at the end of May. I was interviewed two weeks later, and by late July it was confirmed that I had the job. I started teaching at the university on October 6.

This, for me, is one of the most unbelievable aspects of this whole process–how fast it was. In the U.S. it might have taken me a year from application to hiring. I’m certainly not complaining–I think that aspect of the U.S. hiring process is ridiculous–but it’s been a bit dizzying.

A week in and there are so many thoughts running through my head, some negative, mostly positive. I’m just going to go into list mode at this point.

1. I didn’t suffer a lot to get this job, which makes me feel like I don’t deserve it. I’ve heard so many stories of academics slaving away as adjuncts and spending years on the job market with no results that the idea that I could just get a job, in a way similar to the way that non-academics get jobs, blows my mind. And makes impostor syndrome rear its ugly head to try to convince me that there must be some mistake.

2. My value as a human being is based on more than my scholarly output. Ugh, inferiority complexes. I’m already falling back into that spiral of shame and self-doubt that plagued me as a grad student, the one that goes “I need to publish,” “Before I publish I need to read and research and come up with meaningful arguments,” “But there’s so much to read and I don’t have time and my Japanese isn’t good enough,” “But if I don’t publish a lot and very soon everyone will see me as a hack or a dilettante and no one will respect me,” “But I don’t know where to begin and instead of beginning which is scary I’m just going to curl up in a little ball and pretend that publishing isn’t important.” Thankfully I’m a little older now and a little less likely to be consumed by these feelings, but they’re still there, and they’re still scary.

3. Am I a hypocrite? I’ve spent the last four+ years being very critical of academia, so it’s bizarre to step back into this world. For the record, I’m still critical of many aspects of academia. I think the practice of predominantly using part-time lecturers with no benefits or job security to teach university courses in the U.S. is deplorable. I’m deeply disturbed by the corporatization of higher education.  I’m saddened by the pressure on professors to inflate grades or assign lighter reading loads and the general decline of academic rigor.

But I still love teaching and the opportunity to pursue research that is meaningful to me. And this job allows me to do that in a (so far) positive and nurturing work environment. Which seemed far too good an opportunity to pass up.

4. I need to manage my time better. I’m teaching eight classes, which isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. The classes only meet once a week (for an hour and a half). I have three sections of one class and two of another. For the two-section class a lot of the work has already been done for me–there’s a textbook, worksheets, and a final exam that’s being created right now. One of my other classes is essentially a thesis writing seminar where the students bring in their work and we all discuss it. So basically my weekly schedule includes 12 hours of actual teaching, minimal planning for 2 classes, and more heavy-duty planning for 3 classes. There’s also much less grading than in a typical U.S. undergrad course.

Still, I’m really, really busy. Everyone says this is normal for the first semester, which makes sense. And I also have a ton of other stuff to do right now, like filling out endless paperwork and getting my office set up and figuring out how to use the university’s myriad online systems. Hoping that things are a little calmer next semester–but then I might have to do more committee work.

5. I’m happy that my colleagues are happy. Everyone I’ve met and spent time with so far has been lovely. And while I obviously don’t know them incredibly well, our conversations about the university and life in general are not characterized by bitching or eye-rolling. Some of them (both tenured and non) have also been at the university for more than ten years, which is a good sign.

6. Let me not go blind. I’m always disgusted by rebuttals to any critique of the U.S. university system that essentially boil down to “I didn’t have any problems getting a tenure-track job, so all you adjuncts are just lazy, whiny, and entitled.” Or “I haven’t personally witnessed the kind of abuse or suffering that you’ve described, therefor you must be exaggerating or making it up.” Please, please, let me never fall into this trap. I know that I am qualified for my job and that I will do well in it, but I am also really, really lucky. I was in the right place at the right time and I was a good fit. Let me never acquire that smug tone that those who have had some success so often use toward those who’ve struggled more.

