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Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

HESO Photo of the Week from Charlie Lumanlan

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Being a photographer is not defined by art school degrees, or bound to rigid expectations and judgments. A photographer experiences life, friends, cultures, and captures the briefly passing moments of time. Photography allows me to appreciate the momentary, forever documenting a tiny portion of the joys of living. Currently I am fascinated by the stories portraits tell, and the use of natural colours and light to evoke emotion. I live and travel a natural film life from the san francisco bay area to tokyo, where film, love, and friends guide me back and forth.

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Fan Bing Bing at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

24th Tokyo International Film Festival For the Love of Cinema

Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The demise of cinema marks a loss even greater than that of vinyl or even books. After all, music sounds almost the same whether played on a record or an mp3, and e-readers do at least replicate the format of paper books.

But the cinema? However gratifying it might be to download a movie torrent in minutes at home, the experience pales in comparison to walking into a darkened theatre, perfumed with the scent of caramel popcorn and soundtracked by the crackle of anticipation, for your eyeballs to be pelted with a flurry of hypersize images and your ears assaulted by booming surround sound. To me, you could drop your inheritance on an enormous flatscreen TV and a Bose soundsystem, and still come about as close to the real cinematic experience as a cellphone jingle does to a symphony.

I think that’s what the 24th Tokyo International Film Festival was getting at when it chose the slogan, “Believe! The Power of Film”. As with most cultural events since the March 11th tsunami, it came close to being canceled, but eventually went ahead with the requisite “Overcoming the Disaster” section tacked on.

The tone of the festival was therefore even more conservative than usual–and that’s saying something for Tokyo, one of the most anodyne international festivals of the annual circuit. If film is about the big screen, for me, then it goes without saying that festivals are about the scandal beyond the silver screen–be it bed-hopping, brawling or wardrobe malfunctions.

Sadly, the absence of Hollywood’s glitterati meant nothing of the kind happened at this year’s TIFF. That’s not to say there were no celebrities at all: this year’s opening ceremony included appearances from Jackie Chan, whose 1911 co-opened the festival, and Milla Jovovich in The Three Musketeers, directed by her husband, Paul Anderson. Whatever happened to the lovely Milla? Sure, in the flesh she still glittered with that ethereal, movie-star grace denied to mere mortals, but… remember when she was an extraterrestrial vixen in Jean Paul Gaultier bondage? Well, now she makes “grt family adventure movies,” according to one of her own appallingly abbreviated Tweets, and attacks movie production companies for under-promoting what is apparently a complete turkey.

Cluttered with bizarre “modern” props such as airships and screened in 3D, I snubbed the musketeers Damn Life, a dark and deeply creepy Japanese flick. It tells the story of Kotani, a boy who cannot help but literally do as he is told. Awkward and seemingly mentally disabled, he starts working on a construction site, where he is severely bullied. The tables are turned on his attackers, however, when one of them accidentally kills another, and then pleads Kotani to kill him out of guilt. Kotani complies with remorseless ease, which kicks off a murdering spree. The actor, Keita Kasatsugu, has the psychopath look down pat: dark eyes peeping out behind a long fringe, a manic laugh, sporadic convulsions. But director Hitoshi Kitagawa, (who is, bizarrely, a monk, who makes films in his spare time) skilfully steers the film away from the gratuitous gore-flick it could have potentially dwindled into, diverting the camera away from much of the violence and employing a static shot to give the scenes a taut, theatrical atmosphere.

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 CineSpecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 Cinespecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

A calmer and more entertaining response to the disaster was Tokyo Drifter–not a remake of the 1966 Seijun Suzuki yakuza classic, but a feature which follows a busker, Kenta Maeno, around Tokyo’s eerily dark, electricity-devoid streets after the quake. You wouldn’t think that a lone guy bashing ballads out on an acoustic guitar would fill 90 minutes, but it’s curiously captivating. Sadly, the immediate bystanders filmed seem to be either oblivious or indifferent, which only augments Maeno’s hoarse, melancholy notes.

Of the films in the “Overcoming Disaster” documentary section, Fukushima Hula Girls, was the most enjoyable to sit through. Following a troupe of hula dancers at the Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the documentary delicately balances an optimistic tone with a realistic look at the situation after the nuclear disaster. Particular attention is given to second-in-command Hula Girl Rie Omori, who grew up in Futaba, just two kilometers from the plant, where she remembers playing when she was little. Her grandmother, sitting in her seventh evacuation residence, notes that no-one was anti-nuclear when it was originally built: “We were just farmers and we weren’t rich. But I guess it’s too late now to say we should have opposed it then.”

Underlining her message are the bizarre sights that greet the family when they journey back to their home to recover a few small possessions: cows and even an ostrich wandering aimlessly among the irradiated, waist-high weeds that wreath a large sign declaring “Nuclear power creates a prosperous society”.

Omori is an open and quite charming interviewee, who tries to put a bright spin on the situation. Laughing through tears she recalls how she bought protective

clothing and wore three facemasks at once when revisiting her now contaminated home. There are many awkward echoes of Omori’s very personal situation in Land of Oblivion, which is set in Pripyat, a city just two miles from Chernobyl. It opens with a wedding party that is terminated rather abruptly by the infamous black rain, which stains the cake–and the summoning of the groom to a “forest fire” that turns out to be the nuclear plant. Skipping ten years ahead, it shows the once beautiful bride, Anya–who is a tour guide for French tourists in “the Zone”–now infertile and losing her hair in clumps, but not afraid to eat the local apples.

The immediate events that unfold after the accident are eerily similar to those seen in Fukushima: residents refuse to budge, even when the authorities are carting them out of their homes in their chairs; vigilantes carrying Geiger counters to the market and warning people not to buy meat; the reluctant abandonment of somewhere they used to live, work, play. The same regret and nostalgia that has emerged in Japan is present, too:

“Pripyat was a model Soviet city, the best in Ukraine–it had cinemas, theaters–now it doesn’t even have water or electricity,” says Anya. Later, she reminisces about the past, when they felt infallible: “The Cold War was a good time for us, at least. We felt stronger than the atom.”

Previous residents now have different dreams. One man who was evacuated to a city called Slavutich boasts that it has a radiation research center funded by the international community. “In 100 years it will be a megapolis!” he says, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the city’s success would be built by research into how people die.

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The same love and death theme is at the centre of Gus Van Sant’s latest offering, Restless, the tale of two teenage lovers. We first meet the death-obsessed protagonists–Enoch, a troubled orphan, and Annabel, a terminal cancer patient–as they bump into each other when crashing a funeral. On their second meeting, Henry “introduces” Annabel to his parents’ gravestone, and the topic of Annabel’s imminent death is never far from their minds.

Both of the kids are explicitly quirky, which occasionally turns somewhat contrived. Enoch is friends with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi, who still wears his uniform and always wins at Battleships. Annabel, meanwhile, is a “bug watcher,” according to Enoch–or more accurately, a Darwinian devotee obsessed with evolution and ornithology. She tests Enoch and herself on names and characteristics of birds, and her unbelievably prosaic attitude to her own death is probably an effect of her belief that every individual human life is nothing but a blip in the grand evolutionary scheme.

Perhaps, as the actor who plays Hiroshi, Ryo Kase suggested at a Q&A after the screening, this is Van Sant’s idealization of a heterosexual relationship (he’s gay). Kase said that he found their relationship a little too “pure” the first time he watched the film, and asked a gay friend about it, who told him that as a member of a minority who “have to live alone”, Van Sant had likely injected a little of his idealized innocence and sweetness into the relationship. I take this to mean that it was perhaps a little unrealistic and not as fractious as it could have been. Moreover, the invention of a ghost as Enoch’s only friend echoes the isolation that can accompany coming out and being gay as a young man.

This is an interesting angle to offer at a film festival in Japan, where homosexuality is not often publically discussed and is often only tacitly accepted. However, it

might be quite a culturally specific reading in that Kase, or even his gay Japanese friend, assumed that gay men “live alone” and are necessarily solitary, which is obviously not always the case.

The love story in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is much more bitter, but all the better for it. An adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbevilles, transposed to Rajasthan, it tells the tale of a rickshaw driver’s daughter, Trishna, who is offered a hand of help and employment by Jay, a wealthy British-Indian whose father owns a string of luxury hotels.

Jay’s patience eventually pays off, and they become a couple. They move to Bombay, where the poor peasant girl shacks off her saris for leggings and spandex, learns to drink alcohol in cafes and gains some independence. Their relationship evolves into an equal and loving one–until Jay returns to England to nurse his sick father, leaving Trishna alone.

When he returns they have to move to the more traditional Rajasthan, where Trishna once again works as a maid at the hotel, and their private time is restricted to when she brings Jay lunch. Suddenly, the dynamic of their relationship shifts. As the owner’s son, her boss, and perhaps even as half-British–if you care to read into the colonial context–Jay begins to dominate and abuse Trishna in a way that was unimaginable when he first scooped her up.

I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a movie that you really should catch, but suffice it to say that this is an intelligent, multi-layered analysis of the modern class system in urban and rural India as the country undergoes enormous social upheaval. The acting is superb, and the direction so natural it’s imperceptible, which is a good thing.

Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Adrian Brody in Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The best that I saw, however, was saved until last: Detachment. British director Tony Kaye takes a highly critical–and dramatic–look at the American education system through the eyes of a substitute teacher, Henry, played by Adrien Brody. On Henry’s first day in the classroom, we see something remarkable: a teacher who’s able to handle even the most violent of kids in a calm and respectful way. In response to some perceived slight, a kid begins heckling him before marching up to the blackboard and threatening to attack. Henry defuses the situation by telling him, “I understand that you’re angry. I used to be angry too.”

Used to be? In the next scene, his temperament makes an about-face: when called to coax his grandfather out of the nursing home bathroom he has locked himself into, he launches a fiery tirade on the nurse for not removing the locks as he had requested. “I could make you lose your job so it’s your children, your family!” he yells, almost spitting with rage. “Don’t ever call me out here at this hour again!” On the way home he has a strange encounter with a child prostitute (looking not unlike Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) after she gets punched by a john on the bus. He pushes her away, seemingly indifferent to the fact she is bleeding from the mouth.

So: does he care about people, or not? Although he says he “used to be” angry, where is all this current rage coming from? The blurry, color-drenched Super8 footage cut into the movie gives us some hints: his mother. Exactly how his childhood influenced his current state remains unclear until the end of the film, but they’re a constant reminder that this man is damaged. Not, however, as damaged as the kids he’s attempting to teach, or even his fellow teachers. Most reviews have described this film as a biting critique of the U.S. school system, and another string of the movie is a retrospective interview with Henry, who describes all of its failings.

The kids are violent, self-hating, scantily dressed. They hammer cats to death in the gymnasium and hurl expletive-filled insults at teachers in lieu of morning greetings–and their parents do the same when they bother to contact the school. Worn down by relentless abuse and not enough thanks, the teachers are also close to snapping–and their mental state is rendered more explicit by the intermittent animations that pop up, showing frantically scribbled blackboard pictures of guillotines, blood and collapsing structures.

