May 31, 2018

Laughing matters

A consistent observation from long-time Western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing. It's sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on going with the flow. (Google "Japan" and "sarcasm" for many links about the subject.)

The sociolinguistic concept does exist in Japanese and hiniku (皮肉) seems to cover all the lexicographical bases. To paraphrase Tom Selleck at the end of Quigley Down Under, "I said I didn't have much use for it. Didn't say I didn't know what it means."

At the other end of the spectrum, clever word-play (kakekotoba) has been prized since before the Heian period and is a key element of classical poetry. Japanese attitudes in this regard can be very British English, bouncing wildly between Oscar Wilde and Benny Hill.

A broad streak of Benny Hill-type slapstick is part and parcel of any "fan service"-heavy anime comedy. Like horror and monster movies, these genres are more familiar in the west because subtle comedy just doesn't translate well, West to East or East to West.

Hollywood loves action films because comedy is such a hard sell in the huge Asian market (and even the action genre is no guarantee these days). There's even a term in Japan for the problem: "American joke," meaning the kind of humor that only Americans think is funny.

The American contemporary solo "standup" style never took hold in Japan. Japan's solo format is rakugo, storytelling based on an established repertoire of Aesop's Fables-type traditional tales and just-so stories. The storyteller plays all the parts.

The standup format is manzai, which hearkens back to the old vaudeville duos.

Manzai is how a nation of introverts work out their inner rage in public (Sheldon Cooper + Penny = manzai). Trading insults (as distinguished from sarcasm) is part and parcel of the genre, as is physical humor (whacking each other on the head).

At best, manzai compares to a Smothers Brothers routine, revolving around the repartee between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke). But can also be so aggressively passive-aggressive that I find it painfully unfunny (and difficult to follow).

Well, that's what I think of the Three Stooges too.

Manzai duos aside, comedy in Japan is often skit-based (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte) or revolves around group activities, including every sort of chat show imaginable.

NHK regularly broadcasts stage performances of vaudevillian-style melodramas. Despite the Edo period settings (interrupted by anachronistic jokes, breaking fourth wall, and characters finding excuses to burst into song), they are surprisingly accessible.

Then there are all those game shows. Americans typically only hear about the ones so obvious or outrageous they don't need translation. But many are dang high-brow, like using using Auto-Tune technology to measure how precisely on-tune the contestants can sing a popular song.


The participants in these "game shows" mostly come from the ranks of B-list celebrities. More Hollywood Squares than Family Feud. Japanese by and large prefer to watch other people having a good time than get up on stage and make fools of themselves (though there are those too).

One of the longest-running shows on Japanese television is Shouten. It resembles What's My Line (though the participants usually remain seated). The panel members are all veteran rakugo performers.

Again, the emphasis is on wordplay, trading insults, and the occasional pratfall (and mild sexual innuendo). I get about half of the verbal jokes.

I do get most of the kanji jokes, where they start with a standard kanji radical and then add a few strokes to invent a new word that creates a humorous juxtaposition.

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May 24, 2018

Wolf Warrior II

One of the biggest films of 2017 was a movie you might not have heard about. Unless you live in China. To be sure, as far as cinematic works of art go, Wolf Warrior II isn't one. Then again, neither was The Force Awakens, the only movie to earn more in a single market ($937 million in North America in 2015).

Wolf Warrior II raked in $854 million in China alone.

It certainly held my attention better than any Star Wars installment since 1980. Though, to tell the truth, my reaction to the whole bloody (literally) shoot-em-up verged on a ho-hum shrug—until the penultimate scene.

As I said, it's no cinematic work of art. But it is a decidedly important political statement delivered in the decidedly non-political package of a by-the-numbers actioner.

As with every action movie of this stripe, Jing Wu (acting and directing) plays Leng Feng, an ex-special forces guy who got himself court-martialed for Standing Up For The Little Guy and now is a Lone Wolf doing missions Nobody Else Can Do. He's Rambo with better martial arts skills, more charisma, and a less somber mien.

This really is the saving grace of the movie. Bruce Willis takes himself seriously in Tears of the Sun (2003) a movie that takes itself more seriously than it should. Sylvester Stallone takes himself seriously in Rambo 3, a movie that is impossible to take seriously, despite being about a serious subject.

Jing Wu doesn't take himself too seriously in Wolf Warrior 2, a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously either, despite having a way higher on-screen body count than Stallone's war movie about an actual war. The intricately choreographed gun fu and kung fu at times turn the non-stop violence into a bizarre ballet.

Though it does get numbing after a while. Jing Wu needed somebody on the set to wave his arms now and then and shout, "Enough already!" They must have ordered squibs by the container ship. I got to wondering who was responsible for cleaning up all the fake blood and doing the laundry.

Anyway, Wolf Warrior II borrows plot points from Tears of the Sun, in which Bruce Willis leads his SEAL team into war-torn Nigeria to evacuate a pretty doctor (Monica Bellucci) from a besieged hospital.

Having exiled himself to a fictional African country that soon plunges into a brutal civil war, Leng Feng steps up to rescue a pretty doctor (Celina Jade) from a besieged hospital. He was supposed to rescue her boss but the boss got killed first. (This happens an awful lot when you're getting rescued by Leng Feng.)

Although he starts out as a one-man army, Leng Feng gains a couple of allies along the way, including PLA veteran He Jianguo (Wu Gang). The unqualified respect shown for this character (who thankfully manages not to get killed) is a good indicator of where the movie is thematically headed.


Meanwhile, the entire (shiny and modern) Chinese Navy is camped out in the Gulf of Aden, all ready to pitch in and help as soon as they get permission from the United Nations. Here is where we depart from the Hollywood formula. No American Man of Action needs permission from the United Nations to do anything.

For good reasons, as the movie amply illustrates.

In Japanese military actioners too, the United Nations makes a convenient moral cover for whatever means are justified by the ends. And if you're Jing Wu, it probably is more politic to point at third parties obstructing the hero's journey and not your own national government (local government is a whole different matter).

Which may also explain a puzzling hole in the plot, namely what exactly is motivating "Big Daddy" (Frank Grillo) and his merry band of sociopathic mercenaries. What they're after can be easily inferred, but this isn't a genre known for subtlety. A stereotypical appearance from Big Pharma would have fit the bill here.

But vilifying Big Business isn't in the cards either (though like local government, little business catches a few sharp elbows). Instead, the bad guys are bad guys because they're, well, really really bad.

Well, in any case, the whole purpose of this foot-dragging is to raise the dramatic stakes. When permission comes, it's a regular fireworks show. Guided missile destroyers sure are neat! (And uncannily accurate.)

As Leng Feng races his convoy of survivors to safety, there's one last battlefield to cross. In a scene that could have been inspired by Eugène Delacroix, he ties a Chinese flag to his arm and perches atop the cab of a truck. The warring parties part like Moses at the Red Sea. Because Nobody Messes With China!


To be honest, I found the scene quite stirring. Unabashed, unironic patriotism is an endangered species these days, and it casts the movie in its own unique light.

A brief coda at the end sledgehammers that message home. Across the image of a Chinese passport, the text tells the citizens of China that "no matter what corner of the world you may find yourself in, your country will always have your back."

This "reminder" ties into a scene early in the movie, in which a Chinese businessman tells Leng Feng he's ditching his citizenship in the name of profit—and then backtracks when all hell breaks loose and a Chinese-flagged ship is the only available refuge. He gets to stay alive because he made the right choice.

Welcome to the century of Chinese exceptionalism.

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May 17, 2018

Otaku o'clock

The fourth Garo series concluded last week on Family Gekijyo. The big finale ended up being clumsily censored. For an increasingly campy show that had lost its sense of humor, the cloud of pixelization kicked it into Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory.

The first half of "Flowers of Hell" had a lot going for it, but then they apparently decided they weren't taking themselves seriously enough. Only some things are impossible to take seriously, no matter how stony the faces.

Unlike the earlier "Shiiki" episode, this bare nakedness could hardly be called integral to the plot. It seemed more in the HBO category of "because we found an actress who didn't mind." She started out the episode in a unitard. They could have left her in the unitard. It made no difference.

And given the repetitious mess that is Family Gekijyo, with no rhyme or reason as to when stuff will show up on the screen, and no parental controls, it could annoy people with kids. And annoy members of the old TV Japan audience accustomed to the stodgier NHK programming standards.

Family Gekijyo is a satellite channel in Japan. But perusing their program guide, I see that the occasionally TV-MA Golgo 13 (the adventures of a Japanese hitman) is scheduled at 11:00 PM.

Japan does not have an officially defined "watershed" for broadcasters. That's the time slot in many countries when OTA stations can switch from TV-PG and TV-14 to TV-MA. The latter almost never happens for American broadcasters, as the FCC doesn't provide a TV-MA safe harbor.

So in Japan, as television standards have grown more conservative in the last quarter-century, broadcasters shifted controversial programming to after 10:00 PM. This time slot has been wittily labeled "otaku o'clock" and uses the odd but logical "22:00-27:00" notation.

Aside from a small number of popular and"family-friendly" series that get prime time slots, this is when most anime debut, often as "brokered programming." That means the production committee purchases the entire chunk of air time and sells its own advertising. Like an infomercial.

Even then, more "edgy" anime are often bowdlerized to play it safe and encourage viewers to buy the DVDs in order to get the unedited versions, which is the whole point in the first place. The anime industry in Japan is supported by manga, merchandise, and licensing, not television advertising.

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May 10, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

As best I can tell, here are the latest additions to the program schedule.

 • TBS News
 • Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes
 • The Drifters (1977-1997)
 • Shimura's Cram School (2004)
 • Garo: Gold Storm (2015)

Garo: Gold Storm is a sequel to Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono. In other words, more of the same. At this point, I would describe Garo as a Magical Girl series for boys, sans the charm and humor. Even the once clever "Flowers of Hell" forgot how to be funny by the time the big finale rolled around.

If you just can't get enough goth and leather cosplay, this is the show for you. Otherwise, it has a bad case of Big Bad Syndrome and is desperately in need of the Deadpool treatment.

The Drifters started off as a rock band but gained far greater fame as a comedy troupe. They hosted the variety show Hachijidayo! Zen'inshugo! ("It's Eight O'Clock! Everybody Gather 'Round!") from 1969 to 1985, one of the highest-rated shows on Japanese television.

I think Family Gekijyo is showing episodes from the ninety-minute monthly specials that ran from 1977-1997. These were sketch comedy shows with an ensemble cast, comparable to The Carol Burnett Show.

Ken Shimura is a Drifters alumnus. His half-hour program mixes celebrity interviews with comedy skits (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte).

The problem here is that I didn't watch The Carol Burnett Show. I don't watch the reruns now. I haven't followed a sketch comedy show since Monty Python.

So, not really my thing, and not for ninety minutes a night. Though to be honest, Shimura's Cram School is worth watching simply because Yuuka, Ken Shimura's co-host, is so darn cute.

The Tokyo Broadcasting System is similar to American broadcast networks like NBC and CBS, producing commercial content across the board. TBS still owns its radio system (launched in 1951), runs the Japan News Network (JNN), and operates TBS Newsbird, a 24-hour satellite and cable news channel.

Incidentally, the Family Gekijyo and TBS headquarters are both located in Akasaka, Tokyo, a couple of blocks apart.

The fifteen-minute newscasts aren't all that different from their NHK counterparts. The TBS newscasts are followed by a five-minute cooking show, Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes. As the website explains, "Super-simple recipes you can make even when you're blotto."

Here's today's new vocabulary word: hebereke.

Family Gekijyo on Dish seems to be turning into, well, Family Gekijyo. I originally compared it to ION TV. But ION TV specializes in recent material, often reruns of shows still in production. Family Gekijyo is closer to DTV subchannels like MeTV and COZI TV, preserving the golden oldies.

But the thing about subchannels is that they are subchannels, not the main event. TV Japan tries to keep up to date with a little something for everybody. Family Gekijyo is providing something for somebody, but I'm not sure who that is. As a standalone offering, it's mostly worth watching for the news.

So the question is whether Family Gekijyo can fill in the rest of the schedule with content compelling enough to pay for. I do hope so.

Related posts

Family Gekijyo
Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)

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May 03, 2018

What I'm reading

As Family Gekijyo slowly fills in its new schedule, let's talk about books.

I'm alternating between the Chihayafuru manga series and Edogawa Ranpo's young adult mystery novels. Inspired by Chihayafuru, I'm also working my way through the Manga Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten. It's an encyclopedic guide to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu written at a 6th grade level, about my speed in this subject.

Chihayafuru wins that rare trifecta as a great manga series, a great anime series, and a great live action film series. A third season of the anime and a third live-action movie should be coming out this year (though they will take longer to make it eastward across the Pacific).

Norihiro Koizumi wrote and directed the live-action films, and did a fine job condensing two seasons of the anime down to four hours of film without compromising the characters or the plot. He also introduced some incidental changes that work well, such as making Harada a Shinto priest.

Chihayafuru
   Amazon (JP)
   Honto
   YesAsia
   Kindle (US)
   Crunchyroll

Manga Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten
   Amazon-JP
   Honto
   YesAsia

Edogawa Ranpo is the pen name (derived from Edgar Allan Poe) of Taro Hirai (1894-1965), a tireless promoter of the mystery genre in Japan. His efforts were well-rewarded. "Cozy" mystery fiction is a staple on Japanese television and the best-seller lists. Crunchyroll has three great live-action series: Galileo, Hero, and Antiquarian Bookshop.

Ranpo also wrote the "Boy Detectives Club" series for a young adult audience. It reminds me of the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown books I read as a kid. Early versions of the "light novel," the Japanese is fairly simple, with an emphasis on action and short but vivid descriptive passages.

As in old radio dramas, the narrator often breaks the fourth wall to address the reader.

Now out of copyright, HTML files of Ranpo's novels can be downloaded from the Aozora public domain library. The files display as plain Unicode text in most browsers. For a more aesthetically-pleasing reading experience, cut and paste the online link into the Air Zoshi reading app.

From the "Boy Detectives Club" series, here's The Witch Doctor using the Air Zoshi app.

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