7. Come to Japan! University teaching jobs for native English speakers in Japan vary considerably when it comes to working conditions, salary, course load, and the kinds of course you’re actually able to teach. In general, though, the situation here seems to be MUCH better than the lot of the average adjunct professor in the U.S. And universities all over Japan suddenly seem to be hiring a lot more foreign faculty, maybe at least in part because of the 2020 Olympics.

Obviously I realize that not everyone can just uproot and move halfway across the world. But if you’re looking for a way to teach, do research, and be paid a living wage, you might consider extending your job search to Tokyo.

It’s only been a week, but I feel great. Overwhelmed, elated, scared, supported, uncertain, confident, sometimes all at once. I think it’s a good place to be.

Watching Godzilla in Tokyo



“Godzilla doesn’t run. He LUMBERS.”

So said NPR’s Glenn Weldon, outlining one of many reasons that hardcore Godzilla fans were disgusted with Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of the monster—it RAN. Emmerich’s Godzilla more closely resembled the stampeding T-rex from Jurassic Park, not the slow-moving, building-stomping creature that fans knew and loved. It was such a departure that Toho Studios eventually renamed it “Zilla” to avoid confusion.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla most definitely lumbers. Watching the monster move with agonizing slowness, huge chunks of architecture ripped apart in slow motion as he carelessly swings an arm or stomps a foot, I realized how important that deliberate, foot-dragging gait is, and how it sets Godzilla apart from countless imitations.

Because Godzilla, first and foremost, is sad. Angry, yes, destructive, definitely, but also tragic. The creature from the original film has long since become a joke, a plastic toy or cartoon who stomps on fake-looking sets and utters high-pitched roars. “Zilla” is a suffix attached to anyone or anything without impulse control. But the original 1954 Gojira film was produced in a Japan still reeling from the effects of World War II. Godzilla himself was an emblem of the destructive power of the atom bomb. Producer Tanaka Tomoyuki said that “the theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Music director Ifukube Akira said that Godzilla was “like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war.”

I saw the original 1954 film for the first time a few years ago, and I was surprised that it didn’t have much B-movie flavor to it. There are the shots of terrified people running from the monster, but they feel quite genuine (at one point someone even rolls their eyes at the thought that they’ll have to take cover in bomb shelters “again”). The fear of a fantastical monster is mixed with the very real fear of war and the suffering that comes with it.


Godzilla himself is, of course, a man in a rubber suit (I love the picture below, from William Tsutsui’s wonderful Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters.) haruo-nakajima-in-the-godzilla-gojira-costume_zpsf1df45a7But even if he’s a guy in a suit, Godzilla feels different from the countless other kaiju that populated Japanese movies throughout the 1960s. He’s filmed in stark black and white. His attacks frequently take place in darkness. His face is eternally grim. And even if his slow, lumbering steps were a side effect of the heaviness of that suit and the actor’s inability to move quickly in it, the result is a monster that feels more physically imposing–and occasionally more vulnerable. Gojira 1954 is a monster movie, but a deeply tragic one—in the end we lose both Godzilla and a self-sacrificing scientist, and we’re not quite sure who we should mourn more strongly.

Gojira inspired plenty of sequels in Japan, with the monster becoming steadily kid-friendlier as time went on. Igarashi Yoshikuni sees a parallel between this “banalization” of Godzilla and Japan’s gradual loss of war memory:

“This shift in the targeted audience confirms the banalization of the monster in the series, the effects immediately discernible even in the quality of production. Godzilla comes to faithfully reproduce human ways: it begins to act like a human and even becomes a ‘mother’ in 1967. The son, Minilla, even speaks Japanese—the ultimate domestication of monstrosity. In 1960s Japan, a place overflowing with optimism inspired by economic growth, the monsters could not find a place other than as caricatures. The darkness that prevailed in the first two films of the mid-1950s had vanished from the screen and Japanese society.”

