January 29, 2008

The manga development cycle


Manga in Japan demonstrate how an artistic property can be leveraged to take advantage of every possible audience niche, but with low up-front investments and long-tail paybacks. The budget backing an artistic property only expands to the degree justified by that market and audience.

Which is identified precisely and catered to faithfully.

This approach doesn't guarantee more winners than losers. Simply more of everything, winners as well as losers. At its most basic, it could be described as a way of letting the readers sort through the slush pile.

American television approximates this model, and that's where you find the real fonts of creativity in Hollywood these days. Still, with the cost of a pilot at two million bucks a pop, and most of those never reaching syndication where they can break even, I can understand why the AMPTP is digging in its heels with the WGA.

Here is the manga typical development cycle:

1. Manga writer (working as an independent contractor and retaining copyright) sells serial publication rights to a manga magazine (biweekly, monthly, quarterly). These magazines at best break even.

2. Successful manga series are compiled in higher-quality (tankoubon) paperback books. And if those are successful, followed by special editions (for example, including more color inserts). This is where the publisher begins to make money.

3. A "radio drama" version is produced in CD format. (This is also true for "light novels.")

4. A television anime series is produced, usually based closely on the original manga series (often featuring the voice talent from the drama CD). These series usually run a fixed number of episodes.

Open auditions for voice talent (a la American Idol) are sometimes held to promote the anime series.

5. The opening and closing themes for the anime are released as singles. A soundtrack CD may be released.

6. Direct-to-video animated movie(s) are produced. The movie(s) either recapitulate the series or serve as prequels/sequels for which new material is created either by the original author or a writing team.

7. Animated theatrical movie(s) are produced. Ditto above.

8. Live action television series and/or movies are produced.

Along the way, the typical product licensing takes place, including some you won't find in the U.S., such as figurines. Other artistic properties tap into this process as well. The popular Twelve Kingdoms novels were produced as an anime by NHK and then released as a manga series.

Popular genre authors often collaborate and write manga scripts. (Neil Gaiman did this with the Sandman series he wrote for Vertigo.)

Yuri Hime is a quarterly manga magazine whose authors I follow. A typical issue runs 400 pages, including 20 serials or short stories. The old Hollywood studio system had a similar production-line quality to it that resembled modern manga publishing more than the current one-off or (at best) sequel-based Hollywood movie-making approach.

Recent trends do suggest that Hollywood is turning more in this direction, with studios calling for more scripts but fewer pilots. Judging a show from a storyboard alone is essentially the same as reading the manga first.

But the reason television series are so consistently better than feature films in the first place is because television couples lower risk with more chances to "get it right." And get it wrong without busting the bank. That's the manga formula.

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January 25, 2008

X2


Speaking of Kelly Hu, she shows up in X2, her most notable purpose being getting killed by Hugh Jackman. It makes her interesting for about five minutes (she has two lines in the rest of the movie, besides on-screen walking-around time). Which is saying a lot more than most of the rest of the cast. X2 is the un-Scorpion King. Entertaining enough, but by the end you're glad that school's finally out and you can go out and play.

This is a movie plagued by a bad premise: that practically every other person and his dog on the planet is a mutant. It makes for plenty of politically correct metaphorical moralizing, but lousy story telling, as it quickly leads to a too-large cast and a dilution of focus. It's sort of like the scene in Bruce Almighty where everybody who prayed to win the lottery does, resulting in an individual payout of about 5 cents.

As being a "mutant" apparently grants one the ability to willfully violate the laws of physics, a healthy proportion of the population so blessed would quickly result in a pretty random universe. They also have Magneto (McKellen) making the mistake that Spike doesn't when Angel wants to destroy the world:

We like to talk big, vampires do. "I'm going to destroy the world." That's just tough guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You've got dog racing, Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs.

Destroying the world is a lame motivation if you happen to be living in it at the time. What the heck do they think would happen to the economy? You can't torment all those hapless humans if they're not around anymore. (Both LOTR and Harry Potter have the same problem to varying degrees. What do Sauron and Voldemort actually want to accomplish? In Diana Wynne Jones' novels, in contrast, the bad guys have explicit and scary motivations.)

The other result of this abundance of superheroes and supervillains is that X2 breaks down to the same plot as X1, only with a second set of bad guys. What other plot can you have? Poor Patrick Stewart plays a tired Captain Picard while Gandalf (following my British accent rule) gets all the good lines as the not-so-bad-bad-guy-this-time who's still plenty bad enough, while Rebecca Romijn-Stamos slinks around in blue body paint.

At any rate, this is definitely a bad guy's movie. Except for Wolverine (Jackman) and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, the good guys are a dull, dull lot (and Wolverine and Nightcrawler have their bad moments; if you pay attention, Wolverine ends up killing an awful lot of people). That Nightcrawler is a German Catholic--an authentically religious character--is more interesting than all the mutant stuff put together. Why not just a movie about him?

By the time Jean Grey sacrifices herself for the greater good, I couldn't have cared less. Boyfriend Cyclops acts like he'd barely escaped a Hardy Boys adventure. However, there is a moment at the end almost worth waiting for: when Pyro runs off to join the bad guys, there's a quick shot of Wolverine smiling to himself. Yeah, he knows that's where the real fun is.

