Monday, August 19, 2013

On The Job. Director's Statement. Cannes Director's Fortnight. May 2013.

Poster by Dina Gadia

May 2013.  Director’s Fortnight, Cannes.

I had the germ of the movie about ten years ago from a service driver who told me that he has worked as a hitman when he was in prison.  The idea intrigued me. 

As the years went on, I was able to gather from different news materials, stories about politicians hiring prisoners to do hits for their rivals in the election.  But more than the prisoner story, what really got me interested was the fact that the police cannot find the hitmen doing the kills because the criminals the law is looking for are already locked up in prison.

What I discovered, as the concept started to percolate in my mind, is that I am more interested in the process of the whole prison-hitman system.  Who is involved?  How do they do it?  Who’s eligible?  How do they learn to do it?  Are they amateurs or professionals?

On the surface, ‘On The Job” seems to be just about this controversial story inspired by true events of prisoners given a day pass as contract killers and the whole system of corruption that run it.

Easily, it makes for a good genre film.  But given this exciting premise, I, as a filmmaker, wanted to go beyond the shock value of this Third World corruption story and challenged myself to give the story something that appeals to me on a very personal level but at the same time, still having a strong universal theme hoping to give a fresh take on what could be just another formulaic genre action film. 

Such is the basis of the title “On The Job”.  I wanted to explore a modern day tale of people being “on the job”.   The competition, the ambition, the sacrifices, the self-preservation and the dedication demanded from each one doing the job.  And by dissecting this personal insight, me and my co-writer Michiko Yamamoto were able to go beyond what could be a predictable plot driven story and come up with a film that is as much a study of different characters on the job as it is about Philippines as a country with a bizarre sense of governance.

Rather than risking having a one note, point A to point B story, we were now able to tell a complex story that works on one level as a crime drama, a political thriller on another, a hard boiled action and a character-driven film all at the same time.

And with that in mind, we were able to veer away from the clichés of the genre and just work towards a fresher, more unique view of a modern film noir.  We even took out the procedural stuff that are common in most police stories. We also opened up the prison conflicts and avoided the usual prison plots that are familiar in other prison movies. 
Our only guide: Keep everything about the characters.  The character story will eventually be a much more engaging story than the plot itself.  The characters are the story.

If I were to pick a color that would best describe what OTJ is, it would be gray.  In the world of OTJ, everything is gray.  No solid blacks or whites.  No right or wrong.  Just different shades of gray.

The city is gray.  The government is also gray.  The characters are gray.  It is about ironies and role reversals.  No clear cut protagonists and antagonists.  No arch villain or super hero.  Just ordinary individuals making choices that result in dire consequences.

I was attempting to tell a story where we dissect a couple of individuals from a cross section of Philippine society without passing judgment no matter how dark their gray characters get.  With the choices they make, it snowballs into a web of events that end up ruining lives and…well, mostly, just ruining lives.

Cinematically, we wanted to bring out what Manila really is.  Not just the gritty, underbelly of the nook and cranny of the poor Manila but also the plush, cold and empty walls and buildings of the rich and the old classic structures of the government institutions that the Spanish and American colonization left behind.  Being from the countryside, I wanted On The Job to pay tribute to how cinematic a city Manila is using it as the backdrop to this noir tale and representing not just the gritty side of it but also the rustic and the modern.

If one would take a closer look at every scene of the film, one would notice that we only lighted the settings and never the actors.  We are photographing the city and the characters are incidental.  All our sets are general lighted.  And wherever the actors end up in doing the scene, whether there is enough light or not, we let it be.  This way, we depict a more realistic portrayal of the city we wanted to celebrate. This is the third time I collaborated with my cinematographer, Francis Ricardo Buhay III.  And I think it’s his best work to date.

My designer is my nephew, protégé and fellow filmmaker, Richard Somes.  Although he started as a production designer, he has not designed a film from beginning to end for maybe 3 years now.  We collaborated on this knowing fully well that he would be the only one who could bring out the real Manila without going over the top or being too generic at it.

Visually, the film contrasts two worlds.  The world of the prisoners is mostly set on places where the spaces are smaller than the people in it.  And the parallel world of the agents of the law and the government are set on places where the spaces are much bigger and sprawling with fewer people in it.

