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


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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.

That PDF printer driver is necessary for typesetting work. Windows 10 comes with a built-in Print-to-PDF driver. With a bit of tweaking, I got it to work with non-standard page sizes. Print-to-PDF is nice, but Microsoft needs to eliminate the need for such cumbersome hacks.

For the most part, everything runs fast enough on an 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 its own "warring states" period, these are the images the title brings to mind.

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.

This supports the suggestion that "silver" and "black" are references to Gyousou and Taiki (a rare "black kirin"). Using the possessive particle no (の), "silver" and "black" can function as both adjectives and (proper) 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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July 25, 2019

Kyoto Animation productions

Founded in 1981 by Yoko and Hideaki Hatta, Kyoto Animation didn't produce its first branded series until 2003. But it learned the ropes during those two decades. Beginning with Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, a hilarious riff on the mecha genre, Kyoto Animation has become one of the most influential studios in series animation.

Like Studio Ghibli, Kyoto Animation established itself around a core group of in-house directors (Yasuhiro Takemoto, Tatsuya Ishihara, Naoko Yamada). It produces television series and films with consistent production values perhaps only matched by Studio Ghibli. Basically, everything Kyoto Animation does is worth a look.

Below are the Kyoto Animation productions I've seen so far and links to the main streaming sites (Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE). Wikipedia has a complete list.

Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu (CR Fun).

Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid (Fun) After a bit of comic relief with Fumoffu, our team gets back to serious business of saving the world from a new mecha menace.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Fun) The modern cult classic about the hyperactive Haruhi, who just might destroy the universe if she gets bored, and her time-traveling classmates tasked with stopping that from happening.

Kanon (Fun) See my review here.

Clannad (HD) See my review here.

Clannad: After Story (HD) See my review here.

K-On! (HD) When Yui joined the Light Music Club (kei-on in Japanese), all she thought she had to do was listen to music. But it's a very talented rock band, and now she's got to master the guitar fast. K-On! pretty much defined the "look and feel" of the slice-of-life genre.

Hyouka (Fun) See my review here.

Tamako Market (HD) An adorable slice-of-life series about the daughter of a mochi merchant in the Tamako Shopping Arcade and a snooty talking bird who quickly develops an unhealthy fondness for mochi.

Beyond the Boundary (CR HD) See my review here.

Amagi Brilliant Park (CR HD) After Seiya Kanie gets roped into saving the local amusement part, he discovers that the costumed mascots aren't wearing costumes. They're creatures from another world (watch for the crossover character from Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu).

Myriad Colors Phantom World (CR Fun) Ghostbusting is a high school club activity in this parallel universe where Shinto spirits and deities have a habit of raising havoc in the real world.

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid (CR Fun) As if working sixteen hour days as a computer programmer isn't tough enough, Kobayashi's new roommate turns out to be a fire-breathing dragon.

Tsurune (CR HD) Hanging out with a bunch of alternatively obnoxious and overly angsty teenagers is actually tolerable when they're members of the high school kyudo team (the martial art of Japanese archery).

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July 21, 2019

Kyoto Animation fire

Thursday morning (Japan time), 18 July 2019, a man entered the lobby of Kyoto Animation with ten gallons of gasoline. Screaming "Die!" he ignited a fire that killed 35, making it the worst single act of mass murder in Japan's post-war era. He was also carrying several knives.

The suspect later told police that Kyoto Animation had "stolen his novel."

Sunday morning (Japan time), NHK reported that he had never worked at Kyoto Animation, never published a novel, that no Kyoto Animation employee knew him or had corresponded with him, though the company had received anonymous death threats for the "past few years."

Kyoto Animation has a good reputation in the industry as an employer and for hiring animators on a full-time rather than on a contractual basis.

The suspect served three and a half years in prison for a convenience store robbery in 2012. He was briefly confined to a mental institution and recently assaulted and threatened to kill his neighbor. He is currently being detained in a burn unit because of injuries suffered in the attack.

On Friday, Kyoto Animation president Hideaki Hatta stated that the building and all the work material was a total loss. Sentai Filmworks, that works closely with Kyoto Animation in the North American market, launched a GoFundMe campaign that so far has accumulated $1.86 million.

At this point, screenings of the trailer for the 2020 release of the new Free! movie have been postponed. Production on the latest season of Sound! Euphonium has been suspended. Violet Evergarden was completed and will debut on schedule.

Fire Force has gone on hiatus for at least a week. Fire Force is not produced by Kyoto Animation, but it is standard practice for broadcasters in Japan to pull episodes of shows that touch on sensitive issues in the news, especially if there is any possibility of "life imitating art."

According to the police, the suspect confessed to starting the fire and has been formally charged. Japan has the death penalty and uses it, though the question at this juncture is whether he will be found competent enough for the case to be adjudicated in a criminal court.

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July 18, 2019

From XP to X (benchmarks)

I recently (literally) stuck my ThinkPad T42 laptop on the shelf and upgraded to an low-end HP 290-p0043w desktop PC. I continue my review with two pleasant unboxing surprises.

Some chassis guides I reviewed prior to purchase suggested that the HP Slimline 290-p0043w had an external power brick. It came with an internal power supply. HP's own product specs list six USB ports. It has eight. I suspect that some of the spec sheets for the Slimline weren't updated from the nearly identical Celeron G3930 model.

The HP 290-p0043w sports a Celeron G4900 under the hood, the Toyota Corolla of CPUs. It does what it has to do as long as you don't ask it to tow a boat.

First off, I went through Add/Remove Programs and got rid of everything I didn't want and didn't need, including the McAfee trial version software. As I said, a Toyota Corolla runs fine as long as you're not trying to tow a boat, and one such boat is a heavy-duty antivirus program. I rely on Windows Defender and uBlock and scan all downloads with Jotti.

Late model Celeron processors approach earlier Core i3 benchmarks (newer i3s match older i5s). The technological improvements are reflected in the benchmarks. With one dramatic exception, there's about a fifteen fold improvement in performance at the hardware level, and that's comparing what was a mid-range business laptop with a very basic system.

Prime95 is a freeware app that searches for Mersenne prime numbers. It includes a benchmark function based on running batches of Fast Fourier Transforms. It runs in Windows XP, making possible an apples-to-apples comparison. As you can see from the following samples, Prime95 has the Celeron G4900 running around 15 times faster than the Pentium M.
Intel Pentium M @ 1.70 GHz 1 core
Timings for 2048K FFT length 179.35 ms @ 5.58 iter/sec.
Timings for 4096K FFT length 376.32 ms @ 2.66 iter/sec.
Timings for 8192K FFT length 708.85 ms @ 1.41 iter/sec.

Intel Celeron G4900 @ 3.10 GHz 2 cores
Timings for 2048K FFT length 12.00 ms @ 83.33 iter/sec.
Timings for 4096K FFT length 23.67 ms @ 42.24 iter/sec.
Timings for 8192K FFT length 51.66 ms @ 19.36 iter/sec.
The Pentium M has a Passmark CPU benchmark of 414, versus 3262 for the Celeron G4900. DDR4 RAM and the PCI Express bus run about twenty times faster. But perhaps the most dramatic changes are in the GPU.

The ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 in the ThinkPad T42 has a G3D benchmark of 4. That's four. The onboard Intel UHD Graphics 610 has a G3D benchmark of 784, a 200 fold improvement in performance for a low-end integrated GPU. This revolution in GPU design is why a $30 Roku Express can output 1080p HD video. For ten dollars more, the Roku Premiere handles 4K video.

Wi-Fi had only reached the 802.11g standard when my old ThinkPad shipped, giving me a maximum download speed of 17 Mb/s. The 802.11n Wi-Fi in my Fire tablet tops out at 44 Mb/s. The HP Slimline delivers twice that. Unfortunately, upload speeds improved only 10 to 20 percent, but that's on Comcast. At least I'm getting the download speeds I'm paying for.

Someday I'll get around to doubling the RAM and installing an SSD (both for less than $100).

The mouse that ships with the HP is pretty good. The keyboard is meh. It's a full-sized keyboard in a workspace built for a laptop so it doesn't really fit. I replaced it with a Logitech K360. The K360 combines the number pad and cursor keys, saving four inches in width. It's wireless, eliminating a set of cables. It has a unifying receiver so I could add a mouse later.

I use Sharpkeys to reassign the Caps Lock key to Ctrl and Scroll Lock to Caps Lock, and Autohotkey to map a bunch of keyboard macros. It's been fairly easy to approximate the look and feel of XP without using one of those Start Menu apps. In fact, having gotten rid of the live tiles and populated the Taskbar with my shortcuts, I've grown to like the Windows 10 UI.

In any case, OneDrive integration makes the upgrade very much worth it. OneDrive installs with 5 GB of free storage, which is more than enough to back up my critical files without having to think about it.

Related posts

From XP to X (hardware)
From XP to X (software)

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July 11, 2019

From XP to X (hardware)

One philosophical benefit of being a late adopter is that the transition from old to new becomes all the more (melo)dramatic.

I'm no technological Urashima Taro (or Rip van Winkle). Windows 10 won me over, especially once I figured out that you can access "Recent Documents" by right-clicking on an app in the Taskbar (though I still prefer the fly-out list in Windows XP). I skipped right over Windows 8.

I stuck with Windows XP for the same reason I still drive a 1995 Ford. It works. Aging web browsers, not so much. Once the updates stop, they are quickly rendered incompatible and insecure. And slow. Technological life comes to a screeching halt without a fully functional browser.

Someday when I have a lot of time on my hands, I'll install Linux on my old ThinkPad so I can at least run an up-to-date browser on it.

Nevertheless, switching away from a platform in which I have invested almost a decade and a half (that's 90 in computer dog years), a RAM upgrade, a replacement keyboard, and a replacement heatsink and fan unit, was a sentimental big deal.

I don't have money to burn and don't need a lot of horsepower. I spend most of my time in Chrome, Word, and text editors (I'm not a gamer). A basic system driving a 1600 x 900 monitor (a much higher resolution than the 1024 x 768 display in the ThinkPad T42) suits my needs just fine.

In the end, I got a low-end desktop PC from Walmart. The HP Slimline 290-p0043w is an inexpensive desktop powered by a Celeron G4900 CPU (4GB DDR4 500GB HDD), with 8 USB ports (4 USB 3.1 no C) and a DVD drive. It's the size of two T42 ThinkPads stacked on top of each other.

One odd quirk is that the case is designed as a "tower," though it also has "feet" to be positioned horizontally, which is my preference. In the latter configuration, the DVD drive is upside down, a thoroughly avoidable design glitch.

The DVD drive is the flimsy snap-in kind used in laptops so discs can be loaded upside down. Once I rip my CDs and install a few old programs, I'll probably never use it again.

As for my first impressions, granted, I started with low expectations, but the HP 290-p0043w has exceeded them by a wide margin. The other benefit of being a late adopter is that just about any new thing will feel like a vast improvement.

Related posts

From XP to X (benchmarks)
From XP to X (software)
Cool it

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July 04, 2019

Food fiction

The cooking show is a mainstay of Japanese television. That's certainly true of PBS Create too. And Gordon Ramsay practically constitutes his own network. Educational cooking programs are a staple of broadcasting in every market.

While Hollywood has a fondness for movies about cooks and cooking, ranging from Ratatouille to Julie & Julia to Big Night, it shies away from the genre when it comes to scripted television series.

Scripted television (anime and live-action) is where Japanese entertainment stands apart. I don't mean dramas and comedies that happen to take place in a restaurant or bakery or bar. I mean dramas and comedies that specifically revolve around the culinary arts, with concrete references to dishes, recipies, and ingredients.

In a "gourmet drama" (gurume dorama) the drama is mostly an excuse to talk about cooking, not the other way around.

Repurposed as a gourmet drama, Cheers, for example, would still be a comedy. But it would also devote a considerable amount of attention to Sam's ongoing search for the best beverages to serve his customers and the resourceful brewers who meet that need. And Frasier wouldn't be the only one with a picky palate.

Along the way, the loyal viewer couldn't help but learn a good deal about the bar and brewery business.

