Summer’s sweet cessation

When last I checked, the world was in tatters. But that’s a trifle for another day. Thing is, I have a wicked splinter in my finger and a bodacious pimple on my forehead that’s a little too Cyclopsian for shrugging off. Then there’s the boy dog, whose sphincter-sniffing flirtation with the girl cat might soon require rings, roses and rice. We remain calm. 

Summer subsides and the late-August slash Labor Day doldrums set in like a hard crust over the celebratory season. Things are dying down. Things are dying. I for one had no idea that Denise Nickerson, who played ravenous gum-chomper Violet Beauregarde in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” died in July at age 62. She and Gene Wilder — gone. Let’s hope Charlie doesn’t kick the bucket. 

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Speaking of blueberries — recall Violet inflates into a gigantic blueberry and must be rolled away by Oompa Loompas — that finger-staining fruit is my single breakfast comestible each day. I gobble them by the handful, a disgusting image but we’re all adults. They’re a summer fruit and so make a timely cameo in this post, which is sort of about the end of summer, the now, but we’ll see where it takes us. Already I’m rather lost.

It was a short summer, merciful, not too warm, and it moved with benign velocity. So glad it’s shuttering, as I look forward to crisp breezes, light coats, brisk walks without drenching humidity, Oscar-caliber movies, my Tokyo sojourn, obscenely short days — it’s 8 p.m. now and almost pitch-dark — and my usual litany of fall and winter joys.

At the cineplex, I dodged the onslaught of summer sequels and superheroes — brain-beating blunderbusses — for “artier” fare like Tarantino’s sophomoric garble “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” a shambolic misfire, and the cathartic Australian horror-thriller “The Nightingale,” a savage, soulful gut-punch of vengeance and violence. For early-summer froth, the delirious comic excess of “Booksmart” can’t be forgotten. Fall brings promise: Joaquin Phoenix as “Joker,” “Little Women” and Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

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“Destroy All Monsters”

Movie mad, I always watch films from the country I’m going to visit next. So, Japan. I re-watched the 1954 version of the original “Godzilla,” which is startlingly melancholic. (The monster dies a slow, sinking death. Oh: spoiler.) In 1968’s full-color “Destroy All Monsters,” a menagerie of kaiju creatures, from Godzilla and Mothra to Gorosaurus and Rodan, unleash murderous mayhem on the world’s largest cities. Aliens are somehow involved. Silly — and spectacular. (Lest it seems I’m just watching monster movies, I’ve also re-watched Ozu’s “Floating Weeds,” Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill” and “Tokyo Drifter.”) 

As I cut short my late-summer reading of Haruki Murakami’s timid, ultra-bland novel of youthful romance “Norwegian Wood” I picked up Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” which has more literary panache in its first 20 pages than Murakami’s snoozer has in 150.  

51pY6F589HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAutumn looms and I have a pair of fall novels picked out: “Doxology” by Nell Zink and “The Topeka School” by virtuosic young writer Ben Lerner, whose “10:04” and “Leaving the Atocha Station” are rhapsodic in their essayistic intelligence and gliding beauty. “10:04” is one of my favorite novels of the past 10 years. I’ve read it twice. So far. 

I admit I struggled with Zink’s acclaimed 2014 fiction debut “The Wallcreeper.” We didn’t jibe. The new book has been called her best and most ambitious, “a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection … bliss.” I am all over that.

But first, after Morrison’s promising “Sula,” it’s back to Japan and Banana Yoshimoto’s international cult hit “Kitchen,” a bittersweet novel whose “whimsy” and “simplicity” are frequently hailed as virtues, making me wary. Those words could be code for “precious.”

Now that I’ve mentioned Japan three hundred times, it might be a good place to state why I’m really exalting summer’s end — my October-November trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. Which, lucky you, you can read more about as plans unfold.

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Tokyo

Yet so much is great about fall, not just a fleeting vacation. Autumn is coming fast — the calendar says Sept. 23, but we all know it starts on Labor Day — sucking summer back into the gooey abyss from whence it came. Japan, new books, new movies, new weather — all good and well. But fact is, fall is its own prize. It’s all fine, shimmery sublimity.

A fantasy fan, but no fanboy

My niece and nephew, both teens, are watching Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time. They are in the basement, I am upstairs, web-surfing all things Tokyo. (Godzilla vs. Smaug? I’m in.)

All I hear are dragon shrieks and thunderous fire-belching that rumbles the floor and walls and surely rattles the television, making it shimmy and shake on its spindly base. (Wait. I am later told that Smaug the dragon is not in this “LOT” installment. What then was I hearing? Gollum’s hissy, phlegmy rasp? A bombardment of unbridled Tolkien imagination? Hobbit flatulence?) 

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Smaug

I was well into adulthood when this first film in the “LOT” trilogy was released 18 years ago, and by then I wasn’t much for elves and wizards and hobbits. It’s all very childlike to me, which is also why I didn’t do backflips for “Game of Thrones,” though I mostly enjoyed that rollicking, bloody, gleefully nakedy, defiantly impenetrable series.

I grapple with most fantasy archetypes. I can barely do swords. Harry Potter, which arrived awfully late to the tournament of genre clichés, is a baffling bore, an embarrassing ecosystem of such contrived, feebly derivative Halloween, D&D and Renaissance Fair poppycock that my aversion to it is nigh boundless. 

Wizards, wands, witchcraft, trolls, potions, flying broomsticks, spells, sorcerers, centaurs — such are the tropes of an impoverished imagination. Such is the desperation of a starved (and benighted) readership and viewership. It is expressly for innocents, naifs, children, the like.

My niece, bless her roving, fecund mind, rabidly adored Harry Potter a few years ago. We don’t speak of it, lest one of us goes bald from mutual hair pulling. I don’t know what she thinks of the Christlike Chosen One now, and I don’t want that information. The kids watch “Lord of the Rings” as I type, and I do not know what they think of it, as they’re in the middle of Middle-earth and all. 

I hope they like it. It’s rather good; it’s just, at this late date, not my bag. Gandalf, “my Precious,” the hirsute feet, the Shire, Orcs — I’ve moved on. Yet I endorse it. And I’m not one quick to sanction fantasy flicks.

A few exceptions: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902); “King Kong” (1933); “The Wizard of Oz” (1939); “Beauty and the Beast” (1946); “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971); “Legend” (1985); “Babe” (1995); “Spirited Away” (2001); “Coraline” (2009). (Please don’t ask where “Avatar” fits into this list. It doesn’t. It is banished, with prejudice.)

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The wondrously weird “Trip to the Moon” (1902)
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Tim Curry in Ridley Scott’s underrated “Legend” (1985)

I think I need more fantasy in my life, despite my allergy to it and most things science fiction. (Exceptions: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “Solaris” (1972); “Star Wars” (1977); “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); “Alien” (1979); “Blade Runner” (1982); “The Fly” (1986); “Serenity” (2005); “District 9” (2009); “Moon” (2009); “Ex Machina” (2014).)

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“Ex Machina” (2014) — Ex-ceptional

Nowadays dystopian scenarios are hijacking the fantasy and sci-fi worlds — from fashionable post-apocalyptica to ever-tedious zombies — with mixed results. Film-wise, dystopian zeniths are the visionary, crazily exhilarating “Mad Max” epics. (Other highlights off the top of my head: “A Clockwork Orange” (1971); “Brazil” (1985); “RoboCop” (1987); “Children of Men” (2006).)

In fiction, fine contemporary classics — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Road,” “Never Let Me Go” — chafe against new mediocrities like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” which at its best reveals genre fatigue. 

I’ll take dragons over such drags. A trio of trainable dragons lit up “Game of Thrones” with awe and grandeur and strange, scaly pathos. Smaug is a juggernaut, a fearsome, fiery Middle-earth monster considered to be the last great dragon of the realm. (Yeah, I had to look that up.)

I may be the sole fan of the crunchy 2002 dragon drama “Reign of Fire,” in which Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale combat a futuristic (totally dystopian) infestation of those winged, fire-spraying dinosaurs. The sheer force of its perverse and pummeling premise — not to mention top-drawer dragon action — dragooned me to full appreciation of this fantasy tale.

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“Reign of Fire” — more underrated film fantasy (2002)

And what about comic-book superheroes? “The Dark Knight” (2008) remains an adult-geared masterpiece of mayhem and menace. One or two of the early Spider-Man movies are efficient. I like “Iron Man” (2008) and the profanely spoofy “Kick-Ass” (2010) — both are fast and funny — and, more so, the bleak, ruminative Wolverine installment “Logan” (2017). I have very little use for the rest of it.

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From the basement, I hear Howard Shore’s strident, overbearing score, more earth-rattling noise, stadium-fuls of yelling, screaming and bellowing. Drama is happening in “The Lord of the Rings.”

And then: hush. The niece and nephew emerge from Lower-earth to the living room. The spectacle is over. We inquire.

Her: “It was good. I’m excited for the next part. I’m looking forward to the hobbit movies, too. This one is just really long.” 

Him: “It’s exciting and there’s tons of fighting. but it’s more than three hours. Still, you don’t get bored.”

Length, damn length. This “LOT” runs a savage three hours and 48 minutes. Fantasy always seems to run interminably long (“Avatar”: two hours, 42 minutes), even when it doesn’t (“Legend”: one hour, 34 minutes). To binge all 73 episodes of “Game of Thrones” would take three days and 16 minutes, enough time for a weekend getaway to Bermuda.

But fantasy and sci-fi are all about girth and sprawl. Poundage of detail and characters, world-building and mythologizing is their very DNA, their showoffy M.O. Glimpse any fantasy novel worth its weight in gibberish; just don’t try and lift it.

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Epic, capital E, is the primary aspiration. It’s all about blowing the mind, overwhelming the senses. For this skeptic, this mostly invites chronic eye-glazing. Fantasy does not stir fanaticism. This fanboy might have just become a fan-man.

Japan by mouth

There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla. 

If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.) 

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Sushi swirls around the dreaming Jiro’s head. He dreams of sushi. He swims in it. He wonders: Why so much sushi? He dreams of retirement.

What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly. 

Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.

Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.

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Conveyor-belt sushi, like a buzzing food factory.

But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & Luxury Tour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.

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Edo-style sushi

So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:

“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”

(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)

If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!

On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.)  I must say, I did eat fine.

Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will upend the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.

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My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gai for food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky? 

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Shinjuku — batshit.

Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:

Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”

Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.

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Tsukiji Fish Market. Looks disgusting. Tastes great.

At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …