January 18, 2018

Your Name


Ever since the March 2011 Tôhoku earthquake, NHK has run an ongoing series of short documentaries featuring survivors of the disaster. With surprising objectivity, they deliver first-person accounts of the moment, recounting the tragedy then and the small triumphs since.

The subjects of these vignettes are often shown standing on the concrete slab that remained of their home or business. Such scenes are becoming less common as the Japanese government pours billions into the recovery efforts, in some cases raising entire communities hundreds of feet above sea level.

Last year, the NHK documentary series 72 Hours (in which a film crew camps out in a particular place for three days straight and interviews anybody willing to appear on camera) visited Yonomori Park in Tomioka, Fukushima, renown for its wide boulevards of lush cherry trees.

Because of its proximity to Fukushima, only registered residents are allowed to visit the northeastern part of the town. The result is a kind of open-air Pompeii. Past the barricades, human civilization stopped in 2011, slowly being reclaimed by nature and repopulated by mildly radioactive boars.


Makoto Shinkai wrote Your Name with this context in mind. In the alternate reality of Your Name, a disaster visits Japan on a smaller scale and in non-linear time. A rural town in Gifu Prefecture instead of rural fishing villages north of Sendai. But the parallels are clear.

Still, Shinkai begins with a feint, a body-switching Freaky Friday physical comedy (though elevated to near transcendental levels by his gorgeous cinematography). Even there, his direction is laden with symbolism deeper and darker than the subject matter initially suggests.

The first time we see Mitsuha in school, the teacher is explaining the etymology of tasogare ("twilight"). It was originally pronounced tasokare, literally, "Who are you?" In a world without artificial lighting, identifying a person at twilight could be tricky.


A moment later, Mitsuha turns a page and that question stares back at her from her notebook, written by Taki the last time he switched bodies with her.

A word from classical poetry with Chinese roots, tasogare also suggests an otherworldly time when "gods and ghosts walk unnoticed upon the earth" (as I have Gendô explain in Serpent of Time). Only during the twilight can Mitsuha and Taki meet before their timelines realign.

Given this aura of magical realism, of course Mitsuha and her sister are Shinto shrine maidens. (As cinematic reference points, see Inuyasha, Ginkitsune, and Kamichu! just to start with.)


But the unifying metaphor that ties the film together is the red thread. Originating in ancient China, the red thread of fate "connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break."

Mitsuha ties up her hair with a red ribbon and Taki wraps a red strap around his wrist every morning. Thanks to a Heisenbergian trick of time and place, it is the same red thread.

More subtly, I believe that Shinkai is symbolically referencing his own work, namely Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011). This retelling of the myth of Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) takes a young girl to the Gate of Life and Death in the center of the Underworld.


To get to the Gate, where Asuna hopes to find her father, she descends into a giant crater. In Your Name, The town of Itomori surrounds an impact crater. When Mitsuha, her sister and grandmother visit the family shrine within a metaphorical underworld, the site is in the center of an impact crater.


In the wake of the 2011 disaster, hundreds of "tsunami stones" in the hills of coastal Japan attracted renewed attention. The stones marked the high-water mark of previous disasters. Geological data and historical records point to a "Sanriku earthquake" in the year 869 in the same Tôhoku region.

And thus in Your Name, Shinkai's "Itomori Crater" was formed 1200 years ago and the comet, like the earthquake, has returned again.

The past is prelude. Forgetting the past, Santayana warned, we are doomed to repeat it. There's no telling when Godzilla will come stomping in from the sea. Hence the curse of samsara, the "cyclicality of all life, matter, existence."

All things pass away. All things come around again. And once more pass away. The pathos of life.

Mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the Japanese aesthetic concept of the beauty that can be found in the transitory nature of things, "a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life."

And yet. Reinterpretations and extrapolations of Buddhist and Shinto metaphysics are part and parcel of Japanese fantasy. Reincarnation need not be a curse. While Children Who Chase Lost Voices is about accepting loss and moving on, Your Name circles around and rekindles hope anew.

