October 23, 2014

Hanasaku Iroha


Anime I've been watching on Hulu.

Ohana's mother runs off with her boyfriend (a step ahead of the debt collector) and sends Ohana to live with her grandmother, who owns an inn way out in the sticks. The grandmother is in no mood to play babysitter and promptly sets Ohana to work in the inn.


Ohana is the quintessential heroine of Japanese melodrama: can-do and relentless optimistic (to the point of driving her roommate bonkers). And yet Hanasaku Iroha manages to stay true to the core of its main characters, even at the cost of a happily-ever-after ending.

The grandmother had wanted Ohana's mother to take over the inn, but moving to the boonies is absolutely the last thing she has any interest in. The key dramatic arc in the series explores this irreconcilable conflict between the mother and grandmother.

So it's up to Ohana's uncle to manage the place. Except everybody knows--including himself--that he simply hasn't got the chops, even when joined by his MBA-grad girlfriend (incapable of uttering a sentence unadorned by incomprehensible American business jargon).

These nuts and bolts are treated with a light touch throughout, making Hanasaku Iroha an altogether pleasant comedy about running a small (failing) business in the country.

Along with the "how to" genre (how to run a hot springs inn),  Hanasaku Iroha also belongs to what I'd call the "wabi-sabi" genre. As Wikipedia defines it:

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

A more idealistic western counterpart might be the "Hudson River School," that paints the countryside with a sepia-tinted palette. As urban and rural Japan have grown further apart, that distance hasn't lent itself to cool objectivity but to exaggerated romanticism.

Nevertheless, Hanasaku Iroha comes to a bittersweet conclusion more closely aligned with the realities of modern Japan: things that can't go on forever won't, no matter how much positive mental energy is poured into them. Though there is always room for a sequel.

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October 20, 2014

L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids


I'd never gotten around to the last two novels in the Anne of Green Gables series. My brother Joe recently did. He didn't think much of Rilla of Ingleside or Kevin Sullivan's adaption (Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story).

I'd seen the latter too, which was in no way encouraging. Sullivan's Anne of Avonlea (also known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) is a good example of how to deviate from the source material while keeping true to its substance and spirit.

The Continuing Story is a good example of getting it all wrong. Sullivan manages to turn Anne, as Kate puts it, into a "bucolic female James Bond." Yes, it's supposed to be about Rilla, but the lead had to be Megan Follows. Like I said, it's a mess.

Rather, Joe points to Rainbow Valley as the standout in the post-Green Gables books. So I clicked over to Project Gutenberg and downloaded it. And he was right. Rainbow Valley is a real gem.


As Joe points out, Rainbow Valley is less about the staid Blythe kids than the wacky Merediths. They're the offspring of the eccentric and widowed minister. Following the death of his wife, the children mostly raise themselves (not a social worker in sight).

Things only get dicier when Mary Vance shows up, the orphan girl they take in like a lost dog.

Mary Vance is the alternate universe version of Anne. While Anne coped by filling up on literature, focusing her mental energy inwards and fueling her imagination, Mary Vance turns hers outwards, with the goal of controlling the chaotic world around her.

Not surprising, given an upbringing that makes Anne's pre-Green Gables life look comfortable by comparison. Nowadays, Mary Vance would be cast as the pitiful victim on a Law & Order episode, a serial killer's childhood flashback on Criminal Minds.

"My grandfather was a rich man. I'll bet he was richer than your grandfather. But pa drunk it all up and ma, she did her part. They used to beat me, too. Laws, I've been licked so much I kind of like it."

Or pumped full of Ritalin and handed over to Child Protective Services. But a century ago, a tough childhood gave a kid "character." Indeed, Mary Vance isn't looking for excuses. To be a "victim" is to not be in control, and that's that last thing she wants.

Mary tossed her head. She divined that the manse children were pitying her for her many stripes and she did not want pity. She wanted to be envied.

With her considerable wit focused so long on day-to-day survival, the attendant niceties long ago went by the wayside. And so unconstrained by a still nascent superego, her id leaks out all over the place. She definitely gets all the good lines.

• "Mr. Wiley used to mention hell when he was alive. He was always telling folks to go there. I thought it was some place over in New Brunswick where he come from."

