April 30, 2006

Part 16 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

Chapter 63

Youko first learns about brothel decore in chapter 22 of Shadow of the Moon.

Chapter 61

The author here is echoing the story and ethics of the Forty-Seven Samurai, who upheld the bushido code by coming forward after the deed was accomplished, delivering themselves to the authorities, and then voluntarily committing seppuku.

Chapter 60

松塾 [しょうじゅく] Evergreen Seminary
産県 [さんけん] San County
支松 [ししょう] Shishou (city)
支錦 [しきん] Shikin (city)

Kantai's commentary on the tension between scholars of the Way and imperial rule echoes the ruthless though bureaucratically efficient Zheng, first emperor of the Qin Era (247 BC to 221 BC), who silenced criticism of his rule by Confucian scholars by executing them and burning their books. Zheng would also seem to be the model for Shoukei's father, the King of Hou, and a political ideology established in opposition to Confucianism known as "Legalism."

The Provincial Guard and the National Guard

"National Guard" is something of an oxymoron in the U.S., because it's really an army and air force of state militias. A law known as Posse Comitatus restricts the regular army from operating within the borders of the United States. National Guard units are exempted.

Every U.S. state has an Army and Air National Guard that can be mobilized by the governor, usually during natural disasters or domestic disturbances such as riots. This makes the National Guard equivalent to the Provincial Guard in the novels, while the regular U.S. Army is analogous to the Imperial Army.

To make things even more complicated, though, the National Guard is part of the U.S. Army and Air Force reserves, under the control of the Pentagon, and the president can mobilize National Guard units to serve under the command of the regular Army (as currently in Iraq).

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April 29, 2006

Midori no Hi

Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, died on 7 January 1989, shortly after I arrived in Osaka.

A morbid media deathwatch had been going on for months. I think most people were relieved when the end finally came. Midori no Hi (April 29) was the Emperor's birthday back then. Now it's called "Green Day," like Earth Day. It's the first day of Golden Week, the Japanese equivalent of Spring Break.

One morning when I was living in Odawara thirty years ago, the train station was swarming with police officers. The Emperor was returning to Tokyo after a stay at Hakone, the Imperial Household's version of Camp David. Odawara is the closest Shinkansen stop to Hakone.

A small, respectful crowd gathered at the station. The motorcade drove up. The Emperor got out. He was a small man wearing a navy-blue suit. He tipped his hat to the crowd, we politely clapped (I took the picture), and he went into the station. Nobody kowtowed or anything.

The Emperor's train arrived. It was two cars long, the Shinkansen version of a corporate jet. The Shinkansen left Odawara and everything went back to normal.

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April 20, 2006

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

If nothing else, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the more faithful book adaptations I can remember, without resorting to the tedious literalism that plagued the first couple of Harry Potter films. As a cinematic experience, it lacks the grand, David Lean sweep of The Lord of the Rings, casts of thousands and all that. As underwhelmed as I was by The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson could get the heart pumping. Andrew Adamson, to compare, manages to provoke a raised eyebrow now and then.

Nevertheless, I found The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a better-told story, even if I did ultimately relate to it more or less as an illustrated version of the book. Its narrative completeness springs from Lewis's more sophisticated grasp of the differences between good and bad and evil, which Tolkien doesn't much bother with and about which George Lucas (to pick one other relevant example) hasn't a clue.

Lewis understood the importance of personifying evil, and the difference between an evildoer and a basically good person who does bad things. It's hard to think of any movie recently that has depicted the latter as well as Skandar Keynes does with the character of Edmund. The former, by comparison, is easier, except that like the tree falling in the forest, good and evil remain metaphysical abstractions unless manifested though human behavior not clouded by insanity.

Perhaps Lewis's greatest insight in this respect was his observation, particularly articulated in The Screwtape Letters, that far from being coarse, sloppy, and ugly, evil is neat, tidy, and ruthlessly efficient, manifesting itself most profoundly as an smoothly-running organizational power.

On this account, The Lord of the Rings fails from the beginning. The "big bad" is so impersonal as to hardly be organic, not to mention badly dressed and incompetent. For all of the supposed majestic power of the Ring, except in occasional melodramatic inserts, we never see it tempt its keepers that way Turkish Delight tempts Edmund. And it is never clear what the bad guys exactly intend to accomplish besides entropy. Which philosophically is as informative as watching iron rust.

Lucas got it right in the first Star Wars movie. What makes Darth Vader such a compelling figure is that we can sense the passion behind his actions, and can see the gears turning behind the polished armor of the finely-tuned organization that he serves. But having no idea how good turns to evil, the only way Lucas could show this progression in later installments was to turn the young Vader into a feckless jerk. Fecklessness doesn't build empires, or lead thousands into battle.

As Peter tells Susan, "You're not trying to be realistic, you're trying to be smart." Lucas was trying to be smart, and he simply isn't that smart about human nature. And so what he ended up wasn't realistic, either.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tilda Swinton as the White Witch takes us back to that early Darth Vader. She's really is smarter and stronger and better organized than everybody else. Truly smart antagonists are created by truly smart people, and Lewis was that smart. (Lucas just got lucky.) Though unlike Screwtape and That Hideous Strength, this isn't (unfortunately) the main point of the story. Yet for what is a fairly thin black-hat role, Swinton carries the part off extremely well. The narrative sags as soon as she's gone.

