August 29, 2019

Last storehouse standing

Chapter 10 of The Space Alien (which takes place in 1953) has the following description of a neighborhood in Setagaya ward in the southwest corner of Tokyo:

Less than a mile from Ichiro's house, a concrete storehouse stood alone in the middle of a field. During the war, air raids had destroyed all of the wood-frame houses on the block.

The genesis of these fireproof residential storehouses goes back almost three centuries.

The Great Meireki Fire (named after the imperial era or gengo) in 1657 destroyed over sixty percent of Edo (now Tokyo) proper and killed upwards of 100,000 people. Halfway around the world and less than a decade later, the Great Fire of London wreaked an equal amount of physical damage.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These two cities responded in quite different ways to these similar disasters. In the latter case, a concerted effort was made to prevent further conflagrations.

The zoning laws and building codes of London were upgraded, specifying wider streets and deeper setbacks, and access to wharves along the Thames. Perhaps most importantly, brick and stone were dictated in the construction of new buildings, resulting in thicker walls and heavier framing.

Famed architect Christopher Wren distinguished himself during this period, rebuilding fifty-two churches along with many secular buildings in London.

These building requirements raised the cost of housing and slowed the overall growth of London, but were effective at preventing further similar disasters until the air raids of the Blitz.

During the rebuilding of Edo, city planners moved the larger estates and many shrines and temples to the outskirts of the city, opening access to the rivers and widening the main thoroughfares. However, in almost every other respect, they took a completely opposite approach to fire prevention.

In short, the point wasn't to prevent fires but to slow fires down and give people time to escape. Fire was treated as a natural disaster, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons. Survival mattered, not, as George Carlin famously phrased it, saving your "stuff." A very Zen philosophy.

The result of this policy was that, on average, an Edokko could expect his house to burn down at least once during his lifetime. In 1806, the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi wrote of a fire in the Shitaya district where he was living at the time (courtesy David Lanoue, edited for syllable count):

Everything has burned
down to and including the
blameless mosquitoes

Firefighters in Edo (the true action heroes of the era) took pretty much the same approach as hotshot crews in the United States today. The lightweight wood frame row houses that were home to the majority of Edo's population were a key part of the strategy.

When the fire alarms rang, firefighters first collapsed the flimsy row houses in the path of the flames. The "floor" formed by the roof tiles created a firebreak. The row houses were inexpensive to rebuild, and neighborhood mutual insurance organizations covered the costs.

A wealthy family might keep an entire house on layaway at a lumberyard, like the one depicted (at the bottom right) in Hokusai's "Lumberyard on the Takekawa in Honjo." As an inside joke, Hokusai put his publisher's name on the placard.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These firefighting techniques successfully limited widespread loss of life without holding back the economic and population growth of Edo, that by the 18th century was the biggest city in the world.

The devastation of the Great Meireki Fire was not equaled until the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II. In both of these cases, the fires broke out everywhere all at once, rendering traditional firefighting techniques ineffectual.

To be sure, Buddhist beliefs in the effervescence of life notwithstanding, the denizens of Edo weren't entirely nonchalant about the loss of their "stuff."

Residents of the row houses dug root cellars beneath their apartments, where they could stash their valuables during a fire. Landowners built a stone storehouse in a corner of the property away from the main house. These Edo period storehouses can still be found scattered throughout Japan.

In the NHK serial drama Warotenka, the Fujioka family returns to Osaka at the end of the war to find that only the wrought iron front gate and the storehouse survived the air raids. So they move into the storehouse until they can scrape together enough materials to rebuild the main house.

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August 22, 2019

Interviews with Monster Girls

This adorable 13-episode series revolves around one of my favorite variations on the slice-of-life genre. Call it the "supernormal supernatural."


A supernatural element is introduced into everyday life without significantly altering the known world, other than possibly requiring the creation of a government agency to provide oversight. Before long, the "normal" world grows so accustomed to this supernatural element that its existence becomes rather run of the mill.

In the equally delightful Kamichu! an otherwise normal junior high school student becomes a Shinto god and pretty much keeps on being a normal junior high school student at a normal junior high school in a normal fishing village on the Inland Sea. Except for being a Shinto god, of course.

That the "monster girls" represent a small proportion of the population helps to maintain an aura of normality. Some inherited their traits. Others are the product of mutations. There is nothing at all supernatural about Hikari's fraternal twin sister, for example. Aside from the headless Kyoko, none of them appears that out of the ordinary.

And even without her head literally on her shoulders, getting accustomed to Kyoko proves surprisingly easy.

Amidst all this "supernatural normality," Tetsuo Takahashi is a biology teacher at Shibasaki High School. Despite his keen interest in "monster girls," he has never met one. Until this semester. Three of the first year students and a new teacher turn out to be "demi-humans" (Japanese uses the cute diminutive "demi-chan").

Hikari is a vampire (and thus receives a monthly blood ration courtesy of the government). Yuki is a yuki onna (a snow woman from Japanese mythology). Kyoko is a dullahan from Irish mythology (and thus carries her head separate from its usual location). And the new math teacher, Sakie Sato, is a succubus.

Hikari starts hanging out in Takahashi Sensei's office because it has the best air conditioning (she and Yuki have an aversion to hot weather). Takahashi asks her about what being a demi-human is like. The preternaturally extroverted Hikari happily strikes up a conversation. Before long, Takahashi is interviewing all of the girls.

Takahashi Sensei is smart and insightful, and being a nice guy, brings both a natural empathy and a knack for problem solving to the subject. Some of the most interesting parts of the series are these "interviews."

While Kyoko is the strangest in appearance, she is the most "normal" of the three monster girls in terms of personality. The dullahan is depicted in legend as a violent and bloodthirsty demon, more commonly known as the "headless horseman." The starkness of this contrast leads to a fascinating discussion about how mythical types arise.


Takahashi Sensei later introduces Kyoko to a friend of his from college, now a professor of physics. He comes up with a explanation for her "condition" based on theoretical physics that could qualify as an episode of Because Science with Kyle Hill. This contemporary fantasy very often snugs up close to "hard" science fiction.

There are a few episodes at the beginning that suggest Takahashi Sensei is getting a little too personally involved with his students (at least applying real-world standards). But then the grumpy vice principal suggests to Takahashi Sensei that he dial it back a bit and the grumpy vice principal turns out to more or less right.

It is always better to directly address the obvious rather than wave it aside.

The presence of a succubus at the school means the subject of sex is bound to come up. But director Ryo Ando and screenwriter Takao Yoshioka, adapting the manga by Petos, keep the dialogue smart and relevant. Takahashi Sensei and Sato Sensei engage in the kind of intelligent conversations that only make you wish they went on longer.

As it turns out, Sato Sensei's personality is at odds with her "powers." She is a reserved person, loathes being the center of attention, avoids crowds, and dresses plainly to suppress her aphrodisiacal nature. The word for the latter in Japanese is saiin (催淫), which you should have learned by the end of the series.

Sato Sensei is an excellent example of how fantasy can give substance to a psychological or metaphysical concept and make the metaphor concrete. Her concerns about whether a man will ever truly be interested in her for her arises out of neither neurosis nor narcissism but is rooted in the realities of her supernatural biology.

(Another great example is when Youko kills the monkey spirit in Shadow of the Moon, she is literally killing the voice of her uncertainty and self-doubt.)

Alas, their relationship doesn't have time to progress much by the end of the series. The manga is still ongoing so that subject will hopefully be addressed in the future. The only disappointing aspect of Interviews with Monster Girls is that it contains so much great material and not enough time to handle it all.

Related links

Crunchyroll
Funimation

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August 18, 2019

Kyoto Animation fire (update)

The servers for the building were located in a concrete-lined room on the first floor. All of the data on the servers has been successfully retrieved.

Investigators confirmed that the (confessed) suspect submitted a manuscript to a writing content sponsored by Kyoto Animation. According to Kyoto Animation's legal counsel, the entry did not pass the competition's preliminary stage and there are no similarities between Kyoto Animation's IP and the manuscript in question.

Three survivors of the fire remain in critical condition. On August 2, Kyoto Prefectural Police released the names of ten (of 35) victims of the fire, one of whom was Yasuhiro Takemoto.

Takemoto directed Kyoto Animation's first in-house production, Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu. It is no exaggeration to call him one of the best series directors in the history of anime. His credits include Lucky Star, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Hyouka, and Amagi Brilliant Park.

NHK reported this morning that Kyoto Animation has thus far received donations totaling $18.8 million. On August 22, the Japanese government announced it would classify these donations as "disaster relief" and not as taxable income. The ruling also means that donations (in Japan) will become tax-deductible.

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August 15, 2019

From XP to X (software)

My biggest concern about upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 10 was having to replace all the legacy software I'd become dependent on. As it turns out, I had to replace very little (though I ended up replacing some of it anyway).

Homesite 1.0 (1996), PaintShop Pro 7 (2003), and JWPce 1.50 (2005) still run fine in Windows 10. The latest version of Notepad++ runs even better. The ancient and venerable DOS has left the building, but in real blast from the past, Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus 1.20 (1993) runs great in vDos.

Microsoft's older Office apps "are not certified compatible with Windows 10 but might work with or without compatibility mode." At least Microsoft still sells new standalone editions of Office at a reasonable price. Getting used to Word 2019 wasn't that hard and it has a couple of nice new features.

Like Microsoft, Adobe is all about the subscription model these days, which makes no sense when I only occasionally have to convert high-resolution raster graphics to the PDF format. Thankfully, except for an inoperable printer driver, Acrobat 6 runs without any issues.

Windows 10 comes with a built-in Print to PDF driver. It's a much needed feature, but could stand to be a lot more configurable and user friendly. I only got it to work with non-standard page sizes after hacking the configuration files.

Update (8/30/19). Well, so much for configurability! The 1903 update broke that workaround completely. I finally gave up fiddling with it and installed Bullzip.

For the most part, everything runs fast enough on my entry-level PC. PaintShop Pro 2019 is the only app that pushes the limits of the system, but not intolerably so. I tackle day-to-day graphics jobs in PaintShop Pro 7 and use PaintShop Pro 2019 when heavy lifting is required.

Bill Gates and Microsoft don't get enough credit for maintaining backwards compatibility in MS-DOS and Windows operating systems for so long.

Related posts

From XP to X (hardware)
From XP to X (benchmarks)

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August 08, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (title)

On August 1, Shinchosha announced the title of Fuyumi Ono's new Twelve Kingdoms novel: 『白銀の墟 玄の月』 (Shirogane no Oka, Kuro no Tsuki). I have tentatively translated it, "Hills of Silver Ruins, a Black Moon."

The furigana oka lends the kanji for "ruins" (墟) the meaning of "hill," which is difficult to incorporate without getting wordy. Based on the hiragana for the title (above), it would read, "[A] Silver Hill[s], [a] Black Moon."


As for the literal meaning, all that remains of most medieval castles in Japan are overgrown hills. Oda Nobunaga's magnificent Azuchi Castle was destroyed by fire after his assassination in 1582, leaving behind only the stone foundation.

Without the actual context, other than the Kingdom of Tai being in the midst of a civil war, these are the images the title brings to mind. Considering the northern climate of Tai, "silver" could also describe ruins covered with snow.


The Traditional Colors of Japan website assigns「玄」a web color of #3E1E00, closer to "maroon." But it also describes「玄」as a synonym for black and suggests that「玄」is less a traditional color than a metaphysical concept.


Metaphorically, "silver" and "black" could refer to the silver-haired Gyousou and Taiki, a rare "black kirin." Using the possessive particle no (の), "silver" and "black" can function as both adjectives and nouns in Japanese.

Attempting the equivalent in English would sound clunky. So at this juncture, the English version will lean more heavily on the dictionary meanings.

At the end of July, Shinchosha released a Twelve Kingdoms promotional video (in Japanese). The narrator is Ken'ichi Suzumura, who played Rakushun in the NHK anime series.

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August 01, 2019

The Space Alien

My translation of The Space Alien by Ranpo Edogawa is now available.

The year is 1953. The Korean War is winding down. The Cold War is heating up. UFOs are appearing all over the world. Five flying saucers suddenly zoom across the skies of Tokyo. Ichiro Hirano's next-door neighbor is kidnapped by an alien lizard creature. That same creature is now stalking the pretty and talented sister of Ichiro's best friend.

What in the world is going on? What do the aliens want? And where did they come from? These are the kind of questions that only master sleuth Kogoro Akechi and the Boy Detectives Club can hope to answer.

The Kindle and paperback editions can be purchased from Amazon, and ePub version from Smashwords and Google Play. Please visit the website for more details and bookstores, and check out Kate's interviews (and here, here, and here) with me about the translation process.

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