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The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

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King Coal

By Upton Sinclair, who always takes the side of the underdog and shows people how hard and unfair life was for the lower classes in his time (i.e. early 20th century), King Coal is about a well-to-do college student, who leans to the left politically. His older brother and friends tell him that all the news and complaints of poor treatment of coal minors is hog wash. He decides to spend his summer as a miner.

He takes on the clothing of a working man and goes to North Valley where he gets work in a mine. He has no idea how much worse things were than he imagined. He makes friends with the workers, lives amongst them and sympathizes with them. He gets the same bad treatment. He faces the same problems – high rents in the mining housing, bad food at the canteen, exorbitant prices at the general store. When he helps the men organize and request, not a union, but someone to check that the coal loads are weighed right, he lands in jail. The judge is in bed with the mine owners. Upon release he’s followed and when a reporter prints his story . . . well, on and on it goes, injustice upon injustice.

The story is compelling and Sinclair creates likable characters a few that middle class and progressive wealthy folk would take to. It’s still a relevant story and should be read in history classes. If I taught history, I’d have some students read this, others read The Jungle and others read Oil! and then compare notes.

Poor Countries Aren’t Doomed

Bear in mind that South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the 1970s and now it’s neck and neck with Spain.

Nickel and Dimed

Northwestern dramatized Barbara Enrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed with great success. This three act play follows Enrenreich, a journalist who went undercover in Florida, Maine and Minnesota taking low paying jobs like waiting tables, cleaning houses and working at “Mall Mart.”

The cast was good especially Laura Winters, the star who was a likeable everywoman. Though it was hard to believe Winters was in her 50s, that wasn’t important. I hope to see Winters in more roles after she graduates.

What matters is that a privileged woman finds out how hard it is to get by on minimum wage, to find a decent place to live on meager wages. Enrenreich came to respect and understand her coworkers more than she expected.

The play, like the book, is a compelling look at those exploited by our economy.

Nickel and Dimed will be shown next weekend.

Panera Cares

After getting my hair done at the Aveda Institute, I went to the Panera on Diversity and had a pleasant surprise. It’s now a Panera Cares. Huh?

Panera now has four Panera Cares outlets. They offer the same menu, but a different pricing policy. The prices listed are suggested donations. If you can’t afford that, pay what you can. If you can’t pay anything, you can do an hour of work and get a meal.

If you can afford more, you can donate as you see fit. The restaurant looks like any Panera and the offerings are identical. This store is near Broadway and Diversey and area where rich and poor live side by side.

Panera offers healthy food and I like that they see the need to serve all people in a clean, attractive setting. Their flyers note that 1 in 6 Americans lives in a family that’s “food insecure.” The TED talk below explains the reasons below.

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