Monday, June 30, 2008

Ippudo New York - Yumm!

Japanese restaurant food made by, um, Japanese is getting rarer and rarer to find in New York. As I was growing up and Japanese investors and corporations were purchasing a significant amount of New York's real estate and important businesses, authentic Japanese restaurants were a plenty, even in lower-priced (the stuff I could afford!) categories. I miss this--it seems that most lower or mid-priced Manhattan Japanese restaurants are now Chinese-owned and have lost their genuineness.

An exception is the new, New York branch of the previously Japan-only chain, Ippudo (一風堂). In Manhattan's East Village which still boasts a considerable number of Japanese/Japanese-American-owned, Japanese/Japanese-American-staffed Japanese eateries, Ippudo is a breath of fresh air. It is fun, simultaneously bright and dim, and full of energy. The focus: ramen noodles. Chewy, perfectly al dente ramen are served with a variety of broths. I've not myself yet opted for Ippudo's traditional soupy kinds of Ramen presentations because I don't eat pork and the broth is pork-based. I may make one of my rare exceptions to my non-religious, non-dietary-restriction rule to try the standard Shiomaru, Akamaru, etc. (I sometimes eat tiny bits of pork in, say, Chinese turnip cakes during dim sum, but I never consciously order it or eat large quantities of it... beef, lamb and other red meat, on the other hand, is not just out for me but verboten.) So far, I've had a wonderful summery ramen salad with a refreshing grapefruit dressing -- surprisingly good -- and many of the very (very!) tasty, beautifully-presented, yet not "stuffy" appetizers.

Most special are two aspects of the restaurant and the food. First, that you are literally in the kitchen when in the dining room. Large, transparent glass (or plexiglass?) panels show the kitchen in an almost 360-degree view inside the restaurant. Cooking and dining are seamlessly joined. Second, the freshness of the noodles; they make them on premises and they are just perfect. Ippudo is no more special to me than my beloved New York staple, Sapporo (札幌市), especially the smaller Sapporo location on 49th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, where I've been a regular and devoted customer since I was a child. However, it is great fun, great food and a little more upscale in it's simplicity and straightforwardness (does that make sense?).

See the New York Times review (published, April 30, 2008) and do experience it. Delicious!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nogami Teruyo and Nakadai Tatsuya at the Japan Society - One of the Greatest Moments of My Life!

Tonight, at New York's 100 year-old Japan Society, I had an incomparable experience. This month and next, the Japan Society is featuring two major film events: one entitled "Japan Cuts"; and a retrospective of the work of Nakadai Tatsuya (仲代 達矢), arguably Japan's greatest living actor. The latter is the Nakadai Retrospective--a co-production with Film Forum (where the films are being screened).

In honor of Nakadai-san's work with legendary director, Kurosawa Akira (黒澤 明), Japan Society hosted an appearance, on June 25, by Kurosawa's 50+ -year "right hand", his "script girl" -- and, later, Assistant Producer -- Nogami Teruyo. Nogami was interviewed by Michael Jeck before a sold out audience and signed copies of her book, "Waiting on the Weather". The book is a recollection of Nogami's work with Kurosawa.

During the interview with the magical 81 year-old lady, with her shock of white hair, vibrant personality and lightning fast responses (through a translator) to Jeck's questions, clips of Kurosawa's films were played. At one point, Moderator Jeck said that he would show a specific clip and, afterward, that he and Nogami-san would be joined by a "special guest". The clip was from Kurosawa's late-career masterpiece Ran (乱)--a scene featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a moment of Lord Hidetora's Lear-like madness. The lights came up and Jeck motioned to the front row of the audience where he called up, to our shock and surprise, none other than NAKADAI HIMSELF! Not only were we in the presence of the greatness of Nogami-san, we now had the legendary Nakadai, in New York City, right there on stage with her. I literally gasped as the 75 year-old Nakadai, still the handsome movie star -- appearing some 15-20 years younger than his age -- nearly lept to the stage. He joined Nogami in answering questions, but I nearly didn't hear the answers... I was completely star-struck!

Nakadai Tatsuya and Nogami Teruyo at the Japan Society 6/25/2008

This, however, was not the only extraordinary moment for me in this already unbelievable evening. I literally dragged myself to the event--I have been suffering for the past several months with an illness that seemed to have healed but relapsed a few days before. I had been in the hospital (on antibiotics both in hospital and at home) and I am now, unfortunately, back on antibiotics. This makes me very tired. Still, I would have regretted so much missing the opportunity to see and hear this special interview with Nogami-san, so I forced myself to the Japan Society tonight.

