March 30, 2015

Curated a la carte

I puzzle mightily at the extent to which Netflix segregates its streaming and DVD catalogs. If you're a DVD subscriber, there's no way to find out what's in the streaming catalog. Not using the Netflix website, that is.

On Hulu and Crunchyroll, the options are front and center: "Subscribe to watch premium content right now!" Amazon provides all the options available for every title in its catalog. Want to stream it? Want the DVD? Want the book? Click here!

But Netflix treats this information like a state secret.

Back in 2011, Netflix announced that it was splitting itself in two, turning the mail-order and streaming video businesses into separate and distinct corporate entities. In the face of a customer revolt, it quickly reversed that decision.

According to the abandoned plans, the streaming business would retain the name "Netflix." Since that's where they clearly saw things heading, why not entice the Luddites to join them? Why not dangle all those sparkly gems in front of our eyes?

A few possibilities spring to mind:

  • Netflix still intends to separate the businesses: it spent zero dollars in 2014 marketing its (profitable) DVD business;
  • It had already hewn the databases apart and is not about to glue them back together;
  • Netflix would rather its customers not think about what's in its catalog.

I'm serious about the last one. Nobody would design a website this crappy by accident. So "How to get the most out of your Netflix subscription" articles once pointed you to third-party websites, until Netflix killed off that option too.

(Well, not nobody. A common complaint about Barnes & Noble is that for any relatively obscure title, you're better off searching on Amazon even you plan to buy it at B&N.)

As Alex Hern points out, "The paradox of Netflix's transformation from a DVD rental company to a streaming video firm is that as its star has risen, the selection has got worse." Don't look behind the curtain: there's a lot less there there.

Netflix clearly wants to be HBO much more than it wants to be super-Hulu. HBO will give you a programming schedule a month at a time, but won't tell you what's in its backlist. Because that's the way television broadcasters work.

The broadcaster broadcasts and the audience consumes what's being broadcast. HBO subscribers overpay for a handful of original series, recent releases, and access to a backlist that's like randomly punching buttons on a Redbox machine.

Based on cash flow, it's working brilliantly for HBO. (Skinner observed among his lab rats that random rewards elicited the most vociferous responses. See also: slot machines.)

And it seems to be working for Netflix too.

With true on-demand video, there isn't any "programming," because the "programming" is whatever the consumer says it is. That was the promise of streaming. But streaming isn't going to kill television programming, after all.

There's a lot of blather about "curation" in art these days, how much better off we'd be if people with better taste than you and me decided what's best. The "tidal wave of rubbish" being inflicted upon us by self-publishing, for example.

Granted, when bandwidth is finite, curation is called for, even necessary. A museum has only so much wall and floor space. A physical bookstore can stock only so many titles. A theater can book only so many productions in a given year.

Once upon a time, the Internet and the "long tail" were going to obviate that need. But apparently not right away. And not for all people and all markets. Sometimes people really just want to watch "whatever's on."

The reliance on trend-setters and taste-makers is summed up in the Japanese word (working its way into English vernacular) omakase ("I'll leave things up to you"). I admit it: I pay attention to starred items and good reviews too.

But for those of us with (once) fringe taste in (once) fringe media trends, leaving it all up to somebody else meant getting nothing we wanted. Manga and anime first flowed east across the Pacific thanks to IP pirates, not "curators."

Though back in the day, the IP pirates themselves were, by necessity, curators. You could pack only so many VHS tapes into your luggage.

For now, our entertainment options are in a tug-of-war between the a la carte world and the omakase world. Netflix started out as the former and ended up the latter. I suspect we're heading for a "curated a la carte" future.

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March 26, 2015

The culture of adoption

I previously noted Kiku Day's critique of Lost in Translation (2003), in which the "good Japan" is "Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples and flower arrangement," while modern Japanese are depicted as "ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture."

In fact, Japanese are as nostalgic about the Edo period (1603-1868) as we are about the Wild West, on the one hand, and the Georgian period, on the other. As with cowboys and English aristocrats, popular depictions of the Edo period typically revolve around samurai (who were both law enforcers and aristocrats) and upper class merchants.

The peasants end up being pretty much part of the scenery. But during the Edo period, Japan minded its own business, fared reasonable well economically, and produced a quite literate and educated society. What's not to (selectively) like?

Women also fared well compared to their European counterparts. They weren't any more "liberated" and primogeniture still ruled. But a samurai's daughter would be the equal of the Bennet sisters in most respects (the cinematic heroines of Edo period dramas owe a lot to Elizabeth Bennet). In many ways, probate law was more flexible.

A Japanese Mr. Bennet wouldn't worry about the disposition of his estate. Of course, if one of his daughters had the opportunity to marry way up, he would encourage her. But then he would find another suitor who occupied a (slightly) lower social cast (but with money) and adopt his son-in-law-to-be into the family, making him a legal Bennet.

These mukoyoshi ("adult adoptions") were also a good way for a family with a lot of sons to keep them from fighting over the estate.