Consider the manga Wakakozake, which spawned both an anime and a live-action series. Aside from a few lines of plot, each episode consists of our heroine discovering a new hole-in-the-wall restaurant and eating dinner. The live-action version includes detailed information in the credits about the real restaurant where each episode was filmed.

Practically any setting and subject matter is fair game.

The manga Bakumatsu Gourmet also spun off a live-action series. Banshiro Sakai is a samurai who works as a cook in the castle of the provincial governor during the Bakumatsu period. This dramedy faithfully hews to the established trope that any problem can be solved given the right meal, so great attention is devoted to ingredients and recipes.

At the opposite extreme are silly series like Ben-to. A bento (弁当) is a Japanese box lunch, traditionally hand made, but also sold at supermarkets and convenience stores. Replace the second kanji with「闘」(combat) and the result is a made-up homophone that means "food fight."

Fighting over the food are a bunch of penny-pinching boarding school students battling for the precious remaining bento that are deeply discounted right before closing time. Since not all bento are created equal, the challenge is to figure out the best strategy to win the best bento worth fighting for.

In the middle are slice-of-life melodramas that pay a lot of attention to what everybody is having for dinner. Laid-Back Camp, for example, is as much about cooking as camping. Granted, my familiarity with cable television is thin, but the only Hollywood show I can think of that meets the above criteria is Bob's Burgers.

Here is a sampling of gourmet dramas (a longer list here).

Food Wars!
Gourmet Girl Graffiti
Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits
Isekai Izakaya
Laid-Back Camp
Silver Spoon
Sweetness & Lightning
Today's Menu for the Emiya Family
Wakakozake (anime) (live-action)
What Did You Eat Yesterday (manga)

Related posts

Eat, drink, and be merry
Hungry for entertainment
The toast of Japan
Carnivorous vegetarians
Kitchen Car

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June 27, 2019

The ear of the beholder

A cuss word is a cuss word because it violates a social norm. If you don't comprehend a cuss word it arouses no emotional response unless it is tied to a tone of voice or observable physical affect. Even a cuss word in a foreign language you do understand likely lacks same emotional impact as in your first language.

That's because the cuss word itself contains no relevant information outside the immediate sociolinguistic context. The popular fallacy that "there aren't any cuss words in Japanese" is due to a fundamental disconnect over what constitutes an offensive violation of social norms.

English speakers really are obsessed with "manners," meaning the visible and audible markers of public propriety. These words are "good"; those words are "bad." The words themselves are magically imbued with certain qualities that otherwise mean nothing until filtered through a specific sets of brains.

Stop to think about it and it is utterly strange that the FCC deems "crap" and "dung" acceptable but not "shit." One could argue as well that nobody really cusses in English either. We play games with semantics and pretend to take offense until the offense-taking becomes so imbued that it goes unquestioned.

One curious consequence is that most Shakespearean vulgarities do not offend modern ears because we haven't been to trained to take offense when we hear them. They're just funny-sounding words delivered with a British accent. You know, like Monty Python.

In Japanese, fewer words are "bad" in and of themselves. Rather, a "vulgarity" violates a social hierarchy or crosses the line from acceptable private usage to unacceptable public usage, or from a "high" to a "low" usage. So whether kuso means "crap" or "shit" depends entirely on the social context.

To be sure, some words are inherently offensive for the same reasons they are in English. The "c" word, for example. Then again, the equivalent medical term (for the most part) isn't.

And then there are words like teme, one of the myriad of second-person pronouns in Japanese. Teme is the "low brow" equivalent of kisama, the latter being preferred by a more gentile class of cusser. You would be right to conclude that using teme in a "high brow" context is even ruder.

Teme is a linguistic finger jabbed in your face. It's violation of social hierarchies. This flies over the head of English speakers because English (American English in particular) shed the T–V distinction a while back. The tables in this Wikipedia article apply equally well to Japanese.

In Japanese, T–V distinctions also permeate verb conjugations. As with the quite ordinary shinu ("to die"), the command form is a particularly harsh and a yakuza-ish thing to say. Because what makes a yakuza a yakuza is less the substance of what they say than how they say it.

