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The Minoru Kawasaki Collection, “The General”

The Minoru Kawasaki Collection, “The General” (photo)

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I have to be honest: Japanese pop culture terrifies me. While American pop culture, with its adolescence fetish, prideful ignorance, superhero love and submergent video game fantasias, can merely make me queasy, what I see flowing out of Japan triggers a flight response: the cute cult, the schoolgirl obsession, the giant-penis-monster animated porn, the apocalyptic visions, the oceans of twisted-fairy-tale manga, the deification of inexplicable toys, the combinations of all of the above, and so on. It’s as if, by Western junk-culture standards in the last three or so decades, Japan is going joyfully, helplessly insane.

Which accounts, obviously, for the stuff’s worldwide popularity. I just can’t often get my head around it, or see the opportunity to try, or track what kind of creative idea spawned something like Pokémon or Sailor Moon or the tentacle-rape epic “Urotsukidoji” or Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” or gold-plated poop-shaped cell-phone trinkets, or take you pick. I think Minoru Kawasaki, the cheapskate Japanese pulp satirist semi-extraordinaire, shares my bafflement, and has converted it into derision.

True, “Executive Koala” (2005) — a psycho-thriller in which the hero is a man-sized koala-cum-salaryman — all too closely falls in line with huge strands of Japanese stuffed-animal worship, which itself cannot be measured on conventional scales of self-reference and irony. But the other Kawasakis hitting disc, “The Rug Cop” and “The World Sinks Except Japan” (both 2006), are unmistakable, ripping farces. “Executive Koala” keeps a straight face (until, at least, the obligatory Kawasaki music video sequence, executed in an arch style that makes the first B-52s videos look slick), but its launching into teeth-gnashing drama and suspense are outrageous, at least because of the ludicrous gray-furred, huge-headed marsupial costume stuffed into that business suit. The koala-ness is acknowledged as such by the humans in the story, but not as something unusual; nor do the giant white bunny boss or giant frog grocery clerk cause a stir. (We see the koala’s zipper, in close-up; does anyone else?) Kawasaki’s narrative methods are pure Skid Row — using available office space and barely bothering to dress it, having scenes begin with characters walking into rooms, etc. — and the neurotic travails of his hero (he’s an axe murderer and doesn’t know it) are given just enough respect to make us wonder which scene or image is an outright joke, or a set-up, or, perhaps, none of the above.

11182008_worldsinksexceptjapan.jpg“The Rug Cop” also supports an elaborate fighting-the-terrorists plotline, but the police force handling the task include the titular toupee-winger, a weight-lifting midget, a seductive Don Juan (who interrogates only women), and a secret-weapon-bearing officer named Big Dick. Still, “The World Sinks Except Japan,” while coming equipped with the drollest title of the decade, might be Kawasaki’s crowning achievement so far (in a busy career that has also given the world “The Calamari Wrestler” and a new film with a subtitle that’s been translated as “Attack the G8 Summit!”). Global warming literally drowns every scrap of land on Earth except Japan, a titanic cascade of events Kawasaki depicts with cheaply animated maps, cheaply exploding model cities and a roster of cynical characters hanging out in bars and watching social upheavals on the street (as in, police beating on “foreigners” trying to get away with stolen daikon radishes). The wave of refugees that swamps Japan includes world leaders (trying to curry the Prime Minister’s favor while out drinking) and surviving American movie stars (one named “Jerry Cruising”), but Kawasaki’s taste for low-ball mockery is universal, and Nippon nationalism is chided as mercilessly as the Bushian idiot president and Kim Jong Il are. As doomsday scenarios go, it’s the new compliment to Roger Corman’s “Gas!” and twice as shabby.

11182008_thegeneral.jpgBuster Keaton’s “The General” (1927) has few rivals as untouchable canon-classic comedy, and the new Kino DVD is long overdue, supplemented by a second disc of filming location tours, vintage intros (Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson), Keaton home movie footage, a montage of Keaton’s career-long series of train stunts, and three new scores to pick from. No reevaluation is necessary, however — it’s a perfect film, visually breathtaking, so confident and deft in its mise-en-scène that rewinding is mandatory, to see if what you thought just happened in real time actually did. Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” may be a more insightful metafictional creation, but “The General” is twice that film’s weight in physical wonder and heartbreaking heroism. There is this, however — why hasn’t anyone, in this age of historical hyper-revisionism, pointed out that Keaton’s film demonizes the Union forces and heroizes, in a single-minded Hollywood way, the Confederacy and, implicitly, its defense of slavery? No one could suggest that Keaton, a Kansas-spawned vaudevillian born 30 years after the Civil War, was a slavery-nostalgic secessionist, could they? What would you say the film endorses, politically? Could even “The General,” that most harmless and beautiful of film culture chestnuts, be stretched on the rack of historico-cultural correctness, especially in ObamaWorld? I ask you: if not…why not?

[Photos: “The World Sinks Except Japan,” Klock Worx, 2006; “The General,” United Artists, 1927]

The Minoru Kawasaki Collection (Synapse Films) and “The General” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.