Japan Cuts 2019: Dance With Me

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th.

My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

That feeling when hard work and a stroke of luck is about to pay off with a possible promotion and you have to chase a hypnotist across the country to reverse a suggestion that makes you break into song and dance at the slightly hint of music.

I wasn’t able to make it to this year’s opening screening, so was really pleased to have an encore was added that gave me a chance to see one of this Japan Cuts 2019’s most anticipated films.

Dance With Me’s silly premise and willingness to poke fun at the very genre it encapsulates is its greatest strength. It’s at its best when it fully embraces its concept and subverts genre expectations, with absurd surprises are every corner and main character Shizuka is joyfully dancing across the screen despite herself.

In contrast it does lull a bit the couple times it instead falls into the very genre trappings it tries so hard to subvert, and the story framework doesn’t quite support the weight of the film when time for thought to settle is allowed. There are tiny disconnects between the themes the filmmakers seem to be trying to let creep in and the actual zany happenings of Shizuka’s adventure at the exact points everything needs to come together into a cohesive whole.

But there isn’t anything wrong per se in a movie like this with the background setup existing solely to give rise to the entertaining, madcap weirdness that is the whole point of the film. The detail needed to properly explain my small criticisms above might give the impression that they are bigger issues than they actually are. In fact it’s just a little bit of background noise that keeps this “only” in the realm of being excellent instead of the masterpiece it seemed on the edge of becoming.

The movie is hilarious overall with strong acting surrounding and supporting an excellent, anchoring performance by Ayaka Miyoshi (as Shizuka). There were several genuinely captivating twists as Shizuka’s journey kept escalating into higher and higher levels of wonderful ridiculousness.

Dance With Me has a joy to it that’s infectious, always simmering beneath the surface waiting for the right times to burst out. I found it impossible not to smile during this movie, and really enjoyed it overall even if it was best to turn my brain off just a little at times. Highly recommended.

Japan Cuts 2019: Samurai Shifters

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

 

“The hero of this story is a librarian.”

In an age where samurai clans are often ordered to relocate at the whims of the shogunate, one lord is tasked to make a particularly difficult move to a smaller holding across Japan. Hoping to avoid responsibility for the difficulties ahead, from the planning to the costs to the actual physical move, his advisors choose a shut in bookworm samurai named Harunosuke to be new relocation officer.

 

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Samurai Shifters starts with the unique subject of having to uproot an entire clan and travel across Japan and makes its story captivating and accessible. Rather than gloss over the minutia and logistics of such a move, they become the focal point of the movie in a grounded, expertly presented way that makes use of a sublime application of humor. The balance of the writing is fantastic, and the sly way themes that reflect today’s work culture are folded into a story that is still so clearly of its own time is masterfully done. There are several legitimate laugh-out-loud moments delivered at exactly the right times without overstaying their welcome.

Yet Samurai Shifters is also anchored with underlying drama amid the desires and limitations of its characters, and becomes surprisingly weighty and poignant at times. There are difficult decisions to be made and consequences to be carried out, and by careful choice of which ones to highlight the film makes everything resonate.

The audience truly feels for and relates to the constantly in over his head Harunosuke, despite the specifics of his situation and environment being a far cry from their own. Gen Hoshino heads up a cast full of excellent performances, including costars Issey Takahashi as Harunosake’s loud, overbearing brute of a friend who causes as many problems as he helps solve and Mitsuki Takahata as the former relocation officer’s daughter with a lot of key knowledge and very little reason to help. This film is incredibly and intentionally over-the-top in all the best ways, and the director and actors knowing exactly how far to push things and when to reign it all back in to convey emotion is key.

It’s always a bit extra interesting and significant for me to write about Japan Cuts, as beyond the quality and variety of the films every year it also marks the anniversary of writing this blog, now four years and counting. Samurai Shifters is an excellent film and was a great way for me to start out this year.

 

Gatoh Move 4/28/19 Live Thoughts

April 28, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

This show was in an interesting spot being the day after one Itabashi Greenhall show for Gatoh Move and three days before another (thoughts on both to come).

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As I like to explain to start my Gatoh Move reviews, the Ichigaya events are held in a small room with no ring and two large windows on one wall which are removed for the shows. The crowd itself is effectively the “rope break” marker and the wrestlers will sometimes use the front row to bounce off of for “running the ropes” and the windowsills to jump off of for high risk maneuvers. The limitations of the venue restrict the action in ways compared to “normal” matches, but also provide opportunities for creative variations on standard wrestling elements.

