Trump’s Troubles in Syria

Despite the constant cable news coverage about how a new Trump Doctrine is in effect in the Middle East, alongside Tomahawk cruise missile lifting off from destroyers on the back of plumes of smoke and flame, there is little strategic benefit for the West in this retaliatory strike either to stop Assad or more importantly to weaken Islamic State.

The Khan Shaykhun sarin attack on the 4th of April resulted in at least 74 people deal while injuring over 500 but this is hardly the first use of chemical weapons in the conflict nor is it the most deadly attack. A previous attack during Obama’s presidency killed over 700 but with an unco-operative congress and a president that obeyed the conventions of the use of American military force with congressional approval, rightly or wrongly, there were no consequences for Assad.

There were significant complications with respect to this strike. Russian forces, who have been in Syria since September 2015 following the almost collapse of the Syrian Army, were warned of the attack and they and their aircraft were evacuated from the base. Although there were images of destroyed older Syrian Sukhoi-22s, there are reports that the Russians also warned the Syrian forces who succeeded in evacuating some of their aircraft as well.

Minimal damage was caused to the base itself and its supporting infrastructure. Flight operations were up and running again within 24 hours and this speaks to the ineffectiveness of the weapons used. Tomahawks are precision weapons that are designed to take out three dimension structures, (buildings basically). We all remember watching footage from the nose of these missiles as they flew through windows in Iraq years ago. What they are NOT good for is destroying hardened aircraft shelters where there is open spaces each end for the overpressure to escape and equally, where there is no soft window to fly through before detonation which explains why each shelter was attacked twice.

Equally, Tomahawk cruise missiles are almost completely ineffective against two dimensional structures such as runways, taxiways and aircraft aprons. They do not have the kinetic force of a gravity dropped bomb nor the penetrative ability of the larger bunker buster weapons that can crumple an area the size of a football field and really complicate repairs. It’s these reasons why the Syrian Air Force was back operating from this airfield within a day after filling in what amounted to a number of car sized craters. Tomahawks do not scatter little bomblets around the field to complicate repair efforts nor do they have timed secondary effects designed to kill expensive to train engineers brought in for reconstruction. As such, it was simply a case of fill the hole, stamp it down, lay some tarmac, roll it and get those planes in the air again.

This is not to deny the psychological effect of the strike however. There is little doubt that Assad now knows that a cruise missile flying through his bedroom window is potentially the last thing he will see in this world however the Russian presence within his military infrastructure complicates even that potential action. Syria has been a Russian ally for decades and the relationship was previously seen as a counterweight for American support of Israel and Turkey as well as a useful export market for Soviet weaponry. With the breakup of the USSR and rise of Putin, the Russian Federation has been looking to expand its area of influence that it once enjoyed. Alongside this has been the constant search for warm water ports, particularly in the Mediterranean where its access was limited and strategic options in short supply for its Black Sea fleet that had to transit the Turkish Dardanelles.

The Russian support for the Assad regime as well as its presence at the airfield in Latakia and the port of Tartus finally satisfies Russia’ need for a permanent presence in the waters of the Mediterranean. Equally, recent statements from Russia that it intends to sell Syria its most sophisticated air defence system (S-400 SAM) in its inventory is especially worrying news. This system was initially deployed to Syria in limited numbers following the Turkish shoot down of a Russian aircraft that breached Turkish airspace and was limited to providing defence for Russian assets in the west of the country and remained under Russian control. So why would more of these create any further issues since their range of 400km puts a most of Syria under its umbrella.

Well two important agreements were put in place when Russian forces entered Syria. The first of these was a deconfliction hotline set up between US Central Command in Iraq (co-ordinating authority for coalition airstrikes in to Syria) and Russian Syrian forces command in Tartus. Since the missile strike, (according to news sources) this hotline has been dead and NO co-ordination or deconfliction efforts have taken place between Russia and the USA since that time. Although the likelihood or Russian forces firing on Western aircraft is improbable, Syrian forces would feel no such compunction.

Which brings us to our second agreement. Since the USA expanded its air attacks on Islamic State from Northern Iraq into Syria as well as its ground forces working with Kurdish forces to negate the Turkish invasion of last year, Syrian forces were allowing American aircraft to fly through its airspace unhindered, under the proviso that no Syrian forces were attacked. It’s complicated but worth following. US forces could attack ISIS but not Syrian forces. Syrian forces could attack Syrian rebels (both US backed rebels and Al Qaeda backed factions) as well as ISIS (but did not bother since the Americans were sorting them out), Russia could attack all of the above but again did not bother with ISIS too much. That is why the US backed rebels have no air support from America and limited smalls arms. There’s that word again: deconfliction. US aircraft could go anywhere in Syria to attack ISIS but try and provide close air support to Syrian rebels and you will find a Russian aircraft circling or more likely Syrian helicopters lobbying incredibly destructive barrel bombs over the side. Suffice to say, the agreement that allowed US aircraft such unfettered access to Syria has now ended. An oppositional Syrian air force supplied with the most lethal air defence system in the world and potentially top of the line Russian aircraft in the future, backed up by the Russian air force itself and its veto power at the UN, has just made the Trump goal of destroying ISIS a whole lot harder. I said in a previous post that the only way we would rid ourselves of ISIS was with ground action backed by air support. Both of those just became near to impossible.

