May 24, 2018

Wolf Warrior II

One of the biggest films of 2017 was a movie you might not have heard about. Unless you live in China. To be sure, as far as cinematic works of art go, Wolf Warrior II isn't one. Then again, neither was The Force Awakens, the only movie to earn more in a single market ($937 million in North America in 2015).

Wolf Warrior II raked in $854 million in China alone.

It certainly held my attention better than any Star Wars installment since 1980. Though, to tell the truth, my reaction to the whole bloody (literally) shoot-em-up verged on a ho-hum shrug—until the penultimate scene.

As I said, it's no cinematic work of art. But it is a decidedly important political statement delivered in the decidedly non-political package of a by-the-numbers actioner.

As with every action movie of this stripe, Jing Wu (acting and directing) plays Leng Feng, an ex-special forces guy who got himself court-martialed for Standing Up For The Little Guy and now is a Lone Wolf doing missions Nobody Else Can Do. He's Rambo with better martial arts skills, more charisma, and a less somber mien.

This really is the saving grace of the movie. Bruce Willis takes himself seriously in Tears of the Sun (2003) a movie that takes itself more seriously than it should. Sylvester Stallone take himself seriously in Rambo 3, a movie that is impossible to take seriously, despite being about a serious subject.

Jing Wu doesn't take himself too seriously in Wolf Warrior 2, a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously either, despite having a way higher on-screen body count than Stallone's war movie about an actual war. The intricately choreographed gun fu and kung fu at times turn the non-stop violence into a bizarre ballet.

Though it does get numbing after a while. Jing Wu needed somebody on the set to wave his arms now and then and shout, "Enough already!" They must have ordered squibs by the container ship. I got to wondering who was responsible for cleaning up all the fake blood and doing the laundry.

Anyway, Wolf Warrior II borrows plot points from Tears of the Sun, in which Bruce Willis leads his SEAL team into war-torn Nigeria to evacuate a pretty doctor (Monica Bellucci) from a besieged hospital.

Having exiled himself to a fictional African country that soon plunges into a brutal civil war, Leng Feng steps up to rescue a pretty doctor (Celina Jade) from a besieged hospital. He was supposed to rescue her boss but the boss got killed first. (This happens an awful lot when you're getting rescued by Leng Feng.)

Although he starts out as a one-man army, Leng Feng gains a couple of allies along the way, including PLA veteran He Jianguo (Wu Gang). The unqualified respect shown for this character (who thankfully manages not to get killed) is a good indicator of where the movie is thematically headed.


Meanwhile, the entire (shiny and modern) Chinese Navy is camped out in the Gulf of Aden, all ready to pitch in and help as soon as they get permission from the United Nations. Here is where we depart from the Hollywood formula. No American Man of Action needs permission from the United Nations to do anything.

For good reasons, as the movie amply illustrates.

In Japanese military actioners too, the United Nations makes a convenient moral cover for whatever means are justified by the ends. And if you're Jing Wu, it probably is more politic to point at third parties obstructing the hero's journey and not your own national government (local government is a whole different matter).

Which may also explain a puzzling hole in the plot, namely what exactly is motivating "Big Daddy" (Frank Grillo) and his merry band of sociopathic mercenaries. What they're after can be easily inferred, but this isn't a genre known for subtlety. A stereotypical appearance from Big Pharma would have fit the bill here.

But vilifying Big Business isn't in the cards either (though like local government, little business catches a few sharp elbows). Instead, the bad guys are bad guys because they're, well, really really bad.

Well, in any case, the whole purpose of this foot-dragging is to raise the dramatic stakes. When permission comes, it's a regular fireworks show. Guided missile destroyers sure are neat! (And uncannily accurate.)

As Leng Feng races his convoy of survivors to safety, there's one last battlefield to cross. In a scene that could have been inspired by Eugène Delacroix, he ties a Chinese flag to his arm and perches atop the cab of a truck. The warring parties part like Moses at the Red Sea. Because Nobody Messes With China!


To be honest, I found the scene quite stirring. Unabashed, unironic patriotism is an endangered species these days, and it casts the movie in its own unique light.

A brief coda at the end sledgehammers that message home. Across the image of a Chinese passport, the text tells the citizens of China that "no matter what corner of the world you may find yourself in, your country will always have your back."

This "reminder" ties into a scene early in the movie, in which a Chinese businessman tells Leng Feng he's ditching his citizenship in the name of profit—and then backtracks when all hell breaks loose and a Chinese-flagged ship is the only available refuge. He gets to stay alive because he made the right choice.

Welcome to the century of Chinese exceptionalism.

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May 17, 2018

Otaku o'clock

The fourth Garo series concluded last week on Family Gekijyo. The big finale ended up being clumsily censored. For an increasingly campy show that had lost its sense of humor, the cloud of pixelization kicked it into Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory.

The first half of "Flowers of Hell" had a lot going for it, but then they apparently decided they weren't taking themselves seriously enough. Only some things are impossible to take seriously, no matter how stony the faces.

Unlike the earlier "Shiiki" episode, this bare nakedness could hardly be called integral to the plot. It seemed more in the HBO category of "because we found an actress who didn't mind." She started out the episode in a unitard. They could have left her in the unitard. It made no difference.

And given the repetitious mess that is Family Gekijyo, with no rhyme or reason as to when stuff will show up on the screen, and no parental controls, it could annoy people with kids. And annoy members of the old TV Japan audience accustomed to the stodgier NHK programming standards.

Family Gekijyo is a satellite channel in Japan. But perusing their program guide, I see that the occasionally TV-MA Golgo 13 (the adventures of a Japanese hitman) is scheduled at 11:00 PM.

Japan does not have a legally-defined "watershed" for broadcasters. That's the time slot in many countries when OTA stations can switch from TV-PG to TV-14 and from TV-14 to TV-MA. The latter almost never happens for American broadcasters, as the FCC doesn't provide a TV-MA safe harbor.

So in Japan, as television standards have grown more conservative in the last quarter-century, broadcasters shifted controversial programming to after 10:00 PM. This time slot has been wittily labeled "otaku o'clock" and uses the odd but logical "22:00-27:00" notation.

Aside from a small number of popular and"family-friendly" series that get prime time slots, this is when most anime debut, often as "brokered programming." That means the production committee purchases the entire chunk of air time and sells its own advertising. Like an infomercial.

Even then, more "edgy" anime are often bowdlerized to play it safe and encourage viewers to buy the DVDs in order to get the unedited versions, which is the whole point in the first place. The anime industry in Japan is supported by manga, merchandise, and licensing, not television advertising.

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May 10, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

As best I can tell, here are the latest additions to the program schedule.

 • TBS News
 • Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes
 • The Drifters (1977-1997)
 • Shimura's Cram School (2004)
 • Garo: Gold Storm (2015)

Garo: Gold Storm is a sequel to Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono. In other words, more of the same. At this point, I would describe Garo as a Magical Girl series for boys, sans the charm and humor. Even the once clever "Flowers of Hell" forgot how to be funny by the time the big finale rolled around.

If you just can't get enough goth and leather cosplay, this is the show for you. Otherwise, it has a bad case of Big Bad Syndrome and is desperately in need of the Deadpool treatment.

The Drifters started off as a rock band but gained far greater fame as a comedy troupe. They hosted the variety show Hachijidayo! Zen'inshugo! ("It's Eight O'Clock! Everybody Gather 'Round!") from 1969 to 1985, one of the highest-rated shows on Japanese television.

I think Family Gekijyo is showing episodes from the ninety-minute monthly specials that ran from 1977-1997. These were sketch comedy shows with an ensemble cast, comparable to The Carol Burnett Show.

Ken Shimura is a Drifters alumnus. His half-hour program mixes celebrity interviews with comedy skits (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte).

The problem here is that I didn't watch The Carol Burnett Show. I don't watch the reruns now. I haven't followed a sketch comedy show since Monty Python.

So, not really my thing, and not for ninety minutes a night. Though to be honest, Shimura's Cram School is worth watching simply because Yuuka, Ken Shimura's co-host, is so darn cute.

The Tokyo Broadcasting System is similar to American broadcast networks like NBC and CBS, producing commercial content across the board. TBS still owns its radio system (launched in 1951), runs the Japan News Network (JNN), and operates TBS Newsbird, a 24-hour satellite and cable news channel.

Incidentally, the Family Gekijyo and TBS headquarters are both located in Akasaka, Tokyo, a couple of blocks apart.

The fifteen-minute newscasts aren't all that different from their NHK counterparts. The TBS newscasts are followed by a five-minute cooking show, Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes. As the website explains, "Super-simple recipes you can make even when you're blotto."

Here's today's new vocabulary word: hebereke.

Family Gekijyo on Dish seems to be turning into, well, Family Gekijyo. I originally compared it to ION TV. But ION TV specializes in recent material, often reruns of shows still in production. Family Gekijyo is closer to DTV subchannels like MeTV and COZI TV, preserving the golden oldies.

But the thing about subchannels is that they are subchannels, not the main event. TV Japan tries to keep up to date with a little something for everybody. Family Gekijyo is providing something for somebody, but I'm not sure who that is. As a standalone offering, it's mostly worth watching for the news.

So the question is whether Family Gekijyo can fill in the rest of the schedule with content compelling enough to pay for. I do hope so.

Related posts

Family Gekijyo
Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)

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May 03, 2018

What I'm reading

As Family Gekijyo slowly fills in its new schedule, let's talk about books.

I'm alternating between the Chihayafuru manga series and Edogawa Ranpo's young adult mystery novels. Inspired by Chihayafuru, I'm also working my way through the Manga Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten. It's an encyclopedic guide to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu written at a 6th grade level, which is about my speed in this subject.

Chihayafuru wins that rare trifecta as a great manga series, a great anime series, and a great live action film series. A third season of the anime and a third live-action movie should be coming out this year (though they will take longer to make it eastward across the Pacific).

Norihiro Koizumi wrote and directed the live-action films, and did a fine job condensing two seasons of the anime down to four hours of film without compromising the characters or the plot. He also introduced some incidental changes that work well, such as making Harada a Shinto priest.

Chihayafuru
   Amazon (JP)
   Honto
   YesAsia
   Kindle (US)
   Crunchyroll

Manga Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten
   Amazon-JP
   Honto
   YesAsia

Edogawa Ranpo is the pen name (derived from Edgar Allan Poe) of Taro Hirai (1894-1965), a tireless promoter of the mystery genre in Japan. His efforts were well-rewarded. "Cozy" mystery fiction is a staple on Japanese television and the best-seller lists. Crunchyroll has three great live-action series: Galileo, Hero, and Antiquarian Bookshop.

Ranpo also wrote the "Boy Detectives Club" series for a young adult audience. It reminds me of the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown books I read as a kid. Early versions of the "light novel," the Japanese is fairly simple, with an emphasis on action and short but vivid descriptive passages.

As in old radio dramas, the narrator often breaks the fourth wall to address the reader.

Now out of copyright, HTML files of Ranpo's novels can be downloaded from the Aozora public domain library. The files display as plain Unicode text in most browsers. For a more aesthetically-pleasing reading experience, cut and paste the online link into the Air Zoshi reading app.

From the "Boy Detectives Club" series, here's The Witch Doctor using the Air Zoshi app.

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April 26, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)

It's Groundhog Day at Family Gekijyo, where every day is the same, except when it is slightly different.

Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono concluded its run and was followed by Garo: Makai no Hana ("Flowers of Hell"). The latter debuted in 2014, with Masei Nakayama as Raiga Saezima, the son of Kouga Saezima from the first series (he grew up fast).

The fourth series returns to established conventions. I didn't see the point of the alternate universe business in Yami o Terasu Mono and the serial format is only good for bingeing. Makai no Hana is more episodic, making non-linear viewing more tolerable.

This series takes place in present-day Tokyo. Imagine that Buffy lived in Wayne Manor and Giles was Alfred. That's sort of what we have here, and it plays to the inherent strengths of the genre: Spirit World Warriors battling evil in the shadows of the "normal."

Japanese urban fantasy is adept at locating magical mayhem in the midst of the modern world. Being a ghostbuster in Japan will keep you busy.

"Flowers of Hell" doesn't constantly take itself too seriously. Masei Nakayama even manages to smile now and then. The Halloween episode (beginning with an old-fashioned credit scroll in English) has him battling villains from popular Hollywood horror movies.

In another episode, a demonic manga artist attacks him with his literally animated illustrations. And then there's the traditional Japanese house that stomps around like out of Howl's Moving Castle.

The episodes follow a similar set-up and resolution, so the most interesting element is the creature-of-the-week, although the little vignettes that play during the closing credit scroll constitute a show of their own.

Up until episode nine ("Shiiku"), I would have rated the series PG-12. But the producers apparently decided it was time to use up their gratuitous nudity quota. The result is better than I expected—imagine an episode of Criminal Minds, with an unreliable narrator.

Or give it the Silence of the Lambs treatment and you could end up with a first-rate psychological thriller or a fantasy horror flick.

I do have to wonder about the casting call: "You'll be naked and mostly dead while Tokio Emoto hauls your body around." Well, not wonder all that much. The Japanese website tags the three as "AV" actresses. Not all that unusual in Japan.

Tokio Emoto plays the serial killer. He's only 28 but qualifies as a "veteran" character actor, with supporting roles in several NHK series as well.

That episode got skipped during the daytime portion of the rerun loop, which is in accordance with how Japanese commercial television works too (granted, no American over-the-air television station would broadcast anything like "Shiiku" at any time ever).

Family Gekijyo is likely showing the third and fourth series because the first two seasons were licensed for North America by Kraken Releasing (née Sentai Filmworks) and are available on Blu-ray. Several of the animated spin-offs are streaming on Crunchyroll.

As for the rest of the programming, it's the same only—no, for now it's more of the same.

 • Garo: Makai no Hana (2014)

But change is coming! According to the news ticker that occasionally appears at the bottom of the screen, a fresh slate of programs is scheduled to begin May 1.

Related posts

Family Gekijyo
Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

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April 19, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)

Family Gekijyo, the Japanese channel replacing TV Japan on Dish, didn't have a published program schedule when it launched on April 2 (the on-screen program guide works). After all, there was barely anything to schedule. But something is better than nothing, so let's discuss the something.


The first two weeks, Family Gekijyo (on Dish) ran episodes from a live action urban fantasy series and three "classic" anime series in a "creeping loop." Sunday saw coverage of a shogi tournament. Then back to the loop. Then a rerun of the shogi tournament Sunday afternoon.

Then back to the loop, now with reruns of the shogi tournament filling the late night slot. (By "creeping loop," I mean that every day, each series advances two episodes and loops again.)

Based on what I've seen and what's listed in the on-screen guide, here are the programs for the first two weeks (all half-hour shows except for the shogi tournament):

 • 21st Ginga Shogi Tournament
 • Zerotesters (1973-1974)
 • Reiden the Brave (1975-1976)
 • Beeton the Robot (1976-1977)
 • Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono (2013)

Zerotesters is clunky old space anime. Reiden the Brave is a clunky old mecha anime. Beeton the Robot is the best of the old bunch, a family comedy that's sort of "the same only different enough to keep us from getting sued" version of Doraemon.

Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono (lit. "Wolf Fang: Those who Illuminate the Darkness") is the third installment in the franchise, with a new cast and an "alternate universe" setting.

The special effects are "good enough." The martial arts sequences are impressive. Its biggest fault is taking itself too seriously, like Buffy with no sense of humor. And landing in the loop at random times doesn't make it easy to follow the story.

On the other hand, the episodes I caught three or four times did begin to make sense (that's actually a good way to study a foreign language).

It is not a kid's show. Well, it's a Japanese kid's show. The occasional winsome lass (it's not Game of Thrones either) appears in a Garo episode sans clothing. The "family" in Family Gekijyo is of the commercial variety—as any consumer of "young adult" manga and anime can attest—not the stodgy NHK version.

Even a kid's show like Beeton the Robot did a running gag in one episode that had a Betty Boop lookalike constantly falling out of her clothes (think Benny Hill). Highlighting that "advantage" without getting too crass about it could help differentiate Family Gekijyo from TV Japan.

As for shogi, I know practically nothing about it, so it falls into watching-paint-dry territory. That's true of international chess too. And go. Alas, cerebral spectator sports aren't nearly as interesting in real life as they are in manga and anime. But that's a subject for another post.

I can only hope the rest of Family Gekijyo's prime time slate is indeed "coming soon."

Related posts

Family Gekijyo
Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

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April 12, 2018

Family Gekijyo

A dozen years with TV Japan were rudely interrupted by NHK Cosmomedia America abruptly jumping ship to DirecTV. TV Japan had been on Dish since its debut in 1991. It might have been enticed by the bigger pool of subscribers (twice that of Dish), but I think the switch has as much to do with streaming technology.

TV Japan recently launched a library service (no live streaming) called dLibrary Japan. Streaming is the ideal delivery platform for these niche services. TV Japan only reached 80,000 households at Dish. I have to wonder if NHK Cosmomedia plans on incorporating dLibrary Japan into the DirecTV Now infrastructure.

If so, that'd make for an enticing offering.


But Dish did something intriguing too. It handed TV Japan's slot to Family Gekijyo (ファミリー劇場). Meaning "family theater," the kunrei-shiki romanization (ignoring the long final vowel, the more familiar Hepburn renders it gekijo) straightaway tells you it's a Japanese import. As the official press release states:

Tohokushinsha Film Corporation, the Tokyo-headquartered Japanese entertainment and media industry leader, has announced the launch of its popular Japanese channel FAMILY GEKIJYO exclusively on the USA's DISH Network, in collaboration with Superswiss. The launch took place April 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (MDT).

The press release also mentions Tohokushinsha's intention to delve into OTT services.

As best I can tell, Family Gekijyo (Japan) resembles ION Television: original programming backfilled by reruns. A handful of NHK series from a few years back are featured on its home page.

TV Japan is a compilation service crafted for Japanese living and traveling abroad. It does a good job of staying on top of the news and current with the top-rated commercial series in Japan. Family Gekijyo is produced in Japan for a home audience. Alas, too bad it just can't time-shift the raw feed and beam it across the Pacific.

According to Dish,

The international version of this popular Japanese channel is being created to offer general entertainment programming, including live action series, anime, documentaries and game shows. Plus, news programming to come!

Parent company Tohokushinsha Film Corporation does bring a sizeable media catalog to the table. Since 1989, "TFC's satellite operations have expanded to a total of 11 channels, and controls every aspect of [its] satellite business, including programming, sales, and transmission infrastructure."

Family Gekijyo certainly has hypothetical access to enough material to fill a 24/7 service. The problem is lining up all those broadcasting rights ducks in an orderly row. As noted above, the "international version" is "being created" as we speak. It was not launched as a finished product.

Far from it. More like "we'll start working on it real soon now." Even without so much as a placeholder website for Dish subscribers, they must have pushed ahead with the roll-out because of the opening created by TV Japan's departure from Dish.

In any case, I'm not eager to leave Dish. DirecTV would cost ten dollars more a month, on top of new equipment and a fresh 24 month commitment. Besides, starting from zero like this, I'm curious to see how it shakes out—as long as something does shake out in a reasonable amount of time.

Related posts

Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

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April 05, 2018

Winning by losing

When I was in college in the 1980s, Japan was constantly in the news, and the news was mostly about economics and international relations. But aside from Godzilla movies and Kurosawa films, hardly anybody knew anything about Japanese culture.

Except it was inevitable that Japan would soon rule the world.

These days, Japan is only in the news because of natural or made-made disasters (like North Korea). Or the odd summit meeting. And yet foreign tourism to Japan has reached all time highs and Japanese culture has become ubiquitous outside Japan.

Sony recently purchased Funimation (the biggest anime distributor in North America). Netflix is pouring some of its billions into 30 original anime productions.

The 1964 Olympics focused on the modernization of the Japanese economy. The 2020 Olympics will focus on the internationalization of Japanese culture. Even as Japan gets eclipsed by China economically, it grows more powerful than ever culturally.

Eamonn Fingleton likes to argue that slipping into third place behind China was Japan's "briar patch" strategy to get the rest of the world to stop focusing on trade imbalances. As this Noah Smith Twitter thread shows, it has worked brilliantly.

Noah Smith tends to grossly overgeneralize when it comes to Japan (a bad habit among foreign correspondents in that part of the world). Though that is kind of the whole point. Japan can now count on the overgeneralizers overgeneralizing to its advantage.

Third place is proving not a bad place to be.

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March 29, 2018

Detective Bureau 2-3

In a society that progressed as rapidly as did Japan during the post-war period, films from the 1950s and early 1960s like those of Yasujiro Ozu preserve a point in time as it mostly was rather than how it is now remembered.

At the time, Hollywood produced some fine films in and about Japan too. Shot on location, a movie like House of Bamboo (with Robert Stack) captures the Tokyo cityscape before modernity swept that sepia-colored world away.

Equally deserving of attention are those entertainment vehicles that won little in the way of high-culture respect (and even less in terms of international attention), and yet created the tropes and types of popular culture that still resonate today.

Unlike the works of Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa (such as High and Low, his 1963 police procedural), these movies have little value as artistic or as historical documents that strove for verisimilitude.

But they have great value as records of how the general public perceived the world around them, the ways in which they were willing to suspend their disbelief in order to imagine that social change in entertaining ways (still true of manga and anime today).

A great example of this is the clumsily titled (in English) Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! released by Nikkatsu Studios in January 1963.

The bad boy of the post-war Japanese movie business, Nikkatsu Studio avoided historical dramas and concentrated on low-budget comedies, teen melodramas, and actioners. Losing ground to television in the 1970s, Nikkatsu became synonymous with the "pink" genre.

But in 1963, though chock-a-block with armies of gun-wielding yakuza and a sky-high body count, Detective Bureau 2-3 (the "2-3" refers to protagonist's office number) isn't any more violent or explicit than Hollywood westerns of the 1950s.

Director Seijun Suzuki gives the film the look of a classic noir thriller. Joe Shishido (who appeared in six of Suzuki's films) is perfectly cast as a debonair detective who infiltrates the yakuza to expose a gun-running operation.

Featuring a sports car (that looks cool today), beautiful women, and heavies that could pass for Edward G. Robinson's cousins, plus the inventive use of what were then high-tech devices, Detective Bureau 2-3 had Miami Vice and Don Johnson beat by two decades.

Speaking of which, Miami Vice did an episode about the yakuza that wasn't half bad. But Don Johnson never wriggled out of tight situation with a song-and-dance routine that Fred Astaire could have choreographed.

Suzuki later got himself fired from Nikkatsu for making films that were so surreal and absurdist that they alienated Nikkatsu's core audience. When you're in the crowd-pleasing business, you do have to please the crowds.

In Detective Bureau 2-3 Suzuki and Shishido get the mix just right. Sporting a plot worthy of Chandler, it skirts the nihilism that came to typify the yakuza genre and supplies an upbeat ending. More upbeat than how the real world was dealing with the issue.

Robert Whiting recalls of the years leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the Japan Times (his fascinating five-part account starts here),

House theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night. Moreover, yakuza were everywhere, their numbers at an all-time high. There were also twice as many places to eat as New York and more bars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world.

The 1964 Olympics initiated a crackdown that was more of an accommodation. It essentially decriminalized the yakuza. Unlike American gangsters, the big yakuza organizations are legal corporations, and the police prefer to regulate them as such.

Sort of the same argument for decriminalizing drugs: stay away from the hard stuff and don't shoot civilians and we won't look too closely at where the hard cash is really coming from.

Capturing the yakuza sub-culture at its apex, Detective Bureau 2-3 makes hanging with the bad guys look cool. And the bad guys look cruel but cool. As with the glamour of the Miami Vice underworld, this comic book view of the yakuza persists to this day.

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March 22, 2018

Constancy amidst change

The character arc constitutes the core of drama designed to entertain, that hopes as well to enlighten the audience (this applies to comedy too, as "all great comedians are great dramatic actors"). The tale being told arises out of conflict, the fruits of which must manifest themselves in the denouement.

Ghost in the Shell (directed by Mamoru Oshii) epitomizes this basic story structure. Major Kusanagi's character arc parallels the narrative arc, to the extent that by the end of the movie she has literally become a different person. Meanwhile, her partner Batou remains a rock of constancy.


This tension between the constant and the variable focuses our attention on the metamorphosis taking place. Mathematically speaking, however, the distance between the two is the same regardless of the POV. In other words, the person doing the changing need not necessarily occupy the lead role.

In Children Who Chase Lost Voice (directed by Makoto Shinkai), the protagonist, Asuna, goes on a great adventure. But she undergoes no great transformation. She simply grows up. Shinkai includes a scene at the very end emphasizing that Asuna is no less an ordinary girl than she was before.

But Shun and Morisaki, who accompany her on her journey, are completed altered. Not only has Morisaki abandoned all the reasons for the journey he began with, he now bears indelible scars as punishment for his presumptions.


A steadfast protagonist that anchors the narrative holds especially true in television series. By contrast, the soap opera (and many a sit-com) is typified by the constant pursuit of shock and surprise, that inevitably inflicts more change than the suspension of disbelief can bear.

Which is not to suggests that stolid staples of genre storytelling like the detective drama lack character arcs. Quite the contrary. What makes them so enduring and endearing are the circles of fate that turn through each episode.

The antagonists are so often drawn the ranks of the rich and powerful because the decline and fall is so much greater. The man who had it all at the beginning of the episode loses everything in the end. We observe this decline and fall through the eyes of the detective, who serves as the Chorus.

A role epitomized by that of Watson, far more the observer of the human condition than Sherlock.

Staples of the television crime drama like CSI and Law & Order have less to say about actual crime and punishment than about the wages of sin and the costs of hubris. They are secular homilies for a modern age.

Like the preacher at the pulpit, in an anarchic world, the protagonist of a series must steer an outwardly steady course, evolving in a measured manner while remaining true to the constraints of the genre. By doing so, he casts the moral of the story into even bolder contrast.

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March 15, 2018

Psy-phi

The genus of science fiction has difficulty defining its various species. Actual science fiction is the rarest of the breeds, dominated of late by space opera and unimaginative cyberpunk. Space opera is a chameleon genre, masquerading as science fiction when it contains hardly a spec of science.

Fantasy, by contrast, rarely pretends to be anything but imaginary.

Space opera wears the label of "science" the same way the female scientist in the James Bond movie wears a pair of glasses to convince us she's smart. On the other hand, maybe she really is gorgeous, brilliant, and nearsighted. Space opera, too, can be dumb about science and smart about Life, the Universe, and Everything, about how the human mind works.

My name for this particular creature is "psy-phi." The term occurred to me watching Guardians of the Galaxy II, a silly movie in which worthy explorations of psychology and philosophy can be found lurking between the gaudy comic book covers.

Star Wars stumbled into this psychodramatic niche with the first two installments. Alas, the franchise has been drained of all substance since, prompting the need to add another entry to the taxonomy: "space soap opera." Not only scientifically illiterate but equally empty-headed as well. Nothing kills "psy-phi" faster than the pretentiousness of pretend profundity.

Well, except for conflict created solely to generate drama. Any given Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon can entertain in the short term. But only the short term. No matter how much tragedy and pathos is slathered on top, it'll never add up to "drama."

The endless cycles of such melodramatic contrivances echo the traditional (gloomy) definition of samsara, a "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end." However "realistic" pessimism may be, without learning, growth, and resolution, there is no point to art.

Han Solo was a better person at the end of the first Star Wars movie than he was at the beginning. Luke Skywalker was certainly a wiser person at the end of the second Star Wars movie. But as far as I could tell, everybody still alive at the end of The Force Awakens is the same as they were going in.

Rey, Finn, and Kyo Ren start off as end products, the meaningful transformations having taken place in unseen prequels. Which may explain how forgettable the whole thing is.

So, sure. Space opera can be dumb as a rock about space. But if I can grab onto a rewarding character arc that goes somewhere with some hope of positive change, I'll keep watching.

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March 08, 2018

Coin

Peaks Island Press proudly announces the first volume of the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

It's 1995 and Donna Howard is living an ordinary life in Portland, Maine. She works as a hairdresser, has a boring boyfriend, two opinionated brothers, and two exhaustively energetic parents. As far as she's concerned, she's an ordinary person and is proud of it.

Except she can see the past. Walk down any street in the old part of the city and four centuries of its inhabitants walk right along with her. She can observe them, hear them, smell them. And she'd rather not. She'd prefer to leave the past in the past.

Until a customer "accidentally" leaves an ancient Roman coin at the hair salon. A coin worth an awful lot of money. Then the woman appraising the coin for the Portland Museum of Art "accidentally" ends up dead. And now the past won't leave her alone.

Not even the man who's visage was molded into the metal 2000 years ago, a man who wreaked mayhem then and may have witnessed murder now. Quite unwittingly, Donna uncovers family secrets, confronts historical controversies, and closes in on a very contemporary crime.

Paperback
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Nook
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March 01, 2018

The life of a salesman

The most beloved stereotype of the Japanese salesman is that of a mild-mannered carnival barker as portrayed in the long-running "Tora-san" movies (Netflix has several). Persistent and endearingly ingratiating (almost to the point of being annoying). Not hard-sell.


The business of business-to-business—a popular subject of Japanese television melodramas—combines persistence and supplication in the face of rejection. The objective, it seems, is to be inoffensively irritating to the point that the other side caves to get rid of you.

Sort of like stalking. In a good way! Ganbaru—to patiently persist, endure, never give up—is intrinsic to the character of the ideal Japanese striver. A good salesman is NOT Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. That's how yakuza behave. That's why yakuza terrify the average Japanese.


In Japan, one such feared "hard sell" technique is known as "catch sales." It uses an aggressive approach (invading a person's space and getting in his face) to physically move the conversation to a "home ground" where the salesman controls every aspect of the interaction.

You know, like a church.

As I recount in Tokyo South, back during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mormon missionaries deployed catch sales techniques with enormous success. In the short term. In the long term—well, by design, Mormon missionaries aren't around for the long term.

So the whole thing fell apart in a few short years. The catch sales approach treats people as disposable. The bird in the hand is never worth as much as two in the bush, and for good reason. It's a lot easier to sell the idea of joining a community than to create one.

Or as Groucho Marx famously said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." If it's that easy to join, why join? Besides, all Japanese already belong to a club. It's the Japanese club, and being a member is a full time job.

If you can sell that, then you are sure to "always be closing."

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February 22, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy II

Guardians of the Galaxy is pure space operetta, though with some substance lurking beneath the razzle-dazzle veneer. And it does bother to get one bit of science right. As Kyle Hill explains on Because Science, exposed to the vacuum of space, you would simultaneously asphyxiate and freeze to death. Messy by undramatic. No exploding heads.

That's pretty much the end of the science. The laws of thermodynamics? Orbital mechanics? Fuhgeddaboudit. But we are served up some tried and true science fiction memes. And while I'm all for the-same-only-different, the conflict at the core of Guardians of the Galaxy II struck me as entirely recycled, too much the same and not at all different.

The good stuff (and there is some good stuff) gets short shrift, though it is worth sticking around for.

But first, let's venture back in time to 1965 and the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a dang good piece of cinematic science fiction for the era (notable for its lack of both monsters and miniskirts).

Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is the same sort of supercharged human "god" as Kurt Russell's "Ego" (though Gary gets there much quicker). His rule-the-universe end game is the same too. Star Trek returned to this plot device over and again. You'd think that in the process of amassing all the knowledge of creation, these "gods" would learn a thing or two.

Or get more interesting hobbies. A subject of the current season of Lucifer is how immortals entertain themselves for eternity. And the one refreshing idea is that the main character has no desire to rule or reign over anything.

Lucifer is about a dysfunctional (very Greco-Roman) family that functions, also true of Guardians of the Galaxy II. Despite being such a weird bunch, the way they connect to each other says a lot about the human condition.

But I don't include Ego in that group, despite the familial connection. He adds nothing to the mix, and finally turns into a by-the-numbers supervillain.

In the end, Captain Kirk buries Gary Mitchell's divine ambitions under a big rock. Ego meets a similar fate. The screwed up sibling rivalry between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) pays off better than the screwed up father-son relationship between Ego and Chris Pratt's Peter Quill.

Indeed, Nebula's relentless pursuit of Gamora is a sideshow that could have been the main attraction.

The movie begins with an act of pure MacGuffinry, Rocket stealing some "batteries" from a bunch of hilariously condescending and (literally) gilded aliens (who apparently all descended from Niles Crane) with no concept of the sunk cost fallacy.

As the leader of this race of Inspector Javerts, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is prepared to pursue Rocket to the ends of the galaxy over a couple of Duracells, draining the coffers of the planet in the process. (As in Star Wars, the economics of building—and destroying—these enormous space fleets is never questioned.)

It would have been nice to tie these pair of obsessive quests together into a deeper message. Instead, Ayesha is reduced to playing the relentless paperboy from Better Off Dead, hounding John Cusack with cries of "I want my two dollars!"

The even better story lurking in wings of this movie focuses on the father-son relationship between Peter and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who "kidnapped" him and then thought better of turning him over to his real father (Ego).

But like every other laudable element of the movie, it is swamped by volume of digitized material hitting the screen in every frame.

In the end, what's good about Guardians of the Galaxy II manages to surmount the overly busy script and the tidal waves of CGI. Please, Hollywood, just because you can fill every square inch of the screen with 3D SFX doesn't mean you should. Give the audience some moments of calm, a respite now and then to let the story to sink in

But now with all the big backstories dealt with, I can only hope that the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise turns into a goofier version of Firefly. Joss Whedon should be available.

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