• "I haven't got anything against God, Una. I'm willing to give Him a chance. But, honest, I think He's an awful lot like your father, absent-minded and never taking any notice of a body most of the time, but sometimes waking up all of a sudden and being awful good and kind and sensible."

• "Give me Daniel [in the Lions' Den]. I'd rusher have it 'cause I'm partial to lions. Only I wish they'd et Daniel up. It would have been more exciting."

• "If one has to pray to anybody it'd be better to pray to the devil than to God. God's good, anyhow so you say, so He won't do you any harm, but from all I can make out the devil needs to be pacified."

As Miss Cornelia puts it, "If you dug for a thousand years you couldn't get to the bottom of that child's mind."

But Mary Vance hardly has the story all to herself. In the second half of the book, the misadventures of the untethered Meredith kids take over the story, along with the emergence of a possible romantic companion for their father (a sweet note to end on).

Reading Rainbow Valley is like listening to a gossipy small-town newspaper read aloud, the chronicler now and then stepping back from the narrative to offer an aside or two about her subjects. But always with the best intentions--and honest empathy--in mind.

Although I shy away from the omniscient point of view, Montgomery's relaxed command of the narrative is such that the "head hopping" never bothers me, and even imbues the story with a touch of magical realism that places it apart from the real world.

Though with the Great War just over the horizon, the book briefly breaks the reverie at the very end with a haunting bit of foreshadowing.

This was certainly a great part of Montgomery's appeal in Japan. Hanako Muraoka completed her translation of Anne of Green Gables during WWII. The Japanese edition was published in 1952. "Reality" was one thing they didn't need any more of.

Though as far as reality goes, Rainbow Valley hews closer to my own childhood (considerably less than a century ago) than the nanny state reigning today. Back then, the only parental constraint imposed on us as we flew out the door was: "Be home by dinnertime."

Downloads

I found the rudimentary formatting of the Project Gutenberg file a tad annoying so I tweaked the ePub and Kindle versions (click on the links to download).

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October 16, 2014

Poseidon of the East (downloads)


The ePub and Kindle ebook versions for Poseidon of the East are now available on the downloads page.

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October 13, 2014

Side by Side


Produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, Side by Side nicely documents the recent history of digital cinema, how it supplanted traditional silver halide film almost overnight, and raised the hackles of the purists (to mostly no avail).


Reflecting trends on the still camera side, ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer make film cameras. That film and camera production peaked only ten years ago illustrates the rapid adoption of digital since 2002, when George Lucas shot Star Wars: Episode II entirely on digital.

There's plenty--a glut--of used film equipment lying around. The more pressing question is how much longer Kodak can afford to keep making (and chemically processing) celluloid film.

Fujifilm quit the motion-picture film business in 2013. Kodak's film sales have fallen a staggering 96 percent since 2006. Like vinyl LPs, there will always been a niche market. Whether the economics of film can continue to justify blockbuster quantities is another question.

Right now, it seems that only guaranteed minimum orders from a handful of Hollywood heavy-hitters are keeping the Kodak film franchise alive.

Television's quick adoption of digital also contributed to the rapid decline of film. But we should also pause to thank the original 35mm prints of Star Trek and other TV "classics" for the brilliant, high-def versions available today.

Along with a brief history of the evolving digital film technologies, Keanu Reeves interviews directors and cinematographers with competing analog vs. digital loyalties. If nothing else, this documentary rekindled my admiration for George Lucas as a technological pioneer.

Digital projection is the last frontier. That frontier is closing fast. In its heyday, most of the motion picture film stock Kodak made was used for theater projection prints. That market sector has taken biggest hit as theaters switched to digital projection.

IMAX was a lone holdout for a while. The last 70mm IMAX theater in Los Angeles will have a 4K laser projection system by the end of 2015.

As with still film cameras, the question not "if" but "when." The most ardent film aficionado has to admit that the best film stock in the world is ultimately no better than the worn-out print running through the crappy projector with the dim bulb in the local mall theater.

And lastly, there is the unavoidable irony of watching a documentary about the motion picture business in which the "old timers" extol the aesthetic superiority of analog--using digital technology.

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October 09, 2014

Poseidon of the East (40-41)


I've posted chapters 40 and 41 of Poseidon of the East.