I attended the event alone. By "alone", I mean that no one else I know personally attended the talk with me. A tall woman of a bright and friendly countenance, and a definite "presence", sat next to me in the auditorium. We began to talk and she asked about my interest in the event and in Japanese Cinema. I explained as much as I could muster in my semi-delirious state (from the tiredness that comes with taking antibiotics). She was very charming. She followed by explaining her introduction to Japan many years ago--as a teacher, on a Fullbright grant after she graduated from college (Wesleyan). She also described her long journey of interest in Japan, Japanese culture and Japanese cinema and that she had even been an essayist on Japanese film. She then mentioned that, at one time, she would write film-related essays in the sometimes absence of the person who became her husband. She then revealed that her husband, as she pointed to my copy of Nogami-san's "Waiting on the Weather", was "him". It was no less than the person who wrote the foreward to Nogami's book, the great American scholar (and popularizer) of Japanese film, Donald Richie, one of my heroes! The woman was MARY RICHIE, Donald Richie's former spouse, about whom I had read extensively, especially in Richie's highly expressive, revealing book, "The Japan Journals: 1947-2004". I couldn't believe it. Mrs. Richie and I spent much of the evening talking. What a profound pleasure to meet her!

Mary Richie and me, Japan Society 6/25/2008

I think it was destiny that brought me to tonight's event. It was certainly a night I will never forget.

Asian-American International Film Festival (New York) - July 10 - 19, 2008

June and July are chock-full of ground-breaking Asian and Asian-American cultural and other related events.

Yet another important cinema series, the now 30+ year-old Asian-American International Film Festival (a co-production of Asian Cinevision and the Asia Society) is being held in New York from July 10-19. This festival has brought to the American fore the likes of master filmmakers, Mira Nair, Ang Lee (李安 Lǐ Ān), Wayne Wang (王穎 Wáng Yǐng), Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) and Justin Lin (林詣彬 Lín Yìbīn) with the U.S. and New York premieres of some of their seminal cinematic works.

Be sure to check it out!

The intro. video from the 2007 festival appears below (from YouTube).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin (1937 - 2008) - The Passing of One of My Heroes

The truth was told by George Carlin. I can't tell you how much I will miss his powerful voice and his honesty. I will miss the view that he had of politics which so few else would articulate.

I'm overcome by his passing.

Though I am taking the coming election very seriously, in many ways to hell with it. Here is the unadulterated truth about politics in the U.S. and around the world from George Carlin (from YouTube):

Friday, June 20, 2008

Japan Cuts - Concurrent Film Festival - July 2-13

Simultaneously with the NYAFF 2008, the Japan Society is hosting its own important film program, Japan Cuts. Some films overlap with NYAFF, but there are other gems in this festival that should not be missed.

Among the programs within the Japan Cuts fest is another simultaneous fest, a tribute to Nakadai Tatsuya (仲代 達矢), who is still living and actively continuing, at age 75, his more than 50-year career. Nakadai has long-been, and continues to be acknowledged by the world cinema community one of Japan's greatest-ever actors and he is one of my personal favorites.

Check out the trailer for Japan Cuts on YouTube:

New York Asian Film Festival - June 20 - July 6

Subway Cinema is presenting its annual film event, the 2008 New York Asian Film Festival, June 20-July 6. This year's festival is a co-production between Subway Cinema and the Japan Society.

Films in the series have grown this year to 43, along with 2 short film programs. Be sure to check it out!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ninja Warrior - G4 Network

I've just seen a "reality show" on the G4 cable network entitled Ninja Warrior. It is an edited version of a Japanese program, Sasuke (サスケ The Great Ninja Warrior).

I put "reality show" in quotes because Ninja Warrior -- though there are the obligatory appearances by (Japanese) celebrities and the "misfits" that one finds in the audition/tryout parts of any U.S. or other reality program -- is an extraordinary athletic endurance test rather than a 21st Century bastardization of a '50s talent show. I'm astonished by the physical prowess of the contenders.

I also didn't know that Sasuke has been on television in Japan since 1997. I'm definitely hooked!

Check out a clip below.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Then and Now - Losing 150 pounds

Among my most important life achievements was losing 150lbs. (68kg.) in the 1980s. In my 20s, I weighed 300lbs. (136kg.). People who see photos of me from the time -- such as the one above -- will oft refer to my laughter and seeming happiness. It was actually miserable. No matter what successes, failures and everything in-between that I may have had since, nothing will compare to this triumph over my body--one that probably, in the long run, saved my life.