It is worth mentioning, too, that our main major set, the Bagong Yugto Provincial Jail (New Chapter Provincial Jail), was built and dressed up from an existing location.  Given the sensitive topic of the film, we presumed that we would not be allowed to shoot in a real prison. 

The prison was a major chunk in the visual narrative of the movie.  Locally, everyone can be familiar with the set-up.  Internationally though, some may be surprised at the surreal, strange and bizarre set-up of prison camps in the Philippines.  Looking at the jails in our country is like looking at the microcosm of what’s wrong with the entire country. And visually, this is juxtaposed within the entire movie.

From our research, the jails in the Philippines are like little cities.  There are mini-zoos, wet markets, tennis courts and even massage parlors.  Prisoners are allowed to do business inside the prison.  Having entrepreneurial prisoners mean more business for the jail officials as well.  Those who can afford can open small cafes and serve sandwiches, even sell phone credits (even if mobile phones are supposedly illegal).  One can rent rooms for their wives and girlfriends to stay overnight.  For those who want long term, they can rent a more permanent room where one could bring their spouse to live indefinitely.  But, of course, for every perk, you pay.

I and my business partner Dondon Monteverde have been trying to get this project off the ground for three years now.  I remember about two years ago, we were hoping to get international distributors interested with the project and we always hear them say that they like the idea of the movie but since they haven’t seen a movie like this come out of the Philippines, they are not sure whether it will be worth the financial risk.  

Our vision at Reality Entertainment is to bring Filipino films out there with well-crafted, relevant, smart but also entertaining commercial films to make it competitive with our other Asian neighbors doing well in the global arena.

The attempt with our company Reality Entertainment is to do movies for the local domestic audience using themes and stories that can cross over internationally without necessarily eyeing only the film festivals. The world already knows we have good filmmakers.  It’s about time we show them we are universal. If China, Hongkong, Korea and Japan are doing this, why can’t Filipino movies?  Fame and prestige is good but we need cash.  Sustainability is the key.

On The Job is a unique case given that there are no films of this nature that are produced in the Philippine mainstream cinema for maybe more than a decade now.  And to give it a boost in the local market, the biggest film studio in our country, Star Cinema, decided to co-produce this with us, take the risk and gamble on this project we all believe in. 

As a fan of the modern film noir and its masters Melville, Audiard, To & Ka-Fai and the Coens to name a few, “On The Job” is my thesis as their diligent student of their films.

We are honored to bring a different kind of Philippine cinema to Cannes.  We hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Tomorrow this movie, Rigodon, will be showing in theaters with two cuts R-16 for SM and a Director's cut of R-18 in all other cinemas.

This is a movie that we did on and off for 8 months.

I know the first question that pops in everyone's mind: In these times, is an adult movie still relevant?

It surely is.  Rigodon, once titled Punto De Bista, was a script we already had for 4 years now.  From a director who has done several adult movies, Scorpio Nights 2, Ekis, Dos Ekis and Prosti, it would be easy to dismiss this new film of mine as somewhat predictable. So how then can I claim Rigodon to be relevant?

As someone who loves the industry I'm in and who adores all sorts of movies, we all wish that we could get to see other kinds of movies in our theaters other than Twilight: Breaking Dawn.  You wish that there would be movies that would cater to any mood, topic and flavor without judgment on its moralistic stance.

I have been fighting to get this movie made not because I only want to see nudity in our movies but also because I want a variety of movies to thrive in our industry and nurture a movie audience that will be open to anything and everything cinema can offer.

The past years we saw a surge of local rom-coms and low budget horror movies with the occasional indie offering that has become predictably formulaic.  Other than that, we turn to Hollywood and foreign movies to get a different serving in our movie-watching appetite.

Rigodon is relevant as a movie that dares to challenge what can be shown in Philippine cinema nowadays.  it is relevant to give the audience a different kind of experience other than what we're used to.

It may not be a film for everyone, but it certainly deserves a space in our movie houses.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cinemalaya: Then And Now (as published in

This previously unpublished entry, a portion written in 2006, is filmmaker Erik Matti’s current opinion of the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. The Cinemalaya is now at the center of controversy, after its board disqualified filmmaker Emerson Reyes during the production of his film “MNL 143.” Reyes claims the disqualification was due to his refusal to put name stars in his roster of actors. –Rappler


I am bothered by the grumblings I hear around the indie film scene about the forthcoming Cinemalaya.

