May 29, 2014
Poseidon of the East (21)
The Japanese is close enough in meaning that at the end of the chapter I have Atsuyu paraphrase these lines from Paradise Lost by John Milton:
All this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!
May 26, 2014
The magical girl
Frozen is the biggest grossing non-Ghibli animated film in Japan. A great Disney production, it's also a perfect execution of the "magical girl" and "sister" anime genres, both emphasized in this trailer.
The "magical girl" genre depicts an otherwise "ordinary" girl trying her level best to live a "normal" live, despite her magical powers, which she must keep hidden while striving to master and control them.
Although Sailor Moon blazed the trail (it's more of a goofy superhero show, "Little Wonder Woman"), Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha really defined the genre, along with Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service.
Tweeny Witches, Magic User's Club, Someday's Dreamers, Cardcaptor Sakura, Magical Girls Club, Pretty Cure, and most recently, the critically acclaimed Puella Magi Madoka Magica, are all very watchable.
The cuteness notwithstanding, series like Nanoha, Tweeny Witches, and Madoka Magica have surprisingly dark and convoluted plots, and the even cuter Magical Girls Club is quite complex.
The "sister" genre is literally just that, about sisters or siblings (or close cousins), with some comedic quirks, idiosyncrasies, sibling rivalries and sit-com scenarios commonly thrown in.
Good examples can be found in My Neighbor Totoro, Ranma ½, Strawberry Marshmallow, and K-On. Lately, My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute spawned a bevy of "My Little Sister is _____" titles.
Strawberry Marshmallow and K-On (along with Magical Girls Club) are also representative of a sub-genre featuring a group of (unrelated) girls who carry on like sisters in a big, extended family.
The Passion of the Magical Girl
May 22, 2014
Poseidon of the East (20)
In the days leading up to the Boshin War, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (the last shogun) was persuaded to yield sovereign authority to the emperor ("like the European powers"). As soon as the rebel forces revealed their true intentions, the emperor issued an edict abolishing the shogunate.
During the first major battle of the Boshin War, the rebel army appeared on the field bearing Imperial banners. They had also scrounged around and found a young Imperial prince to "lead" the troops. Despite holding a three-to-one advantage, the shogunate forces scattered in disarray.
Shouryuu seems intent on waging a similar kind of psychological warfare, appealing to deeply-held royalist beliefs and a large dollop of sympathy to cement the legitimacy of his rule among the people.
May 19, 2014
With Tangled (2010) and now Frozen (2013), Disney's once floundering in-house animation studios have equaled and even exceeded the standard set by Pixar. Of course, with John Lasseter in charge of both, that may have become a distinction without a difference.
Nevertheless, while Pixar continues to project an aura of artistic sophistication unmatched by its competitors--perhaps reflecting the lingering influence of its founder--Disney Animation productions strike me as more broadly human in their dramatic appeal.
And certainly more broadly comedic. Many of the laugh-out-loud moments in Frozen come from the efforts of the snowman Olaf to literally keep himself together. He's a one-man Calvin & Hobbes running through the movie, totally hilarious in a somewhat disturbing way when you stop to think about it.
Humor of a more urbane sort is provided by Anna (the redhead) and Kristoff. Disney has again tapped into the snap, crackle and pop of the great screwball comedies. To be sure, Anna, Kristoff (and the reindeer) are a copy of Rapunzel, Flynn Rider (and the horse). Hey, with repartee like this, more of the same is fine by me.
But don't get too distracted. As with the magician's slight of hand, the fun and froth on the surface mask a surprising degree of moral complexity beneath. (Too many Pixar movies, by contrast, prove less profound than they look.)
Frozen dares to lead with a pair of antitheses, not only bad consequences springing from good intentions, but ill-intentioned people successfully pretending to be good. Tangled gives us one too, but the audience is in on the deception from the start (that Rapunzel's "mother" is evil).
The ingenious touch is Elsa's barn-burner of a power ballad, "Let it go." It sounds at first like an anthem for the self-esteem movement. Except that, by the end, it's become clear that Elsa "being herself" will kill her sister and destroy her kingdom with a Midas-like curse that turns everything she touches to ice.
Elsa doesn't need to "let it go." She badly needs to get over herself. That's what the movie is actually about.
To be fair, Elsa doesn't understand herself or her own abilities. As she and her world change, what she has to "let go" evolves too. She's not the only one. Anna needs to grow up. Fast. Falling in love with some random guy at first sight is a really bad idea, especially when it's just an excuse to get out of the house.
There's a great scene where Kristoff says, "Maybe your sister wants to be left alone," and Anna replies, "Nobody wants to be left alone." Ah, spoken like every clueless extrovert who's ever lived.
Prince Hans, the object of Anna's initial affection, is a fairly complex fairy tale antagonist, the stereotypical nice guy who isn't. Though it wasn't as big a gotcha as I thought it'd be. Nice guys don't chain up the queen in a dungeon. But isn't he simply "being himself" and looking out for his own self-interests?
With twelve older brothers, he probably has self-esteem issues too. Well, tough nuts, kid. That doesn't justify being an exploitative, homicidal jerk. I appreciated how unsentimentally the tables are turned on him in the end. No instantaneous change of heart or slap on the wrist after "lesson learned," thank goodness.
Speaking of changes of heart, the one other failing in the film (aside from the missing backstory explaining Elsa's "gift") is the same one I noticed in Tangled: rushing through the "emotional resolve" (Rapunzel's reunion with her parents is cut too short), especially when the denouement starts on such a great note.
After all, Elsa has just brought her sister back from the dead. A few moments of reflection, a little hesitation, some sisterly recognition and encouragement (the first song in the movie, "Do you want to build a snowman?" poignantly establishes the depth of their relationship), would make the payoff all the more profound.
The movie wouldn't have suffered for running 1:43 instead of 1:42. Or 1:44 to work the backstory into something sequel-worthy. (Is this a sex-linked recessive trait that doesn't express in males? That would make both her parents and her sister carriers. Fascinating.)
And one minor linguistic quibble. No, not the droll anachronisms scattered throughout the script. I love those. A mere one word in the lyrics. Specifically, the vagueness of the antecedent in "Let it go" bugs me. Let what go?
Granted, as noted, that vagueness does allow the meaning to adapt to an ever-shifting context. Still, I think the Japanese translation improves on the original with the phrase ari no mama ("[take me] as [I] am"). Takako Matsu delivers a bravura performance.
Here's the English version sung by Idina Menzel. Quibbles aside, she does very well as Elsa.
Oh, and stick through the credits to the very end. First for the "legal disclaimer" that comes right after "Production Babies" (get out your magnifying glass). And then the abominable snowman makes a curtain call.
The magical girl
The Passion of the Magical Girl
May 15, 2014
Poseidon of the East (19)
The kanji compound (百花), meaning "a profusion of flowers," is also part of the compound noun (百花斉放) that means "Let a hundred flowers blossom." It makes me wonder if the author had any political irony in mind.
The "Hundred Flowers Campaign" encouraged the people of China to express opinions contrary to those of the Communist Party. When it ended in less than a year, Mao let it be known that those flowers that blossomed only served to inform the authorities which ones should be turned into mulch.
A "gauntlet" is a mailed glove. A knight would challenge an opponent to a duel by throwing one of his gauntlets down on the ground. The challenge was accepted by picking it up.
May 12, 2014
Wagging the long tail
Hulu has a decent catalog of Japanese movies, though it's the same sort of selection you'll find at Netflix (and, back in the day, Blockbuster): heavy on the classics, art house, and genre flicks, especially samurai, yakuza, and horror. A handful of anime movies and remakes.
The Japan box office is, in fact, not that different from the U.S. box office--only delayed a few weeks--plus a bunch of home-grown films you will never hear about unless the list includes a feature-length anime or the odd Takashi Miike production.
Think Disney and Quentin Tarantino. That's the kind of artistic range we're talking about. In other words, the same as in the U.S., where you'll find Frozen and Captain America on the same list with RoboCop.
Then there's the old complaint that while PG and PG-13 movies make all the money, far more R movies are made. I suspect, though, that in bottom-line terms, R-rated movies are a safer bet. A studio can buy in with less risk and be sure to at least break even.
And those R-rated movies are easier to export. Takashi Miike cranks out a couple of low-budget films a year, producing a bona fide hit now and then. With low sunk costs, licensing is less of a concern. The licensees, in turn, can fill an established "same only different" niche.
By contrast, Japan's biggest big-budget film this year is Eien no Zero ("Eternal Zero"), a Gallipoli-style companion piece to another war movie you'll never see, Otoko-tachi no Yamato ("Our Yamato"), about the doomed crew of the fabled battleship.
After a film festival or two (though even that's doubtful), it will go straight to DVD when it arrives in the U.S. (and who knows when).
The better box office of big PG movies notwithstanding, U.S. audiences are less forgiving. Despite the marketing muscle of Disney behind it (its distributor in Japan too), Ghibli's most successful U.S. release, Arrietty (based on The Borrowers), grossed only $20 million.
Spirited Away, the top-earning film in the history of Japanese cinema, took in barely half that, despite an Academy Award.
An "agnostic" Hollywood hit in the U.S. will probably be a hit in Japan. (Frozen is huge.) But not the other way around, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. This is where the long tail could come to the rescue. As with ebooks, streaming media need never go out of print.
To be sure, to really work, streaming will turn every ISP into a CDN, but that was going to happen anyway. The only question is who will pay what to whom to make it so.
Infrastructure problems aside, there's a lot in the streaming universe to look forward to. Instead of gathering dust in a warehouse, content can be left on a server to find an audience. As Joe Konrath puts it, "Ebooks are forever. Forever is a long time to get noticed."
But the perennial problem is, that long tail will never get noticed if nobody's wagging it. Japanese distributors of live-action television fare are notoriously slow off the mark in this regard, especially compared to their South Korean counterparts.
Speaking of which, Crunchyroll recently gave the long tail a shake. It announced a partnership with Fuji TV to stream 21 live-action television series, including the classic GTO and the great police procedural Galileo (like Bones except the scientist is a physicist).
I can only hope that Japan's other TV networks and studios--especially NHK--will take note and soon follow suit.
Full stream ahead
May 08, 2014
Poseidon of the East (18)
The Imperial Army consists of six divisions: three (right, left, center) belonging to the Palace Guard, and three (right, left, center) belonging to the Provincial Guard of the capital province and commanded (on paper, at least) by the Taiho. In its current state, En has a hard time filling the ranks.
I've mapped the military hierarchies in the Twelve Kingdoms according to their contemporary equivalents described here.
May 05, 2014
Avril Lavigne's "Hello Kitty"
Over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp continues the proud, pontificating tradition of getting offended on behalf of people who don't know they've been offended. "Uncomfortable appropriation of Japanese culture," he calls the latest offense.
The terrible sin in question? Beauchamp thinks this is "Japanese culture" in the process of being "appropriated." And along the way, for reasons unknown to 127 million Japanese, somehow "offending" them.
Moe Lane recommends that Vox "find writers who are a little less provincial and a little more experienced with the culture in question." Though Tokyo resident Michael Cucek points out that the real problem with the video is that it's
cringeworthingly, strap-Malcolm-McDowell-down-with-his-eyelids-pried-open bad.
Were I a cat with pretensions to singing grand opera, I might resent Lavigne for edging in on my territory. But, really? This is the kind of offense-taking that requires years of expensive education to hone to a meaningless edge.
Here's what Japan's far more watchable (and talented) pop culture ironists have to say about the subject: "Have a Nice Day" (in Akihabara) by World Order, a brief walking tour (literally) through every contemporary cliche about Japan.
May 01, 2014
Poseidon of the East (17)
Seioubo, "Queen Mother of the West," translates literally as "west + queen + mother" (西王母).
The Taira were defeated by the Minamoto at the naval battle of Dan no Ura in 1185. This brought an end to the Genpei War, after which the emperor was little more than the shogun's puppet for the next seven hundred years.
The Ouchi clan reached the apex of its power during the reign of the Ashikaga shogunate. Serpent of Time takes place following Ouchi Yoshihiro's failed revolt against the Ashikaga at the end of the 14th century.
The status of the second brother is unclear. Most likely he was a "hostage." This exchanging of family members as "insurance" was common practice during the Warring States period. When warlords came to blows, the hostages were often the first the pay the price.
With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, the exchange of hostages was formalized as the sankin koutai ("alternate attendance") system, according to which governors had to leave their families behind in Edo whenever they returned to the provinces.