Miyazaki does it again: Tales from Earthsea

Somehow, the Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli) movie Tales from Earthsea slipped through the cracks and I wasn’t aware of this Miyazaki film until just last week when Netflix suggested it to me. My friend, Nnedi is usually the one who keeps me up on his latest movies. This one was actually one of the best of the more recent films by his studio. Certainly not as good as my all time favorites: Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, but definitely up there and more memorable.

It is much darker than his others, so I wouldn’t recommend it for children under 11. However, the atmosphere, the artwork (of course), and the creativity of the story is classic Miyazaki. The story takes place in a fantastic, medieval setting and is about the journey of the son of a King, who in a fit of unexplained rage kills his father and steals his magic sword

. At the time, the great balance in the world is shifting and the whole movie has a very powerful forbidding sense of dark evil subversively strangling the characters in the movie. The movie is definitely much more atmosphere than story but in this regard it is one of his better movies. I watched it in the original audio track (Japanese) with subtitled, so I don’t know about the quality of the dub but it probably is of excellent quality like the others given that it is Disney Studios production. If you are like me and have small children, older children (11 and upwards), and love a good animated feature with something in it for fantasy lovers (which I am), I would suggest grabbing this movie.

Lullaby: The Tease

My dear friend Kimberly M. Wetherell, whom I delighted in meeting earlier this year, is a bright, upcoming filmmaker.  I enjoyed Ménage à Trois, and if you haven't seen the hilarious Why we Wax (link possibly NSFW) you are definitely missing out.  For the past year or so, Kimberly has been grinding hard to gain the necessary support for a far more ambitious work, Lullaby.  Based on a teaser for this feature film she put together and posted over the weekend, it could just be her masterpiece.  With the sights, sounds and emotional balance so compelling in this teensy peek upon her vision, I am eagerly looking forward to the completed work.

Some Words about Meditation (The Matrix Analogy)

I've found this spot near shaker lakes where I can do my Tai Chi Wu forms. it is isolated from people, virtually untouched wooded parks. We seem to have quite a lot of those in the greater Cleveland area and I'm coming to appreciate them. This one is perfect because it is overlooking open water right below where the sun sets (as you can see in the picture) and all the best Tai Chi (QiQong) practitioners I have had suggest doing it outside. So, I did at 9am this morning because I needed to make some decisions and noticed my thoughts were getting cloudy and overrun with emotion.

Tai Chi, the philosophy underlying it, and meditation used to be just anecdotally interesting to me (some time in University of Illinois during a Non-western Literature class, I was introduced to the poetry of Lei Tzu and became interested) and then recently my hypertension has gotten to the point where it needs to be managed by medication and I have some difficulty doing so because I believe (at a purely intuitive level) much of high blood pressure (mine at least) has to do with the cumulative effect of living in an industrialized, modern society. Everything is fast paced, on the go. There is always some (mostly material) milestone we are always chasing.


I was never consciously aware of this state of mind. The idea of the Matrix (the movie plot) is where I was first able to concretely able to articulate it. The mind state of just being plugged in, living out a meaningless life (because the life is basically software simulating modern industrialized society in order to preoccupy our minds as our bodies are being used as an energy source unwittingly). Back around the time called 'The Warring States period' (about 600 years before Before Christ) there was a flourish of philosophical literature in Ancient China about the same idea and practitioners of meditation honed their art by making a science of describing the mental process of unleashing yourself from the mundane (they even actually called it 'the Matrix' which makes me wonder if that is where the Wachowski brothers got the idea or at least the term ). They formulated the state of hurried mind, overrun with the 'ten thousand things' as they called them. If you pay attention to how people obsessively text, chase polls, plug into the 24 hour news cycle you might see a pattern of society consumed by self-indulgence, accelerated chatter, and enslaved by technology. Even me, I'm guilty of obsessively scanning Facebook, posting short nothings about something I saw or reading about some other nothing someone else saw or heard about. Reminds me of when I used to play Counter Strike.