To some, these grumblings may seem very petty.  But when you put all these petty little grunts, sighs and whimpers together it amounts to a really gaseous, guttural and booming burp. 

It does not paint a good picture of the festival, at all.

Uggh…Festival committee meets with the 15 finalists and gives them suggestions on how to improve the script for it to be considered in the top 10.

Aahrggh…Festival committee asks participants to try and avoid using indie favorites Ronnie Lazaro and Pen Medina.

Uumph…Festival committee wants the filmmakers to use named, established stars in their films as much as possible.

Ihnakhuup…Do a full-length film script but within 50 sequences and not more than 60 pages.

Waaah…Change Jet Pangan as the lead actor because he does not know how to act.

Cinemalaya can run their festival however they want to.  Who am I to complain about it?  After all, it’s them who’s giving out five million pesos and risking it to independent filmmakers.

Cinemalaya even made 2005 an interesting year for movies with such noteworthy films like “Maximo”, “Bigtime”, “Sarong Banggi”, “Baryoke” and “Pepot Artista”.

When mainstream producers weren’t doing anything to bring fresh and exciting works in the theaters, Cinemalaya gambled on these “indie filmmakers to bring new cinema” to the ailing Philippine film industry.

So why should I complain?  Why shoot down a worthy endeavor with petty misgivings?  For all we know, all these nitpickings may even be the festival committee’s way of improving last year’s Cinemalaya.


Awards in film festivals all over the world are based primarily on the finished film, and not the written script.  If it were a literary contest like the Carlos Palanca Annual Writing Competition, then the screenplay on paper can be considered, as it is a judgment of the literary voice.  But with regards to film festivals, the judging should be the medium of film, how the filmmaker tells the story, because in the end, it is the cinematic voice that is judged and not the words written on paper.

I don’t really know if the mechanics of Cinemalaya were based on the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) or the now defunct Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP). But using the screenplay as a deciding factor to a half a million seed grant to produce a film leaves the festival open to a lot of problems once the film on paper is interpreted for the big screen.  

This is where trouble begins.

Isn’t there a lesson to be learned in the way the MMFF conducts its yearly festivals?  Let’s say, hypothetically, that the scripts approved by the MMFF committee are of high standard. Why do we keep seeing a multitude of mediocre films come showcase in December? MMFF could not blame “Lapu Lapu” or “Terrorist Hunters” for being bad films, because the mechanics of the MMFF itself gave room for these movies to be bad films.

ECP also started with a competition based on the screenplay, and the festival eventually produced the classic “Oro, Plata, Mata.”  Lucky them that the film was a masterpiece, because it could have been a really bad movie in the hands of an inept filmmaker.

Filmmaking is not about the written page. It never has been and never will be.  The screenplay is the foundation, yes, but it is not yet the film. It’s a big leap from the script up to the finished film.

Now, if the organizers want to hold the competition using only the scripts as basis for the grant, then they should stand by their competition and be ready either to get a classic like “Misteryo Sa Tuwa” or a bomber like “Ang Alamat Ng Lawin.”

A lot of films get grants using scripts or just storylines. That’s how Lav Diaz got his funding for “Heremias.”  But it also comes with reputation. A pitch from Lav Diaz gives the grantor an idea what kind of movie he’s going to get, because of the string of movies Lav has under his belt.

MMFF claims to use the system, but a script is not enough to get you into the festival. To be noticed, the script has to have a well-known director, a big star and a major studio, not to mention commercial viability. If it’s by Joel Lamangan, then it must be good.  More so if it’s a Joel Lamangan movie starring Maricel Soriano and backed by Regal Films.  Or a Tony Y. Reyes flick starring Vic Sotto and backed by M-Zet.

That system is somewhat feasible, because beyond the script, there is the track record of either the director, the star or the studio to back it up.  But even that does not assure the MMFF organizers or foreign producers a good film in the end. 

This is not the case for Cinemalaya. The competition is built on giving a break to a budding filmmaker who has good material for a movie.  The competition has only the script for a basis, and maybe a short film or two by the applicant filmmaker.  But there is no track record, or the promise of a big star attached to the project, or a big studio’s financial backing—except maybe the retirement savings of the filmmaker’s parents.

Cinemalaya hinges its selection solely on the basis of the screenplay.   


Cinemang Malaya.  The Philippine Independent Film Festival.

In the spirit of independent expression, the Cinemalaya
Awards seeks to discover, encourage and honor the
cinematic works of Filipino filmmakers that boldly
articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience
with fresh insight and artistic integrity.”

Such vision.  Such noble intentions.  Such bold labels.   It takes a lot of conviction to stand by those ideals.  Independent expression.  Freely interpret.  Artistic integrity.

It is with that vision that brought me lining up to CCP last year to watch the entries of Cinemalaya.  It was an invigorating feeling to see that the entries were highly anticipated.  Clearly, there is a hunger for movies other than what we usually have in the mainstream cinemas.  And above all that, there is definitely an honest and sincere support for the filmmakers trying their first hand at moviemaking.  There is no doubt a strong feeling of a community coming together sharing their love for films.  

It is with that vision of Cinemalaya that colleagues in the industry flocked in the theaters each night to witness the birth of a baby brother or a sister.  The aura in those festival nights were different from movie premieres of major studios.  The spirit of family was present.  The participants and the filmmakers, even the audience themselves, had a general feeling of ownership and of claim on the movies unfolding before them.

The event was so successful in achieving its vision that I even almost forgot the real reason why the festival was put up in the first place. 

Dream TV/ABC 5 lacks content for movies.  When all is said and done, it still boils down to economics.  What Regal Films and Viva Entertainment are to ABS-CBN is what Cinemalaya is to Dream TV/ABC 5.  Instead of Dream TV/ABC 5 buying movies for their network at 2 million to 3 million (depending on the star of the movie) from producers, they staged a film festival for ten movies amounting to just 5 million.  Aside from saving 15 to 25 million pesos, they also get 10 movies instantly in just a year’s time.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with their intentions.  The business side of the festival has nothing to do with its grand plan of giving opportunities to aspiring filmmakers.  If one can marry lofty intentions with making money, as long as they stand by the vision they started with, then good for them.


As long as they stand by the vision they started with. 

A S   L O N G   A S   T H E Y   S T A N D   B Y   T  H  E   V I S I O N   T H E Y  S T A R T E D  W I T H.

But the question is, what vision does Cinemalaya stand for?  Do they know what vision they are really trying to pursue?  Is it “…to discover, encourage and honor the cinematic works of Filipino filmmakers that boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity” or to fill-up movie programming for a TV/Cable network?

If the vision of Cinemalaya is one of artistic pursuits as was initiated last year and as stated in its mission vision, I don’t see any reason why there is a demand for named stars, a suggestion of how to revise the script, a fixed number of pages and sequences or having Ricky Davao in lieu of Jet Pangan.

That’s why there are all these grumblings. 

The competition promised independent expression, artistic integrity and freedom in interpretation.  Certainly, people who want to join would expect that.   There was a precedent.  Last year was a success.  Why can’t it be like that now?

Maybe Cinemalaya is thinking that, “Yes, last year was a success but…hmmm…the other films were too rough…aah…they’re too long…I keep seeing Ronnie Lazaro…uuhh…”.  But that’s the risk you have to take when the competition for filmmaking is judged from the script.  Much as some gems will stand out of the pack, there will also be some that will hide in the shadows.

I once read Isagani Cruz discussing how he judges the writing submitted to Palanca.  He said that he starts reading the first page.  Any wrong grammar or spelling gets thrown out immediately.  Now, after the first page, if the writing arouses his interest whether by the subject or by a character, he continues.  We may not always agree with the choices of Palanca for its winners but all these years they have managed to maintain their integrity as the most prestigious award-giving private foundation.  Precisely because if the writing does not cut it, the judges throw them out.  It's as simple as good writing or bad writing.  No revisions, no suggestions.  "We like your premise but there is a problem with the structure."  Again, we go back to the vision.  How sincere and honest the intentions are.  Is it really to help out budding filmmakers or is it really a mini-studio disguised as a foundation?

My dark, evil soul lurking within me keeps setting aside the idea that Cinemalaya might actually be exploitative.  That in the guise of independent cinema, artistic freedom and a measly seed money, it lures aspiring filmmakers to a shot at bringing their heart and soul to the big screen when in all intents and purposes, the work is really a cost-efficient way of filling up the late night movie slots on the boob tube. 

Cinema One Originals has a much honest structure to it.  We give you a grant, do whatever you want with our approval and we own your movie for ABS-CBN.  No lofty ideas, no Oprah-esque slogans.  We'll give you the money to do something for us because we will use it for our channel.  Simple.

If, in the first place, Cinemalaya announced that they'll be doing this independent film festival for their network and that Laurice is the mini-Malou Santos or Mother Lily and Robbie is their little Olive Lamasan or Roselle Monteverde, then everyone who will want to join knows what they're really getting into. 

And the terrifying part of it is that Cinemalaya is partnered with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the same government agency that's supposed to look after cultivating the arts and the artist.  And to be part of such an exploitation with no conscience or shame or accountability is downright disgusting.  The arts have been corrupted just like road buildings and pork barrels.


Using the clear and present weakness of a prey, the predator strikes. 

The lack of opportunity for these filmmakers provided the opportunity for Cinemalaya to use these filmmakers to their advantage.  It provided a way for these so-called patrons of film to start acting like the big studio producers they all hated in the first place.

Have we shed all traces of integrity and principle in exchange for economic survival and fame?  Have we gotten used to eating shit in this country that we don't really mind becoming shit-eaters?  We have screening committee members that have participated in allowing these things to happen, respected filmmakers who will not allow to be forced themselves to make changes in their work but are being used as instruments for Cinemalaya to achieve their tarnished and dubious goals.   It's sad.

The mainstream game, no matter how much we sometimes want to change it, is what it is.  It's either you want to play with it or get out.  But to claim something like Cinemalaya as a venue to allow artists to freely express their ideas and with the government taking part of it, when it is actually not what it claims to be, is rather alarming.

But in a country of subservience, in a country where call centers are where our children end up after college, who am I to rock the boat? 

For the hungry filmmakers, they may say, the measly crumbs these messiahs of the arts extend to them is already a blessing.  That's bull!


I wrote this in 2006 after I heard that Mike Sandejas was having difficulties with the casting of his film. Mike had to defend casting of his lead actor Jet Pangan in his movie "Tulad Ng Dati.” In order to prove that Jet was an able actor, Sandejas had to bring Jet to CCP and  present him in a workshop for the approval of board member Laurice Guillen and Cinemalaya Monitoring Head Robbie Tan.

I had to go back to all my other files to find this unfinished article/ranting.  I wanted to send this to a broadsheet, but when I asked friends to read it, they told me it was too angry and might just "Jerry Macguire" me from the industry.

In short, sabi nila, "Suicide 'tong sulat na 'to, chong!"

I found the unfinished article over the weekend and saw that what I wrote in 2006 exactly still has the same frustrated angst as the <one I posted in Facebook over a week ago.> I deleted the names of some screening committee members out of respect for these people, thinking they may have been blinded by some sort of loyalty during the time.  Also, I was referring to Dream TV/ABC 5 here when it was still owned by Tony Boy Cojuangco and does not refer to the ABC 5 with the present ownership.

And to think that this was written only on the 2nd year of Cinemalaya.  Who would think that a festival that since has become recognized worldwide could still carry such a stench?

Since then, after a couple of phone calls and a bit of journalistic research, I found out that beyond the Jet Pangan issue, so many other irregularities happened every year until the last edition.

“Endo” directors like Jade Castro was "suggested" a co-director (Mario Cornejo) because Laurice and Robbie thought he couldn’t direct yet.  "Endo" later became one of the best movies of that year's edition. Jade Castro is now one of this generation’s budding mainstream filmmakers, churning out last year's sleeper hit "Zombadings.”

Jon Lazam and Edith Asuncion suffered the same fate, as well. Jon was maybe the first Emerson Reyes of Cinemalaya. In a series of emails between himself and Cinemalaya, it was apparent that his film’s delays were brought about not because of his failures but because Cinemalaya kept demanding rewrites extending beyond the deadline for submission.

