February 28, 2011
A Google Maps moment
I was translating the following passage from Demon City Shinjuku:
Ten Street ran between the Sumitomo and Mitsui buildings before intersecting with the old Koshu Highway. A hundred feet further on and to [Kyoya's] left rose the majestic Keio Plaza Hotel. A dozen yards behind him was a flight of stairs leading down to the lower road level.
"Ten Street" is an elevated road, as are the plazas of the buildings along it. The problem was, I couldn't picture the geometry of the lower road level, but was pretty sure it ran under Ten Street at right angles, and continued on to Chuo Park, Kyoya's destination.
To the cloud! Well, not the Microsoft one. Google Maps and Street View to the rescue!
The triangular building is the Sumitomo Building. You can see the flight of stairs there on the left. The dark red line is the subway running from Shinjuku Station on the right under Chuo Park on the left. So I added for the benefit of those not familiar with the geography:
It crossed beneath Ten Street at right angles, linking the west entrance of Shinjuku Station to Chuo Park.
I don't play video games, but I can waste a whole lot of time cruising around Japan using Street View.
February 24, 2011
Anime genre horror (2)
Horror is a popular genre in manga and anime, especially Twilight Zone-style short stories and an often preachy permutation in which a supernatural grim reaper deals out justice and balances the cosmic scales, an existential Death Wish. I'd put Kino's Journey in the former category, and xxxHolic and Hell Girl in the latter.
I enjoyed the feature-length xxxholic: A Midsummer Night's Dream because it told the story and wrapped everything up in an hour. Mushi-shi is one of the most inventive permutations, about an Edo Period "Bug Master" who controls swarms of supernatural insect-like creatures. Unfortunately, I kept waiting for some interesting relationships to develop, and none did.
With series, after a couple of episodes, no matter how slick and clever, seen one, seen them all (sorry, but the same goes for Twilight Zone episodes too). I want to watch it adding up to something, not be told it did. Give me "high concept," bubble-gum actioners or take the time to develop a character arc beyond "indifferent hero makes sure jerk gets what's coming to him."
No discussion of Japanese anime horror is complete without a discussion of tentacle porn. But like splatter flicks, it is too devoid of ideas to offend me other than aesthetically. It also doesn't interest me in the slightest, even after a prurient fashion.
I seem to recall that the original Demon City Shinjuku (1988) movie had some tentacle porn. I'm translating the novel right now for Digital Manga. I've only got forty pages to go and haven't encountered any tentacle porn, so it seems to have been "creative" addition. In any case, the book is a lot better.
Japanese writers don't let a paucity of knowledge about the subject get in the way of borrowing heavily from European tropes and Christianity in general. In fact, that is a source of a lot of the fun! (Peter Payne likes to point out that Japanese are similarly unoffended by ignorant Hollywood nonsense about Japan.)
Hellsing (original preferred) definitely qualifies. It's the Church of England versus the Vatican! With big guns! And vampires! I love it! Its Miltonesque protagonist proves that, indeed, the devil gets all the good lines. What if the devil decided to fight on the side of good, not because he got his soul back like Angel, but because evil was so utterly hackneyed and boring?
Witch Hunter Robin is yet another X-Files/Angel-type mash-up. Super-secret police organization for tracking down supernatural ne're-do-wells employs a real witch, who uncovers bigger conspiracy Behind It All and Must Be Stopped! Japanese SF/F writers love this formula. Again, it posits the Catholic Church as the omniscient, omnipresent Smoking Man.
You know you've arrived as a world-wide religion when it generates so many stories about world-wide conspiracies.
Someday's Dreamers is not horror per se. Yume is a witch, but as with Kamichu! and Kiki's Delivery Service, this is a given in the modern world. Think Harry Potter without the muggle divide and no vaudevillian bad guys. The series begins with Yume arriving in Tokyo from the sticks to get her witch's license, which has a lot more in common with social work than magic.
The animation is so-so and the episodes clunk along didactically at times, but the concept itself is executed almost perfectly (I define a great concept as one I immediately want to rip off).
Two oddly similar and very good non-horror, life-after-death dramas: Haibane Renmei and After Life (live action).
And for something completely off the supernatural wall, the manga Saint Young Men is about Jesus and Buddha hanging out together in Tokyo. It's iconoclastic but not sacrilegious (if you don't mind divine beings kicking back and poking gentle fun at each other), and is very sweet at times without becoming cloying. (No authorized English edition, but scanlations aplenty).