As does Ocean Waves, giving its characters a second metaphorical chance at a life that still-could-be. Angel Beats offers them rebirth and a second life (and a similar ending). Your Name splits the difference, suggesting that we can step outside of time and not become prisoners of fate.

It is a message that Japan, particularly since 11 March 2011, very much wanted to hear.

Related posts

Makoto Shinkai
Your Name (not a review)
Hollywood made in Japan
Walk on water

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January 14, 2018

Hisho's Birds (ebooks)


The ebook versions of Hisho's Birds (ePub, Kindle, and RTF) are now available for download.

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January 11, 2018

Taking electricity for granted


We don't tend to think about where the modern conveniences of life come from until they stop coming. Earlier this year, Rocky Mountain Power was having difficulty keeping the lights on in my neighborhood. A breaker kept tripping where the overhead lines go underground.

These breakers are basically explosive bolts. They are LOUD. A mile away and it sounds like a thunderclap.

Because light and electricity move at speeds instantaneous to human senses, count the seconds between a flash of lightning and the thunderclap, divide by five, and that's how many many miles away it was.

In this case, the same thing in reverse. The lights would go out, then a few seconds later, BOOM!

They seem to have figured out the problem because it's happened only once since. (I was at work but one of my clocks doesn't have a battery backup.) Though I did get a couple of these handy units just in case.

And where does my electricity come from? Well, the company-owned net generation capacity is 10,894 megawatts from 72 generating plants, distributed over 16,500 miles of transmission lines via 900 substations.

Coal-fueled facilities - 10
Hydroelectric facilities - 41
Natural gas facilities - 7
Wind facilities - 13
Geothermal facilities - 1

And where does Rocky Mountain Power comes from? Turns out, it's a division of PacifiCorp, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Thanks Warren!

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January 04, 2018

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (hope springs eternal)


Shinchosha still can't provide a publication date for Fuyumi Ono's upcoming Twelve Kingdoms novel. But they are measurably more optimistic than last year. Here is my translation of the 28 December 2017 press release.

We are closing out 2017 with these year-end greetings. We had hoped for new information about the long-awaited addition to the Twelve Kingdoms series. Alas, we have nothing concrete to share.

During her recent spell of poor health, Ono Sensei continued to work on her new novel. She has since added considerably to the page count, turning it into a true epic.

A publication date won't be announced until after we have received the manuscript. However, our goal is to complete the project in 2018. For the time being, please bear with us a little while longer.

While praying for Ono Sensei's continuing recovery, the entire staff is making every effort to bring you that good news even one day faster.

We humbly ask for your continuing support and wish you a Happy New Year.

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December 28, 2017

Taking time for granted


In "Weather Vane," the orphaned Renka is taken in by the "Keeper of the Calendar," which prompts this amusing passage that remains relevant in our world as well:

To be in the presence of a real person who made calendars and almanacs was to Renka a revelation. She could easily imagine such things being printed. But the creation of the calendars was well beyond her grasp. It had never occurred to her that somebody actually made them every year.

Frankly, it's still a mystery where time comes from, though we have learned how to measure it with great accuracy.

The creation of accurate calendars was key to the scientific revolution. Commissioned to create a better calendar, Copernicus ended up rejecting the Ptolemaic model of the solar system in favor of the heliocentric, which Galileo then confirmed with his observations of Jupiter and its moons.

Galileo also created the first pendulum clock. The invention of precision chronometers is documented in Longitude, Dava Sobel's fascinating biography of the 18th century clockmaker John Harrison.

If I want to know the time, I glance at the bottom right of my screen. If I want to know when Daylight Saving Time kicks in, I google it. It's all thanks to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the keeper of the atomic clock. Yes, somebody is in charge of time. Good thing, too.

Though I wish the people in charge of time would get rid of Daylight Saving Time. Alas, that'd take an act of Congress.

