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In Storage 24 No-One Actually Screams

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Apart from a highly amusing scene involving a cute stuffed dog and some fireworks, Storage 24 is not a particularly good movie.  It’s the kind of unremarkable movie that you probably won’t go and see and, regardless of whether its spread of reviews is slightly below or above average (currently mostly poor), it’ll never get the marketing behind it to find an audience.  And no-one will particularly be missing out.

What intrigued me about this mostly cliched monster movie was that, despite the obviousness of the setup – people get locked in a storage locker, a random monster kills some of them and they try and escape – and notable lack of any interesting themes, story lines or visual flourishes, it still managed to break the mould of the traditional schlock horror in a couple of interesting ways.  Firstly, the main character was a black male who was not remotely stereotyped in any way, shape or form.  Played by Noel Clarke, better known as Mickey from Dr.Who, his character Charlie is very much a continuation of Clarke’s work on that show, since he’s notable only for being an average Joe in every way possible.  He’s the kind of black guy I might actually happen to meet and know rather than the socially and economically deprived problem seen in The Wire.  *shock*

The point is, for once, there’s no point.  Clarke just happens to be a good actor for the role. (I like him.  He has charisma)

Even more irrelevant is the female lead Shelley, a character with little screen presence who remained mostly unnoticed by me until she spectacularly failed to scream.  After sticking a knife into a monster, running away and holing herself up into an elevator, Antonia Campbell-Hughes plays her character as realistically tense and nervous without opening her mouth in the way I’d come to expect she would at that point.  It was a relatively successful scene and none the worse for the silence.

Both of these points are very minor and it’s not like we haven’t seen characters of these kinds in genre movies before.  British horror cinema has in fairly recent years done a good job of portraying strong female leads in quality movies like The Descent or Triangle, but this instance stuck out to me because it wasn’t self consciously about women (and the movie wasn’t self-consciously about black people as was last years highly praised “Attack the Block”).  I began to wonder if after a number of years of strong directors – from Ridley Scott to Tarantino, to Joss Whedon – making the point that women are far too strong and far too interesting as people in their own right to be routinely relegated to the scream-queen, that the message had finally started to  filter through and is starting to be applied to regular genre cinema?

– Spoiler –

Another nice, unusual, touch occurred as the movie ended.  Three of the cast survived and two of them happened to be women.  One of those women, Shelley, had been morally promiscuous enough to cheat on Charlie with his best friend, and then to leave him upset after their 5 year relationship.  Shelley didn’t jump back into Charlie’s arms after a “manly rescue” of her, she simply offered him a lift home, which he refused.  This was another nice nod towards the idea that women have a complex emotional and sexual life and are no more to blame for the tough choices in life than men are.  Shelley’s behaviour towards Charlie wasn’t amazing but she acknowledged the fault and the couple began to move on.  In this movie, for once, she didn’t have to die for being a slut.

-End Spoiler –

On a more negative note, this is an independent British cinema release and not a mainstream US production.  These attitudes filtering through to smaller movies is not necessarily indicative of a wider change and attitudes towards Black people have never beenm quite as hostile here as they have been in the States.  Regardless, it was encouraging.

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Batman Returns and Fairytale Feminism : Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman Is No Sex Kitten.

Batman Returns is one of my favourite Hollywood Blockbusters. This unusual fact usually surfaces amidst conversations about “favourite comic book movies” (on and offline) during which Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight efforts garner continual praise to the detriment of all else. I usually bring it up because us movie-buffs like to come across all quirky, different and smart. Generally, I find that people struggle to comprehend why I would prefer this 90s Tim Burton curio; a movie made in an age when budgets were comparatively low and the appeal of comic book franchises misunderstood by producers who would rather have been making action movies whether ever increasing explosive potential. In terms of marketability, one could argue that the Hollywood machine has improved itself tenfold in the intervening decades and it’s easy to see why Nolan’s Batman is a more appealing prospect to the casual moviegoer, delivering a much slicker, glossier portayal of the Dark Knight that’s – on the surface at least – edgier and full of the requisite action spectacle and oversized fireballs. Maybe I’m just being belligerent about this one but, personally, nothing about Nolan’s vision excites me, from the modern-day urban-grit makeover, to the facile 24 style anti-terrorist plots, to the uninspired flatly staged action scenes. According to most Batfans, Nolan’s is the best comic-book adaptation of all time, yet I can find nothing in these movies that is fascinated by its comic book sources and the films simply read to me as an uninspired extension of the Reaganite action movie, although it suffers by comparison from a lack of earnestness or gleefulness.