So what does Godzilla mean in 2014? Especially when he’s been brought back to life by a director whose previous  film (2010’s Monsters) used an alien invasion as an allegory for (among other things) U.S.-Mexico immigration issues?

I adored Monsters, so I was excited to see Edwards’ take on Godzilla, even if reviews were a bit mixed. I was also wary of what a talented, make-the-effects-on-his-home-computer director would do when given a huge chunk of cash—maybe play to his strengths, or maybe get carried away with the CGI.

I agreed with a lot of the criticisms—Edwards’ Godzilla has some silly dialogue that isn’t always silly enough to be funny, plus paper-thin characters—but I still loved it. First and foremost, it’s a real thrill to see a Godzilla movie in a Tokyo theatre, to see the first full shot of Godzilla’s massive body and hear that ear-splitting roar. The visuals gave me the shivers more than a few times.

Like zombies and vampires and really any movie monster or malady, I realized, Godzilla can mean whatever you want him to mean. In 1954 he may have been the terror of the bomb and the aftereffects of nuclear radiation. This time, I felt a chill at the much-talked about opening scene, which features a graphic image of a nuclear plant imploding, and another chill at a scene that recalled the 2011 tsunami. From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, firebombing to unstoppable waves, Godzilla embodies the fear of the moment.

But Godzilla is also a savior, albeit the kind of savior who has to destroy half the city in order to destroy the much worse monster that always seems to be lurking at the movie’s midpoint. Watching Godzilla and a sort of uber-Mothra duke it out in the middle of a cityscape, casually leveling entire skyscrapers with a single turn of their bodies, that feeling of sadness came back in spades. There’s a resigned, mournful quality to Godzilla’s fighting, as if he knows this is his job, but he’d really rather not be there.

When Godzilla finally lumbers, slowly and morosely, out into the ocean, there are no cheers or swells of triumphant music. Godzilla wins—Godzilla always wins—but everything is in ruins. Victory at any cost, even if the cost essentially negates the victory. In a present where it’s hard to rank the urgency of the ongoing catastrophes taking place across the globe, and where the purported saviors often end up doing just as much damage as whoever they’re fighting against, the image of Godzilla the destroyer-savior seems just a little too apt.

So I’m long overdue for a post, and there’s plenty to write about (new job, new career stuff in general), but it’s taking a while to sort it all out in my head, so it hasn’t happened yet.

In the meantime, my sister just got back from an amazing trip to Tanzania, and the email she sent me was so cool that I asked her if I could post it here. Here it is!


Trip was incredible. Seriously the greatest 2 weeks I’ve had maybe in my life, definitely in the last 10 years. My mind was totally free from chatter and stress, and I had zero stomach issues and no headaches (very rare) and even felt awake most days despite sleeping on hard ground in a tent with two guys (super nice guys). We saw every animal you can imagine living in Africa (easily 10,000 wildebeests, no joke, 100 giraffes, a few troupes of baboons, ostrich, warthogs, lions WITH and without cubs, etc). But even cooler than that, we got to see Oldupai Gorge, which is where Mary Leakey discovered the first australopithecus boisei and the first true hominid, Homo Habilis. Also saw the Laetoli footprints, which they estimate to be from a man, woman, and child around 3.1 million years old. That day blew my mind almost as much as anything else.

Spent lots of time with the local tribes, mostly Maasai, who are those tall thin herders in the red robes that you see on National Geographic standing with a wooden stick draped over their shoulders. We had Maasai guides with us the whole time and got to see their homes (nyombas) and their villages (bomas) and their schools. They live exclusively on cow milk, cow blood, and cow meat. Period. They were incredible. Also got to go hunting (yes HUNTING) with a tribe of fully nomadic bushmen called the Hazabi who speak a click-based language. They let us follow them 3 hours into the forest and they shot a bird out of a tree with a wooden arrow. The bird landed with no head. As in, they shot the head clean off with a WOODEN tipped arrow. Then they promptly built a fire with no matches (just 2 pieces of wood) and cooked the bird and offered everyone a piece. I almost drop-kicked the squeamish vegetarian girl in our group when she waffled as it was handed to her. Fortunately she discreetly threw it over her shoulder, hopefully they didn’t notice. That was a pretty great day.



