August 26, 2015

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah

Years before encountering the St. Clair family (as both a scourge and a blessing), the mysterious magician Lord Simon used his untested powers to save a woman under assault. But as a result, he bespelled her into the walls of his house. There she remains. Trapped.

Driven to free her, Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane. As his reputation blackens and his house crumbles, his obsession to save a woman long thought dead may yet drive him mad.

Lord Simon is book three in the Roesia series. Roesia is a Victorian world where magic is real and spells and potions are the focus of academic study. Although sharing characters and events, the books can be read as standalone stories.

Lord Simon is currently available as a Kindle ebook and a paperback.

The Roesia Series

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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August 19, 2015


If you like Enya, then Enya times three (in Japanese) gets you Kalafina, a trio that performs New Age/pop rock in three-part harmony. Recently on Studio Park they extemporaneously sang the first verse of "Storia" a capella. Very talented.

I heard about them on Historia, an entertaining documentary series on NHK that explores the lesser-known turning points and quirkier aspects of Japanese history. Kalafina does the opening and closing songs ("Storia" and "Far on the Water").

Here's a concert performance of the Historia themes.

Outside Japan, Kalafina is better known for the more metal "Magia," the ending song from Madoka Magica (their best-selling single in Japan too).

Kalafina's albums are available from Amazon. The digital downloads are reasonably priced; I hope this bespeaks a trend for music from Japan.

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August 12, 2015

The grudge and the dream

William Tecumseh Sherman said it best: "War is all hell." But criminal sociopathy aside, why should some soldiers be so eager to usher in Hell on Earth? In the case of Japan during WWII, the common answer is its "martial culture," an answer that is in small parts true and large parts wholly beside the point.

To be sure, it is no less important to ask why these questions are kept more alive in some quarters than in others (answer: as a cynical and hypocritical foreign policy strategy). By contrast, Michael Totten reports that in present-day Vietnam,

anti-Americanism scarcely exists. What we call the Vietnam War, and what they call the American War, casts no shadow--especially not in the South, which fought on the American side, but not even in Hanoi, a city heavily bombed by the United States. The war was just one in a long history of conflicts, and it isn't even the most recent. Perhaps it's not so remarkable that the Vietnamese have moved on. Most Americans don't hold grudges for long, either, after the furies of war have subsided.

Vietnam has also "moved on" from the one million Vietnamese who died during WWII. The same can be said about the Philippines, which now prefers Japan as an ally since China started stomping all over the South China Sea like, well, Imperial Japan a century ago. But these considerations do not extinguish the moral quandaries.

The undeniable brutality visited upon soldier and civilian alike in Nanking, Bataan, Manila, and Burma is all more surprising in light of the actions of men like Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas that allowed 6,000 Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied territories to occupied China via Japan.

Though his superiors reprimanded Sugihara for doing so, when pressed by Berlin, the Japanese government

rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. Towards the end, Nazi representatives pressured the Japanese army to devise a plan to exterminate Shanghai's Jewish population, and this pressure eventually became known to the Jewish community's leadership. However, the Japanese had no intention of further provoking the anger of the Allies, and thus delayed the German request for a time, eventually rejecting it entirely.

Modern Japan had waged two major wars before WWII and the historical record offers little evidence of a martial culture indifferent to the welfare of the defeated. To be sure, there were scattered cases--such as that of the White Tiger Corps--of soldiers killing themselves for no good reason, but not the enemy.

During the Boshin War (1868), casualties on both sides came to less than 10,000. The Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency, and many later joined the government. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, abdicated and lived out the rest of his life in peace. The capital, Edo (Tokyo), surrendered with casualties only in the hundreds.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is chiefly remembered for Admiral Togo's brilliant execution of the naval battles. The equally important but largely forgotten land war around Port Arthur was a sneak preview of WWI, wracking up most of Japan's 47,000 casualties.

(If European generals hadn't learned from Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Kennesaw Mountain what damage the muzzle-loading rifle could inflict, the Russo-Japanese war should have informed any rational observer what happens when infantrymen charge entrenched positions fortified with machine guns.)

In any event, Japan was celebrated in the Western press for waging and winning a "European" war in Asia. In 1906, Admiral Togo (who seriously believed himself to be the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson) was made a Member of the British Order of Merit by King Edward VII.

For perhaps the first and last time, the Japanese army and navy were "on the same page," fighting the same enemy with the same objectives.

And yet it was during the Russo-Japanese war that deep conflicts between Japan's military services began to emerge, the costly land war being overshadowed by the triumphant navy and a pliable press. By 1940, these rivalries would prove hugely detrimental to both to the war effort and the men engaged in the fighting.

The modern Japanese navy dates back to the mid 1800s, when forward-thinking leaders like Katsu Kaishu envisioned Japan's future as a naval power. Although he was a Tokugawa loyalist, among his students were many "founding fathers" of the Meij Restoration. Ever since, the navy continued to attract the "best and the brightest."

The army, by contrast, found itself the poor stepchild to the navy. "Interservice rivalry" doesn't begin to describe the bad blood between the Imperial army and navy. The army had been mauled by Soviet forces in border conflicts during the 1930s and its self-declared war in China was going nowhere, giving the navy the upper hand.

The first scenes of the biopic Admiral Yamamoto (2011) makes this abundantly clear: Yeah, we're going to end up fighting the Americans, but right now the real enemy is the army. And the press. And the government.

When the tables were turned at the Battle of Midway, the Imperial navy took its own sweet time informing the army (the public had to infer what had happened) that it had actually lost, and badly. The navy actually had good reason not to trust the army.

Saigo Takamori, the commanding general of the Boshin War, first quit the government because the politicians wouldn't invade Korea fast enough. After Meiji reforms stripped the samurai of their hereditary privileges, Saigo ended up leading a counterrevolution (the Satsuma Rebellion). He was George Washington and Robert E. Lee in one.

Like Lee, Saigo Takamori emerged a hero despite his wasteful and pointless rebellion (and all the more so since he'd died "heroically" in the process). That set a "standard" for celebrating passion over discipline and created an officer corps that fell into the habit of launching coups and starting wars whenever they felt like it.

The Imperial army sallied into the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, a conflict as brutal to the Japanese army as the Eastern Front was to the Wehrmacht. Attrition was hollowing out the professional officer corps even before Pearl Harbor. The Solomon Islands campaign in 1943 further depleted the army of officers and the navy of pilots.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the kind of cynical movies later made about Vietnam in Hollywood were made about WWII in Japan. The army was blamed for dragging the nation into the conflict in the first place, and returning soldiers--infantrymen, in particular--did not have kind things to say about their commanding officers.

In Embracing Defeat, John Dower describes the kind of letters published in Japanese newspapers by returning veterans after the war.

In May 1946, a veteran wrote a typically anguished letter to the Asahi, one of the country’s leading newspapers, recalling the "hell of starvation" he and his fellow soldiers had endured on a Pacific island and the abuse they suffered at the hands of their officers. Several months later, a report in the Asahi about an abusive officer "lynched" by his men after surrender triggered eighteen reader responses, all but two of which supported the murder and offered their own accounts of brutality and corruption among the officer corps.

What emerges here is a toxic brew of desperation and incompetence, coupled with incoherent and flatly impossible objectives, the same poison that resulted in moral black holes as dissimilar as Andersonville Prison and My Lai.

Add to that a manufactured ideology that had been, in the words of Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, "pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it."

The Meiji Restoration itself was a reinvention of Japanese political history, ostensibly "reinstating" the emperor as the acting head of government (which he hadn't been for 1000 years). But here I'm referring to a far more invidious creation: the crude politics of resentment concocted after the Russo-Japanese war.

The 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth (for which Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize) gave Japan one of the greatest negotiated bounties in history. Japan walked away with "legal" (internationally recognized) possession of the entire East Asian archipelago, from Taiwan all the way up to Kamchatka, with Korea thrown in for good measure.

And yet fervent nationalists and populist rabble-rousers in the press convinced the public that they were owed more. Increasingly violent protests led to the Hibiya riots and the collapse of the government. The conviction that "We was robbed!" became a rallying cry, a grudge nursed for the next three decades.

That grudge was ginned up by the "educated" classes. But what would compel the average infantryman to fight so ferociously against foreigners with whom he had no quarrel? In the September 16, 1942 edition of the Wall Street Journal, former Tokyo correspondent Ray Cromley I think accurately identifies the root motivation.

Cromley's military analysis is mostly wrong (granted, the British had been thoroughly outsmarted at Singapore), though viewed in light of the balance of power in September 1942, understandable. Cromley does capture the essence of the simmering discontent that goes back not only to Portsmouth but to the "Unequal Treaties" of 1858.

The average Japanese sailor and soldier is a simple fellow from the country. He has been filled with propaganda about how Westerners treat Japanese. He believes that Britons and Americans despise him as an inferior. This is his opportunity, his officers tell him, of "showing up" the Westerners. Japanese soldiers are getting "revenge" for the white man's treatment of him as an inferior. Much use is made of the American Oriental Exclusion Law, which the Japanese say insults them.

There's something darkly comedic about people getting enraged by the legislative actions of a foreign country that would never affect them in the slightest (and differed little from the laws in their own country). But such is the nature of nursed resentments and harbored grudges that drive so many conflicts today.

(This article about the introduction of Japanese cuisine to the U.S. points out that as early as the late 1800s, Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves were held in much higher esteem than the Chinese.)

For those who have no plausible recourse against the actual and immediate source of their suffering, foreign devils and the heretics frustrating the divine cause become the most accessible scapegoats, to be driven in the hills and sacrificed, for real and imagined wrongs often suffered generations before.

Once these convictions become fixed in the collective consciousness, further fueled by a sense of mission whose righteousness increases in inverse proportion to its attainability, they are almost impossible to root out. Again, it was Sherman who realized the full extent of the awful implications. After the Battle of Atlanta, he prophesied:

I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.

What Sherman foresaw was a psychic sunk-cost fallacy (an "escalation of commitment") playing out on a massive existential scale.

The Civil War cost the South over a quarter-million dead. The bitter remainders of Sherman's 300,000 kept the war going for another century. The Thirty Years' War cost Western Europe eight million lives, depleting the population of parts of Germany by half. It can be argued that the Thirty Years' War really didn't end until 1989.

By the same token, Japan's 20th century wars in China and the Pacific were the final, dying attempts to realize the expansionist dreams of the 16th century warlord, Oda Nobunaga. As David Goldman vividly describes, throughout history these hopeless wars have inevitably grown more brutal as the dream slipped away.

Either the ideology dies, or the people willing to fight to keep it alive do (by force or arms or by natural causes), in sufficient numbers to render the cause inert. That may literally take the lifetimes of everyone who subscribes to it.

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August 05, 2015

Admiral Yamamoto

The 2011 biopic Admiral Yamamoto (Toei Pictures) focuses on the last decade of Yamamoto's life. But even at 140 minutes, it only skims the surface, a surface made all the thinner by telling a peripherally-related "homefront" story at the same time. The "fiction" in this "historical fiction" gets a good workout.

As for the "historical" part? That's pretty much fiction too.

To cite one technical detail, Yamamoto's plane was shot down near Bougainville in 1943. We're shown the version carried in the Japanese press, that has him dying elegiacally in the crash. In fact,  U.S. Naval Intelligence knew where he was and he was killed mid-air by a P-38 Lightning during its initial strafing run.

Well, call it "subjective" history. This shameless hagiography burnishes Yamamoto's reputation the same way Robert E. Lee's record was "rehabilitated" after the Civil War. As a military commander, Lee was less than he was cracked up to be. Like Lee, Yamamoto was a disaster at every offensive action he initiated.

But the buck stopped nowhere. However reluctant he might have been going in, Yamamoto pushed hard for the Pearl Harbor attack. And then with no carriers to hit, he refused to launch a necessary second wave to destroy the tank farms. Later in the film he declares Pearl Harbor a failure. Which it was, largely because of him.

The movie does show how the Doolittle Raid fueled Yamamoto's obsession with Midway (a welcome result entirely unintended). Forced to divide his forces to keep the Midway option alive, Coral Sea was a halfhearted effort the U.S. Navy was able to fight to a draw.

Then at Midway, Yamamoto failed to rein in Admiral Nagumo after the battle was lost for certain, and acquiesced to Rear Admiral Yamaguchi going down with his ship. No, you don't let experienced officers kill themselves after the enemy failed to do so.

Veteran actor Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance) depicts Yamamoto as practically a spectator to the war he's waging. Director Izuru Narushima apparently wants us to associate "passive" and "detached" with "peaceful." Except depicting Yamamoto as a saint makes him as delusional as his ideological foes in the Imperial Army.

In real life, Yamamoto was anything but a bystander when it came to the war planning. In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully recount that

In the midst of the Pearl Harbor debate, [Yamamoto] had let it be known that he and the entire staff of Combined Fleet were prepared to resign if his views were not confirmed. [Admiral] Nagano, given the choice between acquiescing or confronting his wayward subordinate, had backed down. In so doing, he essentially let Yamamoto hijack the Navy’s strategic planning process and place it under the purview of Combined Fleet.

Both McClellan1 and MacArthur also thought themselves indispensable men. Lincoln and Truman let them know they weren't.

I subscribe to the theory that when the critical information fell into his hands, Admiral Nimitz might possibly have balked at killing Yamamoto for the same hypothetical reasons Lee would have balked at killing McClellan in 1862. Why eliminate your best asset?

At its heart, Admiral Yamamoto wants to be one of those old-fashioned, patriotic, big-screen blockbusters like The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Battle of Britain (1969) and Midway (1976). Those were movies that celebrated the "good war" and the "greatest generation" and starred every big-name actor under the sun.

(And to lend extra gravitas: John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker dies on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi in the last reel after the iconic flag raising. Charlton Heston's Captain Garth dies in the last reel ferrying a fighter from the sinking Yorktown. Alas, Yakusho's Yamamoto dies in the last reel amidst a "transfer of troops.")

Those earlier classics were made with the cooperation of the military branches, along with mothballed equipment pulled out of storage and plenty of repurposed newsreel footage. Admiral Yamamoto make good use of digital effects to create more convincing snapshots of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the Solomons.

Unfortunately, live-action digital effects like this don't come cheap in Japan, where a "feature film" is "low budget" by Hollywood standards. So Admiral Yamamoto gives us maybe ten minutes of actual cinematic battles and two hours of actors pacing around soundstage sets.

It's on those sets that Teruyuki Kagawa steals every scene he's in as a fiery newspaper editor in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Then does a 180 when the war is lost. (John Dower notes in Embracing Defeat that this was a not uncommon phenomenon in 1945.)

The more interesting (perhaps unacceptably iconoclastic) story would have shown us the war from the point of view of Kagawa's newspaperman, who goes from hero worship to cynic, and yet concludes (as Jimmy Stewart is informed in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance), "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

1. Both McClellan and Yamamoto had great press and the affection of their subordinates. Both were enamored of elaborate battlefield strategies that promised the deliver a crushing blow to the outfoxed enemy (Parshall and Tully explore this failing at length). Both couldn't accept that "no plan survives the first shot." As a result, neither knew what to do next besides retreat. Unlike McClellan, Imperial Japan didn't have more capable officers waiting in the wings. Yamamoto was the basket in which they had placed all their eggs.

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July 29, 2015

Just don't stand there

I recall an actor extolling the benefits of smoking. On screen, that is. He'd grown up in the old studio system, back when people smoked without apology. It all came down to keeping one's hands busy, giving the actor something to do when he wasn't actually doing anything:

Take out a pack, extract a cigarette, give it a couple of taps to pack the tobacco, search the pockets for a book of matches, find it, get one out, strike it, light the cigarette, wave out the match, take a puff, exhale smoke. And on it goes.

The thing is, even when people are "doing nothing," they're actually doing a lot. And neither do they stand around declaiming in soliloquies. And when they do, listeners aren't suddenly struck by blinding realizations and run off realizing the error of their ways.

(In other words, real political life is not like The West Wing.)

And yet the engine of a story has to idle occasionally. The protagonists can't be in pursuit of the plot 24/7. So what are they doing when they're not?

In real life, people are pretty boring. Middle class, suburban teenagers in particular are really boring. But you can't bore the viewer in the name of "realism." Hence that most reliable of genre fantasy plots: boring kid discovers he's not.

Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, to name a few.

The job of the teenage superhero is Saving the World, except Saving the World gets boring week after week too. It really does. Besides, what do they do when the world doesn't need saving? As Kate suggests, it's a problem solved "by simply giving the main characters jobs."

I'd argue that the appeal of action heroes like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent is due in large part to the fact that they all work for a living. At least when we first meet them. And the less real work they do, the less interesting they are.

I'd prefer to see more of Peter Parker using his superpowers to creatively enhance his job as a photojournalist instead of battling the latest comically absurd supervillain. In other words, less time spent saving humanity (sorry, humanity), more time making a living.

For the Y/A protagonist, being a student can qualify as a job. One of the best examples of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy's two jobs (student/Slayer) means that the mundane is constantly bumping up against the supernatural. This is great for story possibilities.

Manga and anime execute this formula to great effect.

In The Devil is a Part-Timer, our villain with a good heart has gotten stranded on Earth and has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet. Even funnier, being the competitive guy that he is, he works hard and cares about being successful at what he does.

So in-between destroying/saving the world, he's got to staff the late shift and keep the customers coming when a Kentucky Fried Chicken opens across the street. It's a much better way to humanize the protagonist than being nice to children and rescuing wayward pets.

(Though just to be sure, he does that too.)

When it comes to non-paranormal melodramas, the budding manga artist is a popular job for a teen protagonist. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana works at her grandmother's inn while attending school. In Kodocha, eleven-year-old Sana is a hard-working child actress.

Serious hobbies also qualify. The sports manga/anime is its own huge genre, but there the sole (even relentless) focus of the story is often the sport. There are exceptions: I'm thinking specifically of stories where the story is about something other than the "job."

I think Yawara falls into that category. Yawara Inokuma's grandfather has trained her since infancy to be a judo champion. But now a teenager, she's rebelling. There's plenty of judo, but the story is more about her relationship with her grandfather and classmates.

In K-On, five students at an all-girls high school form a band that turns out to be pretty darn good (almost despite themselves). The running joke is that they're always so busy doing other things that they only get around to practicing the night before a gig.

In Garden of Words, Takao wanting to become a shoemaker works because it keeps him from moping all the time and gives him a goal in life. And it being an odd thing for a teenager to be interested in makes him all the more interesting.

Genre fiction gets boring when it tries too hard not to be. The result is a storm of action and emotions, except that constant action is exhausting and emotions are effervescent. Forcing characters into regular contact with the ordinary world is what brings them to life.

Related links

The Devil is a Part-Timer (H)
Hanasaku Iroha (H CR)
Kodocha (Netflix)
K-On (H)
Yawara (Netflix)

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July 22, 2015

The book detectives

Shioriko Shinokawa (Ayame Gouriki) runs the "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia" in the old historic town of Kamakura. She's quiet as a mouse, pretty as a picture, and brilliant as Sherlock Holmes.

The series begins with Daisuke Goura (Akira) coming to sell a collection of Natsume Soseki books that once belonged to his grandmother. In particular, one prized volume that appears to bear the famous author's signature, along with a mysterious dedication.

Shioriko concludes that the signature is a forgery, and that Daisuke's grandmother was the likely forger. That she would do so in a book she had always kept to herself only points to another mystery, one that reveals a curious truth about Daisuke's own past.

This first episode gets our two protagonists together so they can solve more mysteries of a literary nature. Each episode involves a specific classical work or famous author and Shioriko's exhaustive knowledge of world literature and the book collecting business.

Many of the episodes don't even involve a crime per se. The A Clockwork Orange episode starts as a shoplifting case and revolves around the missing last chapter in the first edition. An actual felony occurs at the end of that episode.

But nobody gets murdered, so this Kamakura isn't like those sleepy English villages where people are dropping dead right and left.

Ayame Gouriki pulls off the tricky task of being preternaturally pretty but more that bookish enough for the part. Despite the physical mismatch (he's eight inches taller), Akira (née, Ryohei Kurosawa of the band Exile) nerds it up and makes a good Watson.

Akira shares the Watson duties with veteran character actor Katsumi Takahashi, who also doubles as the Mrs. Hudson.

Thirty miles south of Tokyo, the ancient city of Kamakura is an ideal setting for a musty old bookshop. Minamoto no Yoritomo established Japan's first shogunate there in 1192, though it's better known today as home to the enormous outdoor statue of the Great Buddha.

Much of old Kamakura has been preserved as a veritable walk-through museum, a cozy place for cozy mysteries about books.

Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files is based on the best-selling novels and manga by En Mikami (tragically, no English translations yet). The live-action 2013 Fuji Television series can be viewed on Crunchyroll (subtitled).

(The "free" version of Crunchyroll requires putting up with their obnoxious ad engine, whose primary purpose is to annoy you into buying a subscription. The free-market capitalist in me shrinks from pointing this out, but Adblock Plus works on this site.)

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July 15, 2015

MacGuffin man

The couple in question.
As I mentioned in my previous post about Kimi ni Todoke, two supporting characters, Chizuru and Ryu, are substantively more interesting than the main characters, Sawako and Shota. As for the latter two, ultimately there's not a whole lot of "there" there.

That's not an insurmountable problem in story like this (with so much else going on). But as Kate asks, "What on earth will they talk about for the rest of their lives if they can no longer talk about their growing romance?"

Pushing aside everything you know about the characters from the anime, the live-action movie makes this hard to ignore. On the plus side, it hits all the major plot points from the first season of the anime. The two-hour time constraint means much less angst to wade through.

But the deeper side-story about Ryu and Chizuru is reduced to about five minutes. Racing from conflict to conflict, the relationship among Sawako, Ayane and Chizuru--the true substance of the series--becomes a fait accompli rather than a nurtured and growing thing.

In the process, Shota ends up a conventional teen lead, little more than a "MacGuffin." That's Hollywood slang for "a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation."

What separates formula romance from, say, Jane Austen, is giving the heroine a reason to want the hero aside from him being the closest available white knight. Aside from being a nice guy, nothing about Shota convinces us that he is desired for anything more than being desirable.

Even in the movie, we learn far more about Ryu than we ever do about Shota. (The movie actually adds more backstory about Sawako than is in the anime.)

As Sawako, Mikako Tabe, in turn, has to lean more heavily on affect than acting. Trying too hard to match the look of the anime forces her to compete with her hair in the early scenes. Her performance improves considerably when she can finally wear her hair up or back.

Even then, she has barely any material to work with, other than her character's odd personality. The movie unintentionally makes it obvious that here are two kids who really need to get themselves a life, something more substantive than pining for each other.

Sawako at least has her flower garden. I would have liked to see this used much more as an outer expression of her inner self. Make her a budding botanist.

Kimi ni Todoke is a good example of how animation can be the superior visual medium when so much of the subject matter is internal or subjective. Manga artist Karuho Shiina can draw what she wants us to see (hair, to start with), especially if she wants us to see a state of mind.

Sawako and Chizuru in super-deformed mode.

Manga and anime have rich repertoires of abstract effects and visual metaphors, such as the "super-deformed" style.(1) These effects don't interrupt the narrative and announce themselves precisely because they are drawn. We've already disassociated story from "reality."

Pixar has further proven the point with Inside Out.

I think a movie adaptation like Kimi ni Todoke would work better by addressing a far smaller slice of the original. A straightforward summation of events, however accurate, simply can't generate the same emotional Sturm und Drang.

They look and can play the parts.

The movie does get a few things exactly right: Haru Aoyama and Misako Renbutsu are perfectly cast as Ryu and Chizuru. There's the better movie to make: flip the point-of-view around and tell the story from their perspective. All the necessary material is already available.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (movie anime manga)

Here is a useful guide to the dating scene in Japan.

Japan's “Love Confessing” Culture
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Girl
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Guy

1. Although "super-deformed" is generally considered analogous to "chibi," I think it's more semantically useful to define "super-deformed" literally and "chibi" as a sub-category.

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July 08, 2015

Democratic impositions

I'm amused when neo-conservatives are criticized for running around the world imposing "American-style democracy" on foreign peoples. It's a policy memorably articulated by Rudyard Kipling about the long-forgotten Philippine-American War.

Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

In September 1898, anticipating Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" by a century, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt:

America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears.

I agree with most critiques of neo-conservative adventurism, and hew to the Prime Directive in this regard (though preferring Captain Kirk's interpretation to Captain Picard's: sometimes you do have to send the Marines to the Shores of Tripoli).

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

The problem with the "American-style democracy" jibe is that no neo-conservative has ever imposed "American-style democracy" on anybody. The American political system is uniquely a product of our own history, geography, and demographics.

Bottom line: the Rube Goldberg machine called the United States is too weird to impose on anybody anywhere else. Rather, what neo-conservatives have been doing is running around the world imposing European-style parliamentary democracies.

All the more troubling, these parliamentary democracies tend to be modeled on unitary states with hyper-strong central governments and little shared sovereignty or "local rule." Japan, France, and Great Britain are three notable examples.

If any political system was going to be imposed on anybody, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better off with an "Articles of Confederation" framework that made the provinces fairly independent and got them on board first.

Functioning provinces first, nation-building second. After all, learning from our mistakes with the Articles of Confederation gave us version 2.0, the current U.S. Constitution.

Even then, the anti-federalists didn't lose the ideological battle until after the Civil War. Then over the next century, the political pendulum swung too far in the other direction. As it did in Japan.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 upset 250 years of fairly strong local rule, abruptly centralizing power without the necessary checks and balances. The temptation is understandable: to rule by decree and to right wrongs "because we know best."

Because, you know, those provincials in the provinces are just too provincial to get with the times (exactly the same attitude that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate).

Alas, without the (implicit or explicit) consent of the governed, governing ends up a game of Whac-A-Mole. The people forever out of power may decide to shoot the people in power. Except that the people with the most guns are usually the military.

That was Japan during the 1930s. Creating "facts on the ground" that couldn't be undone by feckless politicians, middle-ranked army officers in Japan and China launched coups and started their own wars. In most cases, the government caved.

Wrote Robert Heinlein, "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."

In the end, it's not an election or a constitution that makes the difference. It's the widely-understood rules of the game and everybody's willingness to play by them. Common law becomes the rule of law by first being common.

The United States started with Jeffersonian republicanism before moving to Hamiltonian federalism. The rule of law predated the U.S. Constitution. Key elements of the Bill of Rights had already been written into state constitutions.

Before relying on--and yielding sovereignty to--the big, people must build trust in the small. They have to "trust, but verify." Otherwise, even the most perfect democratic system will never work, no matter how, by, or on whom it is imposed.

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July 02, 2015

Kimi ni Todoke

Japan can best be understood (sociologically and anthropologically) as a country of 128 million introverts living in a country the size of California. Actually, that's 127 million introverts and one million extroverts who fill all the jobs for talk show hosts and politicians.

As a result, even reaching the borderlines of the personality disorder spectrum in Japan--the poster child here being hikikomori--requires diving deep into Asperger syndrome territory, well past the point at which an American helicopter parent would have carted the kid off to a shrink.

To the average introvert, though, Japanese society is pretty much organized the way society ought to be, hence the nerd appeal: it's not some wayward planet Captain Kirk needs to save from itself.

(Though NHK did feel the need to create an online course for elementary school students that explains how to carry on a constructive conversation and communicate with your teacher. It's a pretty good series, frankly.)

Surveys of Japanese high school and college students reveal little interest in abandoning the traditional hierarchical social structure. Despite all the attendant dysfunctions, it's too convenient a way to relate to people without getting too forward or personal all at once (if ever).

A new word had to be invented to describe speaking colloquially with one's peers as equals: tamego (タメ語). Versus using the traditional honorifics: keigo (敬語). Nevertheless, keigo remains the universal default, even among the "younger set."

The great turning point in every Japanese romance is when the main characters start using tamego with each other.

Because of the reversed ratios on this side of the Pacific, the American extrovert's primary (if only) exposure to introverts is television. Principally Aspergery characters like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, who aren't only introverted but socially maladaptive in a variety of humorous ways.

Granted, it is easier to "show, don't tell" when you're dealing with showy material. By the same token, the extroverted protagonist is easier to write for than somebody comfortable living inside his own head (without relying on copious voice-overs).

Extroverts aren't hard to find on Japanese television for the same reason. They're especially useful for jump-starting conflicts and propelling plots forward (see: tsundere), especially when obvious conflicts go unresolved because of the lack of definitive action or clear communication.

And, yes, the lack of definitive action or clear communication can make Japanese romances way more annoying than American ones. But when the protagonists really are introverts, also more believable (which doesn't always mean more entertaining).

The quintessential showcase is Kimi ni Todoke ("From Me to You"), the hugely popular manga by Karuho Shiina. Serialized since 2006, it's been made in a light novel series, an anime series, and a live-action film (with Mikako Tabe). Here we are presented with a mirror held up to the national teen psyche.

The premise appears entirely predictable at first: Sawako, the quietest girl in class, falls for Shota, the most popular guy.

Except that Shota is not the typical BMOC extrovert (one of those shows up in the second season). If Sawako can be described as far more shy than introverted, Shota is perhaps more introverted but markedly less shy. Shyness and introversion are certainly not synonyms!

The most introverted person in the series is Ryu, Shota's best friend. He's also not shy but has a gregariousness rating of approximately zero. He is the strong, silent type. (In the first season, Chizuru and Ryu are also the more interesting couple, a problem I'll address in a future post.)

Sawako definitely is shy. Worse, she looks like "Sadako," the devilish main character in Koji Suzuki's famous horror trilogy. Everybody calls her "Sadako" and deems her bad luck to be around. Exacerbated by her extremely reserved personality, this pretty much shuts down her social life.

Important point: that isn't something she's wrung her hands over (until now). Introverts don't. They shrug and carry on.

Sawako was comfortably living in her own little world until, like Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief, she's befriended by a happy-go-lucky pair of extroverts (extroverted according to Japanese standards). Ayane and Chizuru, in turn, connect her to Shota, who, it turns out, already has a thing for her.

(While this reliable plot device is amusing enough in fiction, in real life it often arouses the kind of emotions that would frighten Hannibal Lecter.)

But since Shota is pretty introverted too (though of the more normal sort), he's not going to broach the subject with someone he knows isn't going to broach it either. As I mentioned, this can get annoying fast. And I'll warn you: it drives the plot of practically the entire second season.

This is the underlying flaw in the teen soap opera: you have to keep breaking up the couple so they can get back together. For a long-running series, I would prefer something akin to the timeline of Clannad, that follows the main characters out of their teenage years into their early twenties.

(These problems might also have been mitigated if, as Kate puts it, Sawako and Shota didn't have so much time to "sit and around and get angsty," and got themselves a part-time job or serious hobby.)

A troublesome extrovert.
Predictably, one of the catalysts in making things worse is a brassy ex-pat incapable of minding his own business. It does pay off nicely in the end, but you will suffer for it as much as the characters. (Thirty-eight episodes is suffering enough; the manga is closing on a tortuous one hundred.)

What ultimately saves the series (more in the first season than the second), is that romance is not the constant focus of attention. Rather, the story is about how extending her circle of friends to two or three more people not only expands her world but theirs as well.

Sawako isn't "troubled" or "damaged" or harboring deep psychological secrets. She is only less than fully functional in her inability to "read" people, but even that becomes a kind of superpower. Not reacting predictably to ulterior motives has the comical result of defanging the mean girls.

For an introvert to be an outlier in a Japanese melodrama, she has to be a true outlier. So Sawako is odd even by Japanese standards, but not so odd that millions of Japanese don't identify with her.

If you're looking for a Harlequin plot with extroverts confessing their undying love and making public displays of affection, you're not going to get it (prepare for the exact opposite). What you will get instead is a gentle, goodhearted tale about quiet people becoming better at who they already are.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (Hulu  CR  VIZ)
MacGuffin man
Useful Japanese stereotypes
Understanding Japanese women

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June 29, 2015

Courtly conclusions

The first line of Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage) sums up my thoughts about both "momentous" Supreme Court decisions last week: "The substance of today's decree is not of immense personal importance to me."

My libertarian instincts lead me likewise to shrug. As far as the state is concerned, marriage is a legal contract; what religions wish to make of it is up to them. In any case, almost all of the damage done to "marriage as an institution" comes from the misbehavior of the heterosexual majority.

On the other hand, Obamacare is about as far from a libertarian solution as can be imagined. But as George Will points out, conservatives are reaping what they sowed: "Their decades of populist praise of judicial deference to the political branches has borne this sour fruit."

And so Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy" kicks in with a vengeance.

In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Second, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization.

As a sign of things to come, a third Supreme Court decision is eerily germane. In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Court struck down the insane actions of the National Raisin Reserve (a real government agency), that props up commodity prices by "seizing" (stealing) crops grown by farmers.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate "marketing orders" to help maintain stable markets for particular agricultural products. The marketing order for raisins requires growers in certain years to give a percentage of their crop to the Government, free of charge.

Farmers aren't exactly innocent lambs here. Thanks to equally stupid laws dating back to the same New Deal era, rent-seeking by all parties is rife within the agricultural economy.

Decade after decade, farm bills are debated and "reformed," an Orwellian term that means paying off the relevant constituencies (like Arizona cotton growers) and endlessly toying at the fringes, until things get so out of whack that the courts finally weigh in on the side of common sense (maybe).

It only takes three-quarters of a century. Or longer. Equally dreadful aspects of New Deal agricultural policy are merrily humming along (like paying farmers to grow cotton in the desert).

In other words, Obamacare isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Luckily for Obamacare opponents, health care isn't so arcane nobody cares about it, and the current implementation is hardly everybody's cup of tea. "Repeal and replace" is a dead letter, but there is currently an opening for commensense tweaking.

An obvious one is getting rid of employer-sponsored plans. Your employer doesn't dictate the terms of your auto or home insurance. Like FICA payments, a company's only responsibility should be depositing withholdings in the right bucket. That alone would eliminate religious objections to mandated coverage.

The one legislative error underlying all others is trying to do too much at once (fearing the chance won't come around again), and ending up writing laws so complex and opaque that they have to "pass it to find out how it works." Did Nancy Pelosi know she was paraphrasing a political cartoon from 1947?

Opponents to Obamacare and gay marriage shouldn't make the same mistake. Mark Shields is exactly right that the Supreme Court has done the Republicans candidates "an enormous political favor." Democrats now fully own Obamacare, while establishment Republicans have been shooting blanks on alternatives.

And when it comes to gay marriage, Republicans are demonstrating themselves to be empty of actual political principles. They're the ones who federalized marriage in the first place. Remember DOMA? That was back when everybody was gung-ho in favor of "traditional marriage."

At this point, Republican candidates risk self-destructing in order to garner a few primary wins. The best thing they could do for the cause is shut up about it until after November 2016.

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June 25, 2015

The teen manga artist

Despite the manga market in Japan cooling off largely due to the inevitable demographic shifts, publishers are still actively recruiting new talent. This has produced a YA genre unique to Japan that centers around the teenage manga artist.

The genre falls into two general categories: 1) the amateur/self-published (dojinshi) manga artist, often a member of a high school or college manga club; 2) a teenager earning a living as a manga artist.

In the former category are Comic Party and Genshiken. In both cases, the goal is getting a booth at the Comiket comic fair (or its equivalent), the world's biggest dojinshi convention.

A few of the more talented club members may parlay this into a career in the future, but that's not the point of the story. As Kate points out, the setting has the important function of giving the characters something to do.

The problem of providing genre romantic characters with a difference can often be solved by simply giving the main characters jobs, and then remembering what those jobs are.

This is literally the case for the teenagers in the latter category. They often even live alone (second item). This isn't unusual in Japan, where a high school student can enroll in an "escalator school" away from home, or whose parents are working abroad.

In anime and manga about making manga, "the teenager as working artist" breaks down into several sub-categories:

  • As in Ef–A Tale of Memories, being a manga artist is simply one aspect of a person's character and a source of conflict as such.
  • Though more commonly, the main character being a manga artist comprises the whole plot device.
  • As an added twist, a guy is writing a romance manga or a teen girl is writing for a sexually explicit imprint (like Cheese).

Everything I've read says that Bakuman is the best series about growing up to become a manga artist. The story follows two ninth grade boys who are striving to break into the business, with Moritaka Mashiro as the artist and Akito Takagi as the writer.

Media Blasters had picked up the anime but subsequently abandoned the license. The manga series is published by VIZ Media.

Otherwise, the best of the rest is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. Nozaki Umetaro is a hunky high school student who, unbeknownst to most of his classmates, draws a popular romance manga for a girl's magazine.

Producing two chapters a month leaves him desperate for new material. And help. Established manga artists employ a small staff to help meet the always pressing deadlines. Nozaki resorts to roping his classmates into those chores, including Chiyo.

Because of an understandable misunderstanding, the first time he broaches the subject, she thinks he's asking her on a date. Instead she finds herself learning how to do beta (that means filling in designated areas with solid black).

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun confirms that "giving your characters something to do is always more interesting than letting them sit and around and get angsty." Nozaki has something to do, a place to be, and Chiyo a non-awkward reason for being there.

The monomaniacal Nozaki is the perfect straight man, navigating a sea of absurdity without straining belief. The series is good-natured, not too sit-com stupid (a trap Comic Party falls into at times), and honestly very funny.

The genre doesn't stop with high school. Yasuko and Kenji (a live-action comedy not available in the U.S.) has the leader of a biker gang abandoning his old life and becoming a manga artist to support his kid sister when their parents die.

Mangirl (an unfortunate-sounding portmanteau of "manga" and "girl") is about just that, a very silly and very short (less than five minutes per episode) but surprisingly smart show about four OLs launching a manga magazine.

The people making these anime are following the adage of writing what they know best, so the added bonus is that you will learn a good deal about the manga industry in the process (including dealing with odd editors and eccentric artists).

Incidentally, the best series about the anime industry right now (said by industry insiders to border on documentary accuracy) is Shirobako. It's also about working adults, though they started out in a high school anime club.

Related links

Comic Party Revolution (Hulu)
Ef–A Tale of Memories (Hulu) (CR)
Genshiken II (Hulu) (CR)
Mangirl (CR)
Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun (Hulu) (CR)
Shirobako (Hulu) (CR)

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June 22, 2015

The future of TV

In "7 Deadly Sins: Where Hollywood is Wrong about the Future of TV," Liam Boluk tackles the past, present, and future of commercial television in the context of rising competition from over-the-top (OTT) services. By the time the networks are "ready" to fully embrace OTT, he argues, they'll have already been supplanted.

In terms of minutes viewed, at its current pace, Netflix "will become the most popular video provider in the US by the end of 2015," making it "bigger than two of the four major US broadcasters and twice as large as the largest cable network." Hulu and Amazon are larger than half of traditional cable offerings and growing.

Boluk nails down exactly where the impetus for "cord cutting" comes from; i.e., abandoning cable TV for OTT:

Since 2005 alone, the average pay TV household has more than doubled the number of channels it receives (to around 200), while the number of channels they actually watch has increased by only one (from 16.5 to 17.5).

It'd be interesting to analyze how much overlap there is in those 17.5 channels.

ESPN recently freaked out when Verizon announced the creation of à la carte TV packages that didn't include ESPN by default. ESPN had leveraged its popularity into requiring that its channels be part of the basic cable TV package, raking in seven bucks from every cable TV subscriber (this doesn't even sound legal to me).

Its reaction suggests ESPN fears that, given the choice, far more viewers can live without its content than in the good old days, when people got cable just to get ESPN (or rather, ESPN had the only original programming on cable).

Cable TV has definitely developed a featuritis problem: it's selling the sparkle of 200 channels, 90 percent of which is ultimately ignored. The gamble--that paid off up till now--was that by the time the consumer realized this, the cable bill was just another utility. Shrug and pay it.

But no longer. And another reason is a disruptor that nobody saw coming.

Sports was the original reality television. For a time it seemed that, like game shows in the 1950s, cheaply produced "scripted reality" shows were going to solve the networks' money flow problems. And before that, 24 hour news was going to dominate everything.

Really, that's what the "experts" said.

Now, Al Jazeera's half-billion dollar cable buy has crashed and burned. CNN runs a distant second to Fox News, neck-in-neck with MSNBC, which is pulling the lowest ratings in a decade. In Marge Simpson's words, "The story was first reported on CNN. Then the real news started reporting it all over the world."

"Reality TV" has certainly kept production costs low. But then came the "AMC Effect." AMC was a "stable, if unambitious Tier 2 cable network" that suddenly raced to the head of the pack with a series of audacious, one-hour original dramas, debuting Mad Men in 2007 and Breaking Bad in 2008.

AMC now has the most-watched scripted series across broadcast, basic cable and premium cable, The Walking Dead. As one might expect, this success has prompted all networks to view originals as essential to driving awareness, building a brand, retaining users and generating profits.

To be sure, football remains the perennial ratings winner, but it's a finite resource. The networks have to anchor their schedules with a franchise like NCIS, that still tops the broadcast television ratings after 12 seasons.

The curious paradox about "premium" content providers is how little original content they actually provide, compared to the hours that over-the-air (OTA) networks have to fill. In part, this is because every cable channel feeds at the same subscription fee trough as ESPN. All that matters is getting into the subscription package.

So how many hit shows do you need to maximize ROI? As it turns out, two highly-rated shows that draw the same audience may be less valuable than two lesser-rated shows that draw completely different audiences.

Many of today's original series are being cancelled not because they aren't good enough or because there's too much out there, but because the industry's business models and metrics haven't been updated to the on-demand, non-linear era. Until that changes, cancellation rates will only get worse.

Golf has been proving this point for decades. Professional golf fills the weekend afternoon airwaves during the summer, earning lousy rating in absolute terms (aside from a handful of marquee events). But golf is popular among a particular demographic that certain advertisers want very badly to reach.

This points to another downstream effect: the long-term impact on the whole ratings system.

The old approach was to poll households to find out who was watching what. But streaming providers know exactly who is watching what. The same way Amazon generates internal sales data superior to any New York Times bestseller list, OTT will ultimately disintermediate the whole Nielsen rating system.

Alas, without a big build-out of "last mile" infrastructure, OTT will have a hard time beating cable in terms of signal quality. And that might not matter. It's just as Clay Christensen predicted: "A low-end product doesn't need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market."

Here, though, the pressure comes from both the high and low end. Free over-the-air delivers the best HDTV signal. Content providers that are also ISPs can't improve bandwidth without making OTT all the more attractive, and they can't not improve ISP service with Google waiting in the wings.

Except that Google isn't exactly galloping into the ISP business (I wish they would at least trot a few miles north from Provo). For the time being, Comcast has a nice deal going, maximizing income from content and Internet services. Nothing drastic is likely to happen as long as the money keeps gushing in.

Even in the face of cord-cutting fears, regulatory uncertainty and increasing resistance to its unpopular merger proposal with Time Warner Cable Inc. [since abandoned], Comcast has delivered one blockbuster quarter after another, often blowing past analysts’ estimates.

Cable Internet services have incredible profit margins (meaning they incredibly overcharge). Robert Cringely speculates that cable ISPs might even welcome being "forced" to shed the heavy costs of providing content in favor of providing only bits, which would eventually turn every local ISP into a de facto CDN.

My prediction is that, in the near future, the last quarter century of cable programming will prove to have been a slowly growing bubble. Squeezed by OTA and OTT, cable will have to go à la carte. The number of channels viewers are willing to outright pay for will collapse.

Unless content providers can keep subscription costs low enough that customers don't worry about the bill. The easiest way to do that is to slash the number of offerings and leave the long tail to OTT. To paraphrase Hemingway, when the paradigm does shift, it's likely to be gradually at first and then all at once.

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June 18, 2015

The Showa drama

The Showa drama is a staple of narrative fiction in Japan, especially movies and television. According to the "era name" dating system (or nengou), the Showa period is named for the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989).

The era name of his son Akihito is Heisei, so Showa 64 and Heisei 1 both refer to 1989. Confusing? You bet! Historical references prior to the Meiji period often include the Gregorian year in parentheses because it's confusing to Japanese too.

In Carnation, Itoko has to work hard to save her precious sewing machine from getting recycled.
A Showa drama can begin in the late Meiji (ending in 1912) or Taisho (ending in 1926). Typically the story really gets rolling in the early Showa or during the Occupation following WWII (1945-1952).

Political events such as the "February 26 Incident" are noted in passing (if at all) and the war itself is shown from the point of view of a middle-class housewife: coping with draconian rationing while watching the young conscripts go off to war and come home in boxes.

And in series like Hanako and Anne and Massan (the former because Hanako was an English translator, the latter because Ellie was a British national), fending off the loathed Kempeitai, the Gestapo-like police force.

The Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 frame the Showa drama as metaphorical turning points.

The genre remains as popular as Edo period (1603-1868) samurai dramas. With every milestone (this being the 70th year since the war's end), it is increasingly steeped in nostalgia. Of the ten Asadora serials broadcast on NHK since 2010, seven have been Showa dramas.

Including the last two: Hanako and Anne and Massan. Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is in many respects a very conventional Showa drama.

The more upbeat "Happy Days" version of the Showa drama is prefaced by the Occupation and ends in 1964 with the Shinkansen and the Tokyo Olympics. Ume-chan Sensei belong in this latter category, as does Goro Miyazaki's From up on Poppy Hill.

There is probably a no more sepia-steeped example than Always: Sunset on Third Street. Literally, in this case, as you can tell from the title.

Always tells the story of a working-class neighborhood in Tokyo, focusing on Ryunosuke Chagawa, a struggling novelist, and Norifumi Suzuki, an auto mechanic who can't resist buying the latest gadget: a refrigerator and B&W TV in the first film, a color TV by the third.

The trilogy ends in 1964 with the Tokyo Olympics and a pair of newlyweds leaving for their honeymoon on the brand-new Shinkansen.

Yasujiro Ozu's slice-of-life family dramas from the 1950s and early 1960s make for an interesting comparison. The only nostalgia on display in Ozu's postwar films is for those few remaining remnants of a world destroyed by the war and now rapidly fading away.

Ozu spends little time looking backwards and instead focuses his attention on the world around him. Not knowing what was going to happen hence, Japan in the 1950s was a less than reassuring time. For all anybody knew, it was going to be the Taisho period all over again.

In 1953, Donald Keene visited Kyoto as a graduate student, at one point attending an economics conference sponsored by the Institute for Pacific Affairs. He observed that the Japanese attendees were uniformly "convinced that Japan's future was dismal."

The general impressions of the conference, at least to an outsider like myself, were of resignation on the part of the Japanese and friendly but unhelpful attempts by non-Japanese to cheer them. I could not detect anything positive arising from the discussions.

None of them could imagine that three decades of double-digit economic growth were right around the corner, that would turn Japan into an industrial powerhouse. They wouldn't have to wait long.

This evolving realization can be read into Yasujiro Ozu's films. The sober realism of Tokyo Story (1953), Early Spring, (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957) brightens markedly with Good Morning (1959), The End of Summer (1961), and Late Autumn (1963).

His later films are suffused with a bemused wonder at the new world blossoming around him. Ozu delights in framing old, worn, wooden architecture in facades of glistening glass and steel; characters leave one scene in traditional kimono and enter the next in suits and skirts.

People move from old businesses to modern office buildings, from old houses to concrete apartment blocks. The glowing technicolor turns them into photo spreads out of National Geographic, preserving a point in time as it really was rather than how it is now remembered.

Still, Showa nostalgia is more than a trick of memory. Japan went on a 30-year winning streak, temporarily tripped up only by the oil shocks of the early 1970s. It became the second largest economy in the world and not a few "big thinkers" predicted it would soon pass the U.S.

Then the bubble burst. For the next two decades, everything that could go wrong did: a stock market crash, two devastating earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, birth rates below replacement and a declining population that shows no sigh of leveling out anytime soon.

Except when that declining workforce is factored into the equation (GDP-per-worker), the Japanese economy is doing rather well. Gee, now it's only the third biggest in the world. Per-capita GDP in 2014 is over three times that in 1964. Japan leads the world in life expectancy.

Last September at TEDx Kyoto, Jesper Koll enthusiastically made the forward-looking argument:

Which isn't to say that the good old days weren't, just that they weren't quite as good as we like to remember, and the present day isn't quite as bad as we like to pretend.

Related posts

Hanako and Anne
The Wind Rises
Ume-chan Sensei
From up on Poppy Hill
Showa nostalgia

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June 15, 2015

Utopia wasn't built in a day

At the heart of every Edenic green dream is an obliviousness to the necessity of time and the demands of scale. A similar flaw shows up in near-future science fiction. Any razzle-dazzle infrastructure predicted to be ubiquitous a quarter-century from now has to be in the permitting process now.

When referencing the Space Race, remember that the chief architect of the Saturn V booster was Wernher von Braun, who'd launched 5200 V-2 liquid-fuel rockets during the 1940s. His designs were in large part based on Robert Goddard's groundbreaking research in the 1920s.

Japan Railways and its predecessors had started buying up rights-of-way for the Shinkansen thirty years before it debuted in 1964 (the war having put the original plans on hold). The route itself followed the centuries-old Tokaido Road.

These things take time. Unlike Jean-Luc Picard, no modern, democratic government can "Make it so" by merely ordering it. Even authoritarian regimes are finding it tough these days to rule by decree.

California is still a democracy. A messy one. The LA Times recently reported: "Finding a route into the Los Angeles Basin for the California bullet train is proving far more difficult than it seemed a year ago, as opposition is surging in wealthy and working-class communities alike."

Phase 1 of California High-Speed Rail project is supposed to be completed by 2029. Chances of Phase 1 getting done on time: zero. Chances of it never being finished: high. Discussing the various obstacles to the routes currently under debate, Steve Sailer concludes:

Theoretically, High Speed Rail could follow the existing tracks west through Simi Valley to Santa Barbara--I've taken the slow train to Santa Barbara. But nobody can conceive of the zillionaires of Santa Barbara allowing High Speed Rail to roar through Montecito, so that idea never comes up.

Even if we could nationalize all the beautiful back yards and ocean front vistas keeping such projects at bay, there's still the problem of actually building the thing. Or as Elon Musk would prefer, a whole bunch of things, explains Will Boisvert in "The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted."

Does all the messianic talk of battery-powered "disruption" and solar triumphalism stack up? Hardly. For all their ballyhooed price reductions, Tesla batteries are still too unreliable and expensive to come even within hyping distance of neither a reliable power supply, nor an off-grid revolution.

To get down to brass tacks:

(Click to enlarge.)

For that much money, Boisvert points out, you could build enough AP1000 nuclear power plants to completely decarbonize Germany's electrical supply. Germany presently gets 75 percent of its electrical power from fossil fuel sources. That's measurably higher than the U.S. (67 percent).

France gets eight (8!) percent of its electrical power from fossil fuels. Nuclear accounts for 77 percent.

Before Fukushima, Japan generated 30 percent of its electrical power from nuclear; it's now close to zero, the difference being made up by oil, gas, and coal. Unlike Germany, Japan intends to restart its nuclear plants. Like Germany, in the meantime, it's increasingly relying on coal.

We've been building steam-turbine generators since 1884. They generate terawatts of reliable power and run 24/7 for years. But "the falling price of wind and solar generators has distracted us from the external costs of trying to shape [wind and solar] into an energy source we can count on."

As I said: these things take time. Oh, I can well imagine renewables becoming "affordable" in the near future because of bounteous subsidies (not that India and China care; heck, if I were them, I'd sign any treaty put in front of me and keep burning coal).

Except subsidies don't change the laws of physics. All those wind and photovoltaic farms will require an equally large number of base load power plants (if not nuclear, then burning fossil fuels well into the next century) to mitigate the storage problems. Which we'll merrily pretend don't exist.

The carbon equation won't change one iota, but at the very least we can all feel better about ourselves.

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