Since it is doubtful I will ever get around to writing a proper recount of this month’s cultural outings, here are a couple random thoughts instead:

  • Despite my impression of the past few years that Japanese cinema was losing ground to more daring, less formulaic Korean filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook, Japanese movies were particularly well represented at the Berlinale and fared pretty well.
  • Of the three screening we attended, Korean movie Ki-chin was definitely the weakest: beautiful photography, unfortunately undermined by a contrived plot and the least engaging depictions of food I have ever seen in a food-oriented movie (not to mention terminally inept subtitling work, which made it difficult to follow even basic dialogues).
  • Yoji Yamada‘s films were of a much higher grade. Friday’s première screening of Kyoto Uzumasa Monogatari was a nice prelude to the more involved Ototo, on Sunday. Both had a rather typical Japanese vibe of quiet everyday life events mixed with deeper topics that never take themselves too seriously. Still not convinced about the Japanese conception of slapstick physical humour as the height of comic relief, but overall good movies.
  • Thanks to Berlin’s opulence in Opera venues, we obtained last minute tickets for a representation of my all-time favourite (my undying love of Verdi’s works, over any Bellini, Wagner or even Mozart, is a clear reflection of my mundane operatic tastes, sure, but I stand by it).
  • Musical happiness.
  • Small aside: people who can’t help loudly coughing, right in the middle of Violetta’s dying aria, deserve to be put to a slow and painful death. I don’t care how much your throat itches: put a lid on it or stay home. And while we are at it: do not clap at the end of every single fucking scene. Keep it limited to the overture, the end of each act and at most a few noteworthy arias and find something else to keep your hands and cerebral-motor cortex busy.

The Cove is not gonna make Japan many friends among the world’s dolphin and whale lovers, but it is definitely worth a watch.

Although it could probably go lighter on the whole Mission: Impossible antics (unfortunately, it seems you just can’t sell a documentary nowadays if it doesn’t feature endless gratuitous action montages), the scenes it captures are captivating and hard to ignore. Beyond the expected money shot of an expanse of ocean literally red with dolphin blood, the investigative work offers some fascinating insights into the cynical political maneuvering that goes on to ensure the fishing doesn’t stop.

The vast farce that is the International Whaling Commission and a long tradition of Japan’s bribing third world island countries for votes, gets the bashing it deserves: I don’t care what your opinions on the whaling issue are, if you seriously believe in the “scientific whaling” argument, you are very misinformed or a moron.

Casual observers of Japanese modern history do not need to be told of its infamous propensity to always side with industries against public welfare, when environmental or public health scandals strike. Others will probably think that the recount of Minamata disease’s infamous cover-up is exaggerated… After all, while Western countries routinely poison locals in remote third-world countries and get away with it, it is quite a rare thing for a country to let companies do it on its own soil and unfalteringly support them when things go awry (and long after that). Long-time residents will also enjoy the nod to Japan’s sub-par criminal justice system, delight in spotting the usual cast of Japanese administration characters (the blatantly corrupt – yet utterly polite – cop on local business’ payroll, the roboticized bureaucratic talking-head, the government “scientist” spouting pseudo-science etc. etc.), without, unfortunately, escaping the usual trite clichés (is there a single japanese story that cannot be illustrated with a nail and a hammer?).

This documentary is not without its faults and I honestly have my doubt about the efficiency of the “Us vs. Them” brand of activism, when confronted to Japanese culture. But regardless of which side of the Blubber Hamburger / Cute Smiling Cetacean debate you stand on, there are a couple items worth pondering in there.

As a hobbyist translator and someone with a general interest in languages, I always enjoy a good mistranslation roundup. Not just nitpicking on what idiom best conveys some tricky expression in another language, but plain outright mistranslations (French faux amis, for example).

Translators working on closely related language pairs such as French and English (as opposed to more distant ones, like Japanese and English) have a tendency to be writers first, translators second. Their actual mastery of the source language is sometimes surprisingly low, but (for good or bad reasons) editors seem to think that the quality of their written production in the target language can make up for their weakness. This is an especially common occurrence in English to French translations, where French speakers barely English-fluent have been known to translate major English literary works (not a new practice either: Baudelaire‘s famous translation of Edgar Allan Poe, while delightfully written, is so incredibly riddled with errors that it could be a new work in its own right).

