Scars and Diapers…

Today I had the thrill of getting a cyst removed from my back. The excitement level of this minor operation was minimal, so I didn’t have to worry about a jolt of high blood pressure kicking me off. Apart from a “slight scratch” as the doctor described it and some “prodding around” he removed something so small that an ant would have turned up his nose at it. (If an ant had a nose that is)

Two stitches later and I was released into the world once again. One more scar to add to my ever-growing collection. The joke around the Smith house is that I’ve got enough scars, impressive and not-so-impressive that I could change my name to Colonel Quaritch, the suitably nasty alpha male in Avatar.

For the record I do have a few. I have a scar on my right knee that I got (along with either 16 or 32 stitches. My memory says 32, but since it tends to exaggerate, it’s probably 16 or even six) from being scared silly by an old man who couldn’t see me on the path or even hear me, let alone harm me. But he scared the hell out of me and I ran like the Devil was chasing my ass. I tripped and opened my knee to the bone (or cap I guess).

What was funny was how I came to be on the path to town that day and my discovery of my injury.

Back in the old days when I was a wee lad of 7 women used old-fashioned cloth diapers (nappies, if you’re English) with diaper pins. *Just a side note about diaper pins. I think that these self-injuring giant clothes pins were the main reason that “throw away” diapers became the rage. Every time you went to thread the pin through the diaper to close it, your fingers automatically got skewered. There were a few folks who never stuck their fingers with the damned things, but no one I knew ever changed a diaper unharmed.*

My brother who had made his entrance into the world just a short time before was doing what every baby does when they first arrive. He was going through diapers at a rapid rate. Our mother had run out of, not diapers, but pins. I was sent to run the half mile or so to the town centre and get a pack. In those day’s you could even walk outside by yourself at 7 years of age in the dark. (Though not likely, we had curfews back then, by God!)

This task was deemed urgent, no pins no diaper for my baby brother, I left in what I was wearing. I don’t remember the shirt I had on, but I do remember I was wearing white blue jeans. I even seem to remember that they were Levis. I scarpered out the front door and headed off at a pretty good pace to town. As I walked in front of the now deserted High School (it was summer) I spied the “old man.”

All the town kids were terrified of him. He wore a black fedora hat and a long black coat, even in blazing heat of the summer. He wore black “clodhopper” boots and used a cane to walk. He rarely looked up when he walked and he mumbled to himself. I was scared of him because he kicked my dog. Scamper got in his way once, tail wagging and trying to be friendly. The old chap immediately kicked the dog a good yard down the path. Scamper squealed with pain and hi-tailed it back to the house. I yelled at the old man for kicking my dog, but he never paused or even looked at me. He just continued down the path looking at the ground.

My dad said that the old man was half blind and pretty much completely deaf. He said that Scamper probably frightened him and that was why he kicked the dog. I remember dad had a talk with him later the same day about the incident and the old fellow spoke in a very loud tone and said, “I didn’t kick your damn dog sonny, now get out of my way.”

Dad came back shaking his head and chuckling. He told me to make sure that Scamper stayed away from the old man. I didn’t think it was amusing or forgivable. I thought the old man was mean and would probably kick me if he got the chance.

That’s why I ran away from him yelling (no words but if I was to translate, it was a YAAAAAAAAH sound). Just as I started to slow myself down, I tripped and did a face plant in the rock and dirt path I’d been sprinting on. I got back up and brushed the dirt off as I ran.

I didn’t slow down till I got to the old general store (Boy, I sure do miss those). I found a packet of diaper pins and brought them up to the counter. I handed them to the lady at the till and gave her my quarter for them and as she handed me my change she nodded her head towards my jeans and asked, “Have you been painting?”

“No,” I replied, “Why?”

She pointed to my right knee and said, “It looks like you got some red paint on your knee. It looks pretty fresh too. Did you brush against something on the way here?”

I looked down at my white jeans and found that from the knee down they were red. My knee was pumping out freshets of blood.

“No, I fell.” I put the change in my pocket. “I’d better get home, these pins are an emergency.”

The lady smiled and said, “You’d better get your mom to look at your knee.”

I thanked her and told her that I would.

I took the back way home so I wouldn’t run into the scary old man. I ran into the house with the diaper pins held out to my mom. She noticed the red jeans right away. As she was a bit harassed, she wasn’t too pleased to see that I’d injured my knee, “Running away from a harmless deaf and blind old man.”