But it is Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie that makes the movie hum along. What an amazing young actress. Peter and Susan are pretty dull in comparison (and Susan gets quickly booted from the next volumes, anyway). I'll be looking forward to future installments just to watch Henley grow into the role.

The one thing that significantly detracts from the movie both cinematically and allegorically is its literal bloodlessness. Mel Gibson may have gone way overboard (though the briefest examination of his oeuvre—from The Road Warrior to Lethal Weapon—makes his obsession with the suffering protagonist hardly unexpected), but he's right that blood is key to the story. It's also inimical to a PG rating, and without blood, the penultimate scene in Narnia struck me as sterile and a bit glib.

What I did find quite surprising was the movie's overall visual impact. By so literally and convincingly couching Lewis's fable in the shapes and forms of Greco-Roman mythology, the movie illustrates the magnitude of Paul's syncretic effort ("Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you"). And its profound theological difficulties as well. Aslan's explanation of the core doctrine of Christianity still remains the best one going: it's heap big magic. Hence the appeal of fantasy.

I think it was a real discomfiture with this underlying reality that motivated early ham-handed—though comprehensible—efforts like the Gospel of Judas, and also fueled Joseph Smith's flirtation with Pelagianism throughout his life. It's a problematic paradox most often dealt with by being ignored. As the Catholic Encyclopedia bluntly points out, "Most, if not all, of these theories [of the atonement] have perils of their own, if they are isolated and exaggerated."

Safeguarding against a "merely juridical view of the subject," the Encyclopedia hastens to point out, is the Church's rich, ceremonial liturgy, ensuring that worshipers will not "forget the present and living reality of a sacrifice constantly kept before their eyes." In other words, the play's the thing. Or as Confucius said, "It is by the Odes that a man's mind is aroused, by the rules of ritual that his character is established, and by music that he is perfected." Good rules for movie making, too.

Related posts

Prince Caspian
The atonement of Pacifica Casull

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April 15, 2006

Part 15 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

Chapter 58

労蕃生 [ろうはんせい] Rou Hansei
琅耶 [ろうや] Rouya, prefecture of Wa Province

Chapter 57

柴望 [さいぼう] Saibou
豊鶴 [ほうかく] Houkaku

The banner in Kantai's parlor is called a tsuiren (対聯). The scroll or kakejiku (掛け軸) typically contains decorative artwork illustrating a poem.

Chapter 56

水鑑刀 [すいかんとう] Suikan-tou, water-smelted sword
水禺刀 [すいぐうとう] Suiguu-tou, water-monkey sword

Chapter 55

芥瑚 [かいこ] Kaiko

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April 12, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

"Mine is a story that should never be told," the narrator informs us at the beginning of Memoirs of a Geisha. A little over two hours later, we know why: because it is so utterly banal.

The popular literary novel, particularly of the Orientalist variety, is often simply genre fiction layered with a patina of academic exegesis. The transition to film requires stripping this material from the narrative and replacing it with a visual Cliff Notes, which isn't the same thing, else you would end up with a documentary. At its heart, Snow Falling on Cedars is an average Perry Mason mystery. And Memoirs of a Geisha is two-thirds "hometown girl makes good" and one-third Pretty Woman.

To be sure, the script tells us any number of times that geisha are not prostitutes. Unfortunately, what it shows contradicts that assertion just as often. This is indeed unfortunate, for the claim is a mostly legitimate one. Yet factually illustrating the arduous training that geisha undergo, and the tedious nature of the work they actually do, would bore the average audience to tears.

So director Rob Marshall falls back on the standard Hollywood success formula: starlet struggles in obscurity, beset by doubts and doubters, catches a lucky break, gets discovered, and then the intervening years of hard work magically dissolve away in a snappy five-minute montage, climaxing in the Big Production Number. Marshall is a Broadway producer and choreographer and previously directed Chicago, so you can see that Big Production Number coming down 5th Avenue.

And straight out of Flashdance. No kidding, that's the image that immediately popped into my head, and it's just as inane and incongruous as Jennifer Beals doing a Bob Fosse number in a strip club. This kind of goofy postmodernism--exacerbated by half the cast being Chinese and everybody speaking fractured English--ends up reducing the story to the dramatic complexity of a Harlequin Romance (no surprise, Jennifer Beals gets the sugar daddy at the end of Flashdance, too).

Ironically, in the totality of its gestalt, the movie unintentionally showcases exactly what geisha do: an exquisitely well-crafted and superficially beautiful, but ultimately meaningless and ephemeral performance for men with too much money in their pockets and too much time on their hands (the audience, in other words). And while the script unsuccessfully labors in the particulars to convey this message, the "making of" segments in the DVD extras broadcast it loud and clear.

I must confess to being both impressed and aghast by the dozen or so mini-documentaries, which, considering that much of the movie takes place during the 1930s, is exactly what the movie should have done (and doesn't). If anything, Hollywood doesn't need another Hayes Commission, it needs sumptuary laws.

I kid, I kid. When Congress raised the consumption tax on luxury yachts, it ended up hurting the blue-collar men and women who made the yachts. The filthy rich simply bought their expensive boats elsewhere. So I can appreciate the extent to which the zillion-dollar Hollywood Blockbuster functions as a full-employment WPA program for gaffers, carpenters, and seamstresses. But there still is the nagging little matter of the