The basic idea of the particular kind of philosophy of meditation that I've been studying is to stop thinking (rather than to focus on a particular thing on its own). I told this to my son once, and he didn't understand what it meant to 'stop thinking'. Sounds impossible, right? It isn't. When you are able to become aware of this 'matrix' state of mind and pay attention to your breathing, you can *maneuver* your thought process until it comes to stop completely. There is a specific way you are supposed to breath. I'm not as good as describing it as the people who became practitioners of this, but - as I understand it - you breath like a fetus does; so the air goes to your lower abdomen and not your chest. You breath slowly, with your tongue in a special way (at the roof of your mouth) and your head suspends like you are a marionette and there is a string attached to the top of your head up to the ceiling. When you control the breathing and it is soft in that way, you start to 'turn the light around' - i.e., turn the focus of your perception on to yourself and your thoughts - by becoming aware of your thoughts, where they come from, and what they are - dismissing them one at a time as you do so.

You continue to extinguish your thoughts by becoming aware of them until you are no longer thinking and everything you do is done from pure intuition rather than from your 'conscious' mind, the one that is like Neo before he realized he was just plugged in. From what I understand, there are ways you can empirically verify you are in this state by seeing if you have a buoyant (intoxicated) feeling. Similar - in some sense - to how you might feel if you were hyperventilating and your pores are wide open (or you are on a narcotic or some other illegal drug). The other effect (and this is *my* conjecture) is that you aren't anxious and cease to remain a slave to the gossipy, text messaging, twittering state of mind that modern day society wires us to have (a sort of *de facto* Matrix).

Usually, when I have done it properly, my blood pressure easy drops from 140 over 90, to 110 over 70. I have to measure my BP periodically to determine if the water pill (essentially) I take is working and don't need to try something else (in some ways, my friend who is a Physician has told me, Hypertension is a Syndrome in the sense that it's etiology is not fully understood).

Tai Chi is the perfect calisthenic exercise for me because it is a completely coordinated physical exercise engineered to maintain a meditative state of mind, while strengthening and stretching the body, providing all the benefits you would get from a similar calisthenic exercise: Yoga. This might sound naive, but I'm confident if I am diligent in Tai Chi, meditation, physical activity, disciplined etc. I might get to the point where I don't need to take a water pill to manage my particular chronic disease. So, I have a legitimate motivation, despite the fact that I get the idea that my family members - who are devout Christians in the same evangelic manner that many First, Second generation Nigerians are - often subtly suggest that I'm spiritually 'lost' and obsessed with Chinese culture and in desperate need for 'God to take over my life and for me to give myself to Christ', etc. I have this conversation with people who love me frequently and more often than I can count. I'm always polite and never try to dig to deep into it, because to explain takes too long. But I wanted to try to explain it here for a change.

Meditation has changed my life and *my* testimony (I use the word in the same evangelic sense as they) is how I've been able to maintain after having to bury children after unspeakable tragedy (so much so that I have yet to talk about it on a blog where my brother and I write a ridiculous amount about alot of things). It is something you can't explain but can only experience. But meditation, and my interest in the writings during the period of the warring states period also has to do with the similarities between the times we live in and the times the authors and practitioners lived in. There is alot of chaos, confusion, false ideology and vast power struggles; some visible, most not. The philosophy underlying the calisthenic exercise of Tai Chi was born in a time of chaos when people were trying to understand how a people living subject to violent forces were able to maintain an ethos that made sense, gave them tools to live healthy, gave them a moral framework that required some amount of spiritual discipline, and steeled them against turbulent times.

As I've gotten better in understanding how to adapt to change, doing the fetal, meditative breathing thing, and become more intuitive about the Tai Chi core forms, I've been trying to find local places where I can practice the 'right way'. So, I found this spot that is perfect for it. I think I'm going to go back frequently.