Unlike other school-based movies, there is no redeeming dance team, no one inspiring teacher, no positive figure to save the school. It ends in the same state–if not worse–than it began, and the damaged Henry has barely the power or energy to stop it. The acting is extremely solid–from a tranquillizer-popping James Caan, to the about-to-be-fired Marcia Gay Harden as the principal, or Lucy Liu’s uptight and nervy Dr. Parker. While the dramatic interludes of footage woven through the film–his mother and the blackboards–it’s a little heavy-handed at times, and perhaps a little too open about its manipulation of the viewer. All the same, it’s a solid production that is well worth a watch–if only for the superb Brody, who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his career yet.

The thing about film festivals is that you can’t see all the films. There were many other small productions that I regret missing, however. When Pigs Have Wings by Sylvain Estibal, a quirky comedy which won the Audience Award about a Palestinian man who finds a pig and then tries to conceal it, cleverly woven against the background of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the enigmatic Werner Herzog–the first 3-D documentary I have heard of–is about the oldest extant cave art known to man, at the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The list goes on: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel on director Roger Corman, Lonely Planet a conglomeration of Gogol stories set in Siberia by Edan Zeira, or even the festival closer Money Ball starring Brad Pitt, based on a non-fiction account book about–of all things–baseball by Michael Lewis, and it goes without saying, the winner Intouchables co-directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache which won the festival’s Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix and the Award for Best Actor.

Even without seeing all of these films (an impossible feat I would say few people not being paid handsomely could accomplish and even then…), the hours and days and months and even years of hard work put into them add up to greater than the sum of streaming them on Netflix, greater than the convenience of being able to download them to your iPad or smartphone, greater even than the two hours allotted them in the darkened church of the theatre, that hallowed place of modern worship, where the sound of sticky footfalls pace to find the perfect seat for expectant eyes to perchance take a peek into another world. God, you can take the Queen, but save film!


About the Author

Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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Interview - Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

Interview – Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

Interview – Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

HESO:Can you tell us a little bit about the name “Lomodachi”? What does it mean? Where did it come from? Who are you?

Lomodachi: Lomodachi is almost like an alter-ego that was born in Japan sometime in 2004. It’s a portmanteau combining the Japanese word for friend (tomodachi) and Lomography…which I got into back in 2004. Me? I’m Walter Edwards…I traveled to Japan from the U.S. back in 2003 and have been inspired to document what I see since then. Working in IT as a project manager, I use my left brain way too much during the week and try to fight back through my (photographic) work.

HESO: IT Project Manager by day, gritty street photographer by night. You live in Japan, but are not Japanese. How does it feel to be a stranger in a strange land? Why does it appeal to you to live away from where you were born?

I would eat with Jackie Chan, Steve Jobs and John Coltrane. That would be the best conversation ever. Click To Tweet

Lomodachi: Being a non-Japanese living in Japan feels different from one moment to the next. I get the privileges of a curious tourist while being able to eavesdrop on conversations in Japanese (which comes in handy). Most of the time, this kind of thing works in my favor.

HESO: Your work seems to hint at the idea of nationality through common cultural experiences. What do you think is/are the dominant cultural aspect(s) of Japan? America? The World?

Lomodachi: Most people across the world like to feel as if someone is trying to understand their perspective. That’s what I think I take with me when I travel and shoot street photography. I’m not trying to be intrusive…just trying to understand the worlds that I come across.

HESO: The world is getting smaller in terms of media and communications, yet problems persist: racism, genocide, hunger, disease, waning natural resources, war, natural disaster. Any ideas on what we can do to improve the daily lives of all people and not just those in the first world?

Lomodachi: Citizens of the world need to understand that whenever they feel themselves in a fortunate situation, that’s the time to contribute to solutions. You just never know when you will be desperate and in need of someone else’s sympathy and generosity. Those that understand this concept should teach those who don’t understand.

HESO: What projects do you have on the horizon?

Lomodachi: I’ve become fascinated with urban structures, the connection between human beings and the universe, and also a personal photo documentary inspired by my thoughts and feelings after the earthquake of March 11th in Japan. These days everyone is stressed. You can see it on everyone’s face. It’s just a very difficult time to get through…

HESO: On a lighter note, if you could eat anywhere in the world with any three people alive or dead, where and with whom would it be?

Lomodachi: The place is an easy choice…that would have to be that mom and pop eatery at the markets in Bangkok. We may have to take the food to go and eat outside though. I would eat with Jackie Chan, Steve Jobs and John Coltrane. That would be the best conversation ever.

Kenzaburo Oe Leading Anti-Nuke Protest ©Uchujin-AdrianStorey_2011_09_19_6702

HESO Photo of the Week from Uchujin Adrian Storey

Kenzaburo Oe Leading Anti-Nuke Protest ©Uchujin-AdrianStorey_2011_09_19_6702

Kenzaburo Oe (2nd from left) and Yamamoto Taro(right) lead the 19th September Anti-Nuclear march as it leaves Meiji park in Tokyo

The scenes that started in Meiji park in Tokyo midday on September 19th, 2011 and continued through the day as a 50,000 people strong crowd, led by Kenzaburo Oe (winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1994) marched through the streets of Tokyo to protest Nuclear power, are quite simply the most impressive thing I have ever seen in Japan.

The exact numbers in the crowd are in dispute (Police-29,000, NHK-60,000) but my estimate would be around 50,000. Consisting of a mainly older demographic that is sure to worry the politicians, there was none of the Police violence of early September’s much smaller and younger demonstration in Shinjuku, and the overall police presence was much smaller as well. See more of Uchujin’s image here.

On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground

Many friends have suggested I try to write about my experiences since the events of March 11th. Living in Tokyo, I would be a poor candidate for such an endeavor. The ongoing catastrophe is about two hundred miles north of the city and I have not yet experienced any hardship, save the frazzling of multiple aftershocks and concerns over elevated radiation levels. My good fortunes aside, there are many with a deeper background in seismology, nuclear energy, and Japanese political history—journalists, researchers, writers— devoted to the task of chronicling, analyzing, and piecing together what this calamity means for Japan. My larger personal concerns are not what has happened but what shall come to pass.

The changes in Tokyo are more superficial than substantial. Shibuya is no longer a flaming candle, streetlamps are off, and the subdued lighting in train and subway stations is a dingy hue that might lead to a revival in pickpockets’ fortunes. Everyone dreads the summer when rolling blackouts will make it very difficult to overcome the humidity. Air conditioning will once again acquire its luxurious quality. Tokyoites have been asked to conserve energy. Self-restraint is not a problem in brilliant spring weather. But these inconveniences are banal when set against worst-case scenarios—that is, the inevitable monster shake known as the Tokai Earthquake that happens in the Shizuoka region just west of Tokyo with some regularity every 150 years. The last quake was in 1854.

It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world. Click To Tweet

On Dangerous Ground

As tragic as this year’s triple whammy of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown has been, it may pale when measured against the consequences of the inevitable Tokai Quake. Not only may it lead to another tsunami and an eruption of Mt. Fuji (which is seeing some activity for the first time in a long while), but perhaps worst of it all is that Japan may have to deal with the fallout of yet another nuclear crisis that would be much more detrimental to Tokyo— the meltdown of its nuclear power plant at Hamaoka, built almost directly above what is believed will be this disaster’s future epicenter.

Essentially, it does not seem sound judgment to build a nuclear reactor on top of a historically active fault line, especially when your country’s preeminent seismologist argued against the hubris of such an undertaking before construction even began. Dr. Kiyoo Mogi has long argued for the responsible application of nuclear technology on Japan’s vulnerable territory. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the manmade disaster of Fukushima (residents, farmers, fishermen) Dr. Mogi’s good judgment has been vindicated. The authorities at Hamaoka swear that the plant can withstand a major quake, but the same corporate suits made the same fail-safe promise at Fukushima.

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

It seems then in the court of common sense, the government should have taken a proactive role in shutting down the nuclear plant at Hamaoka weeks ago. Already global public opinion is mixed on Japan— there is sorrow for the victims and their families and bitterness at the country’s mismanagement of the crisis. Radiation leaks affect all of us, more or less, since we understand the ecosystem to be something shared by all of us, from the air we breathe to the fish on our plates. It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world.

Every human drama needs a villain, if only to lash out our frustrations and humiliations. The fact that there has been lying, mismanagement, deliberate cover-ups, and general incompetence on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has led to some consternation on the part of the international community. What would conventional wisdom make of Japan should a similar if not more catastrophic meltdown were to occur in short succession? I am helplessly reminded of the aphorism reserved for the gullible: “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

Being a foreigner, it is hard to know exactly what the public’s sentiments are. Most people would like to be let alone of the issue and trust in a benevolent fate. The Japanese are trying to go on with their daily lives and in this beautiful spring weather it is easy to forget the carnage of the north and the direness of the near future. Only occasionally do the aftershocks rattle us into reality, returning the fear that trembles our hearts. But even these, frequent as they are, subside easily enough into the mundane elements of more trivial pursuits.

the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected Click To Tweet

But many Japanese have been politicized for the first times in their lives. Like Middle Easterners uprising against their governments the Japanese are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize. On April 10th a major demonstration in the Tokyo neighborhood of Koenji drew at least ten thousand protesters. It was a very Japanese affair— more like a parade than a protest: wonderful costumes, peaceful inclinations, gentle shout-outs. At the head of the parade, was a simulacrum of a New Orleans jazz band, dressed in razzle-dazzle kimonos and playing popular yesteryear numbers. Some attendees were unironically costumed in radiation suits and gas masks. Most wore sanitary face masks, a usual seasonal big seller for protecting the allergic against hay fever, but now a symbol of our very flimsy protection against radioactivity.

Making good use of the if-no-one-hears-the-tree-falling-in-the-forest theory, Japan’s mainstream media managed to drop the story. It was an election day in Tokyo (the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected) and moreover, that Sunday was the most beautiful weekend day for hanami, cherry blossom viewing.

After the protest I took the train to Yoyogi, Tokyo’s largest park and site of the biggest parties. Arriving just after the sunset, it was surreal to see this forest of pink flowers in twilight, where tens of thousands frolicked, wasted on good sake and cold beer, pleasuring against all arguments to be somber and self-restrained. I couldn’t blame them.

On the 16th this month there was another protest in Shibuya but it was much smaller and I’m worried that the so-called Sakura Revolution might be losing its momentum. That would be a shame since it is the most appropriate week to get out and fight for peace-of-mind. April 20th is Earth Day, and next week on the 26th is the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl.

Understanding Japan’s limited availability of resources, I am not against nuclear energy per se, but am very much in favor of safe and responsible use. It’s bad enough to worry about earthquakes and tsunamis, the sudden catastrophic moment where everything changes. This is more than enough than the average person needs to worry about.

Can the cool heads prevail in the vast sea of Tokyo to help Tohoku

Cool Heads Must Prevail To Help Cool The Rods Updated Response to This Is Not Chernobyl

Note: I decided to revise yesterday’s article, which I wrote in a state of anger.  As the comments rightly guessed, I found it hard to disassociate myself from this situation and write objectively.  The small contingent who haven’t left Tokyo feel the same, I think, and those who are beginning to trickle back from Osaka and other areas have left their fear behind for enthusiasm and a kind of patriotism. For both the Japanese public’s and their sakes, I want to clear a few things up.

