August 28, 2014

Poseidon of the East (34)

I've posted chapter 34 of Poseidon of the East. Shouryuu again uses the alias of Fuukan in "Kizan."

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August 25, 2014

The Great Passage

"The Great Passage" is the (fictional) name of an unabridged dictionary being created by the microscopic dictionary department in a large publishing firm.

The title of the movie in Japanese is Fune o Amu (舟を編む), which is even more obscure. It literally means "knitting together a boat," Japanese lexicographer's slang for compiling a dictionary.

The Japanese name of the dictionary is Daidokai (大渡海), literally "great sea voyage." Because a dictionary, the managing editor explains, is the ship by which readers navigate the vast sea of words that encompass life.

These people take words seriously.

Ryuhei Matsuda, who did very well as a roving talent agent in Amachan, plays against type as Majime Mitsuya, a clinically introverted linguist who gets chosen (practically at random) to replace a veteran editor at the onset of the project.

The not-uncommon name "Majime" is an Oscar Wilde-worthy pun, as it has the approximate meaning as "earnest" (or "Ernest").

Majime has been living by himself in a boarding house (plus a cat and the landlady), having taking over all the other rooms to store his books. And then the landlady's granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki) moves in.

Aoi Miyazaki, who put in fine performances in Nana (also with Ryuhei Matsuda) and Atsuhime, is perfectly cast here, cute without being unrealistically pretty for the part.

You could be forgiven at this point for expecting a classic "geek gets the girl" story. However, that subplot is pretty much wrapped up in the first half.

This really is a movie about making a dictionary. The whole fifteen-year process. Collecting and collating the entries. The endless revisions. Looming deadlines and shrinking budgets. Frantic searches for missing entries.

It's a fascinating tale from start to finish. Granted, you have to love lexicography to enjoy this movie, which apparently some Japanese movie critics do.

"The Great Passage" won Best Picture at the 2013 Japan Academy Awards. It's made the film festival circuit in the U.S. The title is on Netflix though with no availability listed. Amazon stocks a region 3 DVD. A region 1 should show up sometime.

In the meantime, here's an extended preview (Japanese only).

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August 21, 2014

Poseidon of the East (33)

I've posted chapter 33 of Poseidon of the East.

In T.S. Eliot's version of the death of Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, King Henry II complains aloud, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" A contemporary of Becket, Edward Grim, records a less poetic version:

What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?

In either case, several of the king's men took this to not be a hypothetical question and killed the priest. The difference here is that Atsuyu intended the ends to justify the means from the start. All he wants is plausible deniability.

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August 18, 2014

August 15

As previously noted, Emperor (with Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones) is a needlessly boring and unjustifiably self-important melodrama that misses a great thriller right under its nose.

Early in the morning of August 15, 1945, a group of young Imperial Japanese Army officers attempted to forcibly prevent the Emperor's surrender address from being broadcast that afternoon.

It was an eerie repeat of the "February 26 [1936] Incident" (and even the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877), when a similar coup d'état was launched with the goal of "purging the government and military leadership of their factional rivals and ideological opponents."

The "August 15 Incident" ran out of steam when die-hard War Minister General Korechika Anami refused to lend his moral or material support (unlike Saigo Takamori back in 1877, whose participation ensured a lot more people dying for no reason).

The best cinematic account of the events of August 15 is Japan's Longest Day.

Kihachi Okamoto's 1967 docudrama (based on the book by Kazutoshi Hando), with Toshiro Mifune as General Anami, is rather too hagiographic about Hirohito's role. But it faithfully portrays the suicidal spasm of fanaticism that ended the war for good.

What makes it all the more fascinating is that, almost immediately following a "war without mercy," the war did indeed end for good, as John Dower lays out in detail in the best history of the Occupation, Embracing Defeat.

Popular culture perhaps makes an even stronger argument. A number of surprisingly decent Hollywood movies--fair and fairly accurate--with marquee stars were set in--even made in--Japan not long after the end of the war.

Tokyo Joe (1949, with Humphrey Bogart)
House of Bamboo (1955, with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack)
Teahouse of the August Moon (1956, with Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Eddie Albert, and Harry Morgan)
Sayonara (1957, with Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons, and Ricardo Montalban!)
Escapade in Japan (1957, with Jon Provost of Lassie fame)

Go for Broke! (1951, with Van Johnson) is about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese-Americans. They fought in Europe. It depicts the Nisei soldiers in a quite positive light. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.

Then into the 1960s, we have:

Cry for Happy (1961, with Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor, and Miiko Taka)
My Geisha (1962, with Shirley MacLaine, Yves Montand, and Edward G. Robinson)
Walk, Don't Run (1966, with Cary Grant, Samantha Eggar, Jim Hutton, and Miiko Taka)
You Only Live Twice (1967, with Sean Connery as James Bond)

You Only Live Twice canonized the silliest of modern stereotypes about Japan. Japanese audiences, though, were delighted with the whole thing. The same can be said about The Last Samurai, which is about as historically insightful as an old western B movie.

It seems a little Orientalism can be good for art. I'm sure Hollywood found the "exoticism" of Japan fascinating. But it was exactly this fascination that allowed them to take the non-exotic parts at face value, rather than filter them through their own biases.

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August 14, 2014

Poseidon of the East (32)

I've posted chapter 32 of Poseidon of the East.

The tonkou (遁甲) is the way shirei can move through the winds in the sky, through veins in the earth, and through the currents in the water, while remaining hidden from view. A similar term, tonjutsu (遁術), is defined as the "art of ninja escape."

In Japan, the Tsuina (追儺) festival is known as Setsubun (節分). It's a spiritual spring cleaning ceremony for driving out evil spirits along with the dust, accomplished by peppering people dressed up like ogres with roasted soybeans.

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August 11, 2014

Eric Raymond on SF

Computer programmer and open source software advocate Eric Raymond is also a big fan of "classic" science fiction, by which he means "linear narratives, puzzle stories, competent characters, happy endings, and rational knowability."

Such preferences, of course, are anathema to

critics/authors/editors who are bent on imposing the deep norms of other genres onto the SF field. Such people are especially apt to think SF would be "improved" by adopting the norms and technical apparatus of modern literary fiction.

Raymond identifies the malady at the root of the problem as LSE or "literary status envy."

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th and then 20th-century literary fiction . . . They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

In a later post, he warns that

LSE is a wasting disease. It invades the brains of writers of SF and other genres, progressively damaging their ability to tell entertaining stories until all they can write is unpleasant gray goo fit only for consumption by lit majors. One of the principal sequelae of the disease is plunging sales.

He provides a list of symptoms to watch for, such as:

1. [Author] desires to be considered a "serious artist."
2. Idea content is absent or limited to politicized social criticism.
3. Heroism does not occur except as anti-heroic mockery.
4. All major characters are psychologically damaged.

I especially like number 7:

7. Inability to write an unambiguously happy ending. In advanced cases, the ability to write any ending at all may be lost.

The rest can be found here. As Kate points out, the symptoms of LSE show up in in lit-crit critiques of pretty much all "classic" genre fiction, for example, the works of Agatha Christie.

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August 07, 2014

Poseidon of the East (31)

I've posted chapter 31 of Poseidon of the East.

Choumei Palace (長明宮) is one of the  buildings of the Naiden (Inner Palace or Inner Court). It means "long light." The Inner Palace is the residential compound of the emperor (or the province lord).

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August 04, 2014

Twelve Kingdoms (update)

I've revised Shadow of the Moon and A Thousand Leagues of Wind. The biggest changes are in the terminology, replacing "royal" references with "imperial" and "king" with "emperor/empress" (I still refer to Shoukei as the "princess royal").

This, of course, had a downstream effect on other word choices.

Along the way, I've edited for clarity and readability, standardized the formatting and nomenclature (especially capitalization), corrected several translation errors, and have undoubtedly introduced a whole bunch of additional typos.

A Thousand Leagues of Wind is in a bit rougher shape, as it's longer and I haven't given it as much attention as Shadow of the Moon. But I think this version is a definite improvement.

New mobi (Kindle) and ePub files are available on the download page, and I've updated the online web pages.

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July 31, 2014

Poseidon of the East (30)

I've posted chapter 30 of Poseidon of the East.

One way to read Atsuyu is as a politician who rose high riding the tide of public opinion and thought he was on top of the world when the wave disappeared out from under him.

From the early days of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government was challenged by a series of attempted coups carried out but by high-minded idealists and ideologues who always pledged ultimate fidelity to the emperor. Although put down in short order, these insurrections proved popular in the public imagination and had the effect of pushing the government further and further to the right in an effort to outflank public sentiment.

The high-water mark was undoubtedly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was welcomed with great acclaim. The Japanese public thought it was the final act of a hot war with the east and a cold war with the west that had stretched on for a decade. It was in fact only the beginning of an unimaginably bloody end.

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July 28, 2014

Exploring Europa

A fascinating presentation from NASA TV.

Though nobody at NASA is supposed to say so, this is an excellent argument for why manned space flight is an (almost) total waste of money. Russia charges $70 million a head for its ISS taxi service. NASA could finance a Europa mission for the cost of shipping a couple of astronauts to the ISS.

For the price of the ISS itself, NASA could have sent 100 Volkswagen-sized Curiosity rovers to Mars. All of the truly useful people at NASA work at JPL.

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July 24, 2014

Poseidon of the East (29)

I've posted chapter 29 of Poseidon of the East.

This chapter was perhaps inspired by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign against the Mori clan in 1582. Under the direction of his chief strategist, Kuroda Kanbei, Hideyoshi's troops diverted the Ashimori River to flood Takamatsu Castle, the Mori's stronghold. The military term is mizuzeme (水攻め) or "attacking with water."

When Oda Nobunaga was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide in the midst of the battle, Hideyoshi quickly accepted the surrender of the Mori on generous terms (well, other than the castle lord, Shimizu Muneharu, having to commit seppuku) and stole a march on Mitsuhide, eventually defeating him at the Battle of Yamazaki.

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July 21, 2014

Of soccer and spoilers

Let's look at sports from a literary angle.

Perhaps the differences between the preferences of the average American sports fan (who cares about soccer every four years) and the rest of the world (who can't live without it) can be analogized to how people respond to the twists and turns of narrative plot.

More specifically, does knowing what's going to happen matter? Or put another way, do you read spoilers or studiously avoid them?

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer sums up research by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt at U.C. San Diego. Testing the enjoyability of a range of short stories with and without spoilers appended, they concluded that "spoilers don't spoil anything."

Almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler. This suggests that I read fiction the right way, beginning with the end and working backwards. I like the story more because the suspense is contained.

As I argued before, it is the predictability in the strategic play of American sports--the sports fan knows what to expect, when and how--that makes them popular, while the inability to anticipate even a definitive ending in soccer is at the core of its appeal.

Soccer is a story where "anything can happen," including nothing. Soccer as postmodern theater: instead of Waiting for Godot we're "Waiting for a Goal." The genre in genre fiction, by contrast, is its own spoiler, where "the same only different" is a virtue.

Or put another way--to switch metaphors in the middle of the stream--American football (done well) is like a classical symphony while soccer (done well) is like jazz improvisation. And like soccer, I'm afraid I respect jazz a lot more than I actually enjoy it.

And I happily read spoilers.

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July 17, 2014

Poseidon of the East (28)

I've posted chapter 28 of Poseidon of the East.

The "poetry recital" mentioned on page 219 specifically refers to renga (連歌) or linked verse. Following a set of established themes and rules, the participating poets would create a longer work (often 36 lines long) by extemporaneously composing alternating stanzas.

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July 14, 2014

Devil of a role

I noted in my review of R.I.P.D. the lazy tendency to equate "ugly" and "evil." Though in the "realistic" world of crime drama, the opposite is true. Watching Law & Order, you could be forgiven for concluding that every crime in New York City was committed by a well-coiffed Manhattanite.

And yet the stereotype stubbornly persists in the F&SF realms. One of the nice things about Frozen was having the handsome young prince be the villain. Space opera especially seems fixated on humanity's struggles with grotesque alien creatures. (That "hive mind" thing is getting old too.)

This does open the door to B-grade actioners like Species and Lifeforce that play against type by casting a fashion model as the alien villainess and giving her many opportunities to take off her clothes. Though these movies could also be read as Victorian allegories about the dangers of sex.

Darth Vader was most interesting when he was cool and wanted to "end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." Then the whole thing degraded into a mud wrestling match, reducing the moral stakes in Star Wars to white hat/black hat terms that make old westerns look sophisticated.

Compare, for example, these two quite different depictions of the devil by Ray Wise in Reaper and Peter Stormare in Constantine. Ray Wise's performance in particular is a perfect illustration of C.S. Lewis's observation that

The greatest evil . . . is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Peter Stormare only shows up in the last ten minutes of the movie, yet appears fully realized as Constantine's thus-far invisible antagonist (though not, in fact, his real enemy).

And then there's Al Pacino playing the devil, who ever since Milton made him the biggest anti-hero in literature (with all the best lines to boot), has no doubt been dying to be played by Al Pacino. Again opposite Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate.

The creepy in these scenes comes from their characters, not from the special effects department and certainly not from their appearances. Granted, we're back in rich white dude territory (so they must be bad). But at least they're bad with reasons, motivations, concrete goals, and no apologies

Jagi Lamplighter points to the equally galling trend in "literary fiction fantasy" of making bad guys not really bad but misunderstood (unless they're rich white dudes). I give the silly Independence Day a wide pass because it insists that, naw, these aliens are just plain nasty.

I mean, they go around destroying all kinds of stuff without filing an Environmental Impact Statement first. The gall!

Related posts

The Big Bad

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