But at least Trump got an opportunity to look tough, right?

The 20th Japanese Film Festival – After the Storm Review

Yes, it’s been a very long time since my last post and I thought I would come back with the wonder news, at least for me, that the Japanese Film Festival has returned, for its 20th year as well!! This year’s festival has been complicated by the need for babysitting for two kids rather than one and well, let’s just say it requires some juggling and some finances. But enough of that. Down to business.

The opening movie of the festival is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film, After the Storm. I am usually a fan of Kore-eda’s work, having loved them all. However, this film was tough going for me. The story centres on Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) who works as an ethically challenged private detective who gambles away his meagre salary and then struggles to pay child support for his son each month.

This downtrodden existence is in contrast to an earlier highlight in his life when he won a prestigious writing prize but it’s hard to imagine from what we see which is a tribute to the acting skills of Abe who even affects a slump in his tall frame which tells us trying how tired the man is with his life. He steals from his mother, played by the national treasure Kirin Kiki, desperate to come up with the required child support that he is meant to deliver to his beautiful but fed up ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki).

This movie is a slow burn and there are parts where the relationships could have been developed more deeply but perhaps deliberately, that was avoided to that the audience could be delivered to the mother’s house just prior to the arrival of the storm of the title. I found myself really hoping that the protagonist could sort himself out and do what needed to be done to repair the relationships around him and we get a glimpse of this with Ryota’s touching if clumsy interactions with his son who knows his father better than the father knows himself. There is also a wonderful moment of shared clarity between the ex-wife and her mother in law that left me deeply affected but sadly, a happy ending is not to be.

I think it’s this point that caused me such difficulty with this movie and I am aware enough to separate that from the quality of the movie itself. As such, I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Tokyo Refugees

The film opens with our main character almost beaten to death and dumped by the river. Things look grim so thankfully, the movie jumps back 6 months into the past to give us some back story. Osamu (Aoi Nakamura) is a carefree university student who is more interested in partying and flirting with girls to worry about his studies. That is until his attendance card does not work one day and he finds out that he has been expelled because his tuition has not been paid. His father having run off with a Philipina bar girl, he gets kicked out of his apartment and finds himself on the street, having reluctantly joined Tokyo’s homeless.

At first, he becomes a Net Café refugee and finds living hand to mouth extremely difficult before he is taken advantage off by a cute girl who is a scout for a host bar. It’s here that his life takes a radical turn. Osamu becomes a host himself and has trouble with the lifestyle, not wanting to take advantage of a cute patron and realising that it’s a job that leads nowhere.

Despite himself, Osamu develops a relationship with the cute patron and starts to get a taste of how things could be if he could get back on the bandwagon that he was pushed off before. However, due to a run of bad luck for one of his ‘friends’ and trying to help out, our protagonist lands himself on the wrong side of his yakuza-wanna be boss and we begin to understand how he got himself dumped by the river beaten to a bloody pulp.

It’s here, by the river, that he starts to breathe and live again and the kindness shown to him from those on the very bottom of Japan’s social ladder stands in contrast to all those who he came across before his descent. Japan is a country where everyone has their place, and if you fall out of that place, the world can be very unkind. Although this was a good movie, it left me feeling depressed and I think that was the intent. There is no happy ending here but if it can make you think about what circumstances brought that homeless guy to his little patch of cardboard on Shinjuku-dori next time you pass him by, then it has achieved something.

7 ½ shochu shots out of 10

It All Began When I Met You

After a few back to back heavy hitting dramas through this year’s festival, I needed a light-hearted lift and this hit the spot. If you have seen Love Actually, you know the basic premise:- take a collection of characters, some single and some in a relationship, add drama, sentimentality, a special day such as Christmas and voila, sweet movie delivered to your door. Is that all it is? Well yes and no.

The allusion to Love Actually is pretty accurate. If not an exact copy of plot, it hits very similar notes. Made in celebration of the centurion anniversary of the beautiful Tokyo Railway Station (its renovation was completed last year), its cast of characters include a cynical and grumpy CEO and an aspiring actress, an orphan who needs to believe in Santa Claus but not for why you think, a couple going over a rough patch in their long distance relationship and two single women, separated by two generations, who pine for their dream guy. Lastly, a dying father who tries to make the very most of his remaining time with his family.

This is the kind of movie that makes you want to move to Tokyo in winter and walk the snow covered streets hand in hand with your cute beanie and mittens wearing girlfriend but like really cool movies in New York, it’s not always like that. This movie, in the end is about love and that is a good thing. The human spirit needs a lift sometimes and what’s more uplifting than love at Christmas time.

Check this one out.

7 ½ Christmas carols out of 10

Our Family

Another hard family slog, and I mean that as a compliment. Reiko (Mieko Harada) has been becoming forgetful and making some silly decisions and when her eldest son announces that he is to become a father, she embarrasses herself and him at a dinner with the in-laws. Her husband, Katsuaki (Kyozo Nagatsuka) is a pretty typical Japanese husband, working too hard and not very talkative. He does notice her odd behaviour however and takes her to the doctor the next morning and it’s here where the story begins to move forward.

The family receives a diagnosis of a brain tumor and its left to the elder son to organise things. Dad is a bit of a write off, having always relied on his wife and the younger son has been a bit of a loser always sponging off his mother for money. See the pattern here? Oh yes, one more thing to add to the drama;- it seems that the elder son was once a shut in, hikikomori. He shut himself off from all outside contact when he was younger. Does this family have any hope?

This movie could have very easily shot off in the direction of a critique of the Japanese medical industry and the commonplace lying to patients about their true health but it doesn’t. It remains focussed on this shattered family and getting a cure for the person at the very heart of that family. Based on semi-autobiographical novel Bokutachi no Kazoku, and directed by the award-winning director of The Great Passage, it works in delivering an observation of a family’s helplessness in the face of cancer, but strength in coming together.

7 ½ family hugs out of 10

Leaving on the 15th Spring

I may be breaking film review conventions but I am just going to come out and say it. This was a great movie. It tells the story of Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi) who lives on Minami Daito, a small island within the Okinawan group of islands. As it has no high school, all the children move to the ‘mainland’ of Okinawa to complete their studies when they finish Junior high school, hence our movie’s title. However, there is a lot more to this lovely film than just a teenage coming of age drama. Yuna’s family is broken, separated for various reasons and the connections that keep it from crumbling all together are fraying even further.

Japan is more than just the bright lights of Tokyo and delectable sushi and I really enjoy Japanese films that show life outside of the stereotypical experience. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Wood Job so much. This movie takes it to the extreme by showing what life is like for the people at the very edge of Japan. I must admit that I am not 100% sure if the people there consider themselves as Ryukyu people within Japan or not and I suggest that with the utmost respect but one of the many things I did like about this film was the aspects of Ryukyu culture and island life that were subtly different to the rest of Japan.

Yuna’s mother has moved to the mainland and she is reaching an age where she is beginning to realise that things between her mother and father are not as she thought. Her sister is going through some problems with her own husband and returns home temporarily. Added to this, she has just embarked on a sweet, innocent romance that has a surprise twist later in the movie. Against all this change, Yuna must navigate a way through that works for her and the view can see her maturing through the movie and gaining insight in to how the world works sometimes.

The penultimate scene in the movie shows Yuna singing the traditional farewell song that the school’s girl singing group gives each year when one of their members leave. Again, I show my ignorance but I think its sung in the traditional Ryukyu language and its exquisite. I only know of one other Okinawan song (Chinsagu no Hana) and they are both beautiful. It left a tear in my eye and this movie will leave a lasting impression in your heart.

9 island breezes out of 10

The Eternal Zero

The film of the festival so far for me. I knew this would be a big movie and it delivered. But firstly, I would like to get one thing out of the way. This movie is about kamikaze. If you are to condemn the movie on that point alone, stop reading now. Save yourself some time.

For those of you who have stuck with me, I hope you enjoy this review and go and see the movie when you can. The movie is told in flashbacks and starts in the present day with Kentari Oishi and his sister Keiko finding out at the grandma’s funeral that their grandpa is not actually their real grandpa and that in fact, their real grandpa died as a kamikaze during the final days of the way. They decide to go and find out more and in the process discover that their grandfather’s comrades thought of him as a coward.

In the flashbacks, we discovered that their grandfather, Kyuzo Miyabe, was an exceptional pilot and new father who promised his wife and child he would be careful in the war and would return to them. As such, he refuses to take reckless risks and does not believe in throwing away his life in the service of the Emperor.

The movie shifts back and forth between the children coming across more of their grandfather’s colleagues who have a different view to the others and back to Miyabe who we see slowly but surely changing the views of those pilots he is asked to train. He considers it his duty to get these young men home to their families so they can build a strong, peaceful and prosperous Japan.