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December 21, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming


In the process of ostensibly saving the world, the contemporary superhero leaves so much wreckage in his wake that the world would have been better off if he never showed up. What makes Wonder Woman such an outstanding superhero movie is that Diana does hardly any wrecking at all.

And what wrecking she does turns out not to be the solution to the problem.

Call it the fiduciary responsibility of the superhero. The infrastructure balance sheets can't keep running into the red. To be sure, the Marvel franchise has turned the whole thing into a running joke. Except there's nothing funny about the damage all this wanton destruction would inflict upon society.

This realization inevitably reduces the bubblegum in bubblegum entertainment to a sour gob of tar.

Stalin famously said (he wasn't the first) that "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Perhaps the more appropriate version of the quote is attributed to the 18th century scholar Beilby Porteus, who wrote that "One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero." Or a comic book supervillain.

But as Dirty Harry would say, a supervillain has got to know his limits. This business in science fiction blockbusters of blowing up planets has worn quite thin (besides being totally impossible according to even the most fanciful laws of fantasy physics).

Every action film confronts this dilemma: how many innocent bystanders the bad guys can kill to prove how deserving they are of being killed. Unlike the first and later installments, Die Hard 2 illustrated the limits by killing a plane full of bystanders to make a dramatic point. That killed the entertainment value for me.

Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have digested this lesson, and mostly follows the George of the Jungle rule: "In this film nobody dies, but they will get big boo-boos."

Well, one henchman gets zapped with a ray gun and a few others are going to end up with some serious medical bills. Still, it was a nice change compared to a movie like Logan, where it'd be easier to count who doesn't end up dead.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man still wrecks a whole lot of property, including a national landmark. Okay, maybe he didn't do it on purpose, but his actions certainly led directly to it. Here's a lesson for all you kids: Don't carry glowing alien technology around in your backpack.

One ironic problem with super-realistic CGI is that, on a human level (as opposed to blowing up Death Stars), it becomes increasingly difficult to pretend that a ferry splitting (realistically) in two or a C-17 sized transport plane disintegrating (realistically) over New York City would not have deadly consequences.

A problem anime largely overcomes by sticking to abstract versions of reality. And Godzilla largely overcomes by being silly make-believe.

In this respect, Tom Holland plays the teenage Peter Parker perhaps a bit too well. A typical teenager, he doesn't understand the repercussions of what he does on the spur of the moment, even after Tony Stark dresses him down (literally) and tells him he's causing more problems than he's solving.

Of course, Spider-Man sort of saves the day in the end (the world wasn't at any risk). But he never actually pays for anything. I don't mean with money (Tony Stark can cover that). I mean with some moral acknowledgement of personal responsibility that goes beyond getting either dopey or mopey.


This is what annoys me about "family-friendly" movies like Brave. Merida "bravely" confronts problems she caused in the first place. The same applies to Frozen, though I'm more forgiving in the latter case because Elsa is a deeply flawed character whom Anna (the real hero) has to save from herself.

The problem is, Elsa becomes not-a-basketcase far too easily. At the end, she's wrecked her kingdom and (nearly) killed her sister too. Spending even a minute or two more at the big climax getting a grip would have helped enormously with my empathy for her travails.

Strangely enough, as Adrian Toomes (the "Vulture"), the finely-cast Michael Keaton comes across as the most empathetic character in the movie. He has no actual superpowers. He does have an understandable beef with the government, which explains his turn to the black market arms trade.

Spider-Man: Homecoming would have done better channeling his desire for revenge in a righteous direction, uncovering government secrets far darker than his arms peddling. The Department of Damage Control sure seems like a seedy outfit, and maybe they're running their own con right under Tony Stark's nose.


That'd present Peter Parker with a morally complex problem that would require him to make morally complex choices that couldn't be solved (as Wonder Woman discovered) by bashing stuff.

Or at the very least, Toomes could have been fashioned into a second father figure for Peter Parker (contrasted to Tony Stark), without revealing his criminal activities to Spider-Man. That would have made the moment when they both realize they know the secret identity of the other so much more dramatic.

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December 17, 2017

Weather Vane (6)


I've posted chapter 6 of "Weather Vane." This chapter concludes the short story collection. Still waiting for news about Fuyumi Ono's upcoming novel.

The occasionally hot "cold war" between Baku Province and the Imperial Government, documented in A Thousand Leagues of Wind, began when Koukan, the province lord of Baku, rejected the claims of the pretender.

Youko allied herself with his men to overthrow the corrupt governor of Wa Province. She later appointed Koukan as Chousai of the Imperial Court.

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December 14, 2017

The strong and the soft of arcs


When it comes to narrative arcs in television dramas, the strong arc requires a soft arc but not necessarily visa-versa.


Most anime series have fairly strong arc storylines. A typical cour runs 13 or so 30-minute episodes, so can be digested in a couple of binge-viewing sessions. Beyond the Boundary ran 11 episodes, at least two episodes too few. Eureka 7 ran a strong arc through 50 episodes, twice as many as needed.


Narrative disasters occur when a dramatic arc expected to last a season or two proves more popular than its creators expected. They then drag out the premise the series began with. The result is that nothing gets resolved and all kinds of nonsensical reasons have to be concocted to keep them from getting resolved.

(On the other hand, Detective Conan has run so long I wonder if anybody remembers the weird premise it began with or expects it to ever get resolved.)

Eventually, the writers run out of things to write about and fall back on melodrama. That's when I stop watching. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angsty self-involvement and rank stupidity.

I might have watched more than ten cumulative minutes of Friends if Ross and Rachel got hit by an asteroid at the end of the first season so we could focus on Monica and Chandler, whose relationship actually matures. The relationship between Niles and Daphne progressed on Frasier, though took too long getting there.

Big Bang Theory is not only funnier but more entertaining when the characters grow and develop in positive ways, not slip and fall on the same banana peel week after week.

I suspect that soft arcs often harden because the writers worry about running out of story material. Afraid of repeating themselves, they resort to what Kate calls the compulsion to "CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!" But the result isn't "something different." It's endless reruns of Groundhog Day.

Sure, Groundhog Day is amusing for two hours. Year after interminable year, it would define an inner circle of hell. But as Groundhog Day points out, breaking free of this perdition doesn't involve dramatic gestures so much as it requires steady personal growth, mostly ordinary characters improving on being ordinary.

Working with the full knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun is much more liberating. As Kate points out, Agatha Christie built a successful career out of being obvious and doing the "same old thing" over and again.

What makes Christie so great is the simplicity of her story ideas. Story often comes down to one idea. The telling may be elaborate (red herrings plus more red herrings plus more red herrings), but the ultimate denouement is not complicated at all.

Overextended strong arcs are bad enough. When the Decima Technologies arc derailed the premise of Person of Interest, it mutated from a series into an updated version of the Saturday morning serial. Individual episodes simply served to chop an increasingly implausible plot into digestible pieces.


That's unfortunately what also happened with the Ori arc on Stargate.

Watching the first season of 24 cured me of the desire to watch any of the sequels. At this point, we're in telenovela territory. Most live-action Japanese dramas are compact versions of the telenovela, with a single cour lasting around 10 episodes. Except for the Asadora, I usually give them a pass too.

Ten hours of conflict and angst is bad enough. When it's the exact same conflict and angst (and no resolution) week after week (until the last episode), it's unbearable. (Though a series like I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper can win me over with unique characters, episodic plotting, and a touch of magical realism.)

Or the exact same crime, as in police procedurals that take a single mystery and stretch it out over a dozen hours. No, I am not going to wait that long to find out whodunit, not when Columbo can figure the whole thing out in ninety minutes.

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December 10, 2017

Weather Vane (5)


I've posted chapter 5 of "Weather Vane."

I translate dango (団子) as "donut holes." Dango are dumplings made from rice flower. They are typically roasted over hot coals and served on skewers.


