Books: In the Miso Soup
Movies: Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
(I'm trying to take in some media set in contemporary Japan, as part of the run-up to our trip there.)
This is a novel by the author of the book Audition is based on, which should tell you right away the sort of twisty, grisly tale that's in store. This one is about Kenji, a young Japanese man who works as an unofficial tour guide to the seedy, sex-shop-y side of Tokyo. He takes on a client, a visiting American named Frank, for a weekend, even as he gets the clear sense that something isn't quite right about the visitor.
And the book absolutely nails that sense of creeping unease that slowly shades into dread. He closely observes all the little things that are 'off' about Frank, and does a great job of putting the reader in Kenko's head as he wonders, at first, if he's just being paranoid or if this is all as bad as it seems.
It also has a wonderfully precise sense of place. Each shady location, every run-down Tokyo neighborhood, is full of evocative little details. I didn't necessarily *want* to be in a cheap peep-show shop in Kabuki-cho, but there I was, noticing the uncomfortable, shabby furniture.
Beyond that, though, I didn't see much to recommend the book. It doesn't particularly have a plot -- Kenko does his usual duties as a guide, something horrible happens, he's scared for a while, and then he's just generally unsettled by everything. For having such excruciating, grisly violence, the book doesn't particularly make you wonder how it's going to turn out. It more just sort of drifts along.
I suppose this may be by design, part of a more eastern aesthetic. In that case (and in any case, really), the reader has to look to other qualities of the book for entertainment or interest. The book seems like it's trying to settle into making some philosophical point -- perhaps about how people are inherently violent, or violence is more intensely 'real' than everyday life -- but it never seems to add up to anything beyond a vague stoner muddle.
Strangely, what plot it has is kind of forced. To make this a story in which nothing much happens actually requires straining disbelief many, many times. And it's the usual gaffes we're familiar with from horror. We've all seen the bad guy who has whatever magical power the lazy storyteller needs him to have to force the plot along. We've all seen the good guys who don't respond logically or realistically to avoid danger, because if they did, the story would be over. We could call this the "why don't you just move out of the damn haunted house?" syndrome -- it's bad enough in a film, but in a novel, the medium's deep interiority makes arbitrary protagonist actions ring really, really false.
The overall effect is that of a story that starts promisingly, relentlessly raising the tension, until finally at the end... it kind of shrugs and wanders away.
Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa
This is the film continuation of the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series (the one that eventually overtook and diverged from the manga). It follows, among other things, Edward Elric's attempts to contact his brother while he himself trapped in an alternate universe -- our universe, in fact, in Germany in the late 1930s.
Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: this is a bad movie. And while it's not quite "so bad it's good", it *is* bad in a way that's kind of hilarious. The original TV show tended to favor the mechanics of intricate plot moves over character development or even consistent or interesting characterization, and this movie doubles and triples down on that practice. They're even more manic this time around, moving the chesspieces around fervidly, not really attending to whether any of it makes sense or really adds up to anything. As a viewer, it takes all your attention just to keep track of who's doing what, and to whom -- but hey, at least there's lots of clunky expository dialog to catch you up.
Story-wise, it feels like they made a giant list of "all things that a 13-year-old boy would think are cool" and sort of threw them into a blender. So: there's magic; there's a dragon; there's an army of evil robots; there's an OMG SEXY GYPSY GIRL. There are sideways-universe cameos from beloved characters who died in the TV series. Somehow, there's a pre-credits musical number. Equally somehow, Fritz Lang shows up and we wind up in showbiz-land for a bit. And again, the plot wheezes and sweats, hustling from one thing on the giant list to another. Characters make bizarre, arbitrary, unmotivated decisions -- anything to keep byzantine plot-traffic pattern flowing.
Now, when I said "1930s Germany", you may have thought "Nazis", and you wouldn't be wrong. You may have further thought, "Hey, isn't that a bit tonally weird for this adventure show?" and you would still be on-target. Sure, Raiders of the Lost Ark pits its hero against Nazis, but it does it in a way that uses them as acknowledged bad guys, rather than trying to make the audience reckon with the true horror of the Third Reich and everything it stood for.
This movie attempts that. And let's be clear, watching a magical adventure story try to face up to the enormity of the Holocaust feels like watching an I Love Lucy episode about abortion: the show is too silly to do the topic justice, and the attempt at po-faced seriousness just feels awkward. The Elric brothers standing by a dead child (a jutting leg from under a collapsed wall, next to a blood-spattered teddy bear for added clarity) and bemoaning the horrors of war could fit well in another movie, one that didn't currently have them under attack from a Nazi sorceress and her army of killer attack robots from another world.
Again, the movie is amusing in its badness. And I should say, it's still brilliantly drawn. The monster that Gluttony eventually mutates into, for example, is an inventive and disgusting piece of nightmare fodder. So feel free to watch this one if you're up for something silly, clumsy, occasionally-painfully-inappropriate, and well-drawn.
For next week: I'm watching season 7 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. I've started an audiobook about energy, I just finished watching Con Man, and I'm about to start reading Norwegian Wood.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none