Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

The Age of Shadows (2016) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2020

The Age of Shadows 1The Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) was a painful experience for the people on the Korean peninsula. The colonial authorities imposed their will brutally, even insisting that Koreans adopt Japanese names, though they did build up the country’s industrial and transport infrastructure. That was mainly a matter of Japanese self-interest, of course, especially after the propagation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere from 1931. However, there was an underground resistance movement among nationalist Koreans who dreamed of reasserting Korean independence, despite the daunting Japanese superiority. It is in this context that Kim Jee-woon’s epic action drama The Age of Shadows (in Korean and Japanese, with English sub-titles, available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks) is set, as a small group of insurgents plot a daring attack on key figures in the Japanese colonial establishment. This involves going to Shanghai to fetch explosives, so most of the action in the film — which runs for well over two hours — is set in either Seoul or Shanghai, though the most dramatic section is an extended sequence on board a train travelling between the two. For fans of late 1920s style in fashion and cars, the movie is a visual delight. No expense was spared.

The Age of Shadows 2From an early scene of police and soldiers closing in on a young resistance leader, moving almost balletically across the roofs of a traditional courtyard mansion, onward the tension mounts. The characerisation is vital to the film’s success, the key figure being a Korean police captain working for the Japanese authorities but with a high degree of ambivalence, played by one of Korea’s most celebrated actors. Song Kang-ho (known in the West mainly for being the father of the indigent family in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite). The attractive group of young resistance fighters soon win the audience’s affections, but the realisation that there is a traitor in their midst undermines their solidarity. The odds are stacked against them, so their dedication to the cause is sometimes challenged by the very human desire to survive. The Japanese security forces, behind their elegant facade, are prepared to use the most brutal of methods to crush opposition. The film includes a couple of graphic interrogation sessions which are not for the squeamish, but which underline the harsh reality of the occupation.

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The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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Isle of Dogs ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2018

Isle of DogsWes Anderson’s quirky imagination and deep love of film guarantee that anything he directs will give cinephiles much food for thought as well as entertainment, and in his latest stop-motion animation offering, Isle of Dogs, there is so much content that at times it is hard to digest. The basic plot is simple, however, like any good fantasy or fairy tale: a cat-loving despotic mayor in a dystopian future Japanese city banishes all dogs to an island used as a giant garbage dump. But his 12-year-old ward is distraught at the loss of his guard-dog, Spots, and sets off to find him. Meanwhile the dogs have started to organise themselves and a plan is put into place to turn the tables on wicked Mayor Kobayashi, with the aid of a feisty American girl exchange student in a blond fright wig. However, this simple tale is framed in settings of immense complexity, stuffed full of cultural and cinematic references. There is a distinct irony in this, as so much classical Japanese theatre uses almost no scenery, leaving the audience to imagine the location from the context of the words and action, whereas in Anderson’s film there is so much visual detail that at times one’s mind is totally consumed by taking it all in, to the extent that one’s concentration drifts away from the story. All the classic Japanese stereotype scenes are there, from sushi preparation to sumo wrestling and falling cherry blossoms, much to a soundtrack of dramatic taiko drums. But other references are more nuanced, including not only homage to Japanese art and architecture but also Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to anime. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, only some of which is translated, which may sound a bit strange yet works effectively in intensifying a sense of mystery; the dogs have difficulty understanding much of what the humans are saying. The dogs all talk American English, voiced by well-known actors such as Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, For me that was the only really jarring thing about the film, playing into a subconscious Hollywood narrative of a plucky American kid helping dogs overcome a monstrous adult. Otherwise, the film could not do more to celebrate Japan and things Japanese, though some people might feel at times it veers towards cultural appropriation. I don’t think that is the case. Having studied in Japan as a young man, I revelled in a lot of the references as well as in the jokes. There is a clever balance between humour and seriousness throughout. But I do think Anderson tried to cram too much in — which probably means one needs to see the film more than once to get anything like a full appreciation.

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Peter Schrijvers at the Biographers Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th June, 2010

The Flemish author and academic Peter Schrijvers was the guest speaker at today’s gathering of the Biographers’ Club, held at the Savile Club off Grosvenor Square. His book Bloody Pacific has just come out in a second, paperback edition (Palgrave, £12.99) and I hope to review it shortly. Peter Schrijvers had prepared an excellent, thoughtful written presentation focussing on some of the core issues in his book, which deals with the way the Americans fought the Japanese in the Second World War, and in particular the experiences of individual soldiers, what they thought of the enemy and their behaviour (often brutal or outright criminal) on the battlefield. Hearing the author speak, I was struck by the similarity with my own observations in the Vietnam War, of how young US troops there, many of them only teenagers, considered the Vietnamese subhuman — the Viet Cong of course often indistinguishable from ordinary peasants — and how gungho they were about killing them. I wish things in warfare had improved since then, but I fear the same has probably often been true in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not only on the part of the American forces.

Link: www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx.?pid=416257

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