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January 22, 2008

Scorpion King


As much dumb fun as I've had in a long time. The kind of movie that shoots low at all the targets and thereby hits them squarely. Maybe because the WWF produced it, and do they ever know the meaning of "low brow family fare" (that's one fun oxymoron). Granted, they tried too hard in the latter, as a bit of gratuitous nudity would have really helped. The overly-strategic placement of Kelly Hu's tresses gets annoying after a while (and ruins one good visual pun).

The trick is keeping tongue in cheek while not winking too knowingly at the camera. Too many action films are obliged to take themselves oh-so-seriously nowadays. A movie like Tears of the Sun makes you long for war-is-hell-but-fun-to-watch classics like Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes. Or, they are made by people who seem embarrassed to be caught making them. Scorpion King strikes me as a film that everybody had a blast making, and that's what comes across.

Of course, there is plenty of giggle-inducing material. It seems that way back when, in the time when everybody wore leather and the entire world was based on a retail economy (where do they import all that leather from?), the average woman was twenty-one (barely legal), worked out a lot, made herself up every morning, and wore a push-up bra.

Except for Kelly Hu, who doesn't because: a) she's not wearing enough to hide the existence of one; and b) there not being a terrible lot to push up, she being, well, not ridiculously and unnaturally endowed in that department. Which I found quite nice, frankly, because the push-up bra look, like muscle-boundedness, has its definite limits (making it all the more regrettable that we couldn't see even more of her).

Victoria's Secrets fashion shows and beauty contests have their limits too. About five minutes, after which they turn more scary than alluring. Put too many "The Rocks" in a film and things get equally silly (as they do in the first scene, basically a WWF match with more convincing production values). True, Michael Clarke Duncan is plenty muscle-bound himself, but he's also got a substantial paunch, which makes him a lot more fun as an otherwise stock character.

And you need one guy with a rumble-the-floorboards bass voice (think how lame Darth Vader would have been without James Earl Jones). Again, Michael Clarke Duncan fits the bill perfectly. Plus an evil guy with a British accent (a British accent means you are either very wise or very bad), assorted sidekicks and one clever-old-geezer type. No clever-old-geezerettes (no women over the age of 21, remember). But, hey, you can't expect The Princess Bride every time.

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January 20, 2008

Chapter 35 (The Shore in Twilight)


五門 [ごもん] Gomon (five gates); the outermost of the palace gates and its forward line of defense. The public government offices of the Outer Palace are accessible between the Gomon and the Chimon or Pheasant Gate (雉門). The analog to the Gomon in the Forbidden City is the Meridian Gate, with its five arches or accessways. The Forbidden Gate, in contrast, is the forward line of defense to the Inner Palace.

The final character in Gogoukanda (呉剛環) is "snake," hence Rokuta saying that he held onto its "tail."

Youko first encounters one of these enchanted staircases in chapter 57 of Shadow of the Moon.

清香殿 [せいこうでん] Seikou Manor (refreshing scent)
蘭雪堂 [らんせつどう] Ransetsu Hall (orchid snow)
弧琴斎 [こきんさい]  Kokinsai (box + koto + room)
什鈷 [じゅうこ] Juuko (ten cobalt)
饕餮 [とうてつ] toutetsu (ravenous + voracious); first described in chapter 18.

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January 18, 2008

Touch of Evil


Writing, directing and starring along with a young and strikingly handsome Charlton Heston and the drop-dead gorgeous Janet Leigh, Orson Welles is at the top of his auteur form in this 1958 film noir classic. Playing the sheriff of a seedy border town caught framing a Hispanic murder suspect by Mexican cop Vargas (Heston), Welles leverages his sweating hulk into almost every scene, lumbering past the lense like a walrus waddling out of an oil slick, dragging a dark stain behind him.

Meanwhile, Vargas's wife, Leigh is being stalked by a local hood whose brother Vargas is preparing to testify against. Thus the downward spiral of menace, murder, recrimination, payback and double-cross commences.

Welles's Captain Hank Quinlan, all yin to Heston's steel-spring yang, disintegrates before our eyes as the darkness closes in around him. Welles's additional talents as a screenwriter are evident in how well the dialogue holds up. The "reefer madness" references typical of the genre are held to a minimum. The only distracting anachronism is Janet Leigh's bullet bra, a fashion accessory Madonna can have all to herself. (If capturing the male gaze is the goal, give me push-up any day of the week.)

I can't say if Hitchcock was trying to one-up Welles or tip his hat to the master, but two years before her very bad shower experience in Psycho (1960), Leigh ended up in a run-down motel run by a more unnerving nutcase than Anthony Perkins (Dennis Weaver, in fact). But perhaps because Psycho has since been homaged to the point of banality, I found Welles's version more frightening, even though everybody makes it out of this motel alive.

Even a quintessentially noir voyeur scene early on in Touch of Evil (lit by flashlight) out-creeps the peephole scene in Psycho. Film noir was originally an art form born of necessity, and the result of faster film stock making it possible to shoot low budget with minimal external lighting. Shooting at night with small crews and casts minimized location overhead. The stories best suited for the grainy, chiaroscuro look that resulted were those that also cast long shadows of moral confusion.

Yet there is no confusion about the existence of good and evil, a point often missed in celebrations of the film noir style. If anything, film noir is characterized by the sharp contrast--the absolute moral distance--between black and white. Rather, it is the confusion among competing "goods" and the diffusion of self-justifying "evils." In the light of day a body casts a strong, single shadow. It is at night, lit from multiple directions, that the shadows overlap and fade to gray.

A multiplicity of right choices scatters truth as much as dark absorbs it. There is no doubt about right and wrong in Touch of Evil. Calling something "evil" presupposes knowing the difference. Early on, Quinlan and Vargas engage in a terse debate about the difference between law and justice--two conflicting goods. The rest of the movie is shaped by what each will do to enforce their sense of what is right and what is lawful, what ends justify what means, and how evil inevitably diffuses into their decisions.

In the end, Vargas's white hat has been sullied in his impassioned, frenetic efforts to convict Quinlan, to the point of putting the lives of others, including his own wife, at mortal risk. Quinlan is in no way redeemed, but he does become comprehensible, even human. In contrast to the ubiquitous darkness of the noir world, it is the mere touch of evil that stains the lives of those who come into contact with it, like the garbage-strewn river water Vargas must wade through to spring the trap closed.

Even the final twist at the end is not there to surprise us, but to test our hasty willingness to choose up good guys and bad before all the evidence is in. And like Vargas maybe our final, overpowering impulse should be, not to stand there and "take responsibility" and debate the issue as "grownups" are supposed to, but to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible and run fast for the clean, bright light.

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January 17, 2008

Starry-eyed finances


In the making-of extra on the Stardust DVD, upon visiting the set where a full-scale model of De Niro's flying ship is being built from scratch, Neil Gaiman quips that he feels a bit guilty about "writing a few paragraphs" that would get translated to a million dollar-plus set (taking up ten minutes or so of the movie).

He needn't feel guilty about providing good trade union work. But this kind of extravagant and unnecessary budgeting is nevertheless appalling. Not because there are little children starving in China or wherever (eating all the food on your plate as a kid only made you fat, after all). But because it's ultimately ruinous to good movie-making.

Stardust cost $65 million and grossed $40 million. In 2007 dollars, The Princess Bride cost $30 million and grossed $55 million. The two films are aimed at similar-enough demographics that it would seem wishful thinking to imagine Stardust would break even on that budget. (The same problem attends The Golden Compass, hugely overbudgeted for its potential audience.)

To be sure, Stardust is a gorgeous-looking movie. But it is difficult to justify the artistic return on investment. Monty Python and the Holy Grail cost $1 million (in 2007 dollars). Can you actually see $64 million worth of a difference in art direction between the two films?

The 2003 remake of Samurai Resurrection has the "look and feel" of the Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster (unlike the enjoyable but very B-movie 1981 version starring Sonny Chiba). The making-of extra on the DVD reveals a smart but carefully rationed use of mattes, wire-work, green-screens, and CGI. For 1/10th the budget of Stardust.

I challenge anybody to spot differences in verisimilitude (often inaptly termed "realism") between The Last Samurai ($140 million) or Memoirs of a Geisha ($85 million) and NHK’s Taiga historical drama series ($500,000/episode).

Elsewhere in the business world, computers are used to decrease overhead and increase ROI. Hollywood has managed to do the opposite. This short documentary shows how that shouldn't be the case, recreating the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. Three men play all the soldiers, one man runs the camera, and then everything is put together in post.

At $40 million, the 100 percent green-screen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow shows what CGI is capable of (and it broke even). That was four years ago, half a century in digital technology terms.

An hour-long, prime-time, Hollywood-produced television drama currently costs around $2 million. That establishes the base cost of a two-hour movie at $4 million or so, including a reasonable use of special effects. But not counting star salaries.

The only "star" roles that made a lasting impression on me in Stardust were Pfeiffer and Danes. The only special effects that really mattered were some rotoscoping to make Danes glow (she's a literal star, after all), and "magic" CGI of the type done just as well on shows like Charmed and Buffy.

The thing is, I'd like to see more movies like Stardust. But that's not going to happen with production companies making fifty cents for every dollar spent. Since it's possible to make movies that look "blockbuster" on near-art cinema budgets, Hollywood needs to wean itself from this "all-in" investment strategy.

You're not all Peter Jackson! Or even Michael Bay.

As William Goldman famously said, when it comes to predicting success in Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything." Which means that winners over the long run follow the same rules as a smart Wall Street investor: with a diversified portfolio. Not by sinking a dozen dry wells and hoping that the next one will prove the gusher.

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January 15, 2008

Stardust


Neil Gaiman wrote Stardust as a "fairy tale for adults." I'm not sure he's added something that substantial to the literary and cultural canon (unlike--and I shall return to this later--William Goldman's The Princess Bride). But he has certainly concocted a refreshingly sweet and thoroughly uncynical love story. A rare enough thing these days.

The story begins in the town of Wall in England, which happens to share a literal wall with the magical, other-dimensional village of Wall. After a brief introduction establishing Tristan Thorn's genealogical roots on both sides, we fast-forward two decades to his futile attempts to woo the pretty but vapid Victoria.

Meanwhile, the king of the world on the magical side of the wall (Peter O'Toole) lies on his deathbed. Apparently, succession in this world is a last-man-standing affair. With his dying breath, he flings the crown jewel into the heavens and promises the kingdom to the first of his fratricidal sons to retrieve it.

In short order, Secundus (Rupert Everett) gets pushed out a window. The rest of bump each other off in short order, until it's down to Septimus (Mark Strong). Despite the high body count, the violence retains a Saturday-morning cartoon flavor throughout, with all the dead princes hang around as wisecracking ghosts for the rest of the movie.

Meanwhile, careening through the sky, that crown jewel knocks a star out of orbit, which falls to Earth in the form of an annoyed Claire Danes. Seeing the shooting star (from the other wide of the wall), the still vapid (and conniving) Victoria promises to consider (only consider) Tristan as her beau if he retrieves the meteorite for her.

And meanwhile, a seriously aging witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her two harpy sisters set off after the star as well, because consuming the heart of a star bestows eternal youth.

This trio of shaggy dogs commence chasing each other all over the gorgeous British Isles and Iceland, at one point running into the captain of a flying schooner (Robert De Niro) who catches and cages lightening in bottles.

De Niro strikes the one clunky note. Except that he throws himself at the role so hard his leaden performance becomes entertaining in its own right. Based on my reading of Gaiman's novel, I did have questions about Claire Danes, imagining the role going to an actress with a more Audrey Hepburn kind of whispiness.

Danes, though, completely won me over. So did newcomer Charlie Cox as Tristan. Pfeiffer is pitch-perfect throughout. Extra kudos to her for being willing to play a bitter, cranky rhymes-with-witch. It's not hard to see in her character a metaphor for Hollywood's lusting after eternal youth at any price.

Once the premise is established, the story develops pretty much as you'd expect it to. Fairy tales of this sort, after all, belong to the "same only different" genre. A good love story doesn't make us wonder who's going to fall in love with whom, but how. And how they navigate the mine fields designed to keep them apart.

By the second half of the movie, though, it becomes clear that at least the theatrical version of Stardust desperately wants to be The Princess Bride. Charlie Cox has turned into Cary Elwes' younger brother, and De Niro's Captain Shakespeare essentially provides the off-screen backstory for the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Hence, while Stardust is very good, the question I found myself asking myself was why it's not great. Why it's not The Princess Bride.

The easy answer is that though Neil Gaiman is a fine writer, he's no William Goldman. More specifically, the reason is Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya. This part is filled in Stardust by Septimus. Except that we've already established that the princes are an unsavory, expendable lot, so we don't root for him.

To be sure, the showdown between Pfeiffer and Cox (echoing that between Prince Humperdinck and Westley) lacks for nothing in the big climax category. Except that vanquishing a wicked witch by itself can't equal the dramatic tension created between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

So Stardust ends up being what The Princess Bride would be sans Inigo Montoya and Mandy Patinkin. Like I said, pretty darned good. Without the Montoya subplot it becomes a "purer" and more straightforward love story. Just not another modern classic.

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January 13, 2008

Chapter 34 (The Shore in Twilight)


When the Royal Han says that Taiki is "not a ki," he uses the first character (麒) of kirin (麒麟). When referring to Hanrin, he uses the second character (麟). Both characters mean "Chinese unicorn," but they are rarely written separately, except in given names ("Rin" is a girl's name).

The word Rokuta uses to refer to Hanrin is nee-chan. Like "uncle" (oji-san), "sis" can be used to refer familiarly to a girl (or older man) who is not actually related to you. In the latter case, "mister" or "pops" come close.

"Not as big as any one of our kingdoms, if you're just talking about Yamato." Japan is very long north to south, and very narrow east to west, so the comparison in terms of geography is difficult to make. But in terms of total land area, Japan is slightly smaller than Norway (or Montana), and slightly larger than Germany. Spain is 130,000 sq. km larger, so I'd imagine a kingdom like Kei to be at least Spain-sized.

During the early 19th century, it took about six months to travel the Oregon Trail on foot from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast, a journey of 2,000 miles across rugged terrain. The 1300 mile Pioneer Trail to Utah took four months. Takki says that Kou could be crossed in three months, so I'd put that distance at a little under 1000 miles.

鴻溶鏡 [こうようきょう] Kouyoukyou (wild goose + dissolve + mirror)
呉剛環蛇 [ごごうかんだ] Gogoukanda (give + strength + ring + snake)
遁甲 [とんこう] tonkou (escape + carapace); the way shirei travel through the sky, the earth, and the water, while remaining hidden from view.

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January 10, 2008

My Otome Hime (My Zhime)


My Zhime ("My Otome Hime") is the alternate-universe sequel to My Hime. The sequel outdoes the original. It's not as cinematically polished as its predecessor, and compared to the gloomy angst that My Hime wallows in from the start, takes itself much less seriously (at first). This could tempt the viewer to take it less seriously as well. Yet it is, in premise and execution, the more substantive of the two series. In fact, My Zhime is (unwittingly) one of the more important contributions to the superhero genre in a long time.

My Hime takes place in the here and now at a private high school that turns out to house a secret academy for supergirls, who each manifest her powers through a unique mecha "child" (magnificently rendered in CGI). Both a Voldemort and a Lex Luther show up as protagonists during the series, along with the plot device from Highlander: "There shall be only one!" And it all works quite well as long as you don't stop to think about it too hard. But once disbelief ceases to suspend itself, things begin to sag into that same Earth-in-the-balance rut.

The same problem attends any superhero story that relies on a mad scientist/wizard/capitalist-with-utopian-Stalinist-inclinations to generate conflict. Like Smallville and Harry Potter, great dollops of teenage angst are served up to tide over the increasingly untenable bouts with the mad-scientist/wizard/capitalist-with-utopian-Stalinist-inclinations.

Good writing can make it work, as in Spider-Man. Or, as in Smallville, it can just make Lex Luther and his gang more interesting than Clark Kent (as Tolstoy might have put it: "All happy families are alike; but the Luther family is unhappy in its own, hugely entertaining way"). But ultimately, as in My Hime and Harry Potter and X-Men and Lord of the Rings, it's the mad-scientist/wizard/capitalist-with-utopian-Stalinist-inclinations plot device that hobbles the whole enterprise. Because A) there can't be that many of them; and B) they don't act like that anyway.

(From Caesar to Napoleon, Lenin and Hitler, history's successful madmen have all started out as crowd-pleasing populists, winning elections and accolades, operating in the open, and making their nefarious plans quite obvious to anybody who can read.)

My Zhime takes all the characters from My Hime and transports them across space and time to (literally) another planet. (For no other reason except artistic recycling, I guess--why let perfectly good characters go to waste?) It dumps a fair amount of the angst, along with the mad-scientist/wizard/capitalist-with-utopian-Stalinist-inclinations. Instead, it tries something different: sophisticated geopolitics and clever Machiavellian scheming. Though packaged so cutely it might not be apparent at first. The story is content to let the real machinations sneak up on you.

(My Zhime also comes up with the cleverest yuri device ever: exposure to prostate specific antigen zaps their superpowers. You really can't get married and also have a career.)

My Zhime begins with Arika Yumemiya traveling to Windbloom, searching for information about her mother, who was an Otome (the "Z" character is actually the first kanji in "otome," meaning "young woman" or "virgin"). Otome are graduates of the Garderobe Academy. The Academy matriculates girls who possess latent superpower abilities (echoes of Harry Potter and X-Men). Upon graduating, the Otome become National Security Advisors to heads of state (usually of their home countries), like Condoleezza Rice with Wonder Woman resources at her fingertips.

The relationship between the Otome and the head of state is ritualistic and contractual. Raising the stakes, in what would seem a nod to The Twelve Kingdoms, the Otome and head of state live or die together. That is, if the Otome is killed in conflict, so does her contract holder. Essentially, the Otome serve as the nuclear deterrence in the high-stakes international relations game.

Of course, there's always the possibility that a head of state will attempt a high-risk venture nonetheless, pitting his Otome against others. When this is pointed out to her, Arika objects in typical why-can't-we-all-just-get-along terms. "Welcome to the real world," she's told in turn. And what a welcome relief that is, the real world certainly missing from Harry Potter, for one (though present in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). There doesn't have to be a "Big Bad" (as Buffy phrased is). Normal human conflict is more than enough to generate cinematic drama.

Frank Miller accomplishes this in The Dark Knight Returns, when he pits Batman against Superman, not in a contest of good vs. evil, but in a clash of personality and policy differences (and the fact that Superman's smug chops needed some busting). In the real world, conflicts in temperament combined with conflicts in geopolitical intent can have major international repercussions. No James Bondian need to concoct one power-crazed supervillain (or as in Bourne Identity or Enemy of the State, one power-crazed--and unbelievably efficient--government agency) after the next.

To be sure, season one takes too many opportunities to take the low road. Season two sobers up considerably and grows quite dark. But it works well because you realize that during the silliness of season one, all the necessary elements were put in place. No deus ex machina required. That's the impressive thing about the premise of My Zhime: it can handle it. My Zhime recycled the characters from My Hime and took things up a notch. Now somebody needs to recycle this premise and take things even further.

UPDATE: the conclusion of the series discussed here.

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January 07, 2008

Girls kick butt


Plastic Little has long suffered an undeserved reputation that its U.S. distributor has only encouraged. ADV's liner notes delightfully boast of its "graphic violence [and] gratuitous nudity." Okay, we'll stipulate that the nudity is indeed gratuitous (and at times just silly), but it's also innocuous. The violence is PG-13 at the worst. Not that Plastic Little is without its problems in other departments. But they're not enough to sink this ship.

Essentially, you've got two hours of plot distilled down to fifty minutes, as if they ran out of film stock halfway through the project. The result is a storyline (except for the aforementioned scenes of gratuitous nudity) stripped down to the bare bones: a microscopic setup, a few dabs of character development, and the action sequences. Another hour's worth of compelling questions are left unanswered: what Guizel is actually up to, besides being generally nasty; where all those ships came from in the big showdown; how a pet shop hunter came to be so heavily armored; whether or not Tita is a lesbian . . . .

Such trifling matters notwithstanding, Plastic Little exemplifies anime's unique ability to make the most of its female characters' sexuality, and at the same time present them as compelling and believable protagonists who can hold her own in any rough-and-tumble situation. As Antonia Levi observes, "[Women in anime] may be heroes or villains, saints or sinners, but they rarely blend into the background. And they rarely wear much in the way of clothing . . . . Men will watch because of the sex and women will watch because of the strength, or so the popular wisdom goes."

The popular wisdom is only half-right. Anime bucks the tried and true truism that girls will watch a movie about boys but boys won't watch a movie about girls--but for reasons more substantial than what in otaku-speak is euphemistically known as "fan service." When Captain Tita swings into action, it's no stretch of the imagination that her male crew willingly follows her into battle. And it's no stretch when she dukes it out with the bad guys and prevails. She is completely believable as a literal "leader of men," willing to act before it becomes necessary to react.

(Recall the rooftop standoff between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire and you can't help but cheer Tita's far more satisfying solution to the same dilemma.)

The paradoxical fact remains that in anime, particularly in action roles, female protagonists, far more so than their comparable Hollywood counterparts, do not rely "on the kindness of strangers" for their well-being. It's remarkably oxymoronic. Women in Japan pursuing a professional careers still have a hard row to hoe. Business is definitely a "man's world," the glass ceiling almost bulletproof. And the majority of married Japanese women with children drop out of the workforce to become housewives.

It sounds like a model neo-Victorian world. Well, not quite. Perhaps because Japan parted with its feudal past only a century and a half ago it has not fallen prey to the sloppy, wishful thinking that confuses equality with sameness, and sameness with the neuter gender, and thus expressions of femininity with powerlessness. To quote Levi:

Traditional Japanese women control the family budget, keep their husbands on strict allowances, determine most major purchases, and have the majority voice in how their children are reared and educated. Under some circumstances they not only keep their own [sur]name, but also bestow it on their husbands and children.

Levi points out that, in the standard Hollywood fantasy setup, the standard device is to get rid of the father. But in Japan, you get rid of the mother. Because the presence of a strong, responsible woman "would kill all the fun." Levi also observes that (to the extent that you lend credence to such things) Japanese girls score much higher on "self-esteem" scales than American girls, and muses that perhaps it is because "Japanese women derive considerable prestige from performing their traditional roles in a satisfactory way."

But what constitutes a "traditional role" points to more important differences between the superficially similar Victorian and Tokugawa-era social structures. A search through the historical antecedents reveals a rich repository of female role models that anime can draw upon. To begin at the beginning, Japan's creation deity, Amaterasu, is female. The miko, Shinto priestesses, are often cast as your all-purpose spiritual guides and ghostbusters (Inuyasha, Shrine of the Morning Mist, Kamichu!).

The historical record also reveals numerous examples of the female warrior, women such as Hangaku, Tomoe Gozen, and Masako Hojo, who were as fierce and competent on the battlefield as any man. Throughout the Tokugawa era, women of samurai lineage were trained in the martial arts, particularly in the use of the naginata, or halberd. Judo, archery, and kendo remain staples of the Japanese high school physical education curriculum for both sexes.

The only comparable European counterpart is Joan of Arc, an exception that proves the rule by its exceptionality. This may explain the trepidation with which Hollywood casts female action leads, in stark contrast to even low-budget Hong Kong action films. The last film actor to fill such a role convincingly was Linda Hamilton in Terminator II. Television has done better with Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. "Before Buffy," Hillary Frey argues, "the only women who kicked ass on [American] television did so metaphorically, in the courtrooms or in the ER."

And in an analysis of the two series, Salon writer Stephanie Zacharek, borrowing from Camille Paglia, points to "the identity of sex and power [and] the permeation of eroticism by aggression" in a dramatic arena in which "the masculine hurls itself at the feminine in an eternal circle of pursuit and flight." Zacharek concludes, "In this dynamic there's no such thing as the weaker sex."

Yet the physicality demanded by this "dynamic" continues to prove problematic. I'm a die-hard Buffy fan, but it still takes a lot of clever camera work to make Sarah Michelle Gellar look good when she's whupping the bad guys. It's hard to come up with a single Hollywood actress who could hold a candle to Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, or Ziyi Zhang in that department.

Obviously, no anime character is checked by the limitations of an actor's physical training. But this is only half an excuse. Physical strength is a single facet of aggression. Gerard Jones sums up the anime melodrama heroine as follows: "[She] can be flirtatious, cute, embarrassed, silly, self-indulgent, and knowingly sexy. And if [she flies] into a savage rage against a villain [or boyfriend], it [is] likely to be a much more personal and more human reaction." Ryoko in Tenchi Muyo and Akane from Ranma 1/2 come to mind. Even the demure Yukino in His and Her Circumstances--you do not want to get this woman really pissed off.

More recently, Moribito and the Japanese version of Witchblade offer up adult women (rather than overgrown teenagers) as action heroes. In the former case, Balsa's compassion is not presented as a feminine impediment to her ability to fight, the Achilles heel that every villain predictably seizes upon. In the latter, even though Masane is sexualized in often eye-rolling ways, her switching in an eyeblink between "mom" and "superhero" does not strain belief in the slightest.

Denying to women the efficacy of affective as well as physical power are remnants of Victorianism, which, perversely combined with the more self-destructive trends in gender feminism, concluded that for women to achieve "equality" they must shed those feminine attributes that so easily give them power over men. Hollywood up to the early 1950s somehow escaped these influences, promoting actresses such as Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) who could be beautiful, sensual and tough as nails. Not to mention that Hollywood's first megastar, Mary Pickford, ran her own production company and was a founding partner of United Artists.

But over half a century on it can be argued that American popular entertainment has only recently again embraced the concept that beauty is not inimical to emotional or physical strength. Of course, a healthy libido has always been considered an asset for any man, real or fictional. The little girls who flocked to Britney Spears concerts and to Charlie's Angels movies, figured this out. And all the better that it shocks! shocks! their parents and moral guardians.

This dichotomy is obvious in the persona of Captain Janeway (Star Trek Voyager), repressed and dispassionate to the point of being sexless, ruling with all the rousing disposition of a 19th century schoolmarm. Her Captain Bligh demeanor should have gotten her shoved out an airlock shortly into the first season. Why, asks Stephanie Zacharek, in a similar vein,

is playing a depressive writer or an anti-death-penalty nun automatically considered superior to (or more difficult than) playing a kook (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), a prostitute (like Jane Fonda in Klute), or a femme fatale (like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity)?

Compare Janeway to Lieutenant Kusanagi, the purposely dispassionate protagonist of Ghost in the Shell, whose smatterings of feelings you actually do care about. And when she tells her (male) subordinates to jump, you understand why they ask "How high?" on the way up, and don't take their eyes off her on the way down. In the Ghost in the Shell television series (Stand Along Complex), Kusanagi's abilities as a commander are even more pronounced, easily making her the most competent law enforcement officer of either sex on either side of the Pacific.

The wretched original English dub of Ghost in the Shell drives the point home: the only way most American producers know how to depict a "tough woman" is to turn her into a tough (foul-mouthed) guy. With a push-up bra. Minnie Driver's pitch-perfect voice-over of Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke is proof that it can be done right. Calm, cool, and scarily in control. U.S. distributors should watch, listen, and learn.

Ironically, Rick Berman went a long way to correcting his own mistake on Star Trek Voyager with Seven of Nine, who all but took over the series from the moment she was introduced. Not surprisingly, Seven and her celluloid sisters-in-spirit--Xena and Buffy--would be quite at home in anime.

Perhaps even more illustrative is Kumiko Yamaguchi in Gokusen (voiced by Risa Hayamizu). Yamaguchi is a freshly-minted and idealistic high school math teacher at an inner-city boy's high school, a stock character in television drama and comedy. The catch is that Yamaguchi is the scion of an established yakuza family. And, no, she's not the good girl running away from her past. She's going to run the "family business" and (often literally) pound an education into the heads of her juvenile deliquents. There's never any doubt, whether in the classroom or holding a tight rein on her own gang members, who's in charge. And her femininity is never in question. She can knock 'em dead in a kimono, not just with her fists.

American television does seem to be growing up faster than film. Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson created a breakthrough character (half of one of the great television duos of all time) in FBI agent Dana Scully. Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi paved the way with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena. Andrea Parker's underappreciated "Miss Parker" in Pretender redefined the bad-guy-worth-rooting-for in ways that have not been matched since. Andromeda delivered a two-for with Rommie (Lexa Doig) and Valentine (Lisa Ryder). Joss Whedon answered the call again with (the shamefully short-lived) Firefly, featuring American television's toughest girl-with-a-gun, Gina Torres as Zoe.

Over and over, action series provide the best role models. Amanda Tapping as Samantha Carter on Stargate. Jill Hennessy as medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh and Jennifer Garner as superspy Sydney Bristow. Jolene Blalock (Enterprise), who stands out in her supporting role, is Seven redux, down to the body suit and the attitude. I was initially most encouraged by Hennessy, who at least initially was not compelled to apologize for the fact that, yes, she is an excessively gorgeous woman. Garner, in contrast, came across as excessively stoical (she's neither a Vulcan nor an android).

The contrast between Garner and Hennessy is illustrative. The argument can be made that Garner's Sydney Bristow started out working for a bunch of murderous conspirators, so it's no wonder that she should be a tad distant and humorless. But, then, being around someone who hates her job week after week isn't a whole lot of fun for the viewer, either. Here we get back to the either/or problem that so often plagues the female action lead: you can be one or the other, but not both. Yet the whole point of Captain Kirk's life (and Captain Picard's and Captain Archer's) was that he loved being a starship captain. There was never ever any conflict on that point.

Men have long been permitted to wallow in their eccentricities (or sexual peculiarities) without becoming any less acceptable in their roles, as CSI's quirky Gil Grissom (William L. Petersen) demonstrates, or Mel Gibson's borderline psychotic protrayal of Riggs in Lethal Weapon, or Tony Shalhoub playing a neurotic genius in Monk. For several seasons, Joss Whedon populated Buffy with the most interesting female characters ever on television, but the pickings are sparse. The unconventional, competent and relatively angst-free woman Hollywood still has a problem dealing with.

Stephanie Zacharek got it right when she wished Hollywood's veteran actresses "the chance to get ahold of something more valuable than your typical ho-hum actorly prestige: I wish them more opportunities to wear bad-girl lace, without having anyone hold it against them." Or as Rowan Pelling puts it, "Why can't we admire and applaud strong women who are calling the steps of the dance? The qualities of the femme fatale are no longer prized by Hollywood or the wider world."

With the the exception of Buffy and the Scoobies, lead female action roles remain mostly consigned to sidekicks (Emily Deschanel in Bones) or (even rarer) lone wolves. Perhaps leaders of other women (Charmed), but not leaders of men. Leading is a supporting role, as illustrated by Epatha Merkerson's supporting role in Law & Order, Tamara Taylor's supporting role in Bones, Lauren Holly's supporting role in NCIS.

There is no better illustration of this propensity than a 2003 episode of Enterprise ("Twilight"), in which not only does T'Pol give up command of the Enterprise to care for an ailing Captain Archer, but it is also strongly intimated that she was not really cut out to command a starship. Not like those manly Earth men. Talk about a woman's place being literally in the home. Back to the future, indeed.

So there's plenty of room for give and take on both sides. While Hollywood goes about rediscovering what it knew about women sixty years ago and subsequently has fogotten, Japanese society would greatly benefit from applying to daily life what its manga writers and anime directors have long been bringing to its silver screen dreams.

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January 04, 2008

Jury duty


I've been in a jury pool twice: a federal felony case and a civil tort case. At least in Utah, you don't have to show up unless there's an actual trial (they give you a number to call the night before). That doesn't mean you'll actually serve, though.

The federal case involved drugs and weapons possession (the courtroom looked like a set from Law & Order). The judge had a sense of humor and moved things along at a brisk clip. All the peremptory challenges were done in open court. The people excluded were related to the prosecution or defense or had been involved in similar cases before (victim, witness, juror). After that, the jury was picked in order and was seated by 11 AM. The guy next to me was the last alternate. He sighed heavily.

I knew five minutes after looking at the jury questionnaire for the personal injury case that the plaintiff's lawyers weren't going to pick me. Half the questions had to do with whether I supported tort reform and how much: "Yes," and "A lot." I'd like to see the regression analysis done on that questionnaire. For example, it asked what your favorite TV shows were. The most interesting questions was, on a sliding scale: "I control events -- Events control me." Who checks the latter?

In this rinky-dink, fender-bender case (nobody even hobbled into the courtroom on crutches), following the questionnaire came five freaking hours of jury selection. The jury wasn't seated until 2 PM. Of course I wasn't chosen. (I'm free! I'm free!) I shudder to imagine what goes on in big personal injury/class action cases.

Multiply this by thousands of courtrooms across the nation, and I sat there and watched the national productivity circling the drain. I appreciate the idealism of trial-by-jury, but in actual practice it's an awfully wasteful system, and its flaws only encourage bad lawyering and dumb trials. Jurors are more like naive politicians who are handpicked and then intensely lobbied for hours and hours before voting on a bill that none of them really understands.

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January 03, 2008

Dead hypotheticals


In a recent New York Times article tapping into the blown New Year's Resolution frame of mind, Benedict Carey describes the psychology of regret in terms of contemplation of our "lost possible selves," the people you might have been had you made different decisions at a certain points in time.

This is similar to a concept I've played around with for some time. It gets a mention in chapter 19 of The Path of Dreams, where I call it a "dead hypothetical" (here Connor is talking):

"It's this theory--well, rationalization--I concocted, based on the many-universes hypothesis: that for every decision presented to you there exists a universe where the choice you didn't make is played out. But some decisions, I've concluded, have no hypothetical, no alternate universe of possibilities. There may be a fork in the road, but the road not taken was a dead end all along. Some facet of who you are, or who they are, or the basic nature of space and time, simply ruled out that choice having any life of its own. The 'what if' is dead."

In the article, Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, is quoted as saying: "The idea is move people away from this element of resentment, the sense that if only my parents this or I had done that, I would have what I want. That’s a dead end."

The younger you says: "I coulda been a contender." The older you says: "Not a chance, you idiot (and be thankful you didn't turn your brains into mush along the way)."

Glenn Reynolds picks up the many-universes analogy: "This may also explain why people tend to get happier past their mid-forties. By that point, most of the possible selves have been extinguished [turned into dead hypotheticals] and the opportunity costs of living go down."

This should be distinguished from becoming more cynical or resigned. It's better described as the process by which you find out all the things you don't like doing and/or stink at, and choose to no longer waste time and energy on. This allows you to spend more time doing the things you like (or at least don't loathe) and are good (or better) at instead.

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