October 13, 2021

Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

Aubrey St. Clair awakens in a locked room, having barely survived a misguided enchantment that turned her into a cat. Kidnapped by unprincipled magicians and exploited by ruthless politicians, her only recourse is to literally claw her way to safety.

Safe in body but not in soul, Aubrey is forced to confront the slippery memories of her own bespellment. Is forgetfulness really the best defense?

In her hunt for the truth, Aubrey is aided by a cool-headed police officer. His interest in her, however, may be more than merely professional. But how much more? It slowly begins to dawn on her that perhaps the most powerful spell of all is love.

Aubrey is the first book in the Roesia series. Roesia is a Victorian world where magic is real and spells and potions are the focus of academic study. Although sharing characters and events, the books can be read as standalone stories.

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The Roesia Series

Tales of the Quest
Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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October 09, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/32)

I've posted chapter 32 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The characters for Kaisei (回生) translate literally as "revolving life," and depending on the context, can mean "resuscitate" (to bring back to life), "reincarnation," or "regeneration" (as in regenerative braking). If preceded by a number, it refers to a university student's year in school.

The legend of the Kouin (篁蔭) is discussed in chapter 19.

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October 06, 2021

Kiyo in Kyoto

A new anime series based on the award-winning manga, Kiyo in Kyoto, is streaming on NHK World and Crunchyroll.

As you will see from the (lack of) inbetweening, the use of rotoscoped backgrounds, and the monthly release schedule, this isn't a budget-intensive production.

Rather like The Way of the Househusband, it uses what I'd call the PowerPoint approach to animation, more a moving manga.

To be sure, The Way of the Househusband was purposely directed as "an animation that looks like a manga." With Kiyo in Kyoto, my best guess is that NHK World chose to divert their available resources into the adorable character designs and top-notch voice talent.

They certainly are adorable and top-notch.

The setting is Kyoto, so we're also treated to a delightful sampling of the Kyoto and Aomori dialects (coaches for both are listed in the credits). The genre is one of the most reliable in popular Japanese narrative fiction.

Food. With a fascinating setting, Kyoto's Kagai, or geisha district. In other words, cute girls doing interesting things. Don't expect deep drama or complex story arcs. That's not the point. It's slice-of-life comfort food that succeeds surprisingly well at being both entertaining and educational.

Kiyo is the live-in cook at the Maiko House and her childhood friend Sumire is an aspiring maiko, an apprentice geiko (more commonly known in Tokyo as geisha). The reason sixteen-year-old Kiyo isn't in school is because secondary education in Japan is only compulsory through junior high.

Each thirty-minute episode is split into three segments that follow a similar format, a day-in-the-life about Kiyo and Sumire followed by a discussion of the featured recipe (with Sumire doing the research).

The manga won the "Best Shounen Manga" award at the Shogakukan Manga Awards in 2020 (curiously enough, the boy's category). The studio is anime heavyweight J.C. Staff, which does a fine job within the given constraints.

Related links

Kiyo in Kyoto (CR NHK)
The Way of the Househusband
Cute girls doing interesting things

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October 02, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/31)

I've posted chapter 31 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

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September 29, 2021

Serpent of Time

The last princess of Japan's doomed Southern Court, Fujiwara Ryo has an offer she cannot refuse: a marriage proposal from her archenemy. As the shogun's royal prisoner, she'd live a comfortable life in a gilded cage. But Ryo isn't the kind of girl to take the easy way out, so refuse it she does. Then a failed revolt against the shogunate puts a price on her head and her spurned fiancé hot on her heels.

Ryo escapes with Sen, her loyal lady-in-waiting. Atop sacred Mt. Koya, Sen's uncle summons the mighty Kala Sarpa. If all goes as planned, the "Serpent of Time" will transport Ryo safely out of the shogun's reach. Except Kala Sarpa bears a grudge of its own against the Fujiwara clan and seizes the chance to even the scales. Their fates now fully entwined, Ryo must travel back to the past to save her future.

The Kindle and paperback editions can be purchased from Amazon, and the ePub version from Smashwords, iBooks, and Google Play. Please visit the website for more details and to read the novel online.

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September 25, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/30)

I've posted chapter 30 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

Sodou is a daoshi (道士), a Taoist monk or priest.

The different Taoist sects described in this chapter appear analogous to the schools of Mahayana and Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism. A similar schism occurred in the early Middle Ages during what I call Japan's "Protestant Reformation." For Nichiren, Japan's Martin Luther,

religious ideals were inseparable from society and had to be realized in society. Salvation could not be achieved only at the level of individual meditation, because, first, no individual exists by himself, and secondly, because a living being can only realize itself through action and not by mere spiritual activity

In Chinese mythology, the Ten Kings of Hell (十王) judge the sins of the dead and determine how they will be reborn in the next life, a "Buddhist concept modified by Taoism and indigenous folk beliefs."

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September 22, 2021

The Bronze Devil

A thief is on the loose in Tokyo, a smash and grab artist that targets high-end jewelry stores. The identity of this burglar is no mystery. It's a metal robot, dubbed the "Bronze Devil" by the press. With its almost magical ability to appear and disappear out of nowhere, the police are powerless to stop the theft after the other.

That can only mean it's time to put master sleuth Kogoro Akechi and the Boy Detectives Club on the case.

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

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September 18, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/29)

I've posted chapter 29 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

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September 15, 2021

Reframing the mainframe plot

I've ranted about this before, but the mainframe-as-antagonist (commanding an army of dumb terminal minions) was a well-worn theme fifty years ago. It's so overdone by now you can't stick a fork in it: it's mush. And yet Hollywood keeps serving it up.

Because, well, we keep chomping it down.

Conquering the galaxy since the 1950s.

Even the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (without a computer network in sight) is straight out of The Phantom Menace. And straight out of Oblivion, the previous Tom Cruise SF post-apocalyptic, blow-up-the-alien-mainframe actioner.

Making it an organic mainframe is a slight improvement, but just as dumb. The whole "hive mind" thing needs to go too.

Of course, destroying a single machine in a single place and winning the war everywhere makes for easy denouements. But if the Earth is ever attacked by malevolent aliens who know how to implement autonomous distributed network technology, we are so screwed.

That aside, though, what do the aliens hope to accomplish by attacking the Earth so piecemeal? Or attacking the Earth at all? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

If they wanted to wipe out humans along with the infrastructure—the whole objective of the Independence Day aliens—there's no need to get anywhere near the planet's surface, as Heinlein pointed out back in 1966 with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

De-orbiting asteroids does the job nicely. And there are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is: they want our water. But there is plenty of easily-accessible water elsewhere, and not at the bottom of a deep gravity well. Europa, for starters.

Then there's the "To Serve Man" plot device. But homo sapiens is a lousy food/energy source (The Matrix is dumber than dirt in this regard). That's why so few people get eaten by sharks (surprisingly few!).

Besides, a blown-up country is a huge resource sink. Hence the Marshall Plan. By 1950, the U.S. government was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War.

In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without demonstrating the slightest comprehension of what was being traded, why or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the actual story.

The economic model of the Star Wars universe makes no more sense than the socialist utopianism of Star Trek, which finally gave us the robber baron Ferengi to make things interesting.

Still, Lucas was onto something. The "unequal treaties" imposed on Japan and China by the U.S. and European powers in the mid-19th century led to the Boxer Rebellion in China and propelled Japan into a regional arms race in order to even the scales.

Lots of dramatic conflict there. The thing is, China and Japan had stuff the foreign powers wanted. And at the time, a bad trade deal was a better deal for both sides than smash and grab.

And so we're back to the Lebensraum ("living space") ideology promulgated by Germany in the 1930s. (The Nazi bad guy connection certainly doesn't hurt.) The Japanese equivalent was used to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing their own "unequal treaty" tactics) before they started actually invading their neighbors, after which everything went downhill fast.

So we'll assume our invading aliens are smart enough not to turn the whole thing into a scorched-earth shooting war. The problem is how to make that interesting.

A good place to start is Ryomaden, which describes in detail the "opening" of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the civil strife, and then a quickly-concluded civil war that launched Japan on a burning quest to surpass the west.

If gunboat melodrama is what you want, (bad) diplomacy seems pretty good at supplying the necessary Sturm und Drang motivations. Kudos to Guardians of the Galaxy on this score (though I hope they dispense with the same-old apocalyptic climax in the sequel).

The problem is the time frame of real politics. Summing up two decades of geopolitics in two hours would be tough. I suppose it really is simpler to just have Tom Cruise blow up the mainframe.

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September 11, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/28)

I've posted chapter 28 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

Winter weapons (冬器) are so called because they are commissioned by the Ministry of Winter and are often imbued with magical properties that make them especially effective against youma and wizards.

September 08, 2021

Tales of the Quest

Ah, the Quest! The sight of noble knights setting forth on heroic tasks to win the hand of the fair princess stirs any heart. Here are the medieval heroes who once donned clanking suits of armor to fence, joust, and battle fire-breathing dragons for honor and acclaim.

That is, until the tasks got too messy, too inconvenient, too strange. And the armor way too heavy. To be sure, talent and determination still count. But the Quest just as often becomes a tool of trade and diplomacy, with fortunes and royal reputations weighing in the balance.

Immerse yourself in chronicles of desperate princes, strong-willed princesses, and romantic beasts. This fourth installment in the Roesia series pulls together new and previously published stories of questing daring-do updated for the modern age.

Amidst all the politics and game playing, can true love still triumph? Therein lies quite the tale.

Tales of the Quest is book four in the Roesia series (though it mostly takes place outside the borders of the Kingdom of Roesia).

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
iBooks
Google Play
Nook
Kobo

The Roesia Series

Tales of the Quest
Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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September 04, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/27)

I've posted chapter 27 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The role of the Queen Mother of the West (西王母) is discussed in chapter 42 of Shadow of the Moon and chapter 33 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind. Risai meets her in chapter 44 of The Shore in Twilight.

A screen wall or spirit screen (影壁) shielded the entranceway in traditional Chinese architecture. Because evil spirits were believed incapable of moving around corners, a spirit wall blocked them from entering the gate.

A barbican (甕城) is a fortified gateway situated outside the main line of defense and connected to the castle with a walled road or tunnel.


The kyoushu (拱手) gesture should be familiar to anybody who's watched enough wuxia action movies.

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September 02, 2021

Persuadable

Jane Austen's Persuasion has the reader rooting for the protagonists to rekindle their estranged affections. But what of the novel's nemeses? In the end, the wily and impious Mr. Elliot casts aside his carefully groomed reputation and persuades the infamous Mrs. Clay to become his mistress.

But every persuader needs a persuadable partner, and Mrs. Clay is no ingénue; she'd send a Willoughby or a Wickham packing. Though no less calculating than those romantic villains, Penelope Clay and William Elliot discover in each other the kind of kindred spirits they fail to find among the titled Elliots.

While highlighting and transfiguring classic scenes from the novel, this unconventional version provides a romantic pairing on a par with that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. In the process, Persuadable illustrates an eternal Austen truth: love is wholly individual, no matter the age or time-period.

Who says a couple of shameless gold diggers can't find true love?

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August 31, 2021

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 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 revamped zoning laws and building codes of London specified wider streets and deeper setbacks, and opened access to the wharves along the Thames. Perhaps most importantly, brick and stone were required 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. Nevertheless, the frequency of the fires themselves was not significantly curtailed until the twentieth century.

As Edward Seidensticker recounts in Low City, High City,

In a space of fifteen years, from early into middle Meiji, certain parts of Nihombashi were three times destroyed by fire. Much of what remained of the Tokugawa castle burned in 1873, and so the emperor spent more than a third of his reign in the Tokugawa mansion where the Akasaka Palace now stands. There were Yoshiwara fires in 1871, 1873, 1891, and 1911, and of course in 1923.

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, 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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