Batman Returns, on the other hand is a rare instance of a Hollywood Blockbuster that’s not even remotely interested in playing to type or delivering on a plate the straightforward good versus evil confrontation that would undoubtedly have been expected of it. Whereas his original, successful, Batman blockbuster had been almost entirely about Batman the hero, Batman the young boy who had to contend with and ultimately avenge his father’s death and – despite some nice touches – remains fairly sluggish, uninspired viewing, Batman Returns successfully veers off into a completely different and unexpected direction. In his own sequel Batman has to play second fiddle to not 1 but 3 other main characters each vying for centre stage. A frequent complaint of the movie I hear is that Batman is nothing but a sideshow in his own film; viewers wanted a movie about Batman and they wanted to see Batman being a hero and cool, after all we go to the movies to identify with the hero, right? In my eyes this turns out to be the movie’s major strength. Batman as a hero might be identifiable, but I don’t find him inherently all that interesting. It’s the possibilities of storytelling within his psychotically crazy universe that are interesting. Burton is clever enough to realise this and in writing Batman’s character as just ¼ of the story he’s able to give the audience a much more complex cast of villainy with a more interesting set of motivations than “they’re crazy” or “they’re a terrorist”, and more importantly he can create the space to allow that cast of villains to interact with and play off of one another. However, it’s important to note that this is not a character piece. To delve too intricately into the subconscious of heroes and villains who wear costumes, invent outlandish gadgets and conjure up nefarious schemes would be a terrible category mistake. One of Nolan’s big faux-pas is to misunderstand Batman entirely, trying to psychoanalyse him and re-contextualise him as a real world style hero, when in actual fact he’s a fantasy character who is best used representationally. For all its clever character interplay, Batman Returns sees its characters as symbols rather Freudian nightmares.

From the outset the movie signals its intent to subvert viewer expectation. Its fairytale beginnings – in which the baby Penguin is abandoned by his parents for being a grotesque, the credits rolling whilst his crib floats downstream and into the sewers where he’ll grow up – quickly give way to contrasting scenes of Max Shreck’s corporate villainy, a stagy, contrived affair that in any other film would simply be the cliched “capitalism gone bad” plotline if it weren’t for the fact that Burton uses its narrative drama to offset his other quasi-tragic-melodramtic villany, to set-up the themes of corporate patriarchy that dominate the movie, and to give Catwoman concrete motivation throughout and particularly in the climactic scene. By the time Shreck sends Selina Kyle to her first death we should realise that this movie is juggling ideas that normal blockbusters can’t manage to embody. The Penguin’s fairytale grotesquerie (I’m also tempted to read the Penguin as fallen aristocracy attempting to reclaim power), Shreck’s capitalist greed and Catwoman’s anti-patriarchal revenge narrative, three profoundly different and conflicting tropes existing side by side and vying for attention. It’s a unique and fascinating set-up since it creates a very real sense of inherent instability and chaos in a very fairytale-like surreal way, that stands in delightfully for real world chaos. Batman as hero is needed to step in, not to overcome any particular villain’s nefarious plans – the most we get there is Shreck’s doomed attempt to suck power out of Gotham with his new power plant -but to create some sense of order out of the chaos that’s created by these three confused villains attempting to exist in the same space. Of course, Batman himself is a member of the corporate patriarchy, and so, rather than seeing this as a story in which the hero will swoop in and save the day, one has to genuinely wonder if things will work out well. The movie doesn’t close with feelings of euphoria at Batman saving the day (there’s no “Gotham’s Knight” rhetoric beating us over the head), or even sadness at the tragedy of it all. Rather, the film ends with a sense of “WTF just happened?” that’s rarely replicated in blockbusters or American films in general. One is prompted not to leave the cinema enthused that Batman saved the day, or identifying with him as a great hero. One is led to ponder on his place and role amidst the chaos. I’m also prompted to think that this is why the film is still not a fan favourite.

Central to understanding the nature of the chaos within the movie is correctly understanding the role of Catwoman. Interpretations and discussions of Michelle Pfeiffer’s superb portrayal of the character tend to highlight her sexiness and guys tend to note her attractiveness as one of the high points of the film. It’s easy to read Catwoman as a straightforward symbol of “negative femininity” and her actions brought on by a rampant libido. In other words, she’s a sexed-up villainess who is there for the boys. This rather flat misinterpretation seems to have been allowed to stand as the movie faded from consciousness and became one of the less admired entries in Tim Burton’s filmography Certainly the tight black costume, the whip and the sexy demeanour all highlight that part of Selina Kyle’s character, but to read her in such a way ignores both the above context and the meaning behind her many brilliant scenes in the film.

In some ways Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal is simply iconic. Or at least it had every right to be. In one scene half way through the movie, the Catwoman signals her entrance onto the Gotham stage by terrorising a department store . “I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love,” the overtly misogynist guards quip before being swiftly dealt with and shown the door. Following which she emerges into the street, somersaulting triumphantly into the presence of Batman and The Penguin, and mutters “miaow” before a devastating explosion brings the place down. Unlike the Joker in Nolan’s Batman, Catwoman isn’t simply out to cause chaos because she’s a random terrorist who maliciously hates the system. Catwoman’s mission may be ill-advised but it’s imbued with a certain logic; to disrupt the patriarchy that never gave her a chance. Catwoman is killed three times throughout the movie (prior to her final showdown with Shreck), each time by one of the main representative members of the patriarchy within the film.

Initially Selina Kyle is killed by Shreck.  Before that she’s belittled by Shreck after she attempts to offer a suggestion at a board meeting “I’m afraid we haven’t properly housebroken Miss Kyle. In the plus column though, she makes a helluva cup of coffee”. The film couldn’t signal more clearly its negative views regarding the traditional relationship between the typical male corporate executive and the lowly female secretary. There are quite pointedly no other strong women present either. When Shreck finally pushes Selina out of a window and to her death it’s an obvious signal that this type of oppression is intended by people like him to follow women to their grave. Another interesting moment occurs when Selina arrives home and plays her answer machine messages. She’s shown as a struggling woman trying to make a career for herself in the city and her boyfriend breaks up with her via an answering machine “Dr.Shaw says I need to be my own person and not an appendage”. A cruel joke given that Selina clearly needs emotional support and another signifier that men find it all to easy to belittle women in this world When Shreck kills Kyle – because she wanted to be part of the patriarchy – he ignites within her the desire and the ability to do something about it, but she never really grasps exactly what it is she ought to be doing and it becomes embodied in rage, frustration and a petty desire for revenge. By the end of the movie Catwoman has made it her primary goal to kill Shreck, whose macabre version of the glass ceiling she sees as primarily responsible for her inability to succeed in life.

However, Catwoman is also symbolically killed by Batman and Penguin and she certainly harbours no love for either. During the rooftop fight scene in which they first meet as enemies a brief exchange highlights the male/feminine discourse going on in the movie. Catwoman mocks Batman as he kicks her down “how could you, I’m a woman” and gets a rather undignified, typically masculine response “I’m sorry, I, I ….” Unimpressed she kicks him in the stomach and throws him over a ledge “As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted.” She goes on to lose the fight and Batman rescues her from falling. It’s undoubtedly this moment that builds on a brief exchange earlier in the film, that fuels Catwoman’s personal rage towards Batman since she stabs him in the stomach as a reward. The protection of women by men has dominated Hollywood blockbusters throughout their history, but which few – even now – are prepared to tackle head-on. In Batman Returns, however, when Catwoman saves a woman from being mugged/raped, rather than graciously accepting the woman’s thanks she chastises her with an extraordinary speech. “You make it so easy don’t you, always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar.” The girl looks understandably confused and distressed. Having been rescued by Batman earlier in the movie whilst simply still Selina Kyle, both these moments help us to get a picture of Catwoman’s own neuroses. Selina Kyle is am oppressed woman and Batman the hero, who saves helpless women, is part of that system of oppression and as Catwoman Kyle is beginning to understand that buying into the myth of this fairy tale hero is part of the reason she is unable to act and to take existential control over her own life. When Batman kills Catwoman at the end of the rooftop scene it embodies his failure – or the inappropriateness – of his becoming the chivalrous knight and protecting her.

Notions that Catwoman is an unbridled, uncomplicated sexpot have to be discarded when considering her scenes with the Penguin. Catwoman forms an uneasy alliance with Penguin – a character who is shown to represent unchecked masculine lust at numerous points throughout the film – in order to destroy Batman, but she’s not remotely interested in his grotesque schemes to garner power and status. She abhors wanton murder and she also abhors the wanton lust that he represents. During the scene in which the two meet up in Penguin’s sleeping quarters, she’s not only disgusted by his sexual advances but also more than capable of keeping them in check by both physically and emotionally threatening him. This leads to frustration and envy on the Penguin’s part and is the reason that he, also, ultimately “kills” her. Penguin kills the Catwoman because he literally can’t have her.

The terrific climax of the movie sees all three plot-lines coming to a head. The Penguin captures Max Shreck and releases his penguin bombs on the city in an act of revenge, since he’s realised that his “kind” will never be accepted or given political power. He simply can’t talk the talk that Shreck can (“Santa Claus, perhaps not, I’m just some poor Shmo who got lucky …” says Shreck to an enraptured audience). Catwoman meanwhile has realised that forming covert alliances with Penguin or Bruce Wayne is destined to failure and focuses her remaining energies on killing Shreck. Ultimately, Shreck’s Capitalist power-plays (involving manipulating Penguin and killing Kyle) have destabilised Gotham City to the point that not even the villains of the show can exist within the chaos that they’ve created, their only way out being their own suicide and the destruction of the orders that are repressing them. It’s Batman’s job to restore order, but he does a pretty terrible job at it. Hoping to send Shreck to prison and appease Catwoman’s feminine rage through appealing to her better nature. In the climactic scene he delivers a weighty speech and removes his mask revealing his “real” patriarchal capitalist alter-ego Bruce Wayne “Why are you doing this? Let’s just take him to the police, then we can go home …together. Selina don’t you see, we’re the same, split right down the centre” The Hollywood audience in us all expects Catwoman to somehow relent. Bruce Wayne seems reasonable. And Kyle is not ultimately a villain, and the fairy-tale ending would see her and Bruce Wayne living together happily ever after. Batman Returns, however, denies us the ending that we want or expect to see. Selina Realises that just because they’re both split down the middle, her and Batman are not “the same” Batman’s neuroses are brought on by his own personal trauma and the failures of his benevolent capitalism, Catwoman’s by the constant trauma of of the male oppression typified by those things. Batman’s persona is partly the cause. Her retort is bitter, but brilliant

Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in a fairytale…. I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending.” After which she goes on to kill Shreck and herself. Batman’s heroism or naivety doesn’t save the situation, even though the situation has temporarily resolved itself. The closing scene, however, provides a little hope. Batman, noticing that Catwoman may be alive with one life left, asks Alfred to stop the car so that he can investigate. Michael Keaton, probably the best character actor to have played Bruce Wayne, looks contemplative as he speaks his closing line “goodwill to all men … and women”. Has he learned something?

It’s a shame that Burton never returned to the Batman franchise. I have a fondness for Schumacher’s vibrant, colourful, playful outings, but they lack the intelligence or daring of Burton’s masterpiece. Nolan’s Batman cannot satisfy in the same way. Nolan’s fanbase seem to think that because there’s terror and chaos in Nolan’s Gotham that the movie is a dark and edgy affair. Nothing could be further from the truth since, like most Hollywood movies, it seeks to put that chaos away into a box and to wrap it up in traditional and comforting types (the writing for women in Nolan’s Batman movies, for instance is particularly atrocious). Burton’s Batman Returns is a rare example of a Hollywood blockbuster attempting to push the audience to its limits and to break the mould of what characters should and shouldn’t represent. As Whedon’s Avengers has just hit the big screen, looking conventional and dull by comparison – disappointingly so by Joss Whedon’s standards – watching Batman Returns is a timely reminder of what one can achieve in this medium, if one dares.


Meta-Slash-Feminist Filmmaking : Cabin in the Woods has Lots of Gore, Boobs and Even More Intelligence

April 20, 2012 4 comments

*major spoilers*

When Tarantino was conceiving the Grindhouse project his initial idea was to write and direct a quickie slasher movie as a love-letter to movies that have influenced him over the years. His obvious recent shift in ideology and love of reconceptualising genre movies to make them politically palatable meant that ultimately he couldn’t see a way to direct a slasher that wasn’t demeaning to women and ended up completely rehashing the project into something completely different, albeit still containing slasher-esque elements.

Demmit, she didn’t get nekkid.

Joss Whedon1, another horror fanatic who has also made a name for himself overturning genre conventions and is mostly famous for being the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps the feminist genre icon for my generation, has since decided to tackle this seemingly impossible beast and has himself created a modern slasher movie with a meta textual element which serves to undercut and criticise traditional attitudes towards the slasher genre. Whedon is often referred to glibly as a postmodernist, but his work is generally nothing like Tarantino’s, a director who could – referring to Kill Bill, at least – more meaningfully wear that label. Cabin In the Woods is actually, mostly, a very traditional film in look and feel and very rarely does it try and undercut our expectations whilst we’re watching it. The premise is, in fact, laid bare from the very start as corporate types are shown very clearly to be manipulating a bunch of teenagers into a deserted cabin scenario and subsequently sending a bunch of slasher-monsters (redneck zombies, as it happens, though anyone who has seen the film knows it could as easily have been a merman!) to dispatch them in pretty gruesome ways. The corporation are ultimately doing this to avert the end of the world (naturally!) but they’re shown to be a sadistic unpleasant lot, running a book on what kind of monster will be dispatched and delighting in the scenes of death and misery that they’ve apparently become accustomed to over the years. In other words, they stand in for the viewer. 

The clever thing about this premise is that – unlike scream which just glibly reels off the rules of a slasher – it allows us, the viewers to watch a traditional slasher move through a lens which questions what’s happening as it occurs. Why are the teenagers always horny? Why do they do stupid things? Why can’t they ever escape? It’s because the movie has a director and he’s willing it to be that way. By uncovering this artifice throughout the movie, Whedon is also uncovering how sinister this set of rules is. As it happens, teenagers aren’t always horny. Sometimes they want to study. Sometimes they act sensibly, Sometimes they’re not virgins and that’s Ok and so on and so on. By showing a bunch of teenagers who are normal Whedon is also showing that the directors and viewers of American movies want to believe a bunch of stuff about teenagers that is blatantly stereotyping them in quite sinister ways. As neat as this artifice is, for me at least it ran the risk of creating a one-note didactic movie that stated the obvious to anyone who has ever seriously had a discussion about slasher movies. In that sense I may not be the target audience since 15 year olds who frequent the current round of slasher movies will be being drip fed the same slasher tropes as those who initially saw the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies so it’s an important message to get across in a fairly direct way. Regardless, I was still concerned from the beginning that the movie revealed its gameplan too overtly to be such a successful artistic statement as, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a successful deconstruction of teen, vampire and superhero stories. True enough, on a narrative level the movie is rarely surprising but as it progressed I realised that it was a roaring success anyway on the level of being a wonderful modern feminist text and in that it’s simply bucketloads of fun; in the way that Buffy is bucketloads of fun.

What intrigued me about the feminism of Cabin in the Woods is that it rarely seeks to be overtly feminist in the way that either Buffy or Death Proof are so desperate to be. There’s no female hero in this movie. If anything the female lead, Dana, is a fairly flawed character. She screams a bit, doesn’t always take control and in a final moment of weakness tries to murder one of the main characters. She’s gratuitously shown in her underwear for a cheap gag. Whedon does a very good job of making us feel, in some respects that we’re watching a traditional slasher. Yet, beyond the overtly highlighted meta-text the movie makes lovely little signals to highlight the patriarchal machinations that have always dominated the movie industry. One nice moment sees Holden uncovering a two-way mirror into Dana’s bedroom, giving him the opportunity to spy on Dana. He wrestles with his conscience as she unbuttons her shirt revealing her bra. We, the audience, realise that we’d kinda like him to go through with it (why else are we watching a slasher other than to see boobs right?) and just after he takes it too far, he alerts her to what’s happening and ultimately agrees to switch rooms. He’s not an arse, apparently. Following this, Dana in turn begins to spy on Holden and faces the same dilemma. Again, she refuses and covers up the mirror. What’s fascinating about this scenario is not just the fact that Holden is a “modern man” about it, but that Whedon shows Dana as sexually independent enough to need to have to make the same decision. Other examples include the patriarchal leering over Jules’ breasts. The boob shot we get is overtly gratuitous and naturally the audience enjoys it. The response of “score” from Hadley, watching on, makes us feel kinda pathetic. Finally Amy Acker’s character, Lin (would it be Joss Whedon without the presence of Amy Acker anymore??) underused perhaps, but as such she makes a wonderful feminine contrast to the two seedy guys running the corporate show. She still goes along with it, she’s still “evil” in the parameters of the movie, but she’s humane and decent with it and her presence serves as a reminder that the patriarchy are still dominating these kinds of shows and that women are quietly trying, but mostly failing, to change attitudes behind the scenes.

Amy Acker? In a Joss Whedon production. Surely not? The film’s main flaw is she doesn’t get to have a 1-1 smackdown with Summer Glau. Oh well, I can always rewatch Dollhouse…

There’s a lot to the Cabin In the Woods and heaps to like about it. I don’t even have space here (or a blu-ray to replay the movie) to delve into the glorious game-changing finale in which expectations are overhauled, the audiences bloodlust is truly satiated and Whedon entertains in ways that Whedon does best. It’s never overtly surprising as a movie but it is gloriously satisfying and certainly one of the best genre love-letter movies I’ve seen outside of Tarantino. On a purely formal level it’s a wonderful movie that’s beautifully paced, surprising and well put together. The balance between horror and comedy, so tough to get right, is pitch perfect and I found myself laughing and squealing in almost equal measures, sometimes – particularly in the climactic monster mash – at the same time. No scenario outstays its welcome and each moves seamlessly into the next. By the time Dana and Marty light up a joint to bring on the end of the world, in the film’s final scene, I was ready to light up and bring it on with them. It was a stupid, funny, poignant and intelligent moment and the perfect end to a crazy, brilliant movie.

After the relative failure of Dollhouse (A show that was sporadically brilliant, but pulled prematurely and artistically never able to stretch its legs) and the falling through of the Wonder Woman project my concerns that a Whedon project would never again be as relevant in the industry as when he created Buffy (and to an extent, Firefly/Serenity) have been laid to rest. As a fan of Whedon, feminism and genre subversion I was delighted that this movie lived up to the expectations I always have for a new Joss Whedon project. What’s more, with the critical lauding the film is getting it seems clear that this is going to be an important and defining moment in slasher movie history.

I haven’t even mentioned how fucking great Fran Kranz was.  Or the zombie arm.  Or the Merman.

1 Drew Goddard did, of course, direct this movie which was co-wrote and produced by Joss Whedon. I’m making a horrible assumption that Joss Whedon’s input into this film was pretty large. It feels like a Joss Whedon movie. I’m sure this a huge unfairness to Drew Goddard who has done some stellar work on Buffy, but I’m not going to continually write Goddard/Whedon but continue to refer to this as a “Whedon” movie. Equal credit must certainly be given to Drew Goddard for this, however.

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Morning Musume are Feminist – Really? – No, really!

December 15, 2011 1 comment

Morning Musume are Feminist – Really? – No, really!

For at least some of their life, yes.

Mr Moonlight

Ok, maybe we should step back and forget about that statement until we’ve looked at the history of the band, since it’s not just contentious, it’s a downright implausible sounding statement to most since, but then most people’s attitude towards them is based on a bunch of ridiculous misconceptions.

My enjoyment of this pop group, made up of an ever change crew of young and young-looking teenage girls (age unclear to me), is a cause of much bafflement and bewilderment amongst my friends and virtually anyone I happen to talk to about them or show them a video. Reactions have generally ranged from “why on earth do you like this?” to simple, unmistakeable looks of pure disgust and horror.  Never remotely positive.   I think perhaps people just file it away as some strange, unexplainable sexual fetish that I have.

It’s a classic reaction when talking about Japanese pop-culture, though, isn’t it? A westerner, not previously acquainted, can rarely react towards the Japanese  without seeing them through some weird preconceived alien lens.  Japanese culture has long since been associated in the west with extreme kookiness (those weird Japanes TV shows), sex fetishes, rape fantasies, hentai and pedophilia, so it’s as if Morning Musume, from a western perspective is just another defenceless wacky fad, morally contentious, but just about OK as long as it stays firmly in Japan. And so far it has, since I know few people in the West who are interested, and the group ceratinly have no plans to tour the States that I know of (which I find pretty sad)

This isn’t to say that contempt for Morning Musume is purely a Western thing. Watch any of their videos on Youtube and chances are someone will have commented. “For teenage girls or men 35-50 haha” They are clearly mocked in circles of Japanese culture in a similar way to Justin Bieber in the West, as successful and popular but talentless, over commercialised hacks. Based on their music alone that’s a blatantly unfair assumption. The music is commercial, the singing universally unremarkable, but Morning Musume’s output is at worst consistently sparkly, fun and enjoyable pop music and hard to criticise for what it i; and in my opinion, at best it’s some of the finest pop music I’ve ever heard. If you enjoy J-Pop then, frankly, it fits the bill perfectly.

But image is nearly everything in the world of pop music and that’s mostly what I want to address concerning Morning Musume. It’s easy to write something off as oversexualised teenagers and jailbait if you don’t consider it what it’s doing representationally too hard and furthermore their image in the last 5 years has sadly, increasingly moved towards something that encourages rather than refutes this poor snap judgement on them.  Bu, the Morning Musume of today is notably not the Morning Musume that became successful in 1998 or peaked with the brilliant album Ikimasshoi in 2002. I still like them, but that may be more fondness for the brand than anything particular about their music or image. One video Only You, released this year shows where Morning Musume have ended up, as a slickly produced, highly sexually charged MV with the girls looking very young, very cute and frequently staring into the camera with a “come hither” look.  As long as it remains an ambiguous fantasy, it’s defensible, but it’s about as far from feminist as one can reasonably go.  It’s been a pattern for around the last ten music videos and whilst I think it’s difficult to criticise the obvious professionalism of the piece, it explains why they’re gradually losing credibility and fans. In trying to please a broader audience and not disappoint old-time fans, Momosu too often shoot bland blanks.

The Beginning


In the early days of the band there’s definitely a sense that boundaries are being pushed and fun is being had. One can hardly accuse debut video Ai no Tane of being feminist but it’s not hard to see that this is a different group from what we see now, working on a different level. If the girls are still simply standing there to look pretty for an unspecified audience, singing a wistful, sentimental tune, the attraction is less on their youth (some members are in their twenties) or their figure, but more in their normality and approachability. This couldn’t be further from Only You and to watch this, charges of “perversion don’t seem obvious. Through Morning Coffee and Summer Night Town there’s an attempt to sell these girls primarily on the quality of their music, which is strong and infectious, if a little poorly produced. By the time their second album rolled around, attempts were made to sex up their image a little bit but were apparently unsuccessful with the punters as sales started to drop. It does feel like half-way house between the original girl-next-door image and the all-out dance troupe they’d later become, but the music is every bit as strong with Daite Hold On Me and Manatsu no Kōsen really standing out and there’s a strong reluctance to put these girls through the objectification mill and the videos, to me, look pretty classy as opposed to sleazy.

The third album, from 1999 saw the level of slickness increase and the group put out probably their best (and their bestselling) single, Love Machine but the imaging has shifted further towards the sexy, the skirts are getting shorter, the dancing boppier. and more alluring It’s still very mature and sexy though and throwing perverted labels at it is impossible since it mostly matches the kind of output you’d see in the West. 

And then something quite  wonderful happened. Someone in charge of the Morning Musume machine had a revalation, and a string of videos were produced featuring upbeat dance party numbers and a group of girls …. having fun. Not being alluringly sexy, but having fun. To clarify, these girls are attractive but they’re not doing it by fucking the camera or wearing overtly revealing costumes most of the time. The videos aren’t selling pure sex (like Only You later does), they’re selling enjoyability. And sometimes – even frequently – it’s enjoyability of the gender subversive variety.

And I love it.

I can’t, of course, feature all of their videos and I skip over a couple that don’t fit the mould, but hopefully there’s enough here to make the point.

The Golden Age of Subversion

Koi No Dance Site – Starts the revelation with light dancing and humour with a subtle Indian theme.
Happy Summer Wedding – Maxes up the Indian theme and the happiness but we’re still not quite there yet.
I Wish – begins the subversion.  It has the girls in casual costumes and follows a Wizard of Oz theme, and features mimed comedic moments, pratfalling, dressing up as and mocking police officers, karate experts and silent theater tropes. Production-wise the video is quite awful but it’s the first time that the Momosu girls toy with the full-on subversive potential of what they’re doing.

With Ikimasshoi, their fourth album, Morning Musume cranked it up another notch and full on demonstrated the potential of pop music as subversive genre bending theater. The record is a pop masterpiece and it shows that the whole machine was in a great place since the music videos are just as good and the perfect complement to the music.

The Peace!The musical mockery of the chants in the song are reflected in the subverssive messages of the video. The girls are shown singing and dancing in Sailor’r outfits (a masculine mode they confidently embrace and make their own) in a public urinal. Apparently this was mocking a controversy surrounding hidden camera footage that had been taken of a member in a toilet, but the fuck me poses next to the toilet bowls also further make a mockery of the idea that these girls should be on display as sex-objects.  This video is, honestly, as sensational as it is strange.

Mr MoonlightEqually as exciting, if not moreso than its predecessor, Mr Moonlight is a popped up big band show tune which sees lead singer Hitomi Yoshizawa sing in a masculine style voice and cross-dressing galore in an all-female troupe.  Apparently inspiration for this was taken from the Takarazuka Revue an all female crossdressing gender-bending female-troupe in Japan. Giving it a mass-audience through the leading pop idol group of the day is nothing short of genius and yes, this finally justifies my title that Morning Musume were indeed, feminist.


Souda! We’re Alive
– Another great song, but a slightly more generic singing/dancing video, but again showcases the joy and happiness in the jumping and karate posing.

And if Do It Now – properly introduced the group to the fuck me camera pose for the first time and featured sexy slick black dresses, Koko Ni Iruzee – brings back the crossdressing again with old jackets, cowboy hats, caps and army style outfits,all to a barnstorming frenetic pop tune that defies sexual expectation to its very core. Morning Musume at this stage in their career were determined to defy the very idea of a feminine image with a wardrobe that literally makes no sense and cannot be gender coded.

And it continues into 2003,  with Pirate suits, chef outfits and comedy moustaches in Morning Musume no Hyokkori Hyōtanjima” The comic play that started in I Wish has reached it’s full potential as subversive cross-dressing theater that’s natural and completely unforced.

The End of It


If, after these period there’s a move to make the girls more sexy again, there’s still some fun and subversion to be had. Shabondama is a great upbeat song and features the girls in casual streetwear (alongside of fuck me shots and dresses, though)

Go Girl! Koi No Victory half heartedly puts some of the girls in suits, some skirts and juxtaposes it with images of them in football costume. Some of the magic is still there but the camera is starting to want to love them a bit too much now.

After a few further failures (schoolgirl outfits, purple dresses etc) one last final gasp is had with Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari, one of my favourite moments in pop music. The girls jump around on a subway train and directly address the camera talking about their differing personalities and jostling/joking with each other. It’s slightly more adorable than earlier videos in the cute high-school-girl-ness but the personality shines through in buckets and if one loves these girls, it’s not through the camera but through their character. It’s perhaps not a feminist statement – much of it is discussing the girl’s hairstyles – but an image that girls can relate to and not primarily one for perving over. It’s about girls getting together and having fun. The song, also, is infectiously brilliant and my other favourite for the group.

The problem was, that the sexy image was too easy to do well, it seems, and on a few occasions occasions they pulled it off with sublimity. The Manpower sees the girls making love to a bunch of fruit. It’s better than it sounds but in representational turns a comedown. It’s a sexy video and a much sexier song. Sexy Boy and Resonant Blue sungthe death knell for Momosu subversion. They’re both hot, sweaty, beautiful and terrific songs and stunningly produced videos, but we’re so far into the territory of sexing up the girls that it seems there was no way back for the group imagewise. Everything since has been the same, but less good. Sultry dance numbers with the girls dancing sexily.


Conclusion

For a period of  4-5 years Morning Musume turned the tables on expectation and societal conventions of what gender roling ought to be. I originally got into the group through youtubing their videos and loved the crazy diversity of what I was seeing. Looking at their video output chronologically is much more telling and shows a story of an attempt to subvert gender, genre and expectation that eventually sank under the weight of its success, turning a great group into a sexier version of a great group, which eventually became a production machine. That it held up for for a period of nearly 5 years is actually quite a surprise and far from being such an obvious pervert’s dream it seems to me that Morning Musume have left something of a legacy that’s the polar opposite to that.

It’s frustrating that people prejudge what they don’t understand based on assumptions they make about race and gender and Morning Musume’s lack of a respectable place in the pantheon of western pop culture is strong evidence of this and as with so much of Japanese culture, it remains a mystery to the West because the West want it to remain a mystery.

 

The End – Goodnight

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