University of Maryland professor Gordon Prange spent his entire professional life not finishing the definitive work about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was left to a former student, Donald Goldstein, to edit 10,000 pages of notes into what would become At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor.
The story of this improbable literary and historical journey is recounted in Prange & Pearl Harbor: A Magnificent Obsession. Goldstein, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, is featured prominently in the documentary.
Prange not only amassed an entire shipping container full of source material (the Gordon W. Prange Collection at the University of Maryland), but as chief historian in MacArthur's staff, he interviewed key players in the Pearl Harbor attack and later brought several to the U.S. as his personal guests.
The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was based on two articles Prange wrote for Reader's Digest, a précis of what would become At Dawn we Slept. Instead of laying blame for Pearl Harbor at the feet of American incompetence, Prange credits Yamamoto with executing a brilliantly planned attack.
Though it proved a Pyrrhic victory, the consequences of which Yamamoto himself prophetically foresaw:
I shall run wild [in the Pacific] for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.
The tide of war turned a mere six months later at the Battle of Midway. And a year after that, Yamamoto was killed when a squadron of P-38s shot down his transport plane over Bougainville (again thanks to U.S. codebreakers).
Prange & Pearl Harbor: A Magnificent Obsession still shows up on public television stations. The Utah Education Network (KUEN) broadcasts it every year on December 7, something to keep in mind for next year. In the meantime, the DVD should be available from Maryland Public Television.
I'm fine with the same only different. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an early 19th century playwright, poet, and Whig Member of the British House of Commons, archly said of a fellow politician,
The gentleman has said much that is good, and much that is original; but that which was original was not good, and that which was good was not original.
In other words, I quite enjoyed Pacific Rim, a fun, blow-em-up, alien invader film, even though it is a carbon copy of Independence Day. Except underwater. And with monsters and mechas instead of fighter planes and spacecraft.
Mecha is a well-established science fiction/fantasy genre in Japan, featuring futuristic mechanical devices, especially gigantic human-piloted robots (as distinct from Iron Man type exoskeletons).
I generally avoid mecha series for the reasons Steven Den Beste lays out here: mecha don't make sense tactically, ergonomically, or thermodynamically. Den Beste cites the following from Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington:
If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations--then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation--well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
Shorter version: the ain't no such thing as a free energy lunch. Adhering--if only in spirit--to the Second Law of Thermodynamics would greatly improve science fiction across the board.
The appallingly bad science in most Hollywood science fiction notwithstanding, compelling characters and a well-told story can make up for a lot in the stupid department (the scientifically stupid Independence Day being a case in point).
Pacific Rim is certainly the best live-action mecha movie ever made. It's exceptionally faithful to its Japanese roots, not only in the robot designs but in the mind-melding between the pilots, key to mecha series like Simoun and Eureka Seven.
They even got an actual Japanese actress (Rinko Kikuchi) to play an actual Japanese character! (A curiously rare casting decision, as Peter Payne points out.)
Still, there's nothing wrong with being good and original. It's high time Hollywood got past the Independence Day premise: aliens trash the Earth to exploit its natural resources. Thankfully, the invading aliens are invariable really dumb.
Pacific Rim logically falls apart when it's revealed the monster are being directed by sentient beings. At least the aliens in Independence Day attacked en masse. If conquering the Earth is the objective, doing it piecemeal makes no sense.
Except to give the beleaguered humans a sporting chance. Though this revelation comes late enough in the movie that it can simply be shrugged off.
A few delightful characters help the medicine go down: a pair of mad scientists reminiscent of Leonard and Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, and Ron Perlman as a dealer in dead monster parts (watch the final credits to learn his ultimate fate).
Mecha anime series closer to fantasy than science fiction make the bad science easier to intellectually digest. But there is one series that succeeds as hard science fiction: Patlabor. (Sorry, but Neon Genesis Evangelion does nothing for me.)
Patlabor starts out by establishing a realistic premise: "Patrol Labors" evolved out of heavy construction equipment. A drunk at the controls of a semi-sentient earth mover could cause a lot of problems, necessitating equally equipped cops.
True to the spirit of the Second Law, they're hauled around on huge flatbed trucks and their batteries constantly have to be recharged.
The Patlabor franchise is also responsible for an outstanding entry in the albeit tiny category of monster vs. mech movies, a well-crafted and deeply moving drama in any genre: the feature-length Patlabor WXIII.
Unlike the mecha-centric television series, WXIII is a traditional police procedural, with the mechas playing a supporting role. The monster is man-made, the product of maternal love and human tragedy. No aliens invade and no apocalypse looms.
As I've argues elsewhere, small and mundane human problems often make for far more compelling drama than the ending of the world.
The original Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow and the film by Mamoru Oshii proved to be as iconic as Blade Runner, and truly defined the cyberpunk genre in the anime world. Even so, the later Stand-Alone Complex television series far outdid the originals in getting cyberpunk right.
Not only by avoiding the stale "robots are taking over!" meme that Hollywood writers can't get past. But in imagining a technological society just short of the "Singularity" (one of those evolutionary steps that will always be just over the horizon), and yet no more or less dystopian than this one.
The human species keeps muddling through, as it always has and always will.
The series is being rebooted in a four-film series featuring a new cast, designs, director and writer (though still produced by Production I.G.). It's a prequel even to Stand-Alone Complex, taking Kusanagi back to the beginning of her career with Section 9. This is a series I definitely want to see.
Some action movie stars age better than others, and Jean-Claude Van Damme looks great. His amazing performance makes you forget the trucks are going backwards. Driving a big rig with that kind of precision is an impressive technological feat.
This stunt with Van Damme advertising Volvo trucks makes me want to buy a Volvo truck and to listen to Enya. I am fighting off the former urge but will indulge the latter.
Van Damme is one of those actors I instantly recognize, but none of his movies spring to mind. Steven Seagal, by comparison, made one memorable movie, Under Siege, which belongs in the action flick pantheon along with Die Hard and Terminator II.
One of Seagal's forgotten films, Into the Sun (2005), was also much better than Ridley Scott's similar but dreadful Black Rain (1989), despite the big Hollywood budget and Michael Douglas and the sadly wasted Ken Takakura sharing the leads.
Unlike Van Damme, Seagal has put on a lot of padding of late. Though I do admire the fact that both of these aging action movie stars (who are actual martial artists in real life) are constantly working, even if everything they do goes straight to cable.
Okay, maybe they're simply trying to maintain the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed. But for whatever reason, a work ethic is a work ethic. Good for them!
This is one live-action film I never saw a need for. It doesn't debut in Japan until next March and who knows when it will get here. But I'll lower my expectations and hope to be pleasantly surprised.
If you haven't seen the Studio Ghibli/Disney version, you're missing a great animated film (with a top-notch English language cast too), especially if you're looking for strong female role models.
A lesser-known anime classic in this vein is Magic User's Club. The humor is on the juvenile side at times, but it takes a clever approach to the old alien invasion storyline.
And in the process we learn that sitting on a broom (sans a pillow) hurts your butt, and the best way to deal with a malevolent (well, very nosy) alien spacecraft is to turn it into a giant cherry tree.
Here's nice overview of Microsoft's OS anime mascots, or "OS-tan" (tan is a slang form of the diminutive suffix chan).
Windows 8 would be a lot more popular if it looked like this!
Though it's hardly a Microsoft "fetish." OS-tan have been around for quite a while in Japan. In fact, Microsoft is showing remarkably quick-witted marketing chops for what is widely considered a stodgy tech company.
Especially in this "Internet Explorer Nanoha" IE-tan ad.
Incidentally, her "transformation" (no telephone booth required) is a staple of the "magical girl" anime genre, especially Sailor Moon, though I prefer the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha franchise.
It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether. The actual energy savings are minimal, if they exist at all. Frequent and uncoordinated time changes cause confusion, undermining economic efficiency. There's evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles . . . lowers productivity and increases heart attacks.
But she isn't content to stop there:
Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again--no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States.
An intriguing idea, to be sure, and there is something to be said for getting everybody on the same page. Or on the same two pages. Nothing's more confusing than flying through Phoenix in the summer.
But the world is round and there are 24 hours in the day. That means time zones.
Besides, the real reason Brigham Young moved the Mormons to Utah was so we'd end up in the Goldilocks time zone. Prime time television starts at 7:00 PM and ends at 10:00 PM. Weekday sporting events are over by 9:30 PM.
And all those annoying political interruptions radiating from Washington start at 7:00 PM or earlier, making them that much easier to tune out.
That won't work if the East Coast is only one hour ahead of us.
On the other hand, prime time television would still start at 7:00 PM in Utah. Weekday sporting events (and presidential addresses) could start two hours earlier on the East Coast because California would now only be an hour behind.
The phrase "天下の" (tenka no) literally means "under heaven." In a historical context, it referred to a warlord receiving the blessing of Heaven and the emperor (having killed or subjugated everybody else competing for the job):
During the Warring States period, that's what the various warlords were trying to do: win enough power that they could go to the emperor in Kyoto and receive his blessing to become the designated military ruler of the country (shogun).
Yet even after bribing everybody in sight, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) only won the title of regent. He was a commoner by birth and class is a far more precious commodity than wealth. So he invaded Korea instead.
After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) wisely exited Korea, wiped out Hideyoshi's allies at Sekigahara in 1600, and did get it (he doctored his family tree to make sure).
These days, a more cynical Japanese public attaches the phrase "tenka no" to pedestrian institutions like NTT. "Tenka no NTT" thus means "the company anointed by heaven to provide telephone service to the Japanese people."
Like the court officials frustrating Toyotomi Hideyoshi's dreams of aristocratic respectability, NTT demands a healthy gratuity to do its job. Along with doctors and landlords.
In rental housing, it's called reikin (礼金) or "key money." It dates back to when the housing market was very tight. Now it's not and reikin is fading. But in a country where tipping is practically unknown, tipping doctors isn't.
Daylight Saving Time (no plural in the official name) in the U.S. now lasts from March to November. Seriously, why not just slap on the remaining four months and be done with it?
DST very much resembles a tax refund from the IRS. Enough people treat tax refunds like "found money" and Daylight Saving Time like "found time" that politicians have, for a half-dozen times since 1918, been able to pretend that something is actually being "saved."
Incidentally, a tax refund is just the principal returned on an interest-free loan to the government.
The 2007 DST revision screwed up my VCR clock, its programming based on the 1986 law. The VCR has since died and gone to appliance heaven, but I have enough manual clocks around to make it a big pain. Not to mention the havoc it plays on my circadian rhythms.
In Japan, DST is called "Summer Time." It was another one of those policies imposed on the population by General MacArthur and abandoned in 1951 when the American Occupation ended (along with giving typhoons names; meteorologists in Japan use numbers).
Japan covers 20 degrees of longitude in one time zone. With Tokyo (which means "eastern capital") situated at 140 degrees east and the outlying islands of Okinawa fifteen degrees to the west, for most Japanese the sun rises early in the morning year round.
You can always go on vacation to Okinawa and enjoy the long, warm evenings. Since proposals to institute "Summer Time" in Japan have so far gotten shot down in short order, the Japanese must prefer it that way.
So do I, although I'd settle for going off DST or staying on it. One way or the other. Permanently.
China, on the other hand, covers over 60 degrees of longitude and has one time zone and no DST. That's taking ruthless bureaucratic efficiency deep into the realms of the irrational, a practice China's oligarchs have been perfecting for a few thousand years.
Found in the same cabinet from last week, pretty phone cards! Phone cards? Who doesn't have a cell phone these days? But back in the day, NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation), the Ma Bell of Japan, charged many hundreds of dollars to install a land line.
Not to physically string the actual copper. Just to give you a number and a dial tone.
More photos of Hasagi (はさ木) in Niigata Prefecture.
So for the college student, the short-term resident, or anybody without $600 (!) to spare, phone cards (or a pocket full of change) and public payphones were the only alternative.
Back in the late 1970s, every room in the BYU dorms had a landline. The only telephone landline you're likely to find in a Japanese dorm is a payphone, still using those phone cards or even coins. They are conveniently color-coded.
In 1999, NTT (the largest telecommunications company in the world) was split into three regional carriers and had to lease unused fiber to third parties. So now a dial tone will only cost you $350! The last time I got a landline here in Utah, it cost me about twenty bucks.
Wireless telephony took off in Japan before the bureaucrats could get around to monopolizing it, so the cell phone (keitai) market is truly competitive and quite reasonably priced.
Gravity is garnering a lot of kudos as the most realistic space movie made to date, though the script still has our heroic pair violating several fundamental laws of physics to make the plot work. As real astronaut Garrett Reisman graciously concedes,
The inaccuracies were done to help advance the plot or to add drama to the film which is exactly the artistic license we should be willing to grant the filmmakers. This is entertainment, not a documentary.
The same can be said about Planetes (2003), one of best ever "near-future" hard-SF anime series. It also involves space debris, in this case a crew of astronaut janitors responsible for cleaning up the dangerous junk zipping around in low Earth orbit.
The first half of the series follows rookie Ai Tanabe as she joins Debris Section, under the tutelage of the young and brash "Hachi" Hoshino. These procedural episodes are some of the best, made all the better by interesting characters and attention to accuracy.
In a way, Planetes, is scientifically honest enough to argue against the idealism of its own premise: showing a child raised in a low-gravity environment to frail to ever return to Earth, and the debilitating effects of long-term exposure to radiation.
The series then gets taken over by Hachi's efforts to qualify for a 2001-style exploratory mission to Jupiter, and a bunch of economic terrorists determined to sabotage the project.
The latter of these two storylines is the weakest. The litanies of zero-sum, socialist complaints about poverty quickly become tiresome, though in the same way that activists of this sort always wear out their rhetorical welcome. So maybe it's on purpose.
In the end, the political arm of the movement sells out the militant arm in exchange for a legislative pat on the head. I did find that totally believable.
The former storyline, about Hachi joining the crew of the Von Braun, is also punishing, except here the writers are taking seriously Kurt Vonnegut's advice for creating compelling dramatic fiction:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
In the process, Hachi becomes a monomaniacal astronaut jerk, and inevitably ends up in a life-or-death struggle with a monomaniacal terrorist jerk. That these are realistic depictions of human nature doesn't make them any more pleasant to watch.
But stick with it. In the final episodes, Hachi's and Ai's character arcs fully develop, intersect, and pay off big time, giving Planetes one of the most rewarding endings--while not losing anything in terms of authenticity--of any anime series.
Hachi's eventual change of heart and reformed outlook on life is real and earned.
In purely scientific terms, Planetes suffers from some of the same technical quibbles as Gravity: the orbital changes required to complete their missions would be impossible with the technology on hand. Orbiting a planet is not like flying a plane.
The more glaring anachronisms include the chain-smoking Fee Carmichael (her nicotine addiction does make for funny comic relief). And a large lunar base would be completely buried to shield it against cosmic rays, solar flares, and micrometeoroids.
But when it comes to science fiction on the big screen and small, making a good-faith effort to get things right counts for a lot. The producers of Planetes paid attention to their JAXA advisors. In that light, the science in this science fiction gets an "A" for effort.
Cleaning out a filing cabinet, I found a bunch of old train passes from two-plus decades ago: Nakamozu (中百舌鳥) in Suminoe to Nakafuto (中ふ頭) in Port Town, with allowed transfers as far as Tennouji (天王寺) and West Umeda (西梅田).
This particular pass was for the month of June. The "1" means Heisei 1, according to the nengou system. The Showa emperor (Emperor Hirohito) died on January 7, making 1989 the last year of Showa and the first year of Heisei (Emperor Akihito).
By comparison, here's a 250 yen paper ticket to Ryokuchi-kouen (緑地公園). I was probably going to the park on my day off. It's a couple of stops north of Umeda.
These passes are made from flexible plastic with a magnetic strip on the back. You stuck the pass (or paper ticket) in a slot while going through the turnstiles, it zipped through the electronic reader, and would be waiting for you when you exited.
Of course, that technology is so last century. Now it's all RFID. (The paper tickets are still the same.)