Here is a bumblebee in action.

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December 07, 2017

To be continued . . .


Rewatching the early seasons of The X-Files, I'm impressed how effective it is when doing one-off mysteries. Granted, the big conspiracy stuff is fun because it has that classic noir look (with great supporting actors). But think about it for five seconds and it's awfully silly and ages awfully fast, very much a product of the times.

Stargate has the same issue with the Goa'uld and the Replicators, and I got too bored with the Ori to keep watching. The Stargate producers purposely set up each arc with a Big Bad at the center of the ongoing drama. It's a reliable formula, but one that eventually poisons its own well.

Still, the standalone episodes of Stargate are often flat-out fantastic.

This is a persistent problem with "strong arc" storylines, wherein the setup and resolution of each episode depends on the preceding episode and dictates the substance of the one that follows. I think removing the need to maintain the episodic continuity of the arc can free writers to wax more creative.

The original Star Trek holds up well because there pretty much is no arc, making it easy to ignore the mediocre shows and feast on the great ones. I recent saw "Arena" again, and despite the Gorn captain looking like he'd just walked off the set of a Godzilla movie, boy, does it make for a great short story.

Same with "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Errand of Mercy" and "City on the Edge of Forever." Knowing nothing about the Star Trek universe would not diminish the viewer's ability to grasp the entire point of these stories.

But especially in longer series with relatively stable casts, expectations of some sort of plausible continuity and evolution in the "soft arc" must be met (unless, like The Simpsons, the expectation is established early on that the show will reset after each episode).

Star Trek didn't run long enough to worry about the Starfleet org chart. But Star Trek: TNG took too long to explain what Riker's problem was. As a military history like The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, King makes clear, no serious military man turns down a promotion (he maneuvers for the one he wants).

Giving Riker a sketchy past from the start would have created a more interesting dynamic between him and Picard (I blame Roddenberry's obsession with utopianism).

I agree with Kate that Bones gets it mostly right. Castle wades too far into soap opera territory for my tastes, but then rescues itself by poking fun at its own outrageousness, like having Castle travel to an alternate universe to solve a crime and deal with his personal issues.

Blue Bloods does a good job of changing things as naturally as the screenwriters can manage, which in the early seasons mostly had Danny and Jamie getting new partners and Frank dealing with a new mayor. Amy Carlson left before the start of this season. But each season arc rarely overwhelms the individual episodes.


Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter get promoted on Stargate and, true to their characters, end up together with a minimum of histrionics. General Hammond retires. Even Michael Shanks leaving the show for a season appears mostly seamless in retrospect. Equipment evolves, weapons evolve, including how Teal'c outfits himself.


Done right, the "small stuff"—big emphasis on "small"—of natural character development can strengthen episodic dramas. Done wrong, it results in eye-rolling soap operas.

Speaking of Michael Shanks, Saving Hope gets it mostly wrong. I like the medical dramas and the supernatural stories that feature Shanks. But the season-long arcs are soapy to the the point of becoming unwatchable. This is even true of House in the later seasons, and it remains one of the best television dramas ever.

Cable series seem to be all about the strong arc, one of many reasons why I don't watch cable television dramas. But anime is all about the strong arc too. More about that next week.

To be continued . . .

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December 03, 2017

Weather Vane (4)


I've posted chapter 4 of "Weather Vane."

After mulling it over for a while, I decided to translate "Fuushin" as "Weather Vane." See my explanation here.

Unlike their cousins the honeybees, the rest of the bumblebee hive does not overwinter with the queen. With no need to stockpile honey, they are not useful as honey producers. However, they are bred for use in agriculture as pollinators.

Although female bumblebees can sting repeatedly, ignore them and they will ignore you.

Of course, bumblebees in our world don't need a yaboku tree to reproduce. As far as that goes, while new plant species come from yaboku trees (as documented in "Blue Orchid"), pollination is a component of sexual reproduction.

This suggests that the flora of the Twelve Kingdoms at least partially follows the biological rules of to our world.

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November 30, 2017

Nipako


In Japan, not even the manufacturer of precision hand tools can resist the allure of a cute mascot. The hand tool in question should be apparent from the shape of Nipako's hair and ribbons (click the image below to enlarge).


If not, let's look more closely at the etymology of her name. In Japanese, the suffix ko (子) functions somewhat similarly to the /y/ in names like "Debby" and "Betty." But the first two syllables in her name are written in katakana, meaning it has a foreign derivation.

One that's more British than American. Still guessing? See below the fold.

Read more »

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November 26, 2017

Weather Vane (3)


I've posted chapter 3 of "Weather Vane."

The depiction of "normal" life in the midst of total war is one of the more interesting aspects of Asadora dramas like Carnation, Toto Nee-chan, Massan, and Ume-chan Sensei. The first episode of Ume-chan Sensei begins with a ordinary scene of the family eating breakfast. And then Umeko runs outside—into an utterly wrecked and charred landscape.


And yet life went on.

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November 23, 2017

The quintessence of the role


English is a Germanic language, but thanks to the Romans, the Vulgate, the Normans, and Latin being the lingua franca of academic scholarship well into the 17th century, Latin left its indelible mark on the language.

One of those truly cool marks is the word quintessential.

It derives from quīnta essentia, meaning the "fifth element" or essence of the heavenly bodies (believed to be "ether"). The other four elements are air, fire, earth, and water. (And now you also know where the title of The Fifth Element came from.)

For the past five centuries or so, quintessential (adj.) and quintessence (n.) have referred to the pure essence of a substance or the perfect embodiment of a thing.

I think it should refer to a school of acting.

The thought occurred after catching several episodes of Kojak (1973–1978) on Cozi TV (also available from Netflix). A recurring theme in Blue Bloods is how bad the "good old days" were. Crime statistics from the past quarter century prove it. Or you can watch Kojak.

Inspired by gritty crime dramas like The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973), the grime and nihilism is lightened by Telly Savalas's witty, wry, better-honest-than-nice Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Savalas was doing the cop version of Hugh Laurie's Dr. House thirty years before House.

In the role, Savalas captures the quintessence of the hard-nosed Brooklyn detective. His performance reminds me of Luca Zingaretti's in Inspector Montalbano (not just because they're both bald). Both play to type, a Greek-American and a Sicilian, and play that type over the top.


Zingaretti plainly states that his Montalbano is an exaggeration, a "commedia dell'arte," which is a

theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe.

It is exactly this embrace of the inner stock character that allows an actor to "transform and enlarge" the part, that allows the essence of the person represented by the character to shine through. Such a performance creates an emotional rapport with both the cast and the audience.

This is what makes Savalas's and Zingaretti's characters so memorable. They key in on our familiarity with the type (which all fictional characters must be to some extent) and use that familiarity to pull us deeper into the substance of the person they are playing and the story he is telling.

I call this "acting to the quintessence." It deliberately skirts the Stanislavskian approach because theater isn't real life and actors aren't the real people they are portraying. The most "realistic" portrayal on screen is ultimately a made-up story told against an artificial backdrop.

Even a rigorously objective documentary is a shadow on Plato's wall. Once a camera starts rolling, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Embracing the type while transcending it is no simple task. Cast as Japanese, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's delivers a cringe-worthy stereotype, while Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon convincingly depicts a person utterly unlike himself.

Brando was famously a method actor, except that all the "method" in the world wasn't going to turn him into a Japanese living in post-WWII Okinawa. What he could do was focus on those demonstrable aspects of the character that communicated the essence of his part in the story.

In other words, Brando acted like he was that person, and being a good actor, those actions resonated with the audience.

The job of narrative fiction, regardless of the medium, is not to recreate the real world. It is to draw in rough sketches with a specific and artificial focus, giving our own creative instincts enough material and latitude to fill in the rest. Our minds are the only virtual reality machines that matter.

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