The smug pleasure of pointing out errors in the work of so-called professional translators can only be beat by one thing: the even smugger pleasure of pointing out errors in said corrections…

In a recent Guardian article, Germaine Greer plays on a rather trite cultural tropism: “Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative“.

Yes, we get it: Proust’s writing is long, convoluted and not exactly packed with action. I am far from his greatest fan and would not even put him in my personal top ten of French authors, but criticising his style on length and paragraph count is about as subtle as calling Picasso’s paintings a bunch of kid scribbles by a guy who couldn’t draw a normal face.

The translation comment, however, is what grabbed my attention. Ms Greer chose to illustrate the poor quality of Proust’s English translations with a sentence drawn from the fifth volume (La Prisonnière, aka The Captive):

In order to prepare for my upcoming 3-month stay in Berlin, I have started brushing up on my terminally rusty German: buying a couple books and checking out online newspapers somewhat regularly (more than just once every three months when I am curious to know the Frankfurter Allgemeine‘s position on some European issue).

Much to my surprise, I not only still remember a sizable chunk of German despite over 10 years with zero practice, but my level has in fact improved since then. That is to say, I am nowhere near fluent, nor able to remember half the vocabulary I once knew. However: turns of phrases and idiomatic expressions that I know would have me staring painfully for minutes on end back in high school, now seem perfectly natural to me… Most phrases hit the comprehension part of my brain directly, without going through the lengthy “decoding word-by-word and digging up through memory for idiomatic equivalent” phase. In some way I have magically become more “fluent” than I was, when last I studied ten years ago.

At first, I just assumed my memories were being overly modest and that, maybe, I was not the teutonic classroom failure I remembered being. Then I thought back of the long evenings laboriously spent stringing together 20 lines of homework, endless hours of classroom procrastination, barely coasting by, year after year, and the extremely mediocre A-level — or French equivalent thereof — grade that ensued. There is ample objective evidence that I really sucked as a high school student of German and it appears that I suck ever so slightly less, now that I am resuming ten years later… Which goes squarely against the widely accepted notion that foreign language acquisition skills decrease with age.

In proper logic-obsessed OCD fashion, I tortured my brain for days, trying to come up with a rational explanation for this, which did not involve being abducted, probed and experimented on, by German-speaking aliens.

And I think I found it…

The better half of the years spent studying German, were when I lived in Paris. I therefore studied in French. Grammar explanations, bilingual vocabulary lists, chatting with classmates, thinking about the ongoing lesson, were all done in French.

Nowadays: I live in Kyoto and there is very little French language in my life. Lots of Japanese, of course, but I would venture that well over 90% of my thoughts and interactions occur in English. When I read up a text in German, that voice in the back of my head, trying to make sense of what I am reading, is speaking English, not French.

After years of sensing it, without quite putting my finger on it, I have finally uncovered the ultimate truth about mediocre art and its root causes.

It is all about sex.

Sex and sexual desires, are solely to blame for every single one of those nights you spent attending overpriced, underwhelming, “art” performances. You know the kind: some friend-of-a-friend-of-an-acquaintance, half naked, banging on pots, ululating while playing the electric guitar with an egg beater and a 2000W amp or just exploring the relation between art, space and materialistic consumerism by slithering in a kiddy pool filled with mashed potatoes while their partner sprays them (and the first two rows of the public) with milk and coke.

To be fair, most art is about sex, great art included. When masterpieces do not straight up depict sex, they are most often about their author hoping to get laid, or consistently failing to.

On the other hand, mediocre art is all about keeping your existing sexual partner(s) happy. Sex is the glue that keeps together delusional twenty-something “experimental” artists, long after the last of their friends have faced up to their talentlessness.

Behind every over-affected improv actress, is a bored but madly in love partner. Behind every shitty garage rock band, is a dedicated girlfriend ensuring none of her friends ever miss a gig. Behind every pointless expressive dancer’s performance, is a poor sap playing a detuned violin with a hammer, too busy checking her ass to wonder if it really was worth enduring 15 years of classical training for this. The fecund fields of experimental artistry are littered with people who would have long given up inflicting their fumbling on a sine-wave generator to the public at large, were it not for a support base, spinelessly ready to dish out all sort of undeserved praise and support, as long as it grants them VIP pants access.

And please do not come telling me this is a victimless crime: my eardrums and psyche, battered by hours of uninspired pseudo-stream-of-consciousness drivel recited to the sound of glass rim music, beg to differ.