Weight loss is "no picnic", so to speak! It is not an instant solution for happiness. It does not automatically give you the rewards that you expect. HOWEVER, there is no substitute for the improved mental and physical health that comes with changing your body in a positive way.

Most people ask the inevitable question: "How did you do it?" I did it in the '80s, prior to gastric bypass surgery and all of the other procedures that exist today. It was simply a life change. By "simply", I do not mean to diminish the all-encompassing process that comes with making the decisions and lifestyle modifications which must be made when attempting such a dramatic transformation. I use the word "simply" to indicate that it was, with dogged determination, changing eating and exercise habits. This, of course, is not an option for all. When I answer that inevitable question, I say, "it was a process." The usual reply is "what do you mean?" I always counter-respond with "you have to be ready, emotionally, for the process... it starts with your head and heart." In my observations -- both of my own situation and that of others -- is that excessive weight is most often a symptom of another, very different issue, usually emotional, even physiological... and by physiological I mean that it is more often a "manifestation". I do not mean that I am ignoring those with issues of metabolism and other serious medical conditions who gain or continue to carry weight. I also do not mean to say that everyone is meant to be thin. However, excessive weight is a problem, one that is not just physical, and must be dealt with in one way or another to improve health.

I'm happy I was given the gift of the discernment, more than 20 years ago, to make this change. I continue to fight with the issue. My metabolism, because I was a largely inactive child, is slower than some, and I realize that I must treat my food addiction similarly to those who suffer addictions to drugs, alcohol, etc.--I'm fortunate that I do not have, and have never had, addictions to any other substances. I am now, because of career responsibilities, a recent bout of illness, and other lifestyle issues, battling with gain and loss of approximately 20 pounds. I am now determined, with some exceptions -- you can't maintain weight in the long run by completely avoiding the foods that you like or avoiding social situations wherein you eat food that you probably shouldn't -- to take off about 10 pounds. Back to dogged determination... THANK GOD it never ends!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ma Ying-Jeou - Taiwan's New President

On May 20, 2008, the debonair, National Taiwan University/NYU/Harvard-educated (!), former KMT Chairman and former Taipei Mayor, Dr. Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) was sworn in as, essentially, the sixth President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). I say "essentially" because this list includes the first in the "modern" line, "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who is hard to categorize simply as a "President".

It is an extraordinary phenomenon that only two generations ago, Taiwan was led by a just-post-Qing Dynasty warlord. Equally fascinating is the fact that President Ma, even in largely ultramodern Taiwan, faces many issues that continue to carry forth from the warring period following the "Great Qing" and the struggles with the immediately-succeeding Chinese governments (Mao Zedong 毛澤東/毛泽东, etc.).

Taiwan was once a financial superpower. While it still in many respects dominates economically in its development of technologies, Taiwan's fiscal well-being has suffered greatly in recent years because of the ongoing tensions with the Chinese Mainland. President Ma will have to face these issues with fresh diplomacy and economic deftness.

I don't have a specific position on which of many complex "perspectives" is/are the "right" one(s) for today's Taiwan; other than to deeply respect the nationalism which has grown in most of the Taiwanese people that I've met. Their national identity comes from many years -- far older than modern Taiwan (which started with the post-WWII Chiang government) -- of unique, evolved culture and understandably related pride. I hope that President Ma will find the right balance between this critically important aspect of Taiwan's people and the actions that will, hopefully, contribute to reviving its economy--a.k.a. ties to the Chinese Mainland, as well as other world nations.

My very best wishes go to the new President and to Taiwan.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Portishead - Third

With my love of opera and classical music, friends find it fascinating that I am also passionate and knowledgeable about certain popular music. I remember having a conversation with a friend -- a very important opera singer who sings leading roles on the world's great stages but who, in private life, primarily follows popular music -- about the band, Van Halen. My friend was speaking to another friend in a social environment about loving different Van Halen songs and I asked "which did you prefer, David Lee Roth Van Halen or Sammy Hagar Van Halen?" My friend, with whom I can have several hours of discussion at a time about nuances of Richard Strauss or Verdi or works of the Second Viennese School, was stunned that I not only knew Van Halen's music, but that I would make the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar distinction. Unfortunately, I confessed that, though "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", "Jump", "Hot for Teacher", et. al., which were part of the David Lee Roth period/origins of the band, are, essentially, the classics and the preference of my friend and her friends, I prefer the power of Sammy Hagar's voice. BUT I DIGRESS...

