March 28, 2019

Mary Sue to the rescue

The eponymous character, originally named Lieutenant Mary Sue, was created by Paula Smith in her short 1973 parody of Star Trek fan fiction. Editing a Star Trek fanzine, Smith had noticed the predominance of stories that featured

the adventures of the youngest and smartest person ever to graduate from Star Fleet Academy and ever get a commission. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm wrestling, this character can be found burrowing her way into the good graces of Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

The Mary Sue can be simply summed up as a character who is too good to be true, having acquired more skills and talents and positive personality traits than our most generous expectations suggest is realistically possible.

Put the Mary Sue shortcut down to the rush of wish fulfillment or to impatient writers who want to fast forward to the "interesting" scenes. Or who think they are giving the audience what it wants to see. You know, because practicing to get good at something is for chumps.

Meeting all these criteria, a recent Mary Sue par excellence is Rey in The Force Awakens.

Yoda himself can't keep Luke Skywalker from getting badly beaten by Darth Vader in the second movie. Forget about crossing swords with anybody in the first. But Rey is an expert the first time she touches a lightsaber. She's as good a pilot as Han Solo the first time she sits in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon.

Now, Luke does have a Mary Sue moment at the end of A New Hope, when he pilots an X-wing starfighter to victory. No, logging a couple hundred hours in the equivalent of a Cessna 172 does not mean you can hop into an F-35 Lightning and out-fly the Top Guns who've been at it for years.

We give Luke a pass here thanks to the narrative trick of making the audience a participant in the trials, travails, and eventual triumphs of the protagonist. As the help wanted ads put it, having proved his mettle, we'll let the good guy skate by on "equivalent experience" in lieu of a resume.

The problem with Rey is that's she's perfect from the moment she appears on the screen. We never see her resume. We never see her burning the midnight oil. Making it all the more annoying, as I outlined in my review, is that it would not have been difficult to give her one.

The big irony of the Mary Sue and its Star Trek origins is that The Next Generation wrote one right into the cast. Pandering to the fan base, I suppose. But perhaps any trope worth being singled out and savagely critiqued is one that connects at a deep level with a significant portion of the audience.

In that light, it deserves a defense. And so now I rise not to bury Mary Sue but to praise her.

To be sure, I cannot bring myself to defend Wesley Crusher. He is exactly the kind of annoying Mary Sue that Paula Smith snarked about back in 1973. Any reasonable appeal to verisimilitude cannot tolerate his presence on the Enterprise bridge.

But a Mary Sue story can be done right. Snow White with the Red Hair shows how.


Based on the manga by Sorata Akizuki, the anime (available from Funimation) ran two cours. The manga (not available in English) is still being serialized. As befitting the title, the story takes place in a spick and span Disneyland of a medieval kingdom (the setting itself qualifies as a Mary Sue).

When we first meet her, Shirayuki (白雪), whose name translates as "Snow White," is a conscientious herbalist who owns a small pharmacy. That is, until the lecherous Prince Raj, entranced by her brilliant red hair, decides to make Shirayuki his mistress. And won't take no for an answer.

Figuring that caution is the better part of valor, Shirayuki's answer is to pack up and scamper across the border, where she promptly runs into Prince Zen of Clarines and his retainers. It's "like" at first sight.

No mooning around. No one gets serenaded beneath a window. Shirayuki and Zen are preternaturally practical and competent people. Shirayuki has principles and no hesitation in standing up for them. And one of those principles is to own only what she's earned.

Although ostensibly a "European" kingdom, Clarines appears to be run by a ranked bureaucracy of mandarins appointed through an imperial examination system. Determined to stay close to Zen but refusing any handouts, Shirayuki applies for a job as an assistant court herbalist. And passes the tests.

But, again, the backstory has established that she works hard and is good at it, and goes to sufficient lengths to demonstrate that she is deserving of the position. Zen as well works for a living. Being a prince in Clarines comes with a portfolio. Besides going on inspection tours, he has to sit at a desk and push paper around.

These jobs not only make them more interesting but also generate compelling plot material.

(Seriously, what do Disney's Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty actually do? Well, Cinderella is good at housekeeping. What does Elsa do? Anna at least has the important job of keeping Elsa from going nuts and destroying the kingdom.)

There's no need to pretend Shirayuki and Zen aren't Mary Sues. They are too good to be true. Here we have a pair of protagonists who couldn't be any nicer without getting saccharin. Even Prince Raj can't resist becoming a better person when he's around them (a character arc that pays off well in the second cour).

Yet they both possess a depth of character that makes their stories compelling. Yes, nice people can be interesting and do interesting things. I would describe the resulting genre as a "cozy" romance, the equivalent of the "cozy" mystery.

Dispensed with are the angst, the sturm und drang, the love triangles, the miscommunication, all the melodramatic conventions of the genre. Another way of describing this romance sub-genre might be "You and me (and our friends) against the world."

In fact, the only real hint of romantic tension arises among their friends, principally Mitsuhide, Kiki, and Obi, who are Zen's retainers, though Zen assigns Obi to Shirayuki. Later in the series, Mitsuhide seems to have a thing for Kiki, and Obi definitely has unrequited affection for Shirayuki.

But being loyal to Zen and having earned his trust, Obi never does anything stupid or inappropriate. Aside from Mitsuhide getting goofy in one episode in which he goes looking for Shirayuki in the pharmacy and accidentally ingests an elixir, nobody embarrasses anybody or betrays anybody or compromises anybody.

Even for the day or so that Mitsuhide is under the effect of the elixir, he acts like a stereotypical gallant knight and drives everybody batty. It's a clever way of stating what the show is not about.

In the second cour, the world throws more high adventure their way, what with pirates and outlaws and damsels in distress and long lost family members showing up in unexpected places. But Shirayuki keeps her head on her shoulders (literally and figuratively) and the relationship never falters. Neither does her career.

In the end, nobody rides off into the sunset. There's no mention of any impending nuptials. We don't need to be told that Shirayuki and Zen will live "happily ever after." They only need to live their lives as best they can. From what we have learned about them, that will suffice. Real life is tough enough already.

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March 21, 2019

Japanese media update (updated)

So after a dozen years, I bid Dish a fond farewell. I must point out that the agent I spoke with was affable, courteous, and professional. If that's the norm at Dish in customer retention, my hat's off to them. Well done. I wouldn't have left if TV Japan hadn't left first.

TV Japan is why I subscribed to Dish in the first place. As I have documented in previous posts, in early 2018, TV Japan (née NHK Cosmomedia) abandoned Dish and made DirecTV its exclusive satellite provider. No explanation for only making their satellite service exclusive.

Family Gekijyo filled the empty programming slot. In Japan, Family Gekijyo resembles ION TV, its schedule consisting of a few original shows and a whole bunch of reruns. The problem is, Family Gekijyo in Japan in no way resembles the Family Gekijyo that Dish ended up with.

Perhaps Family Gekjyo is using the channel assignment as a placeholder for something else. Though it's more likely it underestimated the cost and difficulty of negotiating overseas rights for the content it broadcasts in Japan. Its Dish offerings are old, threadbare, and repetitious.

NHK, by contrast, has an annual operating budget of around $7 billion and an equivalent amount of political pull.

Which is too bad. Dish charged almost thirty dollars less than DirecTV and Xfinity for a similar "limited basic" package plus a premium international channel. (If you're an Internet or cable subscriber, the Xfinity rate card can be downloaded here.)

A dozen years with Dish established my pain point at $40/month total for a single à la carte programming package. TV Japan isn't available on Xfinity Instant TV. The lowest-cost "cable box" package pushes the out-of-pocket to $60/month, and that's not including all the additional taxes and fees.

Over $70/month to access a single channel? No way, no how. Frankly, even $40/month is too rich for my blood these days, especially compared to what streaming has to offer.

Crunchyroll is the biggest anime kid on the block and has the best website. Lots of reviews. Funimation has a smaller library but is the biggest licensee of physical media in North America. It's hard to pass over since the partnership with Crunchyroll ended and Funimation left with its exclusive content.

The thing is, these services are so affordable that subscribing to a couple will hardly break the bank.

Tubi is an ad-supported free streaming service with a surprising number of Japanese movies and anime. The ads can get samey but they are parceled out parsimoniously, they're not loud, and the ad engine is well-integrated. The overall viewing experience is superior to commercial TV.

For the time being, here's my list of go-to Roku channels:

 • Crunchyroll ($7.99/month or $79.99/year)
 • Funimation ($5.99/month or $59.99/year)
 • NHK World (free)
 • Tubi (free)

dLibrary Japan ($9.99/month) is how NHK Cosmomedia reuses content originally licensed for TV Japan. When it first launched, it charged too much for too little. But it's been steadily adding content to its catalog. Once it gets a Roku app, I'll kick the tires and drive it around the block.

Even with dLibrary Japan, I'd be nowhere near that $40/month threshold. I'll probably toss HIDIVE ($4.99/month) into the mix when it gets a Roku app. HIDIVE hosts a number of highly watchable Sentai Filmworks exclusives.

Related sites

Crunchyroll
dLibrary Japan
Funimation
HIDIVE
NHK World
Roku
Tubi TV
TV Japan

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March 14, 2019

Silver Spoon

Peaks Island Press proudly announces the second volume in the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

Since her adventures in Coin, Donna Howard has become an established investigator of relics and antiques, with the help of deceased historical people only she can see. This time around, her investigation takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she delves into the town's haunted history and the modern world of antique hunting.

Her research into the provenance of a silver spoon leads Donna to a stash of unexpectedly valuable junk in an old man's basement, an old man whose death Donna begins to suspect was less than "accidental." Along with opportunistic antiquers, she must also contend with a possible murder, a possible possession, and a possible boyfriend.

Because nothing can make the dead past and the living present more precarious than the unpredictable complexities of human relationships.

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
iBooks
Google Play
Nook
Kobo

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March 07, 2019

Her-tank-land

Girls und Panzer is a textbook example of how to launch a story in medias res without any title cards or opening crawls or expository dialogue to establish and explain the crazy backstory. You either suspend disbelief from the get-go or you don't.

Director Tsutomu Mizushima and veteran screenwriter and manga artist Reiko Yoshida throw so much insanity onto the screen in the first episode, while treating it all as "normal," that you find yourself scratching your head and nodding and saying to yourself, "Hmm, you know, I guess it kinda sorta makes sense."

NO, IT DOESN'T! IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE AT ALL!

The premise here is that high schools engage in war games as an extramural sport, with national championships and everything. Not in a virtual world (that'd be somewhat plausible), but with fully operational platoons of vintage WWII tanks, adding up to more rolling armor than most of the world's modern militaries.

All the caveats about "safety measures" notwithstanding, even if the shells were blanks (they're not), accidents alone would rack up a serious body count. The "sport" is not without some risks—Miho had previously quit after one such accident—but supposedly "risky" the same way that American football is "risky."

Yeah, no. I mean, there's suspending disbelief and then there's disbelieving the most rudimentary laws of physics.


Nor did I get a satisfactory explanation—aside from a single line of dialogue when a character poses the same question—of why entire towns are built atop gigantic aircraft carriers. Because, that's why.

Yet I couldn't stop watching. It absolutely shouldn't, but the whole thing simply works at every level.

At the story level, this shouldn't be all that surprising. The sports genre has been a reliable mainstay of manga and anime for half a century, and Girls und Panzer constitutes a solid entry in the canon. As such, the almost entirely plot-driven narrative makes it easier to look past the inherent craziness.


It's also a classic underdog story, as Miho has to figure out how to defeat larger and better equipped teams with her oddball tanks and crews. (Like "oddball," the series is peppered with references to Kelly's Heroes.)

You see, when Oarai Girls High School previously shut down the program for lack of interest and funds and sold off the equipment, the only tanks left were the ones nobody else wanted.

Although the focus of the series is on the tanks and the competitions, human drama is not absent. An interesting dynamic plays out between Miho, Maho (her older sister), and their mother. Naturally, the national championship will come down to a battle between the two tanks personally commanded by Miho and Maho.

I think we have a winner in the sibling rivalry metaphor department.

In fact, it is so easy to get caught up in the competitions and Miho's ingenious solutions to one impossible predicament after the next that you can easily overlook the the most unusual and compelling thing about Girls und Panzer. The girls.

These are all-girl teams in an all-girl competition in (as far as I can tell) an all-girl "sport."

They're teenagers, of course, so the subject of boys comes up. But not one speck of drama or plot development revolves around a teenage boy. I don't think a teenage boy even appears on screen. Men pop up here and there in peripheral supporting roles. But from beginning to end, every major character is female.

And yet we don't hear one speck of political or social commentary about this obvious fact either.

Miho's recruiting campaign (Oarai High is desperately short of tank crews) argues that tankery as a martial art is a great way to improve a girl's feminine attributes.

Historically, this argument is not that big of a reach. It was common practice in medieval Japan for the daughters of noblemen and samurai to study the naginata (halberd). Today, high school girls regularly participate in the traditional martial arts of judo, kendo (fencing), and kyudo (archery).

Hana Isuzu, Miho's gunner, comes from a family famous for its skill at kado (ikebana or flower arrangement). Hana's mother is initially opposed to her daughter's participation in tankery, but will later concede that it has improved Hana's artistic skill and expressiveness at flower arrangement.

Nobody at any point questions the ability of girls (as a sex) to operate tanks and command tank platoons. There's an important lesson here. The complete absence of "messaging" about the female composition of this heavily armored Themyscira or "Her-tank-land" makes the inherent message that much more appealing to boys.

The manga and light novels were serialized in seinen magazines (aimed at young adult males). And yet, aside from the standard short skirts and an obligatory hot springs scene, there's barely any fan service. Again, this is first and foremost a sports anime. It's all about winning the tank battles.

Tank battles fought by girls. In their Panzers.

Related videos

Girls und Panzer (CR) (HIDIVE)
Girls und Panzer OVA
Girls und Panzer der Film

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