With the sigh of overworked mothers everywhere she then declared that we would have to go see our GP and see if it needed stitches. “You’d better hope you need stitches, buster. I really don’t have time for this.”

Of course I did need stitches so I never found out what would have happened if I didn’t. Not a lot I don’t imagine. My mother to this day remembers the incident and feels guilty that she’d made the, “You’d better hope you need stitches,” remark. On the day, she felt so bad about it that she stopped and got us both a fudgesicle –my favourite.

Not all my scars have such a “quaint” back story. Nor do they hold much in the way of pleasant memory. A lot of them didn’t even get stitches although I’ll wager they probably should have. But what every scar I have does is show that my life has quite often been exciting, scary, painful and for a couple of them at least, fun.

Zatoichi (2003): Blind Masseuse Music

Zatoichi is a Japanese “anti-hero” popular in their culture. No less than 26 films have been made featuring Zatoichi and a long running television show which aired 100 episodes. Part of the Zatoichi legend is his ability to win at gambling as he can hear the dice. He also gives massages, plays music and sings, and practises acupuncture.

Zatoichi even got the Hollywood remake treatment in 1990. The 17th film in the series was remade with Rutger Hauer playing a blind swordsman. Titled Blind Fury, it wasn’t a bad film. I watched it before I had even heard of Zatoichi and thought at the time it was marvellous. Of course, I am a huge Rutger Hauer fan, so that may explain a lot.

Takeshi Kitano adapted the screenplay of his version of Zatoichi. He also directed and edited the film. Kitano’s version is musical. Not in the classic sense, you won’t find samurai suddenly bursting into song a la The Sound of Music. But the film itself is musical.

The rain makes a musical sound as it falls and drips off objects. The villagers working in the fields make a rhythmic noise as they collect vegetables and weed their plants. This pattern of music making does not over indulge or become obtrusive. It is noticeable mainly when there are scenes with no dialogue. Sound is amplified when, we the audience, hear things from Zatoichi’s point view, so to speak.

The battles (which Takeshi wanted to be choreographed as realistically as possible) where the blind man takes his sword cane out to fight, have sword slices and cuts that are louder than usual, as if we are hearing it as Zatoichi is. The blood was “overly” CG’d at Kitano’s request. He felt the audience needed a bit of relief from the brutal nature of the battles and the high body count.

Zatoichi discovers a small mountain village that is being ruled by a powerful yakuza gang. They moved into the village and killed the “legal” rich landowner who was the villager’s protector and employer. The gang bully and terrorize the small village. Then Zatoichi arrives and starts carving his way through the yakuza gang. The leaders of the gang employ a Ronin to be their body-guard.

Ronin were samuai without a leader. Their lord and master is either dead or has no need of their services. Ronin roamed the countryside selling their sword skills to the highest bidder. Takeshi Kitano wisely chose Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano to play the ronin Hattori Gennosuke. Asano has been described as the Japanese Johnny Depp. He is a versatile and brilliant actor who has made the cross to Hollywood, working on Thor, Battleship and Thor: The Dark World (due for release in 2013). Credited with 82 films as an actor and three films as a director, Asano is perhaps best known for his over-the-top S&M villain from Ichi the Killer.

Ronin vs Zatoichi


The fight between Zatoichi and Gennosuke is long, brutal and brilliant. It was also a nod to Asano’s role in Ichi the Killer, as Zatoichi is also referred to as “Ichi” in the series of films about the blind swordsman.

There is a sub-plot about two beautiful geisha (one of whom is a man) who play music and sing before they murder their rich clients. They are on a revenge mission as it was their family who were murdered by the yakuza gang who took over the village.

Beat Takeshi‘s Zatoichi is a big budget affair that at last count pulled in over 32 million dollars at the box office. It won the Silver Palm Award and Cannes and has done very well in the home rental department. The film features Takeshi’s low key and, sometimes, slapstick humour that is his trademark. One scene in particular sums up the humour of Beat Takeshi.

The village idiot (or simpleton) likes to dress up as a samurai warrior and “train.” This consists of running around his ramshackle shed of a house yelling at the top of his lungs. This if funny enough (as he does it through a good portion of the film) but add Zatoichi into the scene and it becomes hysterically funny. I won’t spoil the scene for you, just watch it and see.