J-Horror week, or cultural roots of tastes in horror movies

This past weekend I took the opportunity of vacation time and irregular sleeping schedule (due to our newest family member) to catch up on some Japanese horror flicks I've been meaning to watch. I only got as far as Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. I thought they were brilliant, and will have to seek out more J-Horror. I have not watched the American versions of either, and I've found the inevitable comparisons I read on them to be a very interesting exemplar of cultural differences. Warning: Spoilers follow.

I've always had a love for mythologies, and Japan has a marvelous mythic tradition, so I've read plenty of Japanese mythology. Maybe that's why I don't have a problem with the disjointed nature of J-Horror. The unraveling threads, the lack of moral simplicity, the indirect methods for the scares are all quite palatable to me. It's not much unlike the West African mythic tradition, and in fact, it's a lot like the Greek mythic tradition. The Romans began the process of rationalizing the Greek myths, and since then Western tastes have been for clean story lines and moral certitude.

One preference that seems more specifically American than generally Western is for literal representation, even in horror. I've heard a lot of criticism from Americans of the look of the monsters in "Ju-on: The grudge" they're plied with white makeup and then blued up, and how is this supposed to be scary when we've seen the twisted monsters of "Evil Dead" and "Night of the Living Dead"? The interesting thing is that, though I love both of those movies, they have always represented comedy as much as horror to me.

Jack of diamonds! Jack of spades! Whhhhyyyyy dooooo yyyyoooouuu distuuuurb my sluuumber

That shit has me rolling, yo. Anyway, complaints about the less obviously grotesque J-Horror demons seems ludicrous to me. Do people really claim that they're more terrified of the fully revealed than of the unformed and unknown? Who cares if Toshio looks like an overgrown blue baby when he clearly establishes himself as the omen of his murderous parents (you know that the big spooks are coming, but you're not sure just how, and that distills a real dread). Who cares that Sadako is all black, wet hair when her slow, purposeful stagger and the one briefly exposed eye are so thoroughly menacing? I find that in my reaction to J-Horror, the chills come far more from the menace of the characters, than from the effects of the characters. I use the word "effects" not only to mean the special effects that bring the characters to life, but also the effects of their actions on people. Sadako stops people's hearts. She doesn't find creative ways to maul their bodies, as is the general formula in American horror. Much of the fright comes from the lack of clear moral to her vengeance. I've heard people ridicule "Ringu" because they have no idea why Sadako cursed a tape for the general public rather than seeking out the specific ones who wronged her, but that arbitrariness is exactly what is so horrible to me.

When the monsters do appear in J-Horror, it's not with flawless CGI that you're thrilled: it is the mannerisms. Sadako's walk. Kayako's bulging eyes. When Sadako crawls out of the TV, and when Kayako does that awful staircase descent, I found myself more thrilled than in any other horror moment I could remember. I don't carry horror movies into my dreams very often, but these ones left me pretty jumpy for a couple of days.

I do have to watch out for unfair generalization. There have been examples of successful American horror that prefers subtler methods (and is thus to me much scarier). But I think that it's quite typical of Hollywood horror to prefer the explicit and gory to the understated and symbolic.

Ringu BTW, seems to me Ringu draws on the famous Japanese ghost story of Okiku's well. There are several variations on the story, but in the one I have in mind, after Okiku was killed and thrown into the well by the Samurai, she climbed out of the well every night as a yūrei avenging spirit, tormenting the Samurai until he went mad, thus extracting her revenge. Of course Sadako is no yūrei, which I've never heard of to be poltergeists (to use the Western term). She was telekinetic in life and retained her action-at-a-distance capabilities to a terrifying degree in the afterlife. Tomoko, on the other hand, who inexplicably urges her cousin to watch the same tape that killed her, seems more of a usual yūrei: seen and heard, but not physically threatening.

One way or another, if you want a little different take on the horror genre, give J-Horror a try, and keep your mind open. For my part, I'll have to catch some more. I already have the much-praised A Tale of Two Sisters in the Netflix queue. If you know of other such flicks that I should make a beeline for (I might go for the Japanese Dark Water, next), drop me a line.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia


Well, it's been a little while but I'm due for a movie review. So, I decided to cover a movie I just finished watching and thoroughly enjoyed: Sideways. The first thing I must say is that I was honestly suprised I enjoyed the movie given the underlying theme is on a topic I have no interest in: wine connoisseurship. If it was up to me (queue gasps) I'd rather have a glass of Boone's Farm (strawberry) than a Chardonay or Merlot (this is supposed to be a low quality wine - but I wouldn't know, which is my point). My pallet for alcoholic beverages is little to none and (being a sweet tooth) my preference is for sweet wines. So, needless to say I avoided seeing this movie, with the notion that I wouldn't have any sympathy with the characters and their experiences.

That being said, I absolutely loved this movie for every other reason than the main theme. Primarily, this movie is an excellent example of how subtle, mature comedy can often hit harder than slapstick if done well. The scenes of hilarity by themselves could easily be misconstrued as being in bad taste. They ride right up to the line of what is appropriate but do it in a way you can't help but appreciate (if you have a minimal sense of humour).

Sideways is also an example of how you develop characters with almost unforgivable traits in a way that is both believable and sympathetic. It's hard to explain how this is so with this movie without spoiling the experience.

The main character, Miles, is reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's character (Melvin) from As Good as it Gets - one of my favorite characters of all time (for the same reasons I liked Miles). They are both characters with serious social issues (arguably for good reasons) that still are able to reconcile their harsh outlooks on life by meeting women with the insight and courage to appreciate that underneath all the layers of social armor are men with genuine characters.

Jack and Miles are probably the oddest of couples you will ever find in such a movie, but the care that is taken in developing their experience makes it almost impossible not to believe that they are indeed best of friends. So, for me Sidways was more a celebration of the art of character development and mature humour than of wine sniffing and tasting.

[Chimezie Ogbuji]

via Copia

House of Brilliant Cinematography

(Warning: contains minor spoilers)

Every once in a while I see a movie that seems to have no precedent in one or more areas and I recently added House of Flying Daggers to that list. To be honest, cinematography was never a category of film making that made as much a difference to me as story, character development, and originality (in that order, for me). That all changed when I saw Hero. Often, I would remember only select scenes that stood out from movies that were particularly beautiful. Hero was the first where I remembered the movie primarily because of the powerful use of color for the specific purpose of enhancing the process of story telling.

Inevitably this movie will be compared to Hero, mostly because it's useful for those promoting it to associate it with predecessors (such as Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) that made the transition to a western audience successfully.

Besides, the role of Ziyi Zhang (remind yourself to exhale and lookaway) it mostly has only the use of superior cinematography in common with Hero. Firstly, it is less martial arts than it is a powerful love story. Even having never seen an Opera before, I was struck by how the only comparison / analogy I could make with this movie is that of an Opera where the artistic medium was color and motion and not music.

I recall seeing a documentary (The Art of Action: Martial Arts in Motion Picture) chronicling the development of the martial arts genre (narrated by Sammuel L. Jackson) where he mentions that the early martial arts movies grew out of the tradition of Peking Opera and I couldn't help but feel that the director must have had it in mind to bring this influence full circle. The motion, costumes, and use of color and theatric melodrama to underscore the themes of romance and bravery were very reminicent of the footage of early Peking Opera shown in that documentary.

My favorite scene is where Ziyi Zhang (who plays the blind daughter of the leader of the House of Flying Daggers) performs an 'Echo Dance' for a soldier. The scene epitomizes what works so well in this movie: the use of slow-action shots (imagine the scenes from the Matrix without freezing the other elements in the shot) of incredibly choreographed interplay between characters. The martial art scenes (though fewer than probably expected) are very well done and never seem forced at any point.

I would definitely suggest this movie to anyone bored with Hollywood's offerings as of late and looking for something refreshing to hold their attention. I would also definitely suggest this to anyone who saw Hero and was as moved by it's originality as I was.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia