Archive for Television

High on “The Man in the High Castle”

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

One of my holiday traditions is to indulge in a television binge watch—ideally, a series that gives me that delightful, reckless feeling of wasting time. To enhance the celebration, I watch on my laptop in bed. With tea.

In 2014, the holiday binge was Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a light-weight crime series set in 1920s Australia. In 2015, I escaped with Underwear, a series about life at a lingerie design house in contemporary Tokyo.

This year, I found a speculative/suspense series on Amazon Video set in 1962 America: The Man in The High Castle. And my indulgence in comfort TV has turned discomforting.

Vintage paperback edition of the book

An early edition of the novel

The Man in The High Castle was inspired by a Hugo-Award winning novel of the same name published in 1963 by the late Philip Dick. This talented author’s science fiction has formed the inspiration for other films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Minority Report. Dick was a tortured genius, with mental health issues and a deep interest in philosophy. He believed that different worlds can exist because of people’s mind-states. The possibility of multiple realities flows through his works, including this series.

The Man in The High Castle hurtles us into a world where the Axis prevailed in World War II. In 1962, the former United States are dived into Pacific States (the west), the Greater Nazi Reich (the East Coast, South and Midwest). The Rocky Mountain states lie in the Neutral Zone, but it is far from a safe haven. In Japanese-occupied San Francisco, a degenerate artist named Frank and an aikido teacher named Juliana (they were married in Dick’s novel) live together in a dank San Francisco basement. They are thrown into danger when Juliana’s half-sister Trudy flings a film reel at her just before she is executed by the Japanese police.

Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Davalos, lives in Japanese-governed San Francisco

Juliana’s efforts to deliver the film to the person Trudy intended brings her into contact with the resistance, and throws Frank and his relatives, who have a fraction of Jewish blood, into danger. The situation is complicated when Juliana is aided by an attractive young man, Joe Blake, working for the Nazis. Not going to say any more on the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

While the TV series is action-packed and suspenseful, the creepiest moments show the subtle ways  the foreign powers reshaped the lives of the Americans following the atomic bombing of Washington DC. In the Pacific States, many bus and street signs are in Japanese, and people routinely eat with chopsticks and fall into deep bows when faced by their rulers. In New York suburbs, families look “Father Knows Best” perfect, but the kids wear Hitler Youth uniforms to school, the textbooks are all about allegiance to the Führer, muesli is on the breakfast table and people use fork and knife in the German fashion. Costumes and sets and the cinematography are top-notch.

Backyard baseball on Long Island, played by Nazi-American characters

Before viewing the first episode, I wondered if Germans and Japanese would feel disheartened by seeing their worst moments in history glorified.  I was relieved to discover humane characters among all the communities portrayed.  A pair of German and Japanese government men, Rudolf Wegener and Nobosuke Tagomi, scheme together to keep power balanced between the two sides to avoid a war. And the Americans subject to rule—the “pawns” who work for the occupying forces, and those in the resistance—have to weigh whether their fight for freedom will bring death to innocents around them.

Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

This series was shot in 2014 and premiered in 2015 with season 1 (you must watch Season 1 in order to understand Season 2). The US presidential race hadn’t yet begun, which meant that white supremacists were lurkers, rather than a much-publicized, blatant force. The Man in The High Castle feels like the canary in the coal mine: the harbinger of disaster.

Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith of the American Reich

In the first month after the  presidential election, we have witnessed almost more than 1000 hate incidents. The president-elect said nothing against these acts until he was coaxed to make a statement by a journalist, at which time he looked into a TV camera and said, “Stop it.”

But they won’t stop.  The KKK marched through North Carolina to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory. Trump appointed Steve Bannon, his election strategist and a founder of the racist Breitbart News website, as White House chief of staff. Richard Spencer, a young man who heads a white nationalist group called The National Policy Institute, held a conference of followers in Washington DC where Sieg Heil saluting was widespread in the audience.

Spencer is married to a pro-Putin Russian propagandist Nina Kouprianova. Trump does business with Russia and praises Putin. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is an ExxonMobil CEO who has been awarded a medal from Putin’s administration. New York looks to be the center of Trump’s government, just as it is for the Nazis in the series.

Well worth watching!

Sounds like a paranoid conspiracy—but people are dead serious about it, and many Republicans now view Putin’s actions favorably. Having grown up in the Cold War, this seems to me like a revised version of The Manchurian Candidate—or at the very least a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

What could happen nextafter the ten episodes of Season 2 of The Man in The High Castle are finished? There may be a Season 3, although it’s not official yet.

In the meantime, another program is in the works. The A&E Network plans a documentary series called “Generation KKK” that will follow young Americans choosing racism. This kind of programmingwhich is bound to attract fans who will connect to the real-life charactersseems like it could be another goose-step in normalizing racist behaviors. But I’ll wait to see.

A Japanese Atelier

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The word “binge” comes heavily into use at this time of year.

Alcohol and chocolate are common splurges, but relaxing activities of all sorts can become crazy bad habits  when you’ve got holiday time away from work. I’ve a confession to make: I’m binging on something I very rarely imbibe: television.

Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix

Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix

Typically, there’s so much computer usage in my day that I’m spent by evening and have no more interest in screens.  But during Christmas 2014, I forced myself to make use of our Netflix subscription. I fell in love with “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” from Australia—and to my regret was done with all episodes of the first two seasons in two weeks, including the infamous Christmas Special pictured above. Next I moved onto “Bletchley Circle,” a suspenseful BBC miniseries. International TV was better than I’d ever thought! As the holidays ended, I lost the time for my new hobby and returned to work.

This past Christmas Day, once the gifts were opened and papers and boxes captured for recycling, I got to work on my binge project. My requirements were lovely cinematography, an international locale and either humor or love.

Netflix suggested a series called “Atelier” based on my past, pitifully few selections.  Description: A young “fabric geek” lands a job at an upscale Japanese lingerie company and quickly discovers she’ll need help to survive.” Performed in Japanese, the subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish, opening the show to viewers in many countries. In Japan, the show title is bit more blunt: “Underwear.”

Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called "Atelier" worldwide

Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called “Atelier” worldwide

Before tuning in, I was suspicious the lingerie aspect might mean the show was exploitative, but I was happily proven wrong. Atelier is a 13-episode series featuring an awkward, plainly spoken university graduate named Mayuko who gets an entry-level job at Emotion, a legendary atelier (designer’s salon) specializing in custom-made lingerie.

In Japan, "Atelier" is titled "Underwear"

In Japan, “Atelier” is titled “Underwear”

Who is the oddball heroine? Mayuko explains to a co-worker that her first name is written with the kanji character meaning cocoon; this is nicely symbolic for a girl with a deep love for silk and other fibers—and a person who grew up raised only by a father who worked at a textile factory in the country. She’’s been entirely insulated from modern femininity. Mayuko wears the same gray business suit with a white button down shirt and black Mary Jane flats in at least the first three shows. Her boss calls it “tacky,” and this very typical Japanese business suit gets her expelled from a chic party on Episode 3.

Emotion’s team of six experienced professionals teach Mayuko about the mysterious power of style, the construction of garments, and providing the world’s best customer service when selling bra-and-panty sets for $1000 apiece. Mayuko makes lots of mistakes, but is forgiven by her formidable boss, Nanjo-san, who has a heart of gold behind all the lace and underwire.

Girl in a Box by Sujata MasseyI wrote an eleven-book mystery series set in Tokyo. In these novels, the young Japanese-American heroine Rei Shimura rhapsodized about Japanese customer service and lovely products she could not afford to buy. One of these books, Girl in a Box, is set in a fictional Ginza department store. When I was writing the first draft, I returned to Japan and tried to set up research visits at several department stores. I was always politely refused. The only way I could learn about Japanese retail was through my own shopping and secret interviews of retail employees at cocktail bars and restaurants! At the time, I was happy to get this stealth intelligence; however, what I’ve absorbed from watching Atelier is more illuminating.I had a glorious time living near Tokyo in the early 1990s. During these days, I was a devout visitor to department stores in Tokyo’s Ginza. I could tell if I’d been shopping too long by glancing up at the iconic Seiko clock tower atop the Wako department store–a lovely sight that is shared on Atelier. 

Ginza Wako Clock

I always felt safer when I was living in Japan: a fairytale lifestyle that was bound to end. “Atelier” has provided me a surprising return to that serenity, one hour at a time.