Hi there. You don’t know me, and there’s really not much reason for you to take my advice about filmmaking. You make films, I just watch them. And I occasionally write about them.

But I’m writing you this letter anyway because I think your films are so, SO close to being great. You’ve been called the “new Miyazaki” (something you wisely choose to call an “overestimation”). But with just a few changes, I really think it wouldn’t be an overestimation at all.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Your visuals are stunning. Like, I could seriously just watch some of your movies frame by frame with the sound turned off and call that a great afternoon. It’s not just the grand, sweeping images that mimic crane shots, or the vivid colors in your classically pretty pictures of Japanese gardens and falling cherry blossoms. What I really love are the hundreds of tiny, intimate details. The labels on beer cans and chocolate. The vividness of raindrops in a puddle, so hyper-real that you’d swear you were looking at a live action image. The clutter of an apartment kitchen, drab grays contrasted with the bright colors of vegetables in a bowl of homemade ramen. The black-and-white shadow of a swinging door against an apartment wall.


I also love the way you pay attention to sounds. The hollow clicking noise that the string makes when you pull on it (two or three times, not just once) to turn on the single overhead light in a Tokyo apartment. The tinny echo of an iron door shutting. Trains–the sound of the railroad crossing, the repetitive “doors are closing, be careful” announcements, the murmur of eerily silent crowds disembarking.


Before I get to the stuff I don’t like, I should say that I’m not against sentimental stories as a rule. I adore Miyazaki, and plenty of his stuff is sentimental as anything. But there’s adding a pinch of sugar to your tea, and then there’s dumping in the whole bag. And your films frequently cross the line from pinch to bag.
So here are my suggestions. Take them or leave them.

1. Lay off the voiceovers. I’m kind of over voiceovers in general, but in your case they’re really, really unnecessary 90% of the time. Your visuals are so powerful, you don’t need a disembodied voice spelling out their meaning. Sure, a few words here and there won’t hurt, but in particular the excessive use of voiceover in “Kotonoha no niwa” just started to grate on my ears after a while. Some of the words are quite beautiful (“The sky was so much closer when I was a child”). But often that disembodied voice is just saying things that any viewer can infer. Let us infer a little.

2. Go easy on the soundtrack. Your trademark piano scores are pretty, to be sure, but I’ve got a thing about silence in film. It’s nice. So many films feel the need to always be banging us over the head with something–quick cuts, music, dialogue, explosions–that it’s nice when a movie just sits there for a bit and soaks in its own ambient noise. You do that occasionally, and it’s lovely. I’d just like to see more of it.

3. Ditch those pop songs. My God. I don’t know if you’re handcuffed to Johnnys or some other tyrannical music production company and are, like, required to use a saccharine, over-the-top pop song in the trailers and climaxes of all your films, but if you have any choice in the matter, my God, please stop. They’re horrible. They take everything from the realm of gently sentimental to treacly and tired.

4. Tell your actors to tone it down. For the most part your films are full of believable, naturalistic performances from your voice actors. But there’s inevitably some climactic moment where people start shouting or shout-crying, and then the movie just feels like a bad Japanese soap opera. I’m not saying cut out these scenes altogether–although some of them really don’t add much–just remember that less can be more.


All right, that’s it. Again, your stuff is gorgeous, and it’s your stuff, so you can make whatever the hell you want, even if beyond the visuals your films aren’t quite doing it for me. But I just have this feeling that if you made a few SLIGHT changes–changes that won’t alter the core of your aesthetic or your story–you could really make something amazing. I’ll keep watching to see what you do next.

Emerging from the Cocoon

Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life


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