Paternal lines have been maintained this way for centuries. These days, though, the more pressing cause is a fertility rate of 1.4. Especially at family-owned businesses, mukoyoshi is not only a socially acceptable way to keep the family name alive and well, but to select an heir perhaps more suited to the job than what nature supplied.

Which means that, sometimes, the child can indeed choose his parents. And the parents can do genetic engineering in reverse (using a professional matchmaking service, though it's always better to "promote" from within the company).

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March 23, 2015


I have no interest in the whole zombie thing. Not in Night of the Living Dead or the numerous copycats. Not in The Walking Dead. Zero. (Well, I did like the Mythbusters "Zombie" episode.) In any event, I mostly eschew the horror genre except where there's a strong eschatological element.

So I wasn't planning on watching iZombie, the latest paranormal police procedural from The CW. But it happened to be on and I happened to have nothing else to do. Zero expectations.

And you know what? It's really good! I mean, hands down, the best new series of the year. (I wanted to like Backstrom, but the pilot was so clumsily executed that I haven't gone back for another look. Maybe it's gotten better.)

Rose McIver (previously Tinker Bell, of all characters) is an ER doctor infected with a "zombie" drug (conspiracies are at play, but we've wisely been told nothing about them so far). She transfers to the morgue, where she can blend in better with the non-living dead and eat the occasional brains.

The thing is, this brain-eating (don't worry, it's too comically aware of its inherent goofiness to be gross), occasionally gives her flashes of the victim's last memories, and sometimes temporarily imbues her with their personalities too.

Down in the morgue, Rahul Kohli plays her intrigued colleague (he keeps his London accent while McIver sheds her Auckland roots), who covers for her "eccentricities" while searching for a cure. That he would do this out of sheer scientific curiosity is totally believable.

Malcolm Goodwin takes up the Agent Booth role, utilizing her insights to catch the perpetrators. Her excuse is that she's a psychic; he doesn't care as long as they solve cases.

Rounding out the cast, her family and ex-fiance fret about her constantly, staging the occasional "intervention": they think she's going through a "goth" stage because of lingering PTSD from her traumatic exposure to the "drug" (explained in the media as a bad batch of recreational drugs).

Like I said, I smell an X-Files style conspiracy in the works, but as long as they keep the stories episodic and the conspiracies in the background, I'll go along for the ride.

The series originated as a comic book series and uses comic panels effectively at the start of each segment.

The pilot episode gets the mood just right: dark, to be sure, but never somber; silly when it's supposed to be without getting stupid; and it even works in some upbeat character development without turning saccharine. A bit of Quincy, a bit of Bones, a bit of Angel (including a Spike look-alike).

In my book, that's the right recipe to make a show worth watching. (You can see the first episode here.)

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March 19, 2015

Patema Inverted

The "concept as plot" approach to storytelling works well enough if the story being told is kept short and simple. Because a concept, no matter how complex and compelling, isn't a plot.

Yet some ideas are so neat that you can fool an audience into treating them as if they were.

To a point. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "You cannot fool all the people all the time."

That pretty much describes the arc of M. Night Shyamalan's career. He made getting fooled a heap of good spooky fun The Sixth Sense. But it went to his head and his movies got increasingly repetitive and self-important. Then the feeling was, "Fool me twice, shame on me."

The Matrix elevated "high-concept" to a half-billion dollar franchise by letting the audience in on the secret at the start. We do love a shared secret. But after dipping into the same conceptual well three times in a row, the water started to taste brackish.

Patema Inverted sets forth with one neat idea, and it's good for a hundred minutes of screen time (and not much more). There are enough loose ends at the end to justify a sequel, but a sequel would demand an actual plot. A concept is a told joke. We got it already.

Patema is the heroine, and the "inverted" (sakasama) means exactly that. In this quasi-dystopian future, there is an "above ground" tribe and a "below ground" tribe. Gravity works the opposite for each tribe.

The story about how this happened is covered in the first thirty seconds and then forgotten (until the end), which is a smart way to do it. When you're building on "concept" alone, don't belabor it. The more people think about it, the more holes they'll find.

There are enough holes in Patema Inverted to make a sieve (to start with, how the economy actually works), but out of sight, out of mind.

Otherwise, the one (annoying) flaw in the movie is that the "above ground" world is one of those by-the-numbers Orwellian societies ruled by one of those by-the-numbers cartoon villains, spouting off in religious terms without a religious context anywhere in sight.

(Shutting down inquiry by declaring curiosity a sin works in Scrapped Princess because it's couched in the framework of a powerful and pervasive medieval religious organization. There's none of that here.)

As a general rule, if you have to toss a dramatic foil into the mix in order to create actual conflict, there isn't any actual conflict. But if you do, make sure it's Hugo Weaving.

The backstory, brief as it is, suggests a better approach. The "dictator" should have been the last descendant of the scientists who caused the problem in the first place, desperate to hide the enormity of their error. Yes, scientists make mistakes and they have egos too.

Thus his interest in Patema's tribe: still trying to figure out what went wrong without revealing to anybody what they did wrong.

That aside, Patema Inverted is a fast-paced, fairly family-friendly (though not for acrophobes) exploration of a surprisingly deep philosophical idea. Director and writer Yasuhiro Yoshiura's clever use of perspective literally asks: "Which way is really up?"

In this case, as in so many, the answer all depends on where you happen to be standing.

If you don't mind the constant commercial interruptions, Hulu has the dub version.

A big shout-out to GKids, the U.S. distributor, which now also manages Studio Ghibli's back catalog. That includes the young-adult melodramas Ocean Waves and Only Yesterday, never before released in the U.S. (But still no date on the DVDs or streaming.)

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March 16, 2015

Walk on water

When I was growing up, the space race competed with underwater sea adventures for gorgeous photo spreads in National Geographic (which nobody read for the articles). Jacques Cousteau was as big a star as the astronauts and took prettier pictures.

As with Stanley Kubrick's space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, everybody knew that we were going to be living in cities at the bottom of the ocean any day now (because, you know, population).

As useless as the ISS (and more dangerous) but at least cheaper.

Alas, by the time we made it to the Moon, real space exploration had grown ho-hum (sans white-knuckle disasters like Apollo 13). Living in space turns out to be pretty inconvenient. And mostly good for making cool YouTube videos.

The same goes for living under water. Somewhere along the evolutionary path, we homo sapiens got rid of gills, and good riddance.

But as it turns out, millions of people are living at the bottom of the ocean. The trick, you see, is first to raise the bottom of the ocean to sea level. That makes it a lot easier.

Over the past century, almost one hundred square miles of Tokyo Bay have been "reclaimed." I lived for a year in a housing project on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, also home to Kansai International Airport, built entirely on a man-made island.

In Japan, it's actually more economically, politically, and environmentally efficient to carve up a mountain and dump it into the ocean than to move in the opposite direction, or push all urban development everywhere down to the water's edge.

The Tohoku earthquake has taken land reclamation in a whole new level. It's been four years since. The rubble has been removed, leaving behind empty fields and vacant lots where towns once stood. The question is how to prevent the "next time."

On 11 March 2011, 250 miles of coastline shifted up to eight feet eastward and dropped over two feet. Most harbor seawalls failed. Entire fishing villages were washed away. Fukushima Daiichi was swamped, its backup generators destroyed.

It soon became obvious that building sea walls able to defend against any possible tsunami was a fool's errand. And if built, the high walls would turn the place into a prison (which remains a problem even with the sea walls that are being built).

As a result, two basic approaches are being taken: 1) relocating retail and residential communities further inland; 2) a combination of sea walls and raising the ground level (click to enlarge).

Moving inland and higher up (courtesy Japan Guide).

Following the earthquake, parts of many coastal towns ended up underwater at high tide (and people complain about their mortgages being "underwater"). A good part of what was Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, will rise forty feet above sea level.

Another way to stand on higher ground (courtesy Japan Guide).

This once quaint fishing village now looks like a science fiction movie set: a forest of massive conveyor belts moving 20,000 cubic meters of soil a day. If you're looking for "shovel-ready projects," the shovels don't get any bigger than this.

Elaine Kurtenbach describes the government-industry complex that has been churning along now for half a century:

Pouring concrete for public works is a staple strategy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its backers in big business and construction, and local officials tend to go along with such plans.

Rikuzentakata won't be going to the mountain; the mountain is coming to Rikuzentakata. Literally.

Making the mountains low (courtesy Japan Guide).

The Book of Isaiah sums up the process very well:

Every valley shall be raised up,
     every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
     the rugged places a plain.

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March 12, 2015

Now, Our Two Paths

Asahi Productions (Studio Shiroishi in Miyagi) has released an anime short about the rebuilding efforts in Miyagi Prefecture, hard-hit by the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It's in Japanese but otherwise easy enough to understand.

(View the larger screen version here.)

Ima, Futari no Michi ("Now, Our Two Paths") begins a decade or so ago with Jun and Kunpei discussing their futures (Jun becoming a doctor, Kunpei a fisherman), and then gives us snapshots of their lives over the four year since March 2011.

The dates at the bottom right are the year (Heisei notation) followed by the numerical month or season (winter: 冬 spring: 春 summer: 夏 fall: 秋 New Year's: 元旦). Heisei 23 is 2011 (subtract 12 to get the Gregorian year).

The spring of 2011 finds Jun back in Miyagi, completing her residency at a clinic near her home town. Kunpei is a farmer. The buildings at the 2:20 mark are prefabricated housing units, still home to 77,000 (out of 230,000 total displaced persons).

A more in-depth description here. From a critical perspective, I'm impressed at how much story can be condensed into five minutes (it is very much a story of moments).

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March 09, 2015

The price of harmony

My sister Kate recently mentioned some reading she'd been doing for a course in interpersonal communications she's teaching. This particular text [The Culture Map by Erin Meyer] roughly separates corporate cultures into the categories of "low" and "high" context.

The U.S. has a "low context" culture. Contemporary American culture has been distilled over the centuries from a varied immigrant population that do not share a common background, so things have to be spelled out. The fewer assumptions made the better.

Japan has a "high context" culture. They've shared the same operating manual for the past two millennia. If you don't share it, then you're expected to pretend until you do. But rather than "high" and "low," let's call it "go along to get along" versus "I'm from Missouri."

The value of "go along to get along" is that since cooperation is presumed, people do their best to cooperate. Nobody makes waves. Making waves just proves you weren't getting along and you're not a team player. (It probably also means you can't read minds.)

That attitude can leave you stuck when the boss assumes X has been communicated and you have no idea what X is. And his boss may simply be trying to communicate what his boss assumes he understood and is kicking the can down the hierarchical road.

According to novelist Kaoru Takamura (she began her career at a foreign trading company):

In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can't make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours.

It comes down to the ratio of actual work to CYA. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding style of Japanese business easily becomes a way of avoiding blame. If you've got to cover your superior's ass, you're going to make sure your own ass is covered too.

So where the brash American might shrug and wing it, the cautious Japanese is going to hunker down and play it safe.

The hallowed business practices of ringi (the bottom-up circulation of new proposals) and nemawashi (the politicking that accompanies it) do produce a sense of collective responsibility and wa (harmony).

But they also obviate personal responsibility (the buck stops nowhere) and chew up tons of time and energy. Noah Smith states it bluntly: as a result, white-collar productivity in Japan is horrendous.

Employees sit idly in front of their computers waiting for the boss to leave so they can go home, or make busy-work for themselves, copying electronic records onto paper (yes, this is real!). Unproductive workers are kept on the payrolls because of lifetime employment, with high salaries guaranteed by the system of seniority pay. To this, add endless meetings, each of which must be exhaustively prepared for in advance. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy with poorly defined accountability.

There is a price for everything, and the one for "going along to get along" can be steep. However we love to decry the "adversarial system" in law, politics and commerce, as Churchill said of democracy, it's the worse system we've got . . . except for all the rest.

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March 05, 2015

Pop culture Catholicism

Continuing from my previous post on the subject, a closer look at Catholicism in Japan's popular culture. Only one percent of Japanese consider themselves Christian, less than half that Catholic, making the influence of Catholic culture wildly disproportionate to its demographic presence.

Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) wrote about Catholicism in the context of Japanese history. His definitive novel, Silence, details the persecution of the church in the early 17th century. A movie directed by Masahiro Shinoda was released in 1971. An adaptation by Martin Scorsese starring Liam Neeson is scheduled for 2016.

Forced deep underground during the Edo period (1603-1868), a dedicated few courageously kept the faith alive for 250 years in the face of fierce persecution. Those days are all bygones. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is Catholic. "Christian"-style weddings are a popular (and less expensive) alternative to the Shinto rite.

That includes "Christian" weddings officiated by foreign "priests." Because any gaijin who can dress up and play the part will do. A marriage license is an official document issued by the state; what goes on in the church is legally irrelevant.

So setting serious things aside, let's glance briefly at the lighter side of pop Catholic references. I say "briefly" because I can only mention a few of the dozens of titles that qualify.

As I mentioned previously, the Inquisitorial arm of the Catholic church in Hellsing and Witch Hunter Robin (among many) functions as a conspiratorial manipulator of events on the world stage, like The Smoking Man from The X-Files or the NSA/CIA in Enemy of the State (and a zillion other Hollywood flicks).

For history buffs, there's Maria the Virgin Witch. It takes place during the Hundred Years' War. When she keeps interfering in human events as an avowed pacifist, Maria gets at cross-purposes with the Archangel Michael. (The series crazily ricochets between high-brow historical fantasy and very low-brow burlesque.)

Chrono Crusade features the "Order of Saint Magdalene" as a ghost hunting organization. The vampire hunters in Trinity Blood work for a post-modern, post-apocalyptic Vatican. The heroine in Saint Tail is a modern-day Robin Hood whose base of operation is a Catholic church.

Haibane Renmei is perhaps the most accessible exploration of Catholic purgatory (or the Mormon "probationary state") in religious literature.

Though supernatural genres predominate, there are a few "real life" titles, such as Rumiko Takahashi's One-Pound Gospel, about a boxer kept on the straight on narrow by a Catholic nun.

More than theology, which few Japanese (and few Americans) could explain, Catholicism is best known as a setting, namely the Catholic girls school. Based on popular entertainment, you'd conclude that every other private school in Japan is a Catholic girls school. A recent popular example is Maria Watches Over Us.

The live action comedy Gomen ne Seishun! ("Saving My Stupid Youth") has a Catholic girls school with slumping enrollment merging with a Buddhist boys school in similar straits. School uniforms matter a lot in Japan, and Gomen ne Seishun! ridiculously dresses the girls up in what look like training habits (click to enlarge).

It's not available in the U.S. (though Maria Watches Over Us is). Maybe someday it'll show up on Hulu or Crunchyroll? Really, you'd have to have a heart of stone to get offended at something this silly. A world beset by religious strife calls for even greater faith in the more jocular angels of our nature.

Related posts

Christianity is cool
Hellsing (Hulu)
Haibane Renmei (Hulu)
Madoka Magica (Hulu)
Scrapped Princess

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March 02, 2015

"Star Trek" on the lecture circuit

I'm old enough to have seen an original Star Trek episode (not a rerun!). It was during a sleep-over at a friend's house, way back in 1969.

The episode was "That Which Survives." It made quite an impression on my young mind, especially the way Losira (Lee Meriwether; Catwoman on Batman) escaped by shrinking herself into a horizontal line and vanishing into a dot. Televisions once did that when you turned them off.

The neatest, scariest, coolest thing ever.

I'd have to wait for the series to end up in syndication to see the rest. These were the wilderness years for the fans, before Star Trek became a phenomenon. Except for the short-lived animated series (1973), the first movie wouldn't come out until 1979. Next Generation debuted in 1987.

Until then, I made do with David Gerrold's I-was-there memoirs (The Trouble With Tribbles and The World of Star Trek) and all of the Star Trek novelizations by James Blish.

But there was an upside. As the fan base grew, the stars of the show began touring, and even made it to upstate New York. Thanks to my mom, I got to see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in person. Their presentations amusingly mirrored their characters and personalities.

Leonard Nimoy spoke at Union College, lecturing on the convergence of science and science fiction. The Space Shuttle Enterprise (so named because of Star Trek) had just completed its maiden test flights (click to enlarge). His was very much the demeanor of a visiting professor.

The cast at the roll-out of the real Enterprise (Wikipedia Commons).

The same demeanor he'd adopt for the In Search of series. Notes Eric Raymond, "He made braininess sexy." Incidentally, Nimoy spoke in the same hall (the memorial chapel) where I attended a talk by Isaac Asimov.

Nimoy brought along a copy of "Amok Time" to watch after the lecture. A reel of 16mm film. That's how television series were syndicated back then. Commercial breaks were flagged by sixty seconds of plain black-on-white text that simply said, "Place commercials here."

Which, of course, everybody started reading out loud in unison.

William Shatner appeared in a larger venue (the auditorium at Siena College, I believe). His performance was mostly a scripted one-man show. It featured soliloquies and spoken narratives with the general theme of space and astronomy in theater throughout the ages.

Both Shatner and Nimoy concluded with Q&A sessions. Off-script, Shatner transformed into a young Bob Hope, laid-back and relaxed, bantering with the audience members. Towards the end, he started pretend-pleading with anybody ducking out early to beat the traffic.

Nimoy, again, was cool, cerebral, and to-the-point. Suffering foolish questions gladly, but not without a touch of good-humored exasperation at the sillier inquiries. Yes, as he stated in his first autobiography, he wasn't Spock. But as he conceded in his second, he always will be.

This later joint appearance gives us Shatner and Nimoy together in their natural element. And although they played antagonists in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., one can grasp glimmers of their future characters.

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February 26, 2015

Christianity is cool

In Japan, that is. All the more surprising considering that Christians constitute at best one percent of the population. Or perhaps that simply makes it exotic.

Catholicism has the deepest roots, having arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. So the aesthetics of Catholic culture and architecture are the first things Japanese think of when "Christianity" is mentioned. After that comes the ecclesiastical structure, extrapolated from the Roman Curia.

Anime like Witch Hunter Robin and Hellsing (Catholics vs. Anglicans) play off the supposed existence of an imperial Catholic church that shows up in movies like Constantine, Stigmata, and The Da Vinci Code. The Catholic church is just too cool an institution not to imagine running a global conspiracy.

Although in A Certain Magical Index, that role falls to the "English Puritan Church" (if you were wondering what the Puritans have been up to for the past three centuries).

And as with the U.S. spy agencies, the Catholic church is also a good source in the paranormal action world of skilled agents, operators, and intelligence networks. Ghost Hunt is an ensemble paranormal actioner, so it naturally features a Catholic priest as one of the ghost hunters.

At the same time, in terms of theology, the suggestively Catholic Haibane Renmei can stand beside any of C.S. Lewis's work as a powerful Christian parable. The same is true of anime such as Madoka Magica and Scrapped Princess, though you may have to look harder to see through the metaphors.

Along with Camille Paglia, Japanese writers have discovered that "medieval theology is far more complex and challenging than anything offered by the pretentious post-structuralist hucksters."

They eagerly pilfer Christian eschatology for interesting characters and conflicts (another good reason to study religion!). Kaori Yuki's Miltonesque Angel Sanctuary turns Paradise Lost into a Gothic romance, with a war in heaven and a descent to the underworld to reclaim a lost love.

At the other extreme, the quite clever The Devil is a Part-Timer (stranded in Japan, the devil gets a job at McDonald's to make ends meet) features both a "Satan" and a "Lucifer."

The only overtly "religious" aspect of The Devil is a Part-Timer is an institutional church roughly analogous to the medieval Catholic church (under the Medici popes). The state religion in Scrapped Princess is largely the same.

Then there's the offbeat syncretism of Saint Young Men, about Jesus and Buddha hanging out in modern-day Tokyo. Manga artist Hikaru Nakamura approaches the subject with a goofy but respectful touch. Unless you find the concept itself heretical, there's nothing blasphemous about it.

Saint Young Men is hugely popular in Japan (a staggering 10 million copies sold) and won the 2009 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. An anime is currently in production and a movie adaptation was released in 2013. One can only pray that one or more of these versions makes its way here soon.

Saint Young Men has been licensed in China and Europe but not North America. The Japanese publisher is understandably skittish about the possible fallout.

In fact, the vast majority of Christians react to this type of thing the way the vast majority of Mormons do to The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: "Hey, they spelled the names right!" What's annoying is blasphemy arising out of self-righteous contempt.

There's none of that here.

What gives manga publishers pause when it comes to the U.S. is the fear that somebody is going to whine and stamp their feet and the bad publicity will kill sales. Nobody's going to get killed. Though the suits understandably get skittish about the fringe elements that breath such threats.

During the localization of Saint Tail (which features a Catholic church as the "Bat Cave") for the U.S. market,

references to God were removed from the first two volumes in a possible anticipation of a TV broadcast. Considering that Seira Mimori [the protagonist's sidekick] spends half of the time in a nun's habit, one wonders why they thought they could do Saint Tail without references to God.

Common sense ultimately prevailed and the censoring was stopped with the third volume.

This is rarely a problem in Japan, where the whining and foot stamping mostly comes from the political right. They're strident secularists, except when the emperor enters the picture. Then they turn into strident Shintoists. Until they die, that is, at which point Buddhism kicks in with a vengeance.

"Buddhism for the dead, Shinto for the living," so the saying goes. In everyday life, Japanese move back and forth between Shinto rites and Buddhist beliefs (and Christian wedding ceremonies). It's not that the adherents are blurring the lines. The lines were never firmly drawn in the first place.

You might expect this sort of fuzzy wuzziness to lead to the apathy and neglect that emptied out the churches in secularized Europe. But in Japan, people not getting worked up about stuff can motivate the curious to mix and match belief systems in ways nobody else would have dreamed of.

And in the process, scrub the dust off of old, worn-out tropes to reveal a shining gem buried beneath.

Related posts

Pop culture Catholicism
Hellsing (Hulu)
Haibane Renmei (Hulu)
Madoka Magica (Hulu)
Scrapped Princess

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February 23, 2015

Pax Sinica

In a recent Spengler column David Goldman foresees an ascendent China, but not on purpose.

China is not planning to take over the world. It doesn't want the world. It doesn't like the world--that is, the world outside of China. Unlike Greeks, Romans, Muslims, and European imperialists, it does not want to plant its flag outside its borders, send its young men to conquer and defend new territories, or subject other peoples to colonial rule. Nonetheless, it may inherit the world, reluctantly and by default.

This is a good description of Japan's foreign policy as well. In its 1500 years of documented history, the final decade of the 16th century (two pointless invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597) and the half-century of military adventurism from 1894 to 1945 were the disastrous anomalies.

Emerging from its self-imposed isolationism in 1868, Japan found itself surrounded by paper tigers. Flailing about for a raison d'être, it seized once again (after almost 300 years) on Oda Nobunaga's dream of a Pax Japonica in Northeast Asia.

It took Japan another fifty years after that to figure out it was really bad at European-style colonialism.

The problem was, in the short turn, the Japanese navy in particular proved itself quite capable at winning individual battles. But the government had no idea how to rule what its soldiers and sailors conquered. The era of European colonialism was almost over. Japan came to the imperialism party a century too late.

Even so, by the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan did rule over an honest-to-goodness island empire stretching from Sakhalin down to Taiwan.

Japan would negotiate away Sakhalin (it was too big, too underpopulated, and too far away), and it would have eventually had to give up Korea (as England was to Ireland and Scotland, Japan was to Korea and Taiwan). But an empire it was, giving Japan complete control of the sea lanes across Northeast Asia.

Ah, if only Japan had stopped there. The Chinese Communists would never have come to power: a Japan not at war with China would have happily helped Chiang Kai-Shek exterminate them. Alas, Japan couldn't let go of the dice and inevitably rolled snake eyes a hundred times in a row.

After the Occupation, the Japanese went back to being Japanese. For a while on the global stage, it looked like it might win economically what it had lost militarily. But then the economy crapped out too. With a collective shrug, the Japanese went back to being Japanese.

The 250 years of the isolationist Edo period define the national character far more definitively than the hundred years after. Those were the good old days.

Likewise with China. The lesson of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was that any interlopers would be assimilated. The collapse of the far-flung Mongol Empire proved the point. Its sabre-rattling notwithstanding, China will ultimately settle for outwaiting Taiwan, just as it is absorbing its other "lost" provinces.

Despite its Security Council posturing, China greatly benefits from the current status quo. The U.S. (and its ostensible allies) kick the hive while China collects the honey. But the status quo isn't going to last.

More fracking and more pipelines (one way or another) will leave the U.S. even less dependent on oil imports from outside the Americas. The burden of securing the flow of Mideast oil will increasingly fall on China, arousing the radical elements in the Mideast to start playing chicken with the Far East.

That should be interesting.

China has an additional motivation here: to keep Japan from seriously rearming. To do that, it will have to pick up where the U.S. military leaves off. Except Goldman is right: that's the last thing China wants to do.

China leaders are bemused by America's sudden and unexpected withdrawal from strategic responsibility, for example, in the Persian Gulf, and are struggling to devise a response that would ensure the security of oil supplies without entangling alliances and risky military commitments. It is a comedy of errors rather than a conspiracy.

But to keep its economy going and the Mandate of Heaven secure, China won't have a choice. Well, as Uncle Ben could tell them: "With great power comes great responsibility."

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February 19, 2015

The Shirow franchises (2)

In Appleseed (1985), the future is still run by giant mainframes. That was soon to change.

The "difference engine" was first proposed in the late 18th century, but this now well-worn trope truly came into its own as mainstream entertainment in the 1950s with the Tracy/Hepburn comedy Desk Set (1957) and NASA's adoption of the IBM 7090 at the dawn of the space race.

Only four years after Appleseed, Masamune Shirow saw the future and the future was networked. The last line in Ghost in the Shell (1989) says it all: "The net is vast and infinite."

This marked a true sea change in the genre. The "computer" would no longer be a single "character" (an electromechanical dictator) but part of the landscape. This is especially true in the Stand Alone Complex series, in which cyber is simply there, like the water and air.

As Google chairman Eric Schmidt put it recently, "The Internet will disappear." Meaning that it will become as ubiquitous as electric power and radio waves, treated as a given, as if it has always existed and has always been available, and so is only noticed when it is not.

Alas, too many Hollywood science fiction writers are stuck on the mainframe as the "Big Bad" and "hacking" as a magic wand. A quarter century ago, Shirow got it right.

• Ghost in the Shell (manga) 1989-1990
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 1995
Innocence (theatrical release) 2004
Stand Alone Complex (TV anime series) 2002-2006
Solid State Society (OVA movie) 2006
Arise (OVA series) 2013
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 2017
• Plus 1997 and 2015 video games.

Right from the start, Ghost in the Shell throws a wrench into the sequel machinery. Kusanagi merges with the AI at the end of the first movie. In Innocence she appears only virtually. So the only place to go without completing trashing the premise is backwards.

Thus Stand Alone Complex is a prequel. The two S.A.C. series are not only superior to the original but rank among the very best in the genre. The latest installment in the franchise, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, is a prequel to the prequel, including an "origins" story.

The real stars of S.A.C.: the Tachikoma robots (Wikipedia Commons).

And talking about allegiance to established canon (or the lack thereof), Dreamworks has signed Scarlett Johansson for a 2017 live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell. The casting has already raised questions among fans about how a "Johansson" can play a "Kusanagi."

The obvious solution can be gleaned from A Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo). Or Edge of Tomorrow (All You Need is Kill). Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise are models for "occidentalization." Just keep the plot moving and don't bury the story beneath piles of ponderousness.

Related posts

The Shirow franchises (1)
Appleseed: Alpha
Appleseed: Ex Machina
Reframing the mainframe plot

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February 16, 2015


Annie Manion argues in her master's thesis that popular culture, specifically anime, has surpassed business (economic) interests in motivating students to study Japanese. Moreover, popular culture serves as a kind of cultural "loss-leader," encouraging consumption of more "wholesome" fare:

The fact is that people who like anime, depending on their exposure to Japanese culture, tend to like many aspects of Japanese culture, from popular to traditional, as well, and develop at some point either the desire to learn Japanese or visit Japan.

In her conclusion, Manion describes the reluctance in western academic circles to accept anime as a "legitimate" example of Japanese culture as a reflection of "techno-orientalism," which she defines as a "certain discourse concerning Japan that seems unable to reconcile an image of Japan as traditional with the image of Japan as a modern economic power."

There is on the one hand "exotic" Japan, characterized by "aestheticism, eroticism and idealization," and on the other "alien" Japan, which in the past was associated with "a dehumanized martial culture." But now, thanks to the technological advances and economic strength Japan has gained in the last few decades, has come to be associated with technology and business.

Some scholars, such as Alex Kerr and Donald Richie, directly exhibit a techno-orientalist view of Japan, portraying the advent of modernity and/or technology as slowly destroying or replacing traditional Japan. This basic idea permeates the popular understanding of Japan[.]

This is a highly useful observation, though the "orientalist" label overly complicates the argument. Rather, the underlying ideology revealed here derives from what I call "neo-creationism," the near-universal idea, especially beloved on the academic left, that there existed a point in time when All Was Good, but from which we have since fallen like Adam and Eve.

Kiku Day sums up this mindset in her review of Lost in Translation (2003):

[Ancient Japan] is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The "good Japan," according to this director, is Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.

Or as Milton titled his epic poem on the subject: Paradise Lost.

This belief motivates the Holy Grail-like quest for the Edenic past and Rousseau's Noble Savage (in a primeval rainforest near you). It is as pronounced in environmentalism as it is in orthodox religious movements. It looks back to the past, to a Camelot, when, Douglas Adams writes, "Men were men, women were women and fuzzy blue creatures from Alpha Centuri were fuzzy blue creatures from Alpha Centuri."

Academics who make a career of this nostalgia conveniently find these Edens within their particular academic specialties. And bully for them. There is much value in remembering and preserving the past, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how lucky we are not to be living there anymore.

But the past is not a This Old House project that can be updated with all the comforts of modern living while preserving the "original" look. The past is the past because our ancestors left it there, and more often than not, good riddance to it.

The added irony is that the modernity seen as so inimical to the past is in fact its best hope of preservation.

Only wealthy, modern, first-world countries can afford to take environmentalism seriously, and can afford to pay people to care about how people were living centuries ago. And can afford to produce (and sit around and watch) shows like Antiques Roadshow (I prefer Salvage Dawgs).

Hence, the place to find the well-preserved artifacts of Chinese history and culture is in one of the world's most technological, post-modern societies--Taiwan--not Mainland China, whose communist government had no use for the past during its many Great Leaps Forward.

Evolution didn't stop when homo sapiens stood up and took a bow. Both speciation and extinction inexorably continue. Culture and language change--evolve--with an equally remorseless momentum. We know this in our bones even if we deny it with our rhetoric. For if there were indeed a unique and privileged past, we could single it out, pack it off to a museum, and dispense with everything else.

But knowing that there isn't induces a pack-rat mentality that instructs us to scamper around saving everything just in case it might come in useful one day.

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February 12, 2015

The Shirow franchises (1)

Manga artist Masamune Shirow was the first to capture the true scope of cyberpunk in the late 1980 and early 1990s. Taking visual inspiration from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), he defined the look and feel of the genre in ways that Hollywood is still catching up with.

The opening scenes of Ghost in the Shell owe a lot to Ridley Scott.

Black Magic (1983) got an OVA (meaning: direct-to-video). The goofier  Dominion Tank Police (a personal fav) spawned two TV anime series besides the two manga series (1986 and 1995). For most manga artists, that'd be more than enough success for a lifetime.

But it was Appleseed (1985) and Ghost in the Shell (1989) that took on lives of their own. Neither franchise demonstrates much allegiance to an established canon. With new production teams taking up the reins each time around, every iteration gets its own reboot.

Examining his original manga, you will notice that Shirow and Frank Frazetta share a similar visual aesthetic that gets toned down (a lot) for anime (and that includes the Ghost in the Shell movie). Shirow has also published two dozen art books and poster collections.

Appleseed (manga) 1985–1989
Appleseed (OVA series) 1988
Appleseed (theatrical release) 2004
Appleseed: Ex Machina (theatrical release) 2007
Appleseed: XIII (TV anime series) 2011
Appleseed: Alpha (theatrical release) 2014
• Plus a 1988 video game.

Appleseed sprang back to life after a fifteen-year break using motion-capture digital animation for all productions. I guess if you go full digital once, it gets easier to keep on doing it that way, because that's what they've done, including the television series.

The first two films and series stick to the original premise: Deunan Knute and her cyborg partner (and boyfriend), Briareos Hecatonchires, are members of an elite SWAT team/special forces unit in Olympus, the futuristic, post-apocalyptic city at the center of everything.

The one odd discontinuity up to this point is that in XIII, Deunan looks and acts barely out of her teens, and XIII includes origins materials that make it a prequel to Appleseed. (I seem to recall that the origins material in Appleseed is different too.)

The real wildcard is the latest, Appleseed: Alpha, which jumps completely out of the established timeline. Deunan and Briareos haven't even gotten to Olympus (and aren't even sure they ever will), and yet they are clearly older and wearier than in the Olympus arc.

Alpha is, at heart, a classic road movie, and that's a good direction to go in. Olympus pulling the strings from afar rather than up close creates more latitude in the storytelling. Besides, the whole utopian society (but it's rotten underneath) cliche is pretty tired.

On their way to the mythical Olympus, Deunan and Briareos keep getting sidetracked. And at the very, very end (wait for the credit roll), we learn that Olympus plans to keep on sidetracking them. I'm game. I like the direction Appleseed: Alpha is taking things.

I hope they keep heading down that road.

Related posts

The Shirow franchises (2)
Appleseed: Ex Machina
Appleseed: Alpha
Ghost in the Shell: Innocence

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