This weekend, I was in the Union Square Virgin Records -- a last holdout of a large, well-stocked music store where so many are fading because of the online purchasing and/or downloading phenomenon (WHERE WILL I GO WHEN THERE ARE NO MORE MUSIC/VIDEO STORES... :-( ) -- and heard a new album on the loudspeakers. When I inquired about the song that was playing -- a richly powerful piece of electronica with passion but the almost semetrical coldness which is often characteristic of that musical genre -- I learned that it was a single off of the new album from the pioneering British electronic band, Portishead. It turned out to be their new album entitled "Third", their first in a decade. It was the track, "We Carry On", which was being played. An awesome, in the dictionary definition of that word, piece of music. The rest of the album is filled with musical diversity. I've not bought a pop CD in a long time but I couldn't wait to get this one into my hot-little-hands, so I made an impulse purchase.

Here, from YouTube, is the video of this extraordinary musical work.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Jews of New York - Touching Tribute

This week, PBS Television re-ran an extraordinary documentary narrated by Tovah Feldshuh, called The Jews of New York. According to the film's website: "THE JEWS OF NEW YORK profiles Jewish individuals and institutions that changed the face of New York, woven together with expert commentary, to present a broad spectrum of the ways in which the Jewish community has impacted secular New York life from the earliest immigrants through today."

Profiles in the documentary include incisive histories of New York's groundbreaking Mount Sinai Hospital, the making of the legendary Broadway show (and film), "Fiddler on the Roof" (explaining its New York origins), the Schiff Family (including the remarkable philanthropy of Jacob Schiff), and an interview with ubiquitous former New York Mayor, Ed Koch. Most touching for me, however, are portraits of the Hasidic Rabbi, Haskel Besser -- which really must be seen/heard to be appreciated -- and of the Russ Family of the Lower East Side's more than 100 year-old "Russ & Daughters Appetizers" (an unparalleled Jewish food shop). As for the latter, I find the most tear-inducing, special part to be that the most recent generation of Russ's is now, with aplomb, keeping the tradition.

I don't identify a lot with the Jewish portion of my heritage. I am more parts Italian-American Catholic (my mom's side) and German/Hungarian-American Agnostic Socialist (my dad's side) than Jewish. However, my great-grandmother -- my father's father's mother, whom I knew as a child and who lived 99 years -- was a Jewish immigrant from Germany to the U.S. This, of course, made my grandfather (my father's father) Jewish. However, there, for my lineage, it stopped--my grandmother, my father's mother, was not Jewish and the bloodline ended with my grandfather. Perhaps it is that fact -- something "in my blood" -- which drew me so much to the beauty and sentimentality (the most positive meaning of that word) of this documentary? Perhaps it is just being a New Yorker? New Yorkers of any ethnic background, of my generation and many, many New York generations before mine, felt the rich culture of Jews as an integral part of the fabric of the city. The food, the influences on the healthcare, financial, education, legal systems and so much more, the language (I grew up using Yiddish words without even knowing they were Yiddish!), the music, the art, the film, the Orchard Street of old... so, so much. It is certainly that, plus having a Jewish great-grandmother and grandfather (and when he remarried after divorcing my grandmother many years before I was born, he married a Jewish woman--an Austrian immigrant who spoke fluent Yiddish), which called my attention to many of the nuances of this terrific cinematic work.

It is also the craft with which the Jews of New York was made which captured my attention. It is a very simple film, but while it is sentimental in the right ways, it never oversentimentalizes (if that is a word!) even when being nostalgic. It lets the interviewees tell their stories in a very straightforward and contemporary way. Another not-to-be-missed work!

Clips (on the film's website, with more available):

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Asian Images in Film - Turner Classic Movies

Throughout June 2008, Turner Classic Movies is broadcasting a series entitled "Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film". The special website dedicated to this very important film festival says that it "explores the variety of Asian characters depicted in American films, ranging from negative stereotypes and caucasian actors made up to look asian to the emergence of martial arts films that created their own Asian superstars, and the more sensitive and sophisticated vehicles of such dedicated actors as Sessue Hayakawa (*早川 雪洲, Hayakawa Sesshū), Miyoshi Umeki (*梅木 美代志, Umeki Miyoshi) and Pat Morita." Curated by University of Delaware professor, Peter X. Feng, in collaboration with TCM's great host, Robert Osborne, the festival -- with films ranging from the silent era through the start of the 21st Century -- is not only expository but, in the purest sense, provocative.