Californians buying up iodine. British citizens “starving” in Tokyo. French residents “swamped” by a “toxic cloud of radiation”. Foreigners urged by their embassies to escape.

In reality, everyone in Tokyo is fine. I’ve stopped worrying about filling my bathtub up with water to draw on in case the tap water is contaminated, or wearing a mask for those invisible dregs of iodine and cesium floating through the sky. The level of radiation in the atmosphere today in the capital is 0.15 microsieverts, while normal levels for cities worldwide is 0.2. The only thing I’m worried about getting “exposed” to is the sensationalism in the foreign press that is causing widespread panic.

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

There’s a fine line between reassuring our families and friends abroad that we’re all well, and appearing blithely impervious to the suffering 150 miles away. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds triviality awkward at the moment, or who feels guilty for laughing or enjoying themselves. I do want to stress, however, that life in Tokyo is going on almost as normal. I know from my friends and colleagues battling to convey this to their families that it is difficult to parse this image with the reports on American and European television. The masks are to ward off hayfever, not to protect against radiation. Children are playing in the streets, the shops have re-stocked, and the “ghost town” is a consequence of  the train disruptions introduced to conserve electricity for diversion to the stricken areas.

Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo–other than those who have lost relatives and friends–has the right to complain about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their life in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.

There are two main things I want to make clear. Firstly, while the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant is still not stable, there are several reasons why there will not be a spread of radioactive material significant enough to have health impacts beyond the 30km radius evacuation zone.

Secondly, people have complained that both the Japanese government and TEPCO have refused to discuss a “worst case scenario,” whereas the American and European press have been all too happy to oblige. The supposed lack of information in Japan (or rather the typically Japanese vague manner of speech and expression) has created a vacuum, into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured. We need to evaluate the opinions of experts who actually have a grasp on the numbers and understand what different levels of radiation imply for human health, rather than meaningless figures such as “20 times higher than normal.”

The general public, of course, is rarely rational in its response to such intense and hysterical media coverage. For every event, whether it be a natural disaster or a political crisis, and there is always an extreme dislocation between actual events and the “angle” given by journalists weary of the string of disasters they are made to report on.

In this case, the baseless scaremongering of the foreign press about the risk of radiation poisoning has had significant consequences. Firstly, on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home. As previous Tokyo resident Craig Mod tweeted yesterday, “The inability for the foreign media to differentiate between northern Japan and the rest of the country is deeply troubling my mother.”

I know a lot of my friends have to sedate their relatives over Skype every day, brandishing statistics and rational articles, before their fears are freshly inflamed the next morning by the hysterical TV presenters. I even find myself defending the Japanese government, a body I’ve never had much faith in before, partly as a defensive reaction to the battering they are taking from governments and journalists overseas. Despite the multitude of articles claiming that Japanese citizens are becoming increasingly angry at their government, I can sense no more frustration from the Japanese populace than is normal. Most of those getting “angry” are expatriates.

The few of us who refuse to believe the reports are comforted by the assurances of a few experts. Everyone was relieved to read a discussion with the British government’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington that was posted on the British Embassy’s website:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word ‘meltdown’.”

But what does “meltdown” actually mean?

He explained that the worst case scenario was one in which the reactors could not be cooled and pressure in the containment vessel could not be controlled. This is what is referred to as a “meltdown.” If that happened, the reactor core would melt and drop down to the floor of the container. It would then explode, releasing radioactive material that could go up to 500m in the air. But he emphasizes that even this worst case scenario “the problems are within 30km of the reactor.” Even if you had prevailing weather carrying radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo, with rain, there would be “absolutely no issue”.

It should be noted that this man has no connection to either the Japanese government or TEPCO, and likely has the interests of British nationals at heart more than he cares about offending anyone in Japan.

When Chernobyl went into meltdown, material was going up not to 500 meters, but 10 kilometers, and it lasted months. But even then, the exclusion zone was only 30 km, and there is no evidence to suggest that those outside of that zone suffered health problems. The problem was that people continued to drink water and vegetables that had been contaminated through the soil around the site.

In contrast to Chernobyl, where the explosion was nuclear because the fission process ran out of control, the explosions we have seen at Fukushima have been caused by vented hydrogen steam being “sparked” by something. The nuclear fission process was halted as soon as the earthquake hit Fukushima. The problems started with the tsunami, which damaged the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods. Without power, it has been a race to continue cooling the fuel rods and to keep them submerged in water so that they do not heat up and produce too much steam. The first explosion at reactor no.1 happened when both heat and pressure built up inside the primary containment vessel, and TEPCO decided to release some of the steam to avoid damaging the vessel. The hydrogen in the steam escaped into the secondary vessel and was sparked by something, causing a blast.

Once electricity is reestablished and there is a steady supply of water to submerge the cores, we will be out of the danger zone.

(If you want to read a concise explanation of what happened at Fukushima, go here.)

So why has the French and American embassy begun to evacuate their nationals? I would suggest that they are mainly doing it in response to the fears ignited by the media. They want to evade criticism that they are not sufficiently protecting their citizens. France perhaps has reason to feel jumpy, since there were widespread suspicions that increases in thyroid cancer after 1986 were due to radiation from Chernobyl. However, in a 2006 report the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said that no clear link had been made, and that other kinds of thyroid cancer, unconnected to radiation, had also increased threefold in the same period. This case illustrates the kind of fear and paranoia that surrounds radiation.