The film looks beautiful and has Kitano’s stamp all over it. As he edits his own films, he puts his personal touch and rhythm to ease film he does. The colours are sumptuous and the lighting is spot on. The blood is all CG. As explained before, he wanted the blood to be very intrusive. In his words to the special effects department he wanted the blood to, “look like flowers blossoming across the screen.”

I have watched Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi repeatedly and find something new in it each time I view it. I would highly recommend that you watch it; if for no other reason than to enjoy Beat Takeshi’s version of this popular and classic Japanese character.

Zatoichi hearing the rain.

Hana-bi (1997) Takeshi Kitano’s Bittersweet Romance

Apart from Battle Royale (released in 2000 and directed by Kinji Fukasaku) Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi has never been better. Written, directed and edited by Beat hana-bi (translates as fireworks) is another facet of his view on crime and the penalty it exacts from its participants.

Hana-bi is a slow ballad of a film. It has a relentless rhythm from the very first frame. I have titled my review a “Bittersweet Romance” but in terms of the overall film, it really is more of a romantic tragedy. Either way you want to describe the film would fit, but I’ve always felt that romance was the ruling factor of the film.

With Beat Takeshi’s character, Nishi and his wife Myuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) their double tragedy [the death of their 5-year-old daughter and Myuki’s dying from leukaemia] is not enough to defeat the obvious love that they have for one another. Their humour has managed to survive the battering that their life has taken. Late in the film, Nishi sets up a camera on the side of their car to take a timed picture. Just as the camera takes their photo another car drives in between them and it. Their laughter over the incident feels infectious and genuine.

The vast majority of the film is a mixture of flash backs and “present day” which works very well. You do have to pay attention though or you can get a bit lost. But regardless of the “to-ing and fro-ing” of the sequences the rhythm of the film is still relentless.

And relentless describes Nishi’s life perfectly. He has so many plates spinning at once that it’s easy to see why his character rarely says anything; but having said that, it is a trait of Beat Takeshi characters in almost all of his films. His taciturn and stoic face with its tics and mannerisms says more in repose than he could ever say literally.

Nishi’s boss and best friend Horibe (played by Takeshi regular Ren Ohsugi) is shot and paralysed when he does Nishi’s stake-out duty so Nishi can visit his wife in hospital. Noribe then has a difficult time dealing with life in a wheel chair and takes up art as a therapy measure.

Nishi and Horibe on the way to the stake-out.

When Nishi and two detectives catch the villain who shot Horibe, Nishi is punched repeatedly in the face and thrown off the suspect. Kudoh and Nakamura (played by another Takeshi regular Susumu Terajima) jump on the yakuza to restrain him. The yakuza then shoots both Kudoh and Nakamura. Nakamura is wounded but Kudoh dies on the scene. Nishi takes his service revolver out and shoots the yakuza in the head.

He then goes over to the dead yakuza and empties his revolver into the dead man’s head. This results in Nishi getting fired from the force. Already in debt to a local yakuza gang because of loans he took out for his wife’s hospital bills and their daughter’s death, Nishi decides to rob a bank to set everything right. He takes his dying wife on a holiday, pays for Horibe’s painting supplies and gives Kudoh’s widow a huge sum of money.

Since the pervading mood of the film is its relentless nature, we know that Nishi is going to pay dearly for his generosity and his guilt.

Most of Beat Takeshi’s films feature a lone character that doesn’t conform or sets himself away from other’s. His characters always have a nasty end or at the very least a short violent one. His message seems to be that it is alright to live to your own rules and ideals, but it will cost you in the end.

All of Takeshi’s films feature a lot of shots of the sea. Hana-bi features a lot of scenes by the sea and focuses on the waves beating against the shore or the tide coming in. This again points the film’s theme toward relentlessness and he appears to be drawing a parallel between the never-ending waves and the theme of the film.

The art that Horibe paints and draws in the film were all done by Beat Takeshi himself. Some of the most emotional scenes come from Horibe studying flowers in a shop and “seeing” the pictures that he will draw in his mind. Dogs with sunflowers for heads are just some of the funny, and odd, images he creates.

If ever any one man could be deemed an institution Takeshi Kitano is that man. The running joke in Japan’s entertainment industry is that Beat Takeshi is on television 8 days a week. Takeshi does have several television shows, writes articles for many different publications and writes, directs, and edits his own films. There seems to be no end to this man’s talent pool.

In August of 1994 Kitano was in an accident while riding his moped. The crash almost killed him and left his face partially paralysed. As part of his therapy he took up painting and poetry.  By 1995 he was back to  work full-time.