To start with, they get in your face and invade your personal space. And they roll their Rs. I mean, really roll their Rs. A yakuza does so in an instantly recognizable manner, identifying his social class and lack of normal social constraints. The message: "I'm a scary person who could do anything."

This unpredictability and disrespect for social order is the eternal wellspring of "honest" vulgarity.

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June 20, 2019

To Heart

The sheer quantity and output of scripted television productions—to a much greater extent than movies—turn them into records of the current zeitgeist. And also renders them highly disposable. We tend to preserve those elements of popular culture we deem preservable after the fact, ignoring the trends that once ruled the day.

Which makes shows that otherwise would have disappeared down the memory hole all the more valuable. One such series is To Heart, a 1999 anime series produced by Oriental Light and Magic and directed by Naohito Takahashi, based on a 1997 manga and visual novel. It is teetering on the edge.

The classic cel animation, the theme songs, and character designs in To Heart all reflect the 1990s anime style. But somewhere along the line, the film prints got discarded, so the Right Stuf DVDs were digitized from the original SD masters. The resulting image quality approximates that of a very good—quite watchable—VHS. It's a 1990s experience all the way.

And also a good example of backing off on the noise reduction and leaving the film grain in during the analog-to-digital transfer. When remastering old video from non-HD sources, do not throw away information! As Justin Sevakis points out, "film grain doesn't just distort an image, it is the image" (see a detailed explanation here).

To Heart compares well in many respects to Clannad (which it predates). Both started out as visual novels with a harem structure. But like Clannad, the anime is a sweet, G-rated melodrama that is less about the romantic interests of the male lead than his platonic friendships with the various girls that cross his path.

Hiroyuki, the laid back male lead in To Heart, reminds me of Kyle in Last Man Standing, a genuinely nice—if occasionally clueless—guy who proves to be surprisingly adept at solving other people's problems almost despite himself. He fits well into the genre character category that Kate terms the "canny dope."

Like Tomoya in Clannad, when we first meet him, Hiroyuki is cruising through high school with no great plans or aspirations, aside from eating, sleeping, and video games. His Scooby Gang consists of Akari, the childhood friend (hers is the main point of view); Shiho, the tsundere next door; and his bookish best guy friend, Masashi.

Again, as in Clannad (and especially Kanon), the slice-of-life melodrama includes touches of magical realism. Serika Kurusugawa, scion of the Kurusugawa conglomerate (she arrives at school in a limo), is a practicing witch. And then there's the android manufactured by Kurusugawa, who seems to be acquiring a soul.

I can't find it on any legit streaming sites. The DVDs are only available on the used market (and at Netflix). Being locked into a 4:3 SD format may be one reason Right Stuf let it go out of print. This is a golden oldie that deserves more love. If not in the original DVD format, a re-release on a single SD Blu-ray would suffice.

To Heart 2 is in print, released in the U.S. by Maiden Japan (Sentai Filmworks). To Heart 2 was also produced by Oriental Light and Magic and written by Hiroshi Yamaguchi, but directed by Norihiko Sudo. It doesn't have anything in common with the original other than the school uniforms.

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June 13, 2019

The blah-blah-blah filter

Kate observed a while back that the dialogue in a drama communicates more than the raw semantics, such that technically incomprehensible dialogue need not impede comprehension (citing a scene from the classic police procedural Kojak).

To be sure, "dialogue can't be all connotation and jargon." But when

the dialogue carries weight with the characters, it carries weight with the audience. Meaning is determined as much by context, reaction, intonation, and individual word choice as by any insider knowledge.

I'm going to try approaching this idea from a slightly different angle.

As a general rule, while the audience doesn't have to understand everything a fictional character is saying, we do have to believe that the writer understands what he is making his characters say and why. We make a leap of faith and implicitly trust the source of the information we are getting.

Which is why the audience is so easily fooled by an unreliable narrator.

For example, few people outside the uniformed services comprehend all the intricacies of military rank and hierarchy ("captain" and "sergeant" are particularly problematic). But the screenwriter of a war movie had better know what he's talking about. Or else the actors had better sell it.

And once we are sold, as in any given episode of Star Trek, it is surprising how much meaningless technobabble a story can tolerate. As long as we grasp the key points of the story, our brains are adept at filtering out the blah-blah-blah from the elements driving the plot along.

In the anime series Hyouka, Hotaro even begins to wonder if his "powers of deduction" are due to his ability to spin the facts of a case into a compelling tale. In one episode, he has Eru present him with a randomly-chosen incident, from which he invents a convincing "proof."

The comical payoff is that he inadvertently solves an actual crime in the process.

But Hotaro has a point. The power of the human brain to filter the randomness out of random events also gives it the power to create cause and effect out of whole cloth. Hence conspiracy theories.

But when that blah-blah-blah filter doesn't work at all, we can be equally left in the dark. True fluency in a foreign language comes down to the blah-blah-blah filter.

I understand news and NOVA-type science shows in Japanese pretty well. But when watching Japanese medical dramas and police procedurals (without subtitles), I often have difficulty grasping what technobabble matters and what doesn't and in the process lose track of the plot.

Jargon and slang and mumbled lines and people talking over each other make things even murkier.

Of course, the former and the latter are working at cross-purposes. The point of a documentary is to explain technically complicated concepts to a lay audience, while the information presented to the viewer in a crime drama has the initial intent of obfuscating the existence of a simple explanation.

Practically every mystery drama ends likes a game of Clue. It's the narrative equivalent of Occam's Razor, a simple enough explanation that everybody in the audience will comprehend in the end. Clouding the waters is the whole point.

Observe how quickly a one-hour drama proceeds from climax to denouement. I recently happened across the last ten minutes of an episode of Elementary and had little difficulty figuring out what had happened in the previous fifty. But, of course, that is not why we watch.

Columbo was a highly influential series in Japan. Yutaka Mizutani's detective in the hugely popular Aibo series is a clever combination of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes and Peter Falk's Columbo. He's a lot of fun to watch even when I only understand about a quarter of what he's saying.

But after stumbling all the way through a crime drama in Japanese, I can often work backwards through the episode and figure out what was going on earlier. This suggests that the Japanese version of Columbo would be easier to follow. Aibo follows a more traditional mystery plot structure.

Telling the story backwards doesn't always work with medical dramas unless I can identify the particular issue at the core of the conflict. Though common plots like "cute kid waiting for a transplant" are easy enough.

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June 06, 2019

Holmes of Kyoto

In a previous discussion about the "Mary Sue," I suggested the "cozy romance" as a companion to the "cozy mystery." Well, a series that qualifies as a cozy mystery, a cozy romance, and a Mary Sue that mostly works is Holmes of Kyoto.

Aoi Mashiro is a boy-crazed ditz when we first meet her. But her encounter with Kiyotaka Yagashira at the Yagashira Antique Shop turns her into a cool-headed antiques appraiser.

Eventually. Kiyotaka hires her to dust and sweep and make tea. But she's a fast study. A really fast study. Nevertheless, we see her put in the work. And she's got a great tutor. So she earns it.

Kiyotaka is, of course, young and handsome, the smartest appraiser in Kyoto. He claims that "Holmes" is merely a play on the kanji for "home" in his name, but he and Aoi end up solving a lot of crimes and mysteries.

The series has a Moriarty as well, though he's closer to Ranpo Edogawa's "Fiend with Twenty Faces." Ensho is a defrocked Buddhist priest and frustrated forger who seems mostly obsessed with fooling Kiyotaka.

Along the way, of course, Aoi and Kiyotaka develop feelings for each other. But by externalizing the conflicts and taking the usual "complications" out of the relationship, the "cozy" romance can mature at a slow slow burn.

Aoi is still in high school, to start with. In any case, I'm not interested in Mary Sue being torn between cowboy Billy and billionaire Bob. Nobody plucks petals off a daisy while intoning, "She loves me, she loves me not."

The art and animation isn't as polished as Snow White with the Red Hair. But if you're looking for cozy mysteries and a very gently simmering romance, this dive into the world of Kyoto antiquing nicely fits the bill.

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