February 21, 2011
Japanese genre horror (1)
This is only a representative sampling of movies I've actually seen, and all the shorter because the horror genre is for me more the exception than the rule, to be avoided unless I have a good reason not to.
To start with, the genre seems dominated by extremes of "bad." At one end, by splatter flicks, these days stripped even of eye-pleasing gratuitous sex and nudity (e.g., Freeze Me). At the other, by coldly mathematical morality tales. And in the middle, elaborate practical jokes: "You though X. Ha! It's really Y!" M. Night Shyamalan's entire oeuvre.
Most modern horror isn't scary or frightening. It's some banal combination of the depressingly nihilistic and the startling, like a balloon popped behind your ear. Not the same thing at all. I don't like roller coasters either.
The scariest thing I saw as a kid, maybe ever, was--no kidding--Disney's Miltonesque Black Hole, and Anthony Perkins getting rototilled to death by a killer robot, totally sans blood and gore, not even a nosebleed.
But a few films do the same-old, same-old with sufficient wit and bravado--that don't confuse iconoclasm and heresy with the juvenile giving of offense--and actually manage to create something new. Or did that new thing first to start with.
Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953) deserves to be on Time magazine's all-time 100 best list. It's a morality tale based on well-known ghost stories, told in the context of Japan's medieval warring states period, albeit with obvious contemporary allusions, considering it was made immediately following the end of the American Occupation.
Aragami (2002) is a recent addition to the same story line, in which a wandering peasant or soldier takes shelter in an old temple that turns out to be home to a surly demon. Aragami does nothing new and sports a groan-inducing Shyamalan-style ending. The world doesn't need any more ninety minute Twilight Zone episodes.
Makai Tensho ("Samurai Resurrection") is a perennial classic, remade now at least three times. The story comes from the 1637-1637 Shimabara Rebellion, in the wake of which almost 40,000 Christians were killed and Christianity was outlawed (upon pain of death) for the next two centuries. But, hey, bygones!
Christianity nowadays (the trappings thereof) is cool. In the early 17th century, it was very bad for your health. The leader of the Shimabara Rebellion, the "Christian Samurai" Shiro Amakusa, rises from the dead to wreak vengeance and it's up to Yagyu Jubei (another historic character and samurai flick favorite) to save the Shogunate.
The 2003 version has the best production values and is the least gratuitous, though it lacks the cheesy, exploitation flick exuberance of the 1981 version (often titled "Samurai Reincarnation"), starring Sonny Chiba as Jubei, a quasi-historical role he played often.
"J-horror" was big in the U.S. for a while, but I got bored with it about as soon as it began, movies about ghosts with big hangups and a misdirected sense of revenge. The "vengeful ghost" is big in Buddhism. Like Ghost or The Sixth Sense, except these dead people need tons more therapy.
The following "big three" are generally acknowledge to have launched the "J-Horror wave": The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water. Of those three, I've only see the English version of the first. Like I said, not my cup of tea. Two hours of mood for a few minutes of "Gotcha!" I'll wait for the ten-minute Simpsons parody.
I can only put up with so much moody angst before I want to know what happened next. When stuff does happen in J-horror, it's usually according to a strict moral algebra where everybody who does X and Y predictably gets Z, except in the maddening passive voice. Give me a protagonist who will just punch the creepy ghost's lights out.
Which is why I greatly prefer shamelessly pandering action/horror flicks like Constantine and End of Days.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira) made the postmodern psychological thriller his thing (for a while, with Koji Yakusho in the lead role). I just can't get excited over his stories of Nietzschean excess, about weird things happening to people I don't care about. But they're a far sight better than the recent spat of inexplicably popular "will-to-power" amorality tales.
We're not talking about vigilantes ridding the world of far worse guys, but the kind of sociopathic twerps Jimmy Stewart upbraids in Rope, that we're supposed to root for because they're so, so clever and filled with so, so much Freudian angst.
The execrable Death Note franchise perhaps represents the nadir of this particular sub-genre. It really is just Rope turned upside down and given a spiffy polish. Rope was made in 1948. Talk about recycling old material and pretending it's hip and new.