Coupled with a beautiful soundtrack and flight sequences, this movie tells another side of the kamikaze, and although it does not go as far as the falling cherry blossoms view of these brave men, it does provide a more nuanced view of their experience. Ultimately, it delivers a strong position against war and against blind devotion to death so I don’t really understand the controversy it has raised about its ‘glorification of war’.

9 ½ barrel rolls out of 10

Wood Job

I have been looking forward to this film since it premiered in Japan in May. It stars Shota Sometani (who is in 7 films showing at the festival this year!!) as Yuki Hirano, a city kid who has flunked his college entrance exams and gets dumped by his girlfriend as a result. With no direction in life, he decides to take on a 12 month course as a trainee lumberjack because he likes the photo of the girl on the flyer. It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. If I saw Masami Nagasawa on a recruiting poster for the worst job in the world, I would probably do the same thing.

Regular visitors to Japan will recognise the director’s use of different types of trains to show Yuki moving further out into the countryside and at the end of his journey, he finds himself without cell phone coverage and about to enter a whole new world. From this point on, it’s your typical fish out of water tale. He fails to impress one of his instructors, Yoki Iida (another of my favourites, Hideaki Ito) and as well as the girl on the flyer who catches him trying to escape training one day.

He decides to stay and ends up boarding with the stern instructor and it’s there where his slow transformation from city slicker to mountain main takes place; there and high up in the trees. Along the way, there are dramas and romance, ancient traditions and the constant counterpoint of town versus country. The mountain goddess angle of the film was a subtle introduction to a traditional festival that takes place on the mountain and for mine, really added a deeper layer to what at first appears to be a pretty light comedy. But for me, the scene that stood out takes place back in the city when Yuki smells fresh lumber and the camera focusses in on some exquisite joinery on a building site. It was a nod to Japanese carpentry and by extension, to its traditions that sometimes take place far from the glittering lights of Tokyo.

A really enjoyable movie.

8 axes out of 10

A Drop of the Grapevine

I watched this movie immediately after Snow on the Blades and a more different movie to that would be hard to find. It started as a fairly normal movie about rural wine grower Ao, (Yo Oizumi, from last year’s Bread of Happiness) and his brother Roku (Shota Sometani) who live together but do not share the best of relationships. You see, Ao was a gifted musician and composer who left the family farm to pursue music until an ear infection forced him to return to the Hokkaido countryside. Its telling to note that the death of his father prior to this was not enough to bring him back before this.

He decides to start growing pinot noir grapes in pursuit of the perfect wine and along the way becomes a bit of a prick, something his brother, who felt abandoned by him, reminds him of. One day, the eccentric Erica (gorgeous Yuko Ando) drives up to the paddock nearby and starts digging. For what, we don’t know and she instantly puts Ao’s nose out of joint while getting on marvellously with everyone else around her.

This film had a similar feel to Bread of Happiness about it, not just because of the Hokkaido landscape but also the same quirky feel and also how it left the viewer wondering exactly where this movie was going. Despite going off in some strange directions with Erica’s relationship with her mother and more hole digging, its ultimately a story about the two brother’s relationship, love and acceptance. I ended up enjoying it even if I felt a bit lost for most of the film.

8 lazy glasses of pinot noir out of 10

Snow on the Blades

I really liked this movie. An homage to the dying days of the Samurai in Meiji era Japan, it starts with our protagonist Shimura Kingo (Kiichi Nakai) getting promoted to head of the bodyguards for his lord Naosuke Ii, the First Minister to the Tokugawa shogun. On a snowy day, whilst escorting Ii to the Shogunal residence, the group are ambushed and Shimura is the only survivor, after battling with one of the assassins. He returns to see the palanquin containing his charge full of swords and bloodstains. So begins his descent into shame as well as his 13 year quest for revenge and to restore his lost honour.

The middle half of the movie shows him tracking down the 5 remaining assassins only to find that due to circumstances, all have died except for one, Sahashi Jyubei played by another of my favourite actors, Hiroshi Abe.

It’s this middle part of the movie that paints the scene of a rapidly developing Japan and more particularly, its changing attitudes to modernity and the samurai. Underlying this is a pretty unsubtle theme that honour and the old ways have some validity and that Japan is losing something in its rush to embrace the West. I don’t mind this heavy handedness as the story moves along well enough. We are left to sympathise with Shimura while also getting a glimpse of what our villain, Jyubei, has become and the life he is living now and without spoiling it for you, it leaves the viewer in a quandary.

The build up to the climax is some of the best piece of cinema I have seen in a while with Shimura catching Jyubei’s rickshaw in the snow (a recurring theme and nod to the title). They each know who the other is and the acting here is first class. Even if you are not a fan of samurai flicks, this is a very fine movie and one you should definitely go and see. I am hoping it comes out in subtitled DVD so I can add it to my collection.

9 clashing katanas out of 10