Asian Images in Film kicked off last night (June 3) with a one-hour documentary entitled "The Slanted Screen". It concentrates specifically on the "portrayals of Asian men in American media, chronicling the experiences of actors who have had to struggle against ethnic stereotyping and limited roles." The Slanted Screen features 15 interviews -- from Oscar-nominated actors James Shigeta and Mako (マコ岩松, Iwamatsu Makoto), to TV pioneers Dustin Nguyen and Bobby Lee, to director Justin Lin and more -- which, in a way, summarize the entire TCM series to come. That summary is their important perspective on the overwhelmingly maddening, virtual shutting out of Asian and Asian-American performers, and particularly Asian/Asian-American men in U.S. cinema. For all of the distinguished Asian and Asian-American artists who have directed, produced, written, photographed, and graced the screen in U.S. films, there are still today, in 2008 (!), virtually no major Asian or Asian-American actors on the U.S. cinema scene who command the same salaries as Caucasian actors. The rare exceptions are those who, even in very high quality films, still, in blatent or subtle ways, perpetuate Asian stereotypes.

TCM's series has purposely opened this and many other complex "doors" to the issues of Asian images on screen--with films to admire and admonish, respect and decry, sometimes simultaneously. Ongoing commentary by Professor Feng and Robert Osborn will bring out topics of discussion which will, no doubt, demystify, puzzle, inspire, enrage, empower and educate.

Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film can be seen on TCM on Thursday nights throughout June (check local listings).

From YouTube: The Trailer from Sidney Franklin's (and the uncredited Victor Fleming) "The Good Earth" (1937):

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Barack Obama - The Projected Democratic Presidential Nominee

Tonight, Barack Obama made history. I'm ecstatic.

I wish him the very best on his road to an historic victory in November.

Bo Diddley - R.I.P.

The great Bo Diddley passed away yesterday (June 2). May this legendary singer, songwriter and incomparable guitarist, known to many as the true founder of Rock 'n Roll, rest in peace.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Let this be the week

I really hope this thing will finally be sewn up after tomorrow. It is time.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Philippine Independence Day Parade NYC 2008

I've had a lifelong fascination with, and have learned a great deal about, Asian and Asian-American culture. I just attended the 2008 Philippine Independence Day Parade and Celebration in NYC. Ironically, with no Filipino heritage whatsoever in my background, I was a member of, and later an officer (!) in the Philippine-American Organization of the City College of New York, C.U.N.Y. when I was an undergraduate student.

The latter fact is very interesting. I had occasion to see a dear friend at today's parade -- who is visiting NYC with his wife and three children -- with whom I attended college, who was the reason I joined the C.C.N.Y. Filipino/a Club. I had not seen my friend Romy in nearly 15 years when his daughter, Chelsea, was first born. Chelsea, now at 15, is a beautiful young woman but was an infant when I last saw her. It is such a fascinating emotional "journey" when one sees friends again after such a long time. I feel very special to know that my friend is alive, well, thriving and has such a lovely family.

(Romy and me, NYC June 2008)

One of the most important aspects of the event for me was the political activism. I'm glad to see people not just being part of corporations (and advertising them), or politicians with their "canned" appearances, but real cultural organizations with voices. Moreover, there were protests for immigrant rights and for rice production/import-export which were profound statements in an otherwise politically-quiet event.

The colors, as usual, were beautiful this year. What I missed, however, was music. There was very little music at today's parade. This was something conspicuously not Filipino for a a Filipino/a event, for there is always music and dancing in any Filipino celebration. Following the parade, however, was a festival which would certainly find many musical performances from local and even international talent. I wished I had been up to attending the festival as well--I'm still recovering from a recent medical incident which tires me more than usual.

Another fact is that, when I was in college and a member of the C.C.N.Y. "P.A.O.", I weighed approximately 300 pounds. I since lost over 150 pounds--okay, okay, give or take 20 depending on my life state at any given moment! Still, I am a dramatically different person physically than I was during my college years. This is an eye-opening revelation for some friends whom I have not seen since my PAO involvement. Others from those now long-ago days who have seen me in years since are somewhat amazed that I've kept my weight off. In my mind, I had no choice--I'm sure it has kept me alive.

With such wonderful yet complex memories of my college years and a beautiful parade on a gorgeous New York afternoon, what a nice way to spend a day! :-)

From YouTube