Pictures are not allowed during the show but can be taken afterward, so my pics here won’t contain anything from the matches and will only be of the roundtable and dancing following the shows (as well as of some souvenirs).

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1) Mitsuru Konno vs Saki 

This contest provided a fun contrast, as Mitsuru was developing a more serious attitude while Saki was having a bit of fun at her expense, turning every move into a Namashite in honor of her partner in the impending Go Go Green Curry Cup Akki. They had great chemistry, and fought all around building maintaining a high intensity level. It was also a very different match from the one they would have a month later going into Mitsuru & Sawasdee Kamen challenging for Saki & Yuna’s tag titles. Strong opener, with Saki picking up the expected win. It’s a slow build, but Mitsuru’s eventually going start racking up unexpected victories and it’ll be glorious.

2) Baliyan Akki vs Yuna Mizumori 

Speaking of Saki’s two regular tag partners in Gatoh Move, they faced each other in singles action here. This had some really cool, creative sequences and it’s awesome to see Akki’s progression as he starts having more singles intergender matches. He picked up the win against Gatoh Move’s resident lovable wrecking ball.

3) Emi Sakura,  Masahiro Takanashi & Riho vs Ryuichi Sekine, Antonio Honda, & Mei Suruga

Lots of comedy. Lots of chaos. Lots of fun. 😉 Honda pinned Sakura to give his team the win over Gatoh’s top veterans in yet another great 6-person tag at Ichigaya Chocolate Square.

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During the post show roundtable the brackets were determined for Gatoh’s annual Go Go Green Curry Cup mixed tag tournament, which everyone on this show would be involved in.

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Gatoh Move keychains!

Not a lot else to say this time around. A solid, well worked, highly entertaining show from top to bottom.

Last Song for You: Riho’s “Graduation” from Gatoh Move

Later today (7/2/19) Riho, Gatoh Move’s ace, will have her final match with the company. She will be “graduating” (the term used in Japan when someone leaves a company to move on, whether it’s for retirement or a case like this) to go freelance.

 

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Prior to my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015, I was primarily only had seen Joshi wrestlers that had come stateside for Shimmer. So, as I mentioned in my look back on Kotori’s career when she retired, I was largely unfamiliar with the professional wrestling company Gatoh Move and their wrestlers when I attended my first show of theirs on 12/22/15.

On that show freelancers Hikaru Shida and Makoto, who I knew from Shimmer, were on opposite sides from each other in a tag match paired with Gatoh Move roster members Kotori and Riho respectively.  It was quite good, and in particular Riho stood out with skills and instincts that seemed beyond what her 18 years of age would have implied.

 

 

And with good reason. “Young” in Joshi doesn’t necessarily correlate to experience, and Riho was in fact the most senior competitor in that match with nearly 10 years as a wrestler, incredibly starting at the age of just 9 years old. She grew and honed her craft under the training and tutelage of the incredible Emi Sakura, first in Ice Ribbon then following her mentor when Sakura split with the company in 2012 and started Gatoh Move.

 

 

So in my initial exposure to Riho, she was already an accomplished, polished veteran. And boy did it show. Particularly later that trip when I got a chance to see Gatoh Move in their home environment. The 12/22/15 show had been a “traditional” wrestling show with a traditional wrestling ring. The reason I specify is that Gatoh Move’s home venue, Ichigaya Chocolate Square, is a small room with no ring and two large windows on one wall which are removed for the shows. The crowd itself is effectively the “rope break” marker and the wrestlers will sometimes use the front row to bounce off of for “running the ropes” and the windowsills to jump off of for high risk maneuvers. The limitations of the venue restrict the action in ways compared to “normal” matches, but also provide opportunities for creative variations on standard wrestling elements.

It’s such a unique environment, that not only provides something special for the audience but also forces the wrestlers to push themselves and adapt to the unusual constraints. And Riho is an absolute master of it. Her athleticism, creativity, and precision always combined in fantastic fashion as she bounced around the confined space, often utilizing not only the windowsill but also her opponents and partners as platforms to launch herself off of in lieu of ropes and turnbuckles.

 

 

As such, some of the most memorable moments of Riho in Ichigaya for me came from Gatoh’s incredible 6-person tag matches, including  Riho, Kotori, & Aasa vs Emi, Obi, & Mitsuru on 12/31/16, a similar variation two years later of  Riho teaming with Emi & Obi against Mitsuru, Mei Suruga, & Yuna Mizumori in a special “Old Gatoh Move” vs “New Gatoh Move”  match on 12/31/18  (which is up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!), and a fantastic match from just  last month  of Riho, Baliyan Akki, & An-Chamu vs Emi, Masahiro Takanashi, & Mei (also up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!).