The nengou system (年号), called kokureki (国歴) in the novel, resets to year 1 upon the accession of a new emperor. In the past, an emperor could designate a new nengou whenever the fancy struck him, which Shouryuu seems fond of doing.

Taika (大化) and Hakuchi (白雉) are the earliest recorded nengou in Japanese history, marking the reign of Emperor Kotoku (645-654). Daigen (大元) is also the name of the Great Yuan Empire, founded by Kublai Khan after he conquered China in 1271.

Japanese of Shouryuu's time would have been quite familiar with Kublai Khan, thanks to his two failed invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, ultimately foiled each time by the "Divine Wind" or Kamikaze.

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October 06, 2014

Let them eat Cheerios


In the universe of The Twelve Kingdoms, Japan and China exist in a parallel dimension that can only be accessed by wizards and kirin ("were-unicorn"), using a kind of (destructive) wormhole called a shoku. From the prologue to Poseidon of the East:

At the ends of the earth was an ocean called the Kyokai, the "Sea of Nothingness."

Two realms sat at the borders of its eastern and western reaches. Although normally cut off from each other, with no communication or commerce passing between them, the same legend had arisen in each--of a land of dreams far across the horizon.

Only a chosen few could visit that blessed and fertile place, where riches gushed forth like fountains, whose people, free from pain and suffering, neither grew old nor died.

In Shadow of the Moon, Rakushun articulates the substance of the legends:

"It's said that the people of [Japan and China] live in houses made of gold and silver, studded with jewels. Their kingdoms are so wealthy that farmers live like kings. They gallop through the air and can run a thousand miles in a single day. Even babies have the power to defeat youma [monsters]."

Rakushun looked at Youko expectantly.

Youko shook her head with a rueful smile. What a strange conversation this was. If she ever returned to her old world, nobody would believe her. Fairy tales, they'd say. And here, her world was a fairy tale as well. She laughed to herself. She'd believed all along that this was the strange and mysterious world. But in the end, wasn't she and the place she came from all the more so?

Actually, Rakushun is onto something here.

Farmers in any developed nation today live longer and better than medieval kings. Vaccinations, antibiotics, and water chlorination can defeat invisible demons once responsible for a 30 percent childhood mortality rate. You can fly from Seattle to Tokyo in 10 hours.

In 1866, Tokugawa Iemochi, the second-to-last shogun, died of heart failure at the age of twenty, presumably due to beriberi. Considering that the third-to-last shogun went bonkers and died at the age of 34, two centuries of inbreeding was probably taking its toll too.

In any case, beriberi is a disease brought on by vitamin B1 deficiency. Thanks to enriched flour, beriberi is almost nonexistent in developed countries today. A bowl of Cheerios a couple of times a month could have prevented it (and many other diseases).

The shogun was done in by a diet of polished white rice the poor couldn't afford. In the time travel series Jin, Dr. Jin Minakata invents yam donuts to save an old lady who won't eat anything but white rice because, you know, she's not poor anymore!

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October 02, 2014

Poseidon of the East (39)


I've posted chapter 39 of Poseidon of the East.

The classic depiction of the destruction of a clan, immortalized in history, fiction, and folklore, comes at the end of the Genpei War (1180-1185).  In a naval battle at the Straits of Shimonoseki, the Minamoto clan wiped out the Imperial Taira, ushering in the supremacy of the samurai.

For the next 650 years (aside from the brief resurgence of the Southern Imperial Court), emperors reigned but did not rule (they really didn't rule after 1868 either). The head of state was the shogun ("generalissimo"), though he was more the hereditary prime minister in a one-party state.

With the Osaka Campaigns (which destroyed the Toyotomi clan, the one remaining threat to Tokugawa rule) and the Shimabara Rebellion over by 1638, there wasn't any generalling left to do, which left the shogunate woefully unprepared when Admiral Perry showed up in 1853.

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September 29, 2014

Hanako and Anne


Yuriko Yoshitaka (featured in the second season of Galileo) just finished playing Anne of Green Gables translator Hanako Muraoka in NHK's Asadora morning melodrama, Hanako and Anne.


The series is based on a biographical novel written by her granddaughter, Eri Muraoka. The fictional version streamlines and simplifies her childhood, and goes out of its way to draw parallels between Hanako's life and Anne's story.

Hanako had seven siblings in real life, three in the series. As in Anne of Green Gables, the farming out of "excess" children to relatives was common practice. Hanako's daughter was actually her sister's child. Her own son died at the age of five.

This adoption (once quite common in Japan and still done today) is depicted in the series.

A Christian, Hanako's father had his daughter baptized into the Methodist Church (that part left out). From the age of ten, Hanako boarded at a missionary school for girls in Tokyo. The school, Toyo Eiwa Junior High and High School, still exists.

Like Anne, after graduating (with the equivalent of an associate's degree), she taught school before marrying and becoming a full-time writer. In the 1930s, she hosted a weekly children's program on NHK radio.

Hanako translated just about every popular work of young adult English literature published in the 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with The Prince and the Pauper and including Polyanna, The Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables.

Between 1927 and 1968, she translated two books a year on average (about one book a year before the war and three books a year after). Published in 1952, her abridged version of Anne of Green Gables (completed during the war) became a bestseller.

Over a dozen new translations and annotated editions of "Red-Haired Anne" (as it's titled in Japan) have been published since. The book appeared at exactly the right time in 1952 to leave a lasting imprint on the culture.

Hanako's life and career are also a good example of necessary and sufficient conditions coming together. Hanako was born with all the right tweaks in her Broca's area to make the most of a unique opportunity, and coupled that with tons of drive.

The television series depicts her as fanatical about learning English, far more than her classmates, which I think is exactly right. Nobody devotes that fabled "10,000 hours" to mastering a skill if they don't like it and don't consistently improve at it.

The series ends with the publication of Anne of Green Gables. Hanako traveled to North America for the first time in 1967. She died the next year at the age of 75.

The life of a translator is not all that interesting, so the series devotes a considerable amount of screen time to the real-life soap opera of Hanako's classmate and friend, Byakuren Yanagihara ("Renko" in the series), a cousin of the Taisho Emperor.

Their friendship reveals the sociolinguistic conventions of the time: Hanako always refers to Renko using the honorific "-sama" while Renko addresses Hanako using the diminutive "-chan."

Byakuren married three times. The first two were blatant exchanges of titles for money, her brother having screwed up the family finances. She ended the second marriage (to a coal magnate thirty years her senior) with a scandalous affair and very public divorce.

Along the way she published several collections of tanka poetry and became a vocal advocate for women's rights.

Stripped of her title, she lived a much happier life as a commoner (though was devastated by the war-time death of her son in 1945). She and her third husband were married for 46 years, until her death in 1967.

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September 25, 2014

Poseidon of the East (38)


I've posted chapter 38 of Poseidon of the East.

"I'm a greedy man, I guess. Give me a choice between a million or a million and one, and I'll always choose the latter."

Here Shouryuu is expressing a sentiment similar to that in the "Parable of the Lost Sheep," found in the Gospels of Matthew (18:12–14) and Luke (15:3–7). In the parable, a shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep in order to find the one who is lost.

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September 22, 2014

"Galileo" (streaming)


The first season of Galileo is now streaming on Crunchyroll (watch the first episode here). It's a police procedural similar to Numbers or Bones, with a physicist (Masaharu Fukuyama) in the Sherlock Holmes role. I also greatly appreciate that it's an episodic series, with one complete mystery per show.


In the second season, Yuriko Yoshitaka (seated above) replaced Kou Shibasaki as the stymied cop who seeks out the professor's advice.

More videos

No Dropping Out (reviewed here)
I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper (reviewed here)

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September 18, 2014

Poseidon of the East (37)


I've posted chapter 37 of Poseidon of the East.

Aside from using kanji in their writing systems, Chinese and Japanese are grammatically and phonologically unrelated, with Japanese classified in the oddball Altaic language group that includes Korean, Mongolian, Turkish, and sometimes Finnish.

"Shouryuu" is the Japanese approximation (or on'yomi) of "Shanglong," which is how his name would be pronounced in Chinese. "Naotaka"  (尚隆) is how it's pronounced in native Japanese (or kun'yomi), and would be entirely unfamiliar to his listeners.

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September 15, 2014

A scooter in every garage


If you thought the bungled healthcare.gov roll-out was an exception to the rule, consider Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold's investigation of Medicare fraud involving power wheelchairs, specifically of the electric scooter variety, detailed in this C-SPAN interview.
Nope, no exception. Business as usual.

Scooter scammers recruited doctors to write "scooter prescriptions" for "patients." Medicare paid the bill for heavily marked-up scooters, no questions asked. They only started asking questions when the crooks got so freaking greedy it was impossible to ignore.

Nor was this the work of criminal masterminds. An analyst cited in one of Fahrenthold's Washington Post articles:

We're mostly getting people who didn't finish high school, who've stolen more than $10 million in three months. Those are the ones we get. And you know the clever people are just invisible.

If that isn't bad enough, do you know how the federal government processes pension applications for retiring federal workers? Dave Barry and P.J. O'Rourke couldn't concoct something this crazy on purpose. As pure fiction, it'd be too unbelievable to suspend disbelief.

Fahrenthold reveals the process in the second half of the interview, which ends up sounding like a really boring post-apocalyptic flick written by a really bored accountant (who's spent his entire career processing pension applications for federal retirees).

Frankly, Obama should have gone for the whole single-payer nine yards from the start, just so we could get that hypothetical out of the way once and for all. Except the processing of pension benefits has been stuck in the 1970s since the 1970s and shows no signs of changing.

So don't count on any of this getting better anytime soon. Keep in mind that the federal government has no reliable way of telling whether you're alive or dead either. (The Japanese government has the same problem.)

James Madison was rightly obsessed with the need for government to be ruled by rigorous checks and balances. The law alone is not enough. China and North Korea are living proof that not even an all-powerful police force can otherwise stem the tide of corruption.

And make sure your rabbit is licensed!

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September 11, 2014

Poseidon of the East (36)


I've posted chapter 36 of Poseidon of the East.

A kitsuryou (吉量) is a pegasus with a red mane, white stripes, and golden eyes. Youko rides one into battle in chapter 65 of Shadow of the Moon.

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September 08, 2014

Iwago's Cats


As a tribute to my sister's cat Aurora, who departed for kitty heaven last week at the ripe old age of 19½ (that's 95 in human years), here's a wonderful show about cats.

Though I'm not a pet person, cats project a "leave-me-alone" aura I respect. A neighborhood cat likes to nap on my back porch. Now and then another cat shows up (I don't understand the appeal of my back porch) and they get one of those "When are you going to leave?" vs. "No, you first" standoffs.

Sometimes, company is neither desired nor appreciated. Hottoite (ほっといて): "Leave me alone and mind your own business." The term is discussed in the first video at 6:30 as a particular feline characteristic. "Unfortunately," Iwago observes, "cats aren't necessarily happy to be photographed."

I totally get it.


Dogs evolved to be attentive and empathic human companions, but the whole "give me attention" business gets wearying (that and treating the entire outdoors as a toilet). The neighbor's dog obsessively announces every change in the status quo, including things it's seen several hundred times already.

Meaning everybody and everything it doesn't actually live with. Clouds. Its own shadow. The wind. Passing neutrinos. Bark bark bark bark bark bark. Take a breath. Bark bark bark bark bark bark. And so on and so forth. Cats are infinitely more tolerable mammals to share your immediate environment with.

Which perhaps explains why Iwago's Cats (「岩合光昭の世界ネコ歩き」) is one of my favorite programs on NHK. It's produced by the same team that does Somewhere Street, NHK's equally understated travel show.


As the title suggests, wildlife videographer Mitsuaki Iwago travels around the world capturing the life of cats in various urban and semi-rural environments. One difference with Somewhere Street is that the visual narrative will break the fourth wall and show Iwago talking about and interacting with the cats.

Like Somewhere Street, it's a serene and laid-back travel show that's more about the people than the places. Iwago treats the cats as the people and shows us the world through their eyes and activities. The cats really do start to take on the attributes of fully sentient beings.

Iwago's Cats is one of those NHK shows that makes wonder why nobody's licensed it. The cultural references are all local. The narration is mostly off-screen and (sounds) improvised, so could be easily dubbed (by a cat-loving actor with a mellifluous accent.) But many episodes can be found on YouTube.

Okinawa and Uruguay:


Hawaii and Okinawa:


Andalusia, Spain:

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