Beat Takeshi is an amazing individual who rose from humble beginnings to become an institution and an icon of Japanese culture. In the England people watch Takeshi’s Castle a Japanese game show that Beat shows up for at the end of each program to “fight off” winning contestants to keep them from winning the ultimate prize. Most of the viewers (and apparently the producers and the narrator of the show) have no idea who Takeshi is.

Hana-bi is always mentioned as the last in a trilogy that Takeshi helmed for himself. Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) all feature a character who marches to the “beat” of his own drum and is more than happy to pay the price required to do so.

If I could equate Beat Takeshi’s acting style to anyone from the western world of cinema, I’d say he is the Japanese  Spencer Tracy. But that would be in the area of acting alone, I honestly don’t think there is anyone in the industry who equates 100 percent to Takeshi Kitano.

If you can stand to sit through the subtitles, watch this film. The translated title of Fireworks might be easier to find, but whatever title it’s being sold or rented as, it’s worth watching.

Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo: Has Harry Gone Down the Hole?

In what is apparently the eighth instalment of the Harry Hole series, Harry is in Hong Kong. He’s smoking opium and owes the Triad a great deal of money. Kaja Solness has travelled to Hong Kong on a mission to find Harry and bring him back to Oslo. They have a serial killer; a brutal, savage and bloody serial killer and they need Harry’s help to stop him. But is Harry Hole in any shape to return? More importantly, does he want to return?

When we left Harry at the end of The Snowman, he was an emotional wreck. The toll of catching the Snowman was a harsh and personal one. Harry has gone underground in Hong Kong to stop thinking about everything.

Jo Nesbo has done his research well on the hunting of serial killers. He has obviously studied the current and past experts who worked with the FBI to catch, among others, The Green River Killer and Ted Bundy.

The toll in real life is horrible. FBI Profiler John Douglas, who helped police catch Gary Ridgeway (the green river killer) and Wayne Williams (Augusta Georgia child murders) and more, had a real life breakdown from the stresses of having the ability to “put himself” in the minds of his suspects. He has written about his experiences. His first book, Mindhunter (1995) and his second, Into the Darkness (1997) explained how he worked and the toll it took on him. Although he didn’t realise how much of a toll until the stress affected his health.

Douglas has been portrayed in fiction several times because of his high profile. I don’t think that Nesbo’s Harry Hole is necessarily Douglas in Norwegian clothing. But he has done his research well enough to build Harry as a real person who suffers horribly for his innate talent. He also suffers from guilt; guilt over his family and for the fellow police officers who have died while working with him.

In The Leopard, two women have been murdered. They have nothing in common apart from their gender and the fact that both died from drowning on their own blood.

Harry’s old boss Gunnar Hagen is desperate for Harry to solve the murders. The reason for this desperation becomes clear when Harry meets Mikael Bellman the head of Kripos, a new crime division that Bellman wants to make into Norway’s Scotland Yard. Bellman’s “empire building” is brutal and single minded. Hagen wants to solve the case so the Ministry of Justice doesn’t make Bellman the “Napoleon” of Kripos.

As more bodies turn up and more victims are brutally murdered, it becomes a race against time, Bellman and his Kripos team and the mole that Harry appears to have on his team. And of course the killer.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Harry’s father Olav who is dying in the hospital from cancer. Harry is also still fighting all his old demons as an alcoholic and he is now smoking illegally smuggled opium as well.

As the battle for catching the murderer changes sides and targets, Harry turns to Katrine Bratt (whom he worked with in The Snowman and [SPOILER] who also had a nervous breakdown near the end of that book) to help him on the case by using the old military search engines to find information about suspects and victims on the internet.

In this book everything appears to be at stake, Harry’s father’s life, Harry’s sanity and his love/hate affair with the Crime Office which is in danger of being made redundant by Bellman and his pet project of Kripos.

The Leopard has a very international feel to it. Hong Kong, the Congo and Australia all figure into the plot. As Harry, Bellman and Harry’s team continue to peel away layers that will reveal who the killer is, Harry’s boss Hagen is searching for ammunition to use against Mikael Bellman to keep him from taking over his job.

Jo Nesbo has outshone himself in this book. Death, drugs, alcohol, stress, doubt and guilt all play a huge part in this novel. The final race to catch the killer will have you on the edge of your seat with tension.

One hell of a great read!

Jo Nesbo, Norwegian Maestro.