Nevertheless, this week the French embassy organized two Air France flights from Narita and one from Kansai airport to fly home any French nationals who wished to leave. The United States’ offer was less generous, seemingly designed to dissuade all but the most desperate, since they would be flown to a “safe haven” in Asia where they would have to organize their own accommodation and also pay for the flight themselves. The embassy have stated that they do not believe that current radiation levels pose a threat to public health, but that they will assist people in leaving if they wish.

The British press also claimed on Thursday that the British Embassy was “urging” its citizens to leave because of concerns about the health risks of increased radiation levels, but their actual statement said nothing of the sort. They said: “Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

Although they did refer to the “evolving situation,” they stopped short of connecting it to any health risks posed to British citizens. Instead, they seemed mostly concerned with logistical problems, such as the trains cancellations and blackouts.

What has probably caused some of the confusion and fear is that it has been implicitly acknowledged that the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant will have some impact on the health of the workers who have remained working there. Nicknamed the “Fukushima 50,” from the number of workers on a shift at any one time, 200 workers have bravely volunteered to remain in the plant to cool the reactors. Already recognized as heroes, everyone in Japan is incredibly grateful for their sacrifice. Five workers have died since the quake (none of radiation poisoning, however) and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.

The government also rushed through a quick change to the regulations, which now allows workers to be exposed to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts per year. The highest level measured so far was 400 millisieverts per hour on Tuesday morning, which can produce symptoms of radiation sickness in a few hours. But levels at the gate dropped later that day to between 0.6 to 11.9 millisieverts per hour, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and down to 0.2794 on Friday March 18, after the Self Defense Forces cooled reactors by spraying water from a truck.

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation is cumulative, meaning that a level of 400 millisieverts per hour would give you a dose of 800 over two hours. People who lived near Chernobyl when it went into meltdown got a dose of 450 millisieverts over several days. To have a 50% likelihood of death within a month, however, you need a dose of 5,000 millisieverts.

The panic in Tokyo was caused by the announcement on Tuesday that radiation levels were 20 times higher than usual. But not only was it still a miniscule amount- 0.000809 millisieverts per hour, or the equivalent of smoking one cigarette an hour- it went down by a factor of 8 to reach 0.000151 one hour later. Since Thursday, radiation levels in Tokyo have remained at normal levels, giving the equivalent of 0.2 millisieverts per year. A single x-ray would deliver a dose of 0.2 millisieverts at once.

Radiation levels at the gate of the plant were just 0.271 millisieverts on Friday morning at 8am per hour, which is very good news for the Fukushima 50 and everyone in the vicinity. Ironically, those who “escaped” Tokyo to go to New York received almost the same- an average of 0.2 millisieverts- just passing through airport security and traveling on a plane.

It may be basic science, but people seem to forget that radioactive material decays and becomes inactive. The two radioactive chemicals that have been detected in Fukushima are iodine and cesium. The amount of time it takes for half of the chemicals to decay is known as a “half-life”. Iodine has a half life of just eight days, while cesium has a half-life of 30 years. Iodine has been associated with thyroid cancer, and cesium has been linked to cancer of the liver, kidneys and the pancreas.

However, the impact of radiation on health, or the correlation with cancer rates, depends entirely on dosage. We are all exposed to a certain amount of background radiation from various sources, including outer space, cigarettes, and even bananas. Like any substance, including salt, vitamin C or even water, it is only in excess that it is dangerous. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, everyone in the United States is exposed to very small amounts of cesium in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout from the nuclear detonations of the cold war. It is odd to see smokers getting panicked about ”carcinogenic” radiation from Fukushima as they puff away on little sticks that are far more likely to give them cancer.

Both iodine and cesium are heavier than air, so even with strong winds blowing from Fukushima towards Tokyo, they will not adversely affect Tokyo, as Geiger counters in the capital have shown in the past few days. It should be pointed out that Three Mile Island, an incident that is being compared to Fukushima, was located just 100 miles from New York, where no health problems were reported. Tokyo, the city from which several countries are moving heaven and earth to “rescue” their citizens from, is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

I have explained why I think the fear of radiation poisoning is irrational and baseless. It is understandable that one feels scared when even embassies begin evacuations, and allows one’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. But where we must turn our attentions is to those who are actually dying at the moment. Four people froze to death in a gymnasium in Miyagi on Thursday night, because they had neither kerosene heaters nor blankets and it was snowing outside. Rescue crews have given up, since they say there’s little chance of finding someone alive in the ice. There are reports of five people sharing a fist-sized rice ball because supplies are not getting through. They now expect the death toll to rise to above 20,000, maybe even more, as the bodies float in on the tide. The shock and suffering is multi-dimensional, and enormous: they’re grieving, starving, and freezing.

I may not be Japanese, but I feel fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country right now. I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.


About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

***I wrote this in haste because I was incensed about the coverage in the foreign media. However, I realize now that this was a highly emotionally charged response. Read the rewrite here which is more objective, detailed, and to be honest, convincing. ***

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Well-Stocked Supermarket Shelves in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

I think it’s time I checked in with another update from Tokyo to set the record straight. If you’ve been reading the foreign press about the “toxic cloud” hanging over Tokyo, you should know that I’m fine. Everyone in Tokyo is fine. The mask and the bathtub? I’m not so worried about those any more. The only exposure we’re worried about is exposure to sensationalist bullshit printed in the foreign press that is worrying our families and causing panic.