Code Geass is a hundred times smarter, and the Hamlet-ish conflict Lelouch starts out with is a hundred times more interesting. But by the end of the first season it's clear you're stuck rooting for Hitler or Stalin, and I'd rather they both dropped dead.
Seriously, parents and preachers and politicians, you should wish your kids were watching porn and not soul-killing crap like this. On the other hand, it once again demonstrates that there is zero correlation between what tickles the teenage mind and what actually motivates a teenager to get off his butt and do anything.
I've long concluded that there is a depressingly large population of (especially "indie") filmmakers who believe that there's absolutely nothing worse in this world than growing up middle class. Back in high school, they concluded that life sucks and never grew up. Teenagers do love being told how put-upon and long-suffering they are.
Anyway, I did like Koji Yakusho in Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, a psychological thriller/serial-killer crime drama with a strangely hopeful conclusion. A little authentic hope goes a long way. Otherwise, horror is like hitting your thumb with a hammer for the pleasure of stopping. Better not to hit your thumb in the first place.
Shikoku and Inugami are based on novels by Masako Bando, the "Stephen King" of Japan (his Maine is her Shikoku). The former is low-budget and ends like an Indiana Jones sequel. The latter is a crazy mix of Oedipus Rex, Shinto mysticism and a Hatfield/McCoy feud. It's a gorgeously-shot film, with heaps of gorgeously-shot sex and nudity.
Inugami is a good example of an "art film" where the director mistakenly thought that setting a mood was the same as delivering a message. All I remember about it now are the lush establishing shots, the stuff about traditional paper making (the most interesting parts), and attractive women without any clothes on.
Well, sometimes that's enough!
Anime genre horror (2)
Christianity is cool
Ghostbusting in Japan
February 17, 2011
Shinkansen cargo cult
Bryan Caplan has come up with a good way of describing how communist regimes attempted to duplicate the economic success of capitalist countries by mimicking the results rather than the process that produced them. A classic "cargo cult."
And in the comments, Stephen Smith adds:
What is high-speed rail, after all, if not cargo cult urbanism? You're looking at countries that have been highly successful with market-based transportation and land use policies (Japan), and then taking the absolute apex of their achievement (Shinkansen) while ignoring all the quotidian things that make it really hum ([height-restricted] 15-story buildings [resulting in high-density, minimally-zoned suburbs] and regular elevated intracity train lines).
As Tino Sanandaji illustrates with this chart, in terms of population density, compared to train-friendly countries, the U.S. does not deviate from expected projections. But equally important is the history of viable economic alternatives.
The first Osaka-Tokyo Shinkansen route was completed in 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. At the time, Japan had no national highway system. Its first expressway opened in 1963, was only 120 miles long, and connected Osaka and Nagoya (about a third of the way to Tokyo).
The population of Japan in 1964 was 97 million, and reached 100 million three years later. The current population of California, slightly bigger than Japan, is 37 million.
In other words, the Shinkansen was the highway system. There were no practical economic alternatives. Moreover, it connected well-established and profitable intracity subways and intercity commuter rail lines--faster in 1964 than any Amtrak train today--in a hub and spoke system.
This is still true today. The Meishin Expressway, the only main highway between Osaka and Kyoto (combined population: 4.2 million), has six total lanes. I-15 between Salt Lake County and Utah County (same distance, population: 1.5 million) has eight minimum.
Every major holiday in Japan, the traffic jams back up for tens of miles out of every major city. Despite high car ownership rates, passenger rail is economically viable because the alternatives are deliberately made inconvenient and expensive, starting with $5/gallon gasoline.
Car inspection and registration can cost over ten times as much as in the U.S., becoming so expensive for older vehicles it is often cheaper to buy a new car. Getting a driver's license is no less onerous. Forty percent of Japanese 18 to 29 haven't bothered to get a driver's license.
California alone has 2.3 million miles of paved roads versus 740,000 miles for all of Japan. If you really want high-speed rail like in Japan, just lay the tracks over the existing roads. Hey, right-of-way NIMBY problem solved too!
February 14, 2011
Digital literary transience
A recent thread on Joe Konrath's blog strayed from the subject of ebooks to why CDs continue to exist, and whether they are are a metaphor for the old-fashioned (paper) book or the new-fashioned ebook.
I still buy CDs, but as a backup storage medium. I don't even own an MP3 player, but rip everything. Also, CDs are pretty, shiny things that make nice gifts (a lingering technical and aesthetic problem with MP3s and ebooks).