 

11/22/63 by Stephen King: The Past Can be a Blast

I was 5 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas. I remember the day very well. I was annoyed that my usual fare of children’s television was not airing. Instead it was some boring news thing. I went into the kitchen to complain to my mother about it. She told me to play something since Superman and The Mickey Mouse show weren’t on.

Later that same day a lady from the nearby Air Force base housing area came and knocked on every house door in the neighbourhood, including ours. She said the same thing to everyone who answered their door, “The President’s been shot.”

Even at 5 years old, I could tell that this was bad. The grown-ups were crying and very upset. America changed on that day forever, as did the rest of the world. Stephen King’s book 11/22/63 looks at what could happen if someone was given a choice to change history or, to be even more basic, to change the past by travelling back to a time when things were easier and simpler.

Jake Epping finds out that his friend Al, the proprietor of Al’s Diner, has found a “doorway” into the past. A sunny September afternoon in 1958, 5 whole years before Jacqueline Kennedy is made a widow and her children orphans. Al shows Jake this doorway when he finds that he is dying of cancer and after his last trip, “down the rabbit hole” left him unable to save President Kennedy from dying at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Jake finds out that Al has been going through this doorway for years. Al also explains to Jake that no matter how long you stay in the past, when you return you’ve only been gone for 2 minutes. Al stayed for 4 years on his last trip in order to save JFK from getting killed. Unfortunately his heavy cigarette habit caught up with him before he could stop Oswald.

He makes Jake promise that he will try to save Kennedy from assassination. Jake goes back and changes one thing; he stops the school janitor’s father from murdering his mother and his siblings. He comes back to see what has changed for the janitor only to find that he died in Vietnam. Despite this minor setback, Jake decides to live up to his promise to Al and go back.

President Kennedy and the First Lady (Dallas 22/11/63)

This is Stephen King at his finest. For years I have always declared that The Stand was his best book. Probably because it was the first one of his books that I read. But I now stand corrected. 11/22/63 is without a doubt his best book to date.

King has always had a talent for making his characters seem alive and breathing. His cinematic style of writing also make his stories just as alive as his characters. He still lets us into the minds of the people he writes about, which helps to make them seem more real.

In this book he manages to keep track of all the threads of the story (or strings, as it were) and tie them up in a bow at the end of the story. King is really the only writer who can consistently make me cry and laugh at his stories. His books also make me partake in one continuous “read-a-thon” where I cannot put the book down until I’ve finished it. Once I’ve finished it and read his afterword notes, I pick it up and read it again.

I think I got so swept away by the story because of the time period that is was set in. I was a small child in the 60’s and became a teenager in the 70’s. Apart from living in Sacramento California when I was 5, I grew up in the south. The picture he paints of the time, people and area is spot on.

When he writes of the small Texas town where Jake meets Sadie, I can “see” the teenagers with their flat tops and Ked sneakers and penny loafers (with a dime stuck in the front of the shoe) and I can taste the king size Cokes and smell the ever present cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke. As Jake points out, everyone smoked in the 50’s and 60’s. These were the last days of innocence in America. We’d won the war. John Wayne was still number one at the box office and America was the golden land of opportunity.

It was also the days of racial segregation, the KKK and “better dead than red.” There were towns in the south that did not allow black people to live within their hallowed city limits. A time when the Army and the police and the National Guard had to escort black students to a white school. It was also Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Russia was the “big bad” that the world faced and nuclear weapons were what we dropped on Japan and Russia beat us into space and had atomic weapons.

I can still remember the signs of restaurants and cafes that said, “No Coloured’s” and of course the all-purpose catch-all, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.” This would change in the 70’s when it was no longer deemed appropriate to be racially bigoted. The signs were replaced with the, “No shirt, No shoes, No service.” This prejudice against the long-haired, peace-loving, hippies was acceptable.

It is this backdrop that Jake has to inhabit. And we are there with him, every step of the way. But Jake is not alone, he feels like the past is actively fighting him every step of the way on his journey to save the US president from assassination.

He learns that the past doesn’t want to be changed.

If I used a star system for rating books I’ve read, 11/22/63 would get a 5 out of 5 stars. So okay the idea isn’t necessarily original, King himself writes about Jack Finney‘s Time and Again. But it is the way it is written that makes this a classic tale and one worth reading.

In my humble opinion, Stephen King is, as his name suggests, the crowned head of popular fiction. I don’t think that he is in any danger of losing his crown.

Stephen King.