March 29, 2007

Power, sex, and narrative voice in yaoi


My sister Kate offers the following analysis, which I find the most compelling yet.

I think [the appeal of yaoi] is about power.

First, I don't think the competition argument will work [that the reader perceives herself to be in competition with the protagonist], since many generations of romance critics have argued that a romance must have a female protagonist so women readers will have a representative in the story. I don't credit that argument with any substantial merit (although romance guidelines are absolute in this regard). My point is rather that this argument is just the flip side of the argument against a female protagonist.

I think part of the yaoi fascination is an age thing--hence the American Idol "scandal" over the long-haired teen, Sanjaya. Of course, Howard Stern is trying to keep the kid on, but I really can't believe Stern explains all the kid's votes. I don't really get it myself.

However, when I was a teen, I did find Mercutio more interesting than Romeo, and the villain of Duchess of Malfi more interesting than . . . well, there aren't any heros in The Duchess. But I found the villain most interesting (and still do). The Crucible was my favorite play. I preferred Luke Skywalker to Han Solo, Modred to Launcelot (still do), and I actually loved Faustus (the play), which didn't last since Christopher Marlow is pretty unintelligible.

I think yaoi utilizes that dark angsty persona so attractive to teenagers (male and female); more importantly, yaoi develops the problems that surround the dark, angsty persona, problems like "Should I sell my soul?" or "Should I satisfy ambition by betraying everybody?" or "Should I murder my uncle?" In other words, issues of power. And I think the attraction is that when all you've got is men, you don't have to worry about them breaking role and moving on and getting self-reflective and deciding all this power stuff is nonsense, thank you very much.

In fact, I still enjoy stuff like Nero Wolfe and Horatio Hornblower and Law & Order where the relationships are primarily between men and they discuss issues of power, primarily hierarchical power, and nobody feels apologetic about it.

Now, most people don't want a power-wielding-angsty persona around in real life (wouldn't Hamlet be a drag?), but we do like to surround ourselves culturally with old-fashioned chivalric and power-oriented ideas regarding honor and justice, etc. And one of the sad truths is that men still have a corner on that stuff (media-wise)--Buffy excepted. And I think women (like me) really, really dig this stuff and get tired of having to say things like, "Well, yes, but of course, it is too, too chauvinistic" or "Well, yes, but we all know that that sort of power is just wrong, and that's not how things should work at all." (Which is why the end of Buffy stank--it got apologetic.)

Which brings us back to yaoi, because once women are involved, those kind of explanatory, so-sorry statements become necessary, not because they really are necessary, but because the writers seem to think they are. But if it is just men then nobody has to excuse the blatant use of power. So teenage girls, who may feel rather powerless (since they have just seen their male counterparts gain weight, muscle and height that they don't have), may be drawn to material where real issues of power are played out without excuse or without the pretense that power isn't real, there and in your face.

Also, to be all feminine about it, I imagine there is the added plus of being able to read about power with relationships thrown in. I don't want to watch or read stuff that's the equivalent of a Risk game. Ahhhh, snore. But I love watching Nero and Archie work out their intensely bizarre relationship episode after episode.

What Kate calls the "competition argument" is an extension of the rather silly (when you think about it) notion, especially in Y/A literature, that in order for the reader to identify with the protagonist, the protagonist must be just like the reader. The success of anime and yaoi make it clear that these similarities are far more subjective and existential than objective and categorical.

There's no doubt that boys who watch My Hime are going to identify with Mai and not her little brother. And they identify with her because she's the one with the power (and the cool robot) at the center of the conflict.

Hmm, can you empower women and exploit them at the same time? My Hime sure does. But seriously, perhaps because Japanese society has managed to become post-modern while remaining in many respects unapologetically anti-feminist (coming in dead last whenever the U.N. measures such things among the developed countries), the realities of power don't get papered over with political correctness.

So even if the initial thought is no deeper than, "Girls are interesting (especially girls with big breasts)," the ends justify the means. Whatever the reason, Japanese mass media paradoxically produces far more believable female SF&F action heroines than Hollywood does.

Kate continues:

One of the interesting changes in romance novels over the past fifty years is the addition of the male perspective. Now it is very nearly de jure, according to my experts, to add a chapter or occasional paragraphs detailing the male perspective. It could be argued that this gives the reader insight into male thinking except I don't think the reader cares much. Rather, I think the male perspective serves as a balancing mechanism for the reader.

For example, seeing things from the male perspective prevents romances from being blatantly chauvinistic. If the male seduces the female (a la Pamela), it feels a trifle exploitative (although Pamela is a great book). But if the male seduces the female, and the reader knows that he really, really loves her and really, really cares and really, really finds her enchanting and really, really didn't mean to scare her, the reader becomes complicit in the seduction--that is, the reader approves of the seduction.

It isn't a conspiracy or anything; novel writing is, well, novel writing, not real life. People do not necessarily approve of domineering men seducing innocent women in real life. But romance novels drag relationships out of the day-to-day business of having to actually ask people what they think into the fantasy world of everybody kind of knowing without anybody actually having to ask.

Some writer I read somewhere once mentioned that Victorians loved mystery stories (Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins) because they got into all that Anne Perry stripping-away-the-rooftop stuff and peering into people's private lives. I think perspective in novels does the same thing. It lets us peek without having to ask. So, readers are all secret voyeurs. But we already knew that.

In yaoi, power relationships are defined right in the terminology: seme (from the verb meaning "to aggress") and uke (from the verb meaning "to receive"). They are, as you might expect, highly analogous to "male" and "female," but in their most traditional readings, pushing the power relationship to the same extremes (implicit domination and explicit S&M themes) that so infuriate old-school feminists about the "faux Regency" Harlequin genre.

Though Steven Pinker might point out that what these genres represent is, if anything, a civilizing reaction to our true natures rather than a reinforcement of them:

Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence [and power] . . . if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey.

What has changed, Pinker argues, bringing about a remarkable diminution in violence and the abuse of power in modern civilization, is a growing unwillingness to act on these fantasies combined with the ability (and license) to virtualize them at a safe distance from the real world. Go Nagai, a pioneering manga-ka in the hentai genre gets right to the point about his latest work:

I'd like this comic to serve as a brake for all those university professors struggling to keep control over themselves so they can read it and be satisfied instead of taking matters into their own hands.

In other words, while we may not want to celebrate it too openly, it just may be our embrace of the low brow--murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas (Shakespeare was a lot lower brow than he's given credit for), Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey--that is keeping civilization itself from tumbling over the edge.

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March 27, 2007

More baffling questions


Yaoi continues to dominate its niche in the manga and trade paperback markets. 70 percent of Digital Manga's sales come from yaoi products, and

[a]fter meeting with little enthusiasm for their non-yaoi titles, Media Blasters will drop its line of shonen manga and increase the number of yaoi titles on its list.

It's a trend I find quite baffling, my various attempts at analysis notwithstanding. At least I'm not alone. To the question of why yaoi is so popular, even Hikaru Sasahara, CEO of Digital Manga, confesses: "I have no idea. I'm a guy."

But I think yaoi manga-ka Toko Kawai supplies a compelling explanation:

Most yaoi readers are female, so if you write a woman into the story, there's the possibility of jealousy from the reader. With two guys, that doesn't happen.

Or as Paul Reiser explains on an episode of Mad about You to his wife's question about why men get off on lesbian porn: "Because we agree with both of them."

From a broader, market-aware perspective, the success of any popular literature genre targeting women is hardly surprising. Romance fiction still comprises over 50 percent of all mass market novels sold in North America.

What I find equally intriguing is yaoi's popularity not being accompanied by equally growing sales of the more explicit manga-ka like Kayono, whose plots closely mirror those found in "traditional" romance literature.

Or is it that yaoi readers already self-identify as a bit out there on the edge with a genre that is all their own, while traditional Harlequin readers wouldn't be caught dead with illustrated material that men would drool over as well?

Which gets us back to Kawai's theory above. While men readily identify both with larger-than-life action heroes and comic romantic leads like Owen Wilson, do women see themselves as in competition with female protagonists?

Or perhaps like yaoi, is explicit but non-hentai manga another unexplored market waiting to take off?

UPDATE: My sister Kate offers a great counter-argument.

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March 25, 2007

Haru Basho big finish


Asashouryu (11-2) defeated Hakuhou (12-1) on Saturday, leaving them tied 12-2 going into the final bouts on Sunday. They both handily defeated their respective opponents--Chiyotaikai (the loss delivering him a disappointing 7-8 record) and Kotooshu--in regular play. Then in an all-Mongolian tiebreaker Hakuhou decisively beat Asashouryu to capture the crown (and the arena was filled with flying seat cushions).

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March 23, 2007

Ten reasons to love sumo


More reasons to praise the greatness that is sumo:

1. There's always a winner. The only time judges enter the picture is when the two wrestlers hit the ground or fall out of bounds simultaneously. If the judges can't agree on a winner the bout is immediately re-fought. No ties allowed. (There are cases where an instant replay rule would help, which makes second-guessing the judges all the more fun for the viewer.)

2. Sumo is perfect for short attention spans. The average sumo bout lasts no longer than a running play in football. The referee can restart a match that stalls out after a few minutes, but I've never seen that happen. Most bouts last less than 20 seconds.

3. Everybody fights everybody else. None of this BCS nonsense about how if Team A defeats Team B, and Team B defeats Team C, then obviously Team A is better than Team C. Over the course of a season, every top-ranked wrestler fights every other top-ranked wrestler (there are technical exceptions to this rule).

4. There are no weight categories. Everybody really does fight everybody else. The towering six-eight Bulgarian Kotooshu (featured above) fights wrestlers a foot shorter. The current champion, Asashouryu, at six-even and 326 pounds, fights wrestlers a hundred pounds heavier (and usually beats them).

5. Every underdog eventually has his day. Fighting so many bouts, it's not hard to get a read on an opponent's strategy. After his perfect record at the January meet, Asashouryu opened the Haru Basho 0-2 against the relatively low-ranked Tokitenku and Miyabiyama.

6. Consequently, in few other sports are the particular styles of the players so recognizable. Also unique to Japan, it's a sport that's all about the individual and where fans come to root specifically for individual athletes.

7. Where else can you see a 325 pound man actually body slam--lifting him clean off his feet--a 375 pound man? Don't let those big bellies fool you--these guys are as strong as oxen.

8. Audience participation. The sumo ring is approximately the same size and elevation as a boxing area and the spectators are seated accordingly. Except there aren't any ropes. This means that once or twice a day during a tournament, 300-plus pounds of sumo wrestler is going to come crashing down into the front rows. Having a ringside seat in this sport means taking your life in your hands.

9. The sumo referee has the greatest uniform in any sport (see above).

10. The spectators aren't too shabby either. At a sumo meet you'll see a man in a yukata sitting next to a man in a business suit sitting next to a woman in a kimono sitting next to a kid in jeans and a T-shirt. Yet after a big bout, these same fans will fling their seat cushions through the air like Frisbees. It's quite the sight to behold.

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March 19, 2007

It's Time for the Haru Basho!


Meaning the "spring tournament," held every year in Osaka. Of all the full-contact martial sports, only one deserves the same coverage accorded to prime-time sports like golf, basketball, baseball and football.

That's right. Sumo.

Boxing used to hold this position, but these days you can't make a regular feature of two guys beating the crap out of each other except in the movies. Even boxers who rise to the top of the profession and parcel out big matches once in a blue moon--thus making boxing impossible to follow as an individual "fan" sport--will still probably end up with mush for brains.

Efforts to "clean up" boxing with idiocies like the hit-count scoring system employed at the Olympics reveal the inherit weakness of martial arts in general: no real spectator sport is scored by judges. One reason wrestling is vanishing from collegiant sports (besides Title 9) is that nobody except ex-wrestlers can tell what the heck is happening on the wrestling mat.

To say nothing of the far-to-common, not-made-for-prime-time moment of two wrestlers locked together for seeming hours in a tangle of arms and legs, and then one being declared the winner because of some move (indetectable to the casual viewer) that pushed him ahead on "points." Altogether now: boring!

Sumo tolerates none of such nonsense.

It's a winner-take-all sport with simple rules (first wrestler to go out of bounds or touch any part of the body above the sole of the foot loses). Like golf (hit the little white ball in the hole), sumo is a strict meritocracy where you prove your worth by beating the field. It doesn't take a golf fanatic to know that Tiger Woods is that good, and the same goes for the top sumo wrestlers.

Sumo as a sport can most simply be described as what the center and nose guard in American football do immediately after the ball is snapped. In fact, a visitor from outer space could be forgiven for assuming that sumo was somehow a byproduct of football or the other way around. Sumo could very well be advertised as "Requium for the lineman."

And like football, sumo looks great in instant-replay, which in turn invites vigorous armchair analysis and Monday-morning quarterbacking, the elixirs of fan participation.

The mistake American networks make when broadcasting sumo matches (as a curiosity time filler) is to show the "live" NHK feed. Except that most Japanese fans watch the nightly wrap-up, which features the individual bouts with the pre-game rituals and warm-ups removed, pared down to the actual combat. Granted, the ritual is part of the fun, but a day's sekitori bouts can be summed up in thirty minutes.

That makes it possible for even the casual viewer to follow the entire drama of a tournament, such as Chiyotaikai's 5-4 collapse during the current March meet and Hakuhou's unexpected 8-1 surge, pushing 7-2 Asashouryu out of first place.

Offered in this format and accompanied by informed commentary, I think American audiences could better grasp what a dynamic, suprisingly individualistic, upset-rich, "high-scoring" (best of 15 consecutive bouts fought on 15 consecutive days wins), fast-moving, rock'em sock'em, full-contact sport sumo is. All the things Americans want in a spectator sport (and hate about soccer).

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March 16, 2007

Small is not always beautiful


Rebutting the assertion that the "comparatively small schools" in Japan should be favored by English teaching professions, this Japan Times article points that that while "small schools are more convivial places in which to work,"

Teachers who worked in small schools often spoke of feeling under more pressure there than in big schools. If a tiny cog in a huge machine breaks down it's unlikely the whole thing will come to a shuddering halt. That's not the case when the teacher is the machine.

Another common sentiment was the difficulty in leaving work behind in a small school. Teachers spoke of receiving e-mails and telephone calls from their bosses at unsociable hours and on days off. This rarely happens at large schools unless you are in a management position.

Obviously, a Goldilocks solution is called for: a school that is not too big, not too small. Just right.

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March 14, 2007

Airplane lands safely, nobody hurt


An All Nippon Airways twin-turboprop DHC-8Q400 Bombardier commuter plane made a nose-down landing at Kochi airport on Shikoku Island after its forward landing gear failed to deploy. Nobody was injured and the plane itself was barely damaged.

The common "if it bleeds, it leads" complaint about television news coverage focuses public attention on failure, magnifying perceived risks enormously in proportion to actual risks, which is why otherwise sane people fear flying and not driving.

This story kind of straddles the rule, the exception that proves the rule as much as it disproves it. NHK is still covering the heck out of this non-story, including 3D digital animations of the failed linkage (traced to a missing bolt). And for a simple reason: the video is so good.

The video caught the touch-and-go, trying to shake the landing gear loose, and then a perfect belly landing, sparks and everything. I hope they give the pilot a medal or something, because it was so graceful you could almost believe planes are supposed to land like that. Fine china doesn't get better care.

Unfortunately, with all the airplay, the long-term, take-away message will be that every commercial aircraft nose gear assembly is a whisper's breath away from failing.

I don't know if this story was covered by the U.S. networks, but I did catch footage of a small, single-engine plane making a "safe" belly landing somewhere back east on the local nightly news--again, relevant to nothing except they had this cool video--so probably.

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March 09, 2007

Densha Otoko


Densha Otoko ("Train Man") is the supposedly true story, first posted on the Internet forum 2channel under the handle "Densha_Otoko," of a lowly otaku who falls in love despite himself. While riding home on the subway, he saves the lovely Hermes (so named for her choice of name-brand fashion accessories) from a mean drunk, and to his great consternation finds himself with a "real" girlfriend on his hands.

Although the comparison that springs immediately to mind is You've Got Mail, the more apt analog is My Fair Lady, with the Henry Higgins role being filled by Train Man's 2channel correspondents, who virtually rally to his side with advice about how to evolve from closet geek into a man worthy of such a high-class girlfriend. (Or for that matter, a real girlfriend, period.)

I haven't read the book or seen the television series that also sprang forth from the 2channel account, so my thoughts are confined to the movie alone. But in short, if the cinematic version is anything close to the truth, then it stands as proof that some stories are too good to be true. Or are too good to serve as the plots of disbelief-suspending narrative fiction.

I understand the appeal of an "ugly duckling" story crafted specifically for the geek demographic. I readily admit to being one of them. But the film stumbles at several critical junctures along the way and then tries too hard to make up for its dramatic shortcomings.

The first mistake is making our hero not just a geek, but a borderline hikikomori, a term (literally meaning "to pull in and retreat") used to describe an extreme introversion that in more extroverted societies than Japan would be diagnosed as autism or Asperger's syndrome.

Of course, like Cinderella or Eliza Doolittle, starting the protagonist off at a low point gives the ugly ducking that much more room to grow. Takayuki Yamada, the actor who plays Train Man, is a handsome-enough man in real life, so the script takes every opportunity to nerd and klutz him up. But the depiction is so over the top that the mind strains to comprehend what in the world Hermes (Miki Nakatani) sees in him.

There are moments that offer a peek into what may be going on in Hermes's head, the diamond in the rough she perceives Train Man to be. For example, when he bursts into an enthusiastic exegesis of The Matrix, or when, asked for advice on what laptop to buy, delivers a fire hose of information, useless in its sheer volume.

Hermes is shown to be so attractive and competent and upwardly mobile that I imagine her parents constantly arranging o-miai for her, and her getting bored with the staid salaryman types she finds sitting across the table week after week. The same way Eliza is ultimately (in the movie, at least) drawn to the eccentric Higgins rather than the insipid Freddy, she is drawn to Train Man's quirky passions.

I've also listened to Dr. Laura enough times in the car to gather that some women are attracted by the idea of boyfriend-as-fixer-upper, though such calls invariably end with the unsparing observation that this is never a good idea and will turn out badly.

After all, the bet that Henry Higgins makes is that he can pass the finished product as a member of his social class. A hundred thousand years of evolutionary psychology has conditioned us to see nothing unusual in zillionaire Tom Hanks ending up with shopkeeper Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail. But we need some convincing when the roles are reversed, as they are in Densha Otoko.

To be sure, practically the entire population of Japan self-identifies as "middle class," but there's middle class and then there's middle class. Ryoko Kuninaka, who fills the ugly duckling role on Brother Beat (again, a very attractive woman in real life), shows up as one of the geeks in Densha Otoko (and is similarly dowdied down). I kept thinking, "Hey, you ought to date her instead!"

In Brother Beat, we know that Tatsuya is going to end up with her because she's arisen out of the same blue collar working class as he has. This is shown in several scenes, such as one where, watching her father at work, Tatsuya recalls a similar image of his own father, who ran a dry cleaner's. Or when Tatsuya's mom invites her over for dinner and she fits right in to their lower middle class digs.

However, Densha Otoko not only doesn't show any of this, it doesn't even tell, and so Hermes remains a mystery, making the movie's fastidious adherence to Train Man's point of view a profound detriment. Granted, the POV is no doubt meant to reflect the POV of the original 2channel postings, but in this case we're left with half a story.

Nothing establishes any kind of commonality between the two leads, other than a chance encounter on a train and a couple of pretty bad dates. They are and remain such disparate characters that the ending--the romantic climax of the story--instead made me think of a kid's movie about a child who finds a cute doggy shivering in the rain and, feeling sorry for him, takes him home. Sentimental, yes. Romantic, no.

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March 07, 2007

The power of the line


With the exception of "four-panel manga" (pretty much the same format as the newspaper comic strip), Japanese manga and American comic books evolved along quite different aesthetic lines. They have begun to converge recently, with the "graphic novel" (nee, "comic book") pretty much being taken over by the manga school of comic design.

(There is great irony in this, in that, as described below, manga-ka essentially adopted the "Hollywood style" of storytelling that has come to dominate movie-making around the world.)

The pre-manga, American comic book was a thin, four-color, text-heavy, paneled style (lifted from comic strips), with a limited number of genres and a fairly narrow target audience. Manga, on the other hand, breaks down into dozens of genres and hundreds of sub-genres. And because manga still only use color printing in promotional and special editions, all the artwork is B&W pen and ink.

In terms of artistic technique, it is the pen and ink style that has allowed manga to dominate the traditional four-color American comic book. It permits more a nuanced "line" that can't survive the (budget) four color printing process. The "line" in American comics gets lost in the coloring and shading. And on a very practical level, it simly allows manga-ka to produce more material at a lower cost.

Roland Kelts argues that this minimalistic style offers "more freedom, both for the viewer and the artist," by essentially forcing the reader to "read between the lines" of the manga style. Kelts isn't wrong, but he's missing a larger point. The human visual cortex is amazingly efficient at pattern recognition, and requires only a small amount information to identify the referent.

Compare these two frames from Kei Tomei's Lament of the Lamb. As Kelts point out, it is left to the reader to fill in details such as color, texture, and contour. But other nuances surprisingly stand by themselves, independent of context. From the simple lines of her mouth in the first frame, we not only know that Chizuna is smiling, but that it is not a cheerful smile. There is even a touch of maliciousness in it.

The human visual cortex is particularly adapted for facial recognition, and manga-ka focus particularly on the area of the face circumscribed by the triangle between the eyes and mouth (using oversized eyes as visual anchors)--when physically describing their characters. The simplicity of design in turn paradoxically imbues the slightest of changes--the brain seizing on the delta between frame one and frame two--with great meaning.

Again, the difference in total information between these two frame from Lament of the Lamb is very slight but the differences in Chizuna's mood is immediately recognizable.

The second key element of the manga style--cost--made possible what's known as "decompression." Decompression arose out of post-war manga-ka adopting techniques from Hollywood cinema (multiple cuts, pans, wipes, slow motion, zoom effects) and transferring them to static frames. This requires a lot more panels and paper, but since manga remained a B&W format it was affordable.

It's hard to overemphasize how important cost is. The reason American comics were traditionally so compressed was that they only had a few pages in which to tell the story, which in turn greatly limited how stories could be told.

Manga start out as serial novels published on a bi-weekly or monthly basis in thick magazines that contain a dozen running stories. The stories that prove the most popular will later be bound and sold in numbered volumes called tankoubon. The magazines are published at a loss, the profit realized in the tankoubon, the same way Hollywood studios often don't realize a profit on a television series until syndication.

A 200 page tankoubon (such as the aforementioned Cheese! manga) typically retails for around 400 yen. That's only $3.25. (Japanese CDs and DVDs, to compare, typically run at a 50-100 percent premium over their U.S. counterparts. This economic phenomenon alone is worth a dissertation.) The tree falling unheard in the forest doesn't make a sound, and media becomes "mass" only when the masses can afford it.

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