Ralston Jover was also asked to get a co-director for "Bakal Boys".  He even went as far as giving them a list of possible co-directors but not one from the list was approved. He eventually found out that they were pushing for another director that was not on the list.

Arnel Mardoquio, same story.  Francis Hechanova, same story.  If Laurice Guillen were in their place, would she have allowed a co-director for any of the movies she has done?

And then there is the subtitling issue.  Laurice Guillen corners the market for all the subtitling of the Cinemalaya entries bringing it to her small post house called Pixel Grain.  It's like city mayors bidding for road construction projects and awarding it to their own construction companies.  Shameful!

Not to mention selecting her own movie as the opening film in last year's Cinemalaya. I don't really know if the movie deserved it.  For all I know, it could have been the best thing since "Citizen Kane".  But to allow it to conflict with her interest as festival head just shows a lack of principle and integrity.

And then there's Robbie Tan trying so hard to make himself the savior of Philippine cinema knowing full well that he’s trying to make up for all the crappy movies his film company has produced. If Laurice has the subtitling business side of Cinemalaya, then Robbie is the power broker for casting, pressuring filmmakers into casting his preferred talents for each project.

Laurice and Robbie view rushes, suggests re-shoots and comments on filmmaking style and language pushing each filmmaker to make their movie the way they both think it should be made.  So much for independent expression and artistic integrity huh?!

The list goes on and on.  It's like looking into a government agency and everywhere there is one irregularity after another that seems to crop up and no one seems to care.  We may have become apathetic with the way government conducts itself with all the red tape and the corruption but to see it happening inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines makes you think that this epidemic of ambiguousness and blatant lack of decency has really eroded the entire country.

I am not trying to keep a moral high ground here.  We have our own share of little corruptions in life. But if a position in the arts is assigned to you, the responsibility to live up to a certain level of principle is a must to serve the position well.  We all know that power corrupts even the most honest people.

Frodo knows that. I know that.  That's why it is essential to take care of the ring and be always on guard that it does not possess you. 

Cinemalaya, as an idea is good.  But it lies in the people running it whether it achieves what it set out to do for the filmmakers of this country.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Rhaaaw!!! (A Continuation Of The Japan Experience)

What's in a sushi? What's in eating raw food? Is it about texture? taste? the fear factor?

I remember the first time I tried raw fish. Sashimi. Tuna.  Zambales. 1992.

It was the wedding of my cousin's cousin from the father side. I was then living in the house of my father's sister in Marikina, my aunt. They invited me to come with them to Zambales.

Being Ilonggo, it was my first time to attend a traditional Tagalog wedding so I went. It's not as if I had a choice. If I didn't go, I would have been left all alone in Marikina and I dreaded the idea of being alone for a night.

I don't really know how we ended up in Zambales. I have no such memory. The only recollection I have of that day was the nighttime. We were in an open field near the house of the bride and there was a small hut in the middle. Incandescent, warm lights scatter on different areas. Just a few to light the pathways and the structures around the place. Everything else was in pitch black. Music was playing and the bride and groom were dancing in the middle of the hut and the older relatives would pin some cash on their clothes as they move in circles as everyone crowd around them.

I was having beer while watching the dance all by myself. I didn't know anyone there except the cousins I went with. But, of course, as soon as my cousins got there, they all went with their other cousins whom I didn't know at all.  So, practically, I was all alone having my beer, feigning enjoyment.

Believe it or not but I used to be a shy, insecure kid unlike my older brother Kenneth who can go to our family reunion and get to know everyone from the distant Uncles and Aunties to the new born grandson. Being a country boy, I'm not one to approach someone I just met and start talking about anything.

That's why I marvel at my kids now how comfortable they are in gatherings. You bring them to a gathering, leave them around children their age and suddenly they can play and have fun without any awkward moment whatsoever.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying the "kipkip" dance of the bride and groom except me. I emptied my beer in no time. Thinking that it was my chance to actually do something, I left to go to the house to get a bottle of beer.

On the way to the house, trying to kill as much time, my cousin of the same age, Obet, called me to join them. I decided to join them knowing fully that anywhere in that place would have resulted in that same lonely, out of place feeling.

As I slowly approached them, in the warm chiaroscuro light hitting them, they all looked like a bunch of bloodthirsty aswangs.  Lit only by the spill of light from the pathways, they were drinking in a circle with their other cousins and I can hear a rhythmic sound of chopping. From behind the circle I can see a suggestion of a knife being raised chopping something on the table in front of them. As I got closer, I saw a tuna fish around 4-feet long with it's head chopped off. There was a pool of blood on the table and the guy chopping was already filleting the loin of the fish. Small slices of raw tuna meat were placed on a plate and everyone was picking a slice and dipping it on a soy sauce bowl. Looking at the faces of everyone laughing and grabbing the slices and shoving it in their mouths with just this warm spill of faint light on their faces really made them look like ravenous cannibals. It was my first time to see raw fish being eaten. And I was grossed out.

The first time I felt the slithering texture of tuna sashimi sliding in my mouth, I thought I was going to throw up. I don't really mind fencing my tongue against a woman's tongue but even if the tuna is similar in texture, the thought of a raw piece of meat for the first time in your mouth with blood and all, is not my idea of good food. Sashimi is really an acquired taste.

Shibuya, Tokyo.  
Fast forward to 2011.  Japan. I promised myself that this time around, I will have a sushi odyssey.

The first thing you see coming out of Ikebukuro station.

A street in Ikebukuro
 We arrived in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, where our hotel was, on November 4 around 3pm. After checking in and dropping our bags off, we went around the area to see what's there.

The lousy kaiten sushi bar.
 For dinner, we passed by a kaiten sushi bar, one of those regular sushi places where the customer can pick and choose their sushi on a conveyor belt. I was so excited to try my sushi experience first thing as soon as I hit Tokyo. I know that kaiten sushis are the fast food version of good sushi.  But this is Japan! Certainly, sushi everywhere should be good. I was mistaken. Not every Japanese food in Japan is good. Not all the adobo in Manila is good. This one failed big time. The sushi was fishy. Too many fancy combinations.

The picture says it all.

I should have seen it coming. It was Bourdain who warned me about never trusting a restaurant that complicates a simple dish. Smoked salmon with mayo and leek sushi. Rubbery octopus meat with teriyaki sauce. It was bad. Lesson was: be patient, don't rush. For every pain, for every wrong choice, it just makes you a bit more careful the next time. That kaiten sushi experience, according to Miyagi-san, was a necessary mistake. "One needs to fall down on their knees in order to see the world from another perspective." 

Harajuku street on a weekend.

The next sushi experience was a bit thought out. Although still an accident, since the restaurant we went to was not sought out, I was more careful before entering the doors. This one now is in Omotesando Hills, the pricey mall strip in Harajuku.

A sushi bar in a high-end district, check! The sign says, "Since 1924.", check! A restaurant lasting for almost 90 years must be doing good food to last this long.

The sushi man.
We actually didn't decide to enter the place immediately. There was something that made me think twice about getting in. I was looking at the people sitting inside and I noticed that most of the customers were Caucasian foreigners. I always go with the foodie tip to go to restaurants where a lot of locals frequent and not on places that could be tourist traps. But what made me decide to go for it were the sushi makers on the bar. Every time I see old Japanese cooks and sushi makers in a restaurant, it always makes me feel that I'll be in good hands. There is that zen-wisdom, Yoda-esque feel to having an old guy take care of your food.

I am no sushi connoisseur but it was in this Omotesando sushi place that I realized that the Ikebukuro kaiten sushi bar sucked.

The handsome salmon and scallop with the toro tuna at the end.
That sushi stop was supposed to be dessert. We just finished eating a late lunch in a Japanese pasta place and was looking for coffee and dessert. It was a good thing we stumbled upon this place. For such a sleek looking restaurant, I was surprised that it was family-owned. And family-owned restaurants in Asia usually turn out to be really good eating places. Better than those high-end, factory-type, corporation-owned eateries.

The waiter was a revelation. He was a Japanese guy who was not wearing a waiter's uniform. He was vocal about the best choices for sushi volunteering the fish that he wants us to try. And since his choices weren't the pricey ones, we figured that this guy must be genuinely giving us some really good suggestions. As it turns out, he was the son of the sushi masters that own the place.  The yellow fin tuna with fresh yuzu sushi he recommended was memorable.