 

 

At the risk of getting overly cliched, Riho has the presence of a star. The audience reactions when she appeared at other promotions, such as in a pair of great tag team title challenges in back to back years in Tokyo Joshi Pro’s biggest events, was always incredible.

 

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Riho’s greatest strength may be her ability to make whatever story she’s telling in the ring accessible and convincing. She’s believable as a threat, even against far larger opponents and in the many intergender matches she’s had. A particular favorite of mine was her no-rope match against Yaso Urano at Basara’s 12/28/17 show.

 

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This Spring I was extremely lucky to be able to attend some of Riho’s last matches in Gatoh Move, and there have certainly been a lot of high notes to go out on. At the beginning of May she faced DDT wrestler and regular Gatoh Move guest Masahiro Takanashi in an incredible encounter that’s one of my top matches of the year thus far. A few days later she won Gatoh’s annual Go Go Green Curry Cup (a mixed tag team tournament).

 

 

And just a month out from her final match, in her second to last “traditional” show for Gatoh, she successfully defended her Super-Asia Championship against rising star Mei Suruga in a wonderful match, after which she relinquished the title.

Tonight Riho will wrestle her trainer Emi Sakura one-on-one in her final Gatoh Move match. I can’t think of a more fitting farewell.

 

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Riho has already given fans a little glimpse of what’s to come after Gatoh Move, as she’s had a pair of good outings with AEW. She’s implied in a recent interview that she doesn’t intend to sign anywhere full time just yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if/where she wrestles in Japan in addition to continuing with AEW in the states (as of now nothing else has been announced/scheduled). It will also be interesting to watch Gatoh Move change and adapt after her departure.

I look forward to the continued success of both.

 

DIANA 5/12/19 Live Thoughts

May 12, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

It’d been a long time since my only previous DIANA show, but I’ve certainly been aware of their rising star. I had the privilege of seeing Sareee in person at Sendai Girls’ shows against Chihiro in January and against DASH Chisako just a couple weeks prior to this in a pair of fantastic matches, and anticipation for her vs Kong III was through the roof.

Beyond the general awesomeness of being at Korakuen and the huge main event, there were a number of interesting aspects to the undercard that had me particularly excited for this show.

 

1) Ayako Sato vs Madeline 

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I was really impressed with Madeline here. In fact, I was about to write “this was my first time seeing Madeline,” momentarily forgetting it had to be as it was in fact her DEBUT.

 

 

Sato’s assault was spot on for letting the rookie shine and get a good amount of offense while keeping things reasonable. Madeline has a distinct style already, with an expressiveness that really draws the audience into her match and strong fundamentals. Fantastic first impression made.

 

2) Emi Sakura vs Haruka Umesaki 

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As a huge fan of Sakura and her promotion Gatoh Move, this match seeing her face a former student from DareJyo (who I was previously unfamiliar with) was another big reason I made a point of attending this show.

 

 

This was really fun. Every little detail was on point, from even before the match started and Emi took issue to Haruka being presented with a gift before the match and her not. Emi’s a master, Haruka rose to the challenge, they got a decent amount of time to play with, and this was an extremely good match.

 

3) Queen Elizabeth Championship: Jaguar Yokota (c) vs Sakura Hirota vs Yumi Ohka 

 

Fine 3-way with Hirota being Hirota, Ohka holding everything together with liberal application of kicks, and Yokota picking her spots to capitalize and retain her title.

 

4) DIANA Tag Team Championship: Kaoru Ito & Tomoko Watanabe (c) defeat Double Inoue (Kyoko Inoue & Takako Inoue) 

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It was a treat to see Double Inoue, and in a title match to boot. Absolutely brutal at points, and admittedly got excessive at the end. Watching Kyoko take FIVE top rope doublestomps to the stomach from Ito was cringe inducing, and that many wasn’t needed to get the point across. That small criticism aside though, this was great.

 

5) DIANA World Championship: Aja Kong (c) vs Sareee 

I’d heard a lot about their previous encounters and have become a huge fan of Sareee in general, so as mentioned above the expectations were high for this one.

 

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It was A LOT more lopsided than I expected at first, with Kong largely wiping the mat with Sareee for the first third to half of the match. Then Sareee found a weakness to capitalize on when Kong missed a charge and “injured” her arm, and Sareee showed she could give as good as she got.