As I discuss here, CDs continue to dominate the (legal) market in places like Japan because distributors like Sony go to extraordinary lengths to protect their CD cartel, even if that means condoning piracy elsewhere.
But I also consider music to be a fundamentally different form of entertainment than books and even movies. It comes down to a balance between the transience of the experience and the permanence of the medium.
Most books (movies) I'll read (watch) only once. But I may listen to a CD hundreds of times. This abstract sense of "permanence" does lend itself to a more physical presence. A CD I listen to only once is a waste of money.
Hence the proliferation of MP3 singles. The market has priced a single music track at $.99. Listen to it sixty times and that's two to three hours of entertainment for a buck, or about what I'd expect out of the typical novel.
When I was growing up, any purchased or gifted book was widely shared, and often ended up donated to the local library. The library, in turn, regularly cleared its shelves of worn and unread books for pennies on the dollar.
So the amortized per-read price again ended up around a buck.
Modern technology has brought us back to the future--to a time when "escapist" literature (including literary fiction) was exemplified by the "penny dreadful" and "dime novel"--and has priced our entertainment accordingly.
Dean Smith argues in turn that writers should take as their models the "men and women who wrote for the pulps and slicks" during the first half of the twentieth century. Maybe the last fifty years were the aberration.
The new norm is the old norm. Nothing really goes away. It falls out of fashion for a while before getting re-branded and repackaged, then goes niche and upscale, like musicians who make a point of selling LPs.
For that matter, you can still buy buggy whips. Though looking at the "Customers Who Bought Related Items Also Bought" section, you might conclude that they're not all being used as originally intended.
There's a metaphor in that too. The bound, paper book will be with us for a long time to come, though probably not as Johannes Gutenberg originally intended.
February 10, 2011
The Sin in the Sisterhood
The most recent episode of Bones ("The Sin in the Sisterhood") features a plot taken straight out of Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist: Fundamentalist Mormon with three wives has an affair and ends up dead (okay, not that last part). Booth and Brennan also go out of their way to distinguish between polygamous Mormons and the mainline church. The handful of Mormon-specific references are used correctly.
This is the second time Bones has used "Mormon" material, which leads me to believe they've got a Mormon writer, or are plugged into a realiable Mormon source. Okay, it only affects a tiny fraction of the audience, but that tiny fraction of the audience appreciates a serious attempt at verisimilitude. Though it may be invisible to everybody else, any kind of writing is improved by getting the little details right(er).
Like the old "Engineer and the Guillotine" joke, when encountering bad anti-Mormon material (whiny, repetitiously dull, making arguments no actual Mormon cares two figs about), I'm often seized by the desire to volunteer to write them some good anti-Mormon material.
February 07, 2011
I bought my first Off Course (オフコース) album way back in 1980. Off Course was a folk/rock duo featuring Kazumasa Oda and Yasuhiro Suzuki. A sort of Simon & Garfunkel, though in this case, it was Oda and his pure Art Garfunkelish high tenor whose sole career continued on strong when they split up in 1989.
Yes Asia has an authorized Hong Kong release of his Best 2 collection at a very reasonable price (meaning what you'd normally pay in the U.S.). He divides the tracks between covers of his Off Course hits and and more recent singles. If you want to mellow out, Kazumasa Oda is about as easy as listening gets.
February 04, 2011
The time is nau
Nau (なう) was one of the most popular new Japanese words of 2010. It was born on Twitter and SMS. And it means exactly what it sounds like. It's a phonetic transliteration of the English word. Nau means "now."
Strangely, it's often written using hiragana, which is usually reserved for native Japanese. Even pan (bread), borrowed from Portuguese in the 16th century, is commonly written using katakana.
This is because (the explanation presented on Nihon-GO!) it was adopted primarily as a shorthand verb conjugation, becoming an abbreviated form of the present progressive, ideal for Twitter.
Early adopters had noted the prevalence on Twitter of expressions such as, "I'm doing X now." The adverb translates as ima (今), but the present progressive (am doing) requires a longer -teiru (ている) conjugation.
And in many cases, a stopped consonant adds another character. There's also the problem of stative verbs turning the present progressive into the present perfect (see here), requiring more circumlocution.
Using nau cuts through all that. English comes to the rescue again!