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This morning the British press was alive with the news that the Foreign Embassy in Tokyo were “urging their citizens to get out of the capital.” This is terrible journalism. The profession may be all about making the implicit explicit, but this stretches the truth of the statement too far. The statement reiterated the Japanese government’s assertion that the 30 kilometre radius around the Fukushimi I plant is the only area in which radiation levels might POTENTIALLY damage health. They then said:

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

In other words, they are mostly concerned about logistical problems, NOT radiation. They do not state that heightened radiation levels are behind their suggestion to Britons to “consider” leaving. Even the Guardian, a paper I usually trust, totally misreported this with: “Britain, France and other countries advised their citizens to ‘consider’ leaving Tokyo because of heightened radiation levels.”

I understand that anxiety is rising because the Fukushima plant is not stabilizing and is still dangerously overheated. But we need to look at the facts in a balanced and measured way rather than causing wide spread panic. Most journalists seem to have taken “the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility” to mean “ALL BRITS ARE GOING TO FRY IN RADIOACTIVE SOUP AND MUST FLEE AT ONCE.” I exaggerate, but that’s the gist. In fact, the wording of the statement is very careful and emphasizes that the only health risks are within the plant itself and the 30 kilometre radius around it. They seem to be more concerned about logistics and inconveniences such as transport and power cuts.

France’s response has been more explicit, and they have organized two planes to pick up their citizens from Narita. I think one left this morning. The only thing the British Embassy had done by the evening of the 16th was to organize a bus (!) from Sendai to Tokyo. Today they said that they would arrange for flights to Hong Kong for those who wished to leave voluntarily.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

I’ll take a moment to remind you that background radiation levels in Tokyo have returned to “normal” today, at 0.14 microsieverts. Normal background radiation for cities is actually higher, at 0.2. It’s clear that there is absolutely no threat whatsoever in Tokyo as the situation stands, since it has levels lower than, say, New York and even Cornwall. You are exposed to more radiation flying in a plane.

My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about some facts to straighten this out. I think The Economist did the best job of describing the nuclear power plant and the processes go on there, so if you have the time, I urge you to read it.

It is simply too difficult to go into everything that has happened as the situation continues to move too quickly to get a complete grasp of, but here is an excerpt from the very relieving discussion posted on the British Embassy’s website last night:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.

But what does that actually mean?

What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area, not, I repeat, not serious for anywhere else. Even if you get a combination of explosions it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing wind taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you added some rainfall to bring the radioactive material down to ground level, do we have a problem?

The answer is unequivocally no.

Except for unnecessary fear-mongering, there is absolutely no issue where I am. The real problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres, but to 30,000 feet. It lasted not for the odd hour or so but months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was also about 30 kilometres. And outside of that exclusion zone there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had direct problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people continuing to eat and drink contaminated water and vegetables. That will not be the case here. The real issue, should any news agency choose to report it, is the area itself, the immediate vicinity, and the brave people still working there.

There is no “mass exodus” from Tokyo just yet. The bullet trains are not packed to the brim with terrified Tokyoites. It is true that many expatriates have left the country or gone west or south, farther away from Fukushima. While some Japanese have gone to stay with their families the large majority have stayed. My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media.

Tokyo is not “gripped by panic”. It is quiet and calm. Children still play outside. People go about their daily lives, shopping and going out drinking with friends. People—including me—still go to work. The masks they wear are for hay fever, not to protect themselves from radiation. True, the streets are very empty compared to normal. Though this is largely due to the fact that train services have been canceled or reduced, not due to fears of radiation in the air.

The trains are heavily disrupted due to the rolling blackouts that are necessary to divert power up to the area affected by the quake and tsunami. But this isn’t anything to do with radiation. It’s to do with the fact that the earthquake destroyed power stations and also wiped out any power infrastructure in the north (Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefecture are all entirely or partly without electricity, gas or running water.) As of now, the train service is approaching—but still not quite as bad as—that of London and even upset as it is, it still bests most of the world’s.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Bags of Rice for sale in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

True, since the quake happened the shops have been amazingly bare, and some things—bread, rice, dry goods, milk, eggs, toilet paper—sell out very quickly. Today, shops seemed back to normal, all well supplied. Even when things were at their worst—which was never particularly bad—the shops were never entirely empty. Tokyoites never went hungry, and any accounts by idiotic Brits in the Sun that you read to the contrary are merely sensationalist fictions. Also, when food was short, there were no battles, no raised voices, no evident strife in the supermarkets. I don’t dare to think what would happen in England if the equivalent situation occurred. Probably a few broken noses.

Moreover, if I have to go without eggs for a few weeks, or if it got really bad and I had to live off rice, I could do it. I cannot believe that some people are not prepared to put up with that minute and trivial inconvenience and look further north, where there are reports of five people sharing a single rice ball (the size of a fist) and walking through the snow in the only set of clothes they’re left with.

The real tragedy in all of this is that hissy fits in Europe and America about radiation spreading there is detracting from the very real and catastrophic situation in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation Exposure Levels

The number of dead might rise above 10,000, but they have only the time to count the bodies and line them up. They are running short of body bags. They have no time or space to identify them. There isn’t enough food or water getting through, and now temperatures have sunk below freezing and it’s snowing.

Reports are saying that aid isn’t getting through. They say that up to 500,000 people might have lost their homes. And not only are they in shock, grieving, hungry and freezing, but they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. No nappies, no toilet roll, no blankets, no coats. If you’re in Japan, please go Second Harvest and make up a box of items for donation. This charity has already gained permission from the government (which is now necessary) to deliver the aid, and will continue to make trips up to Sendai from now on.

I didn’t expect to, but this tragedy has made me fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country, and disgusted at how the rest of the world is presenting it.

Just remember that no matter how hot these fuel rods get, there will be no Chernobyl. There might be more hydrogen-sparked explosions that spread radiation, yes, but they will not affect an area larger the 30 kilometre radius already determined. It’s being likened to the Three Mile Island incident, which happened 100 miles from New York. Tokyo is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

As a closing thought, I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A Tokyo 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

In the interests of journalistic integrity, I’ll grant you a full disclosure: I have never really liked Blonde Redhead or Ariel Pink. Both are bands that I felt like I should like, given my friends’ evangelical fervour for them: they made me mixtapes with them on, played their albums on loops when I was around, sent me links to their videos. I felt like I was missing something, but the only response I could drum up was a resounding ‘meh’. Then when Pitchfork awarded the best single of 2010 to Ariel Pink, I realized my uncoolness required some remedial action. Before I got thrown out of hipster circles, I decided that seeing them live might be the only way to alchemise my indifference into appreciation.

I found Ariel Pink difficult to listen to on record. To me, they were the aural equivalent of bad fusion food, taking the worst of several different cuisines (or musical genres) and then adding fistfuls of cheese. And his syrupy pastiche of old funk and cheesy lyrics- “I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on a strip”- just sounded like the sad kind of muzak played at an office party in a cavernous bar strewn with streamers and deflated balloons.

But Ariel’s corniness is not what it seems, as I found out. Obsessed with the sound of the radio as he remembered it in his youth, he was an archetypal reclusive artist, holing up in his bedroom to record hundreds of tapes that recreated the sounds of his youth, replete with lo-fi scratchiness and the disjointed, shifting sound you get from flicking through stations. He is in fact a master of memory, attempting to resuscitate the 70s and 80s not through repackaging it for hipsters but by slicing it up and serving it raw.

I realise after a few songs that while they are a difficult band upon first listen, given that they create erratic mélanges of different styles and moods and often segue into something rather unsettling. Their music seems to be organised into songs in the same way that William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is organised into chapters (i.e. arbitrarily), and share that novel’s disjointed, hallucinogenic absurdity, lack of continuity and shifts in time and context.

They flick through sweet surfer harmonies to squelchy 80s saxophone (“Hot Body Rub”), from creepy falsetto to the kind of growly grunge of Bleach-era Nirvana (“Butt House Blondies”). The audience is polite and eerily silent between songs but seem somewhat bemused. Finally a song raises a cheer: “Round and Round,” the first single to be professionally produced, in contrast to their earlier work, which sounded so tinny they could have been committed to tape via a paper cup and string. Although it’s the one song that takes up residence in my head after the gig, I can empathise with the ambivalence that seeps from the crowd as they exit the stage.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Ariel Pink performs at the 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter mystifies the Tokyo audience

Deerhunter, being both less loopy and more melodic, are easier to enjoy. Melding cheerful West Coast melodies, Conor Oberst-esque shoegazer pop, and layered cacophonous jams, last year’s “Halcyon Digest”, their fourth album, has warranted some pretty heavy rotation. They blast the haphazard noodlings of Ariel Pink away with a solid sound, anchored by driving guitars and big drums. The runaway highlight, “Desire Lines”, begins with a riff suspiciously close to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”, and finishes with an extended triumphant jam punctured by the ever more strident twangs of guitar that ring out like a bell. Their sound is punchier, more expansive than on record, and bounces around the room to a beautifully synchronized light show. The intensity is raised on “Nothing Ever Happened,” a fast and punky thrash, and the poetic “He Would Have Laughed,” eight minutes of a hypnotizing guitar riff and plaintive vocals. A dozen different strands of melody interweave and cleave apart like a rainbow exploding. They finish on “Little Kids” from their previous album “Microcastles,” which crescendos on refrain of ‘to get older still’ , until it erupts, the smoke machine chokes the stage, and they walk off triumphant.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

Now up with Blonde Redhead, for whom tonight’s gig is somewhat of a homecoming–the lead singer, Kazu Makino–is Japanese. I had found their music a little too frothy and ethereal on record sometimes, not being deep enough to entrance nor catchy enough to remember. Live, however, they are completely compelling. Makino, a spectre in a white dress and hair-covered face, literally vibrates on the stage, sheathed in shifting footlights. Her fragile yet seductive demeanour is thrown into contrast by the more boisterous and determined backing provided by Italian brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace, giving their sound an interesting dynamic. Along with the kind of thick, complex jams popularized by Sonic Youth, patches of minor-key melancholy seep through. Much of the latter comes from after 2002, when Makino was trampled by a horse and sustained severe injuries. She alludes to the incident when she says, “for months I couldn’t sing–nothing came out. Finally… someone helped me to get my voice back, and I want to thank them.” The latest album, “Penny Sparkle,” sounds like she has finally fully regained her strength and positivity. “In Particular” is a high point, with its Gallic-tinged refrain of “Alex, Alex, X X”.

Like Deerhunter, their sound is much bigger and gutsier than on record, and a massive swathe of sound assaults us from the speakers. Makino’s voice is also higher in the mix, and she sounds angrier, even desperate in the closer “Not Getting There”. When they play last year’s single, “Here Sometimes,” her sparse and breathy vocals could pass for Medulla-era Bjork. The audience is evidently captivated, and scream loud enough to win an encore.

Was I won over though? Well, it’s fair to say that I “get” Ariel Pink a little more now, although I still find them too distracting for background music. Deerhunter made me want to scrabble through their back catalogue a little more, and I was so charmed by Blonde Redhead that even their meeker sounding songs are more interesting now that I can hear echoes of their live performance through it. It’s a credit to the venue too that for all three acts the lighting was perfect, augmenting the atmosphere of each act and creating a great visual spectacle. If only every gig was as convincing as this one.

For more information, go to the Contrarede and 4AD Site.

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