 

 

The back and forth battle raged on, with Sareee weathering the storm long enough to shock the monster with a rollup for the win and the title. This built to a moment, and was pretty excellent along the way. Chihiro Hashimoto comes out afterwards and appears to challenge Sareee to a double title match.

 

 

Sareee is wrestling’s next big star, and everyone clearly knows it. She recently won said double title match so is currently a reigning double singles champion across two companies. On her way to the Sendai title she pinned their legendary owner Meiko Satomura, as well as DASH Chisako and other top competitors. And of course any sort of victory over Kong is a huge deal, let alone a singles pinfall. The important part of course is Sareee’s completely believable and natural in this role, with both the technical skills and charisma/mannerisms to pull it all off.

 

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Wonderful show from top to bottom, with a variety of match styles and points of interest. DIANA delivered big time here.

 

Sendai Girls 4/27/19 Live Thoughts

April 27, 2019 in Sendai, Japan

 

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I’ve seen Sendai Girls’ shows a handful of times in Tokyo and their stars here and there in other promotions (including Dash’s debut for Shimmer a month before) and am a big fan, so am always wishing for more opportunities to catch their shows. This was the first time I was lucky enough to be able to go out to Sendai and seen them in their home base, and my first show of this trip to boot. Great way to start.

 

 

1) Mikoto Shindo vs Hiroyo Matsumoto 

Mikoto is from Marvelous and one of a trio of rookies there that have been making a strong impression as they wrestle for a variety of different companies gaining experience.

Hiroyo against rookies is always fun in general, as she knows how to rightfully dominate the match overall without making her opponent look weak. Mikoto showed good fire and determination before being put away by the veteran. Good opener.

 

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2) Alex Lee & Sakura Hirota vs Hikaru Shida & KAORU

Hirota and Karou on opposite sides of the ring means ridiculousness abound, and this was no exception. Entirely built around Hirota’s antics, specifically trying to get Shida to participate in posing, etc. Things never quite went as she wanted, and not being on the same page as partner Lee by the end caused Hirota to be rolled up and pinned by Karou. Amusing for what it was.

 

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3) DASH Chisako vs Sareee

This is the match that prompted me to go out to Sendai. Arguably wrestling’s biggest rising star against my personal favorite. Sareee challenged Sendai’s Champion in an incredible match at their 1/6/19 show in Tokyo, and while she came up just short there she defeated Meiko Satomura herself shortly before this match and seemed on course for another shot. Dash is another top veteran in Sendai Girls and was in position to play spoiler to those plans here.

 

 

This was everything I hoped for, and Sareee picked up another big singles victory on her way to another date with destiny against Chihiro in an awesome match. Sareee is on absolute FIRE lately, combining incredible in-ring work with real star presence, and it’s always something to behold when Dash gets the opportunity to go all out. They hit the hell out of each other here while build a logical, escalating flow to the match. Fantastic.

 

 

4) Beauty Bear (Chihiro Hashimoto & Mika Iwata) vs Minami & Yuu 

Beauty Bear were the Sendai Girl’s Tag Champions at the time, with Chihiro also holding Sendai’s top singles title. Yuu had recently signed with Pro Wrestling Eve in London after leaving Tokyo Joshi Pro, and was teaming with Sendai’s resident rookie.

This was surprisingly awkward early on, as Mika and Yuu was a styles clash and they took a while to get on the same page. To be honest they both need to work on their improvisation, as when things went a little off they didn’t cover very well and ended up drawing more attention to what should have been small, barely noticeable mistakes.

 

 

Interestingly, tagging the match’s least experienced wrestler in is what smoothed things out, as Minami is a Sendai trainee and as such has a lot of familiarity and comfort wrestling Iwata & Chihiro. Minami trying to put up a fight against more her experienced compatriots made a great anchoring story for the match.

And it was all on point from there on.  Chihiro vs Yuu was just a splendid spectacle of them trying to shoulder tackle each other into oblivion, and the next go around for Iwata and Yuu they concentrated on strikes and found a rhythm to great effect. This became really good after the awkward start. Really awesome to see Minami getting this kind of opportunity too. The champs eventually pinned Minami to win this non-title affair.

 

 

It’s impressive the level of show Sendai Girls was able to put on overall even with their legend missing (Meiko was absent from the show due to traveling to Europe), and a treat to see them out in their home area. Would love to go out there again.

 

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Gatoh Move 5/30, 6/1/19 Live Thoughts

May 30 and June 1, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

Tonight Gatoh Move has a big show at Shin-Kiba 1st Ring. In her last month with Gatoh Move before going to AEW, Riho defends her Super Asia Championship in the main event on her birthday.

Special note: Gatoh Move continues to increase accessibility with the sharing of matches online with English commentary at an incredible turnaround. Five of the six matches I discuss here are ALREADY up on their YouTube channel.

 

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As I like to explain to start my Gatoh Move reviews, the Ichigaya events are held in a small room with no ring and two large windows on one wall which are removed for the shows. The crowd itself is effectively the “rope break” marker and the wrestlers will sometimes use the front row to bounce off of for “running the ropes” and the windowsills to jump off of for high risk maneuvers. The limitations of the venue restrict the action in ways compared to “normal” matches, but also provide opportunities for creative variations on standard wrestling elements.

Pictures are not allowed during the show but can be taken afterward, so my pics here won’t contain anything from the matches and will only be of the roundtable and dancing following the shows (as well as of some souvenirs).

 

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1) Masahiro Takanashi & An-Chamu vs Saki & Baliyan Akki

An came out in Sakura’s old costume again, which continues to amuse me to no end. This was just pure fun. An continues to get better and better the more she works with the incredible talent in Gatoh, Takanashi is a master, and their opponents are really gelling as a team and are solid every time out. Good start.

 

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2) Mitsuru Konno vs Yuna Mizmori

Important match for Mitsuru as she tackles one half of the reigning tag team champions she’ll be challenging tonight. Both kept the intensity high here, and added a lot of careful touches to elevate things. There was a particularly great sequence where Mitsuru set up the deathlock but Yuna kept scurrying her body sideways so Mitsuru missed her head while folding backwards. Mitsuru eventually head faked then zoomed right in on the moving Yuna to complete the hold. It’s the little details.

Mitsuru pushed Yuna to a time limit draw. Really good lead in to their impending tag title battle, and during the roundtable it was announced Mitsuru would get to wrestle Yuna’s partner in a singles match on 6/1.

 

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3) Riho & Emi Sakura vs Mei Suruga & Antonio Honda

Just back from their US debuts, Emi Sakura & Riho came out sporting AEW t-shirts with Emi complaining about the crowd size and dismissively calling her OWN promotion a “local indie.” She knows just how to present things like this, and the sheer absurdity of it (while being delivered deadpan) was pitch perfect.

Fun back and forth match, with Riho and Mei interacting a bit before their big title match. Honda eventually defeated Sakura to vindicate… well, Gatoh Move (lol) and potentially give Mei a little bit of an edge going into tonight.

 

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Many birthdays and a wrestling anniversary to celebrate.

 

As usual lately, Gatoh Move is really clicking and this show was a breeze and a joy to watch.

 

6/1/19

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1) Cho-un vs Tetsuya Izuchi

Two of the members of the Heat Up vs Gatoh Move 6-man tag tonight faced off in singles action to open this show. Technically sound if a bit slow, with Cho-un picking up the win and momentum.

They got heated during the roundtable (with Emi involved too), and while I couldn’t follow what was the said the atmosphere and reactions of those around them was pretty easy to read.

 

2) Mitsuru Konno vs Saki

After drawing with one half of the reigning tag team champions two days prior, Mitsuru got a singles opportunity against the other as she faced Saki going into her title shot (with partner Sawasdee Kamen).

This was a really hard hitting contest, with a desperate Mitsuru pushing herself as much as possible but Saki getting the expected win. The frustration is building in Mitsuru, and honestly I kind of feel like it’s the right time to have her shake it all off and pull out a huge victory tonight. We’ll see.

 

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3) Riho, An-Chamu, & Baliyan Akki vs Masahiro Takanashi, Emi Sakura, & Mei Suruga

Incredible main event, interweaving numerous stories in a fast pace, frantic battle with numerous creative double and triple team from all (particularly from Akki’s smaller teammates using him as a base).

At one point the small An tried to help push Akki into a run for momentum, and he didn’t budge. They amusingly started to argue in English (“What are you doing?” “How weak are you?”) then got back on the same page and got the better of Sakura when she tried to take advantage of their bickering. Later Riho tried Emi’s own “We Will Rock You” splash on her. The whole match was peppered with great little things like those.

In a little bit of a surprise after a relentless final onslaught Mei loses clean to Riho going into Tues, wiping out any momentum she had and stacking the deck majorly against her. This was the PERFECT build to tonight’s main, and let several other wrestlers shine as well. Incredible work.

 

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Absolutely everything on this show was set up to build to Tuesday, with to great effect. These two shows were both highly satisfying on their own while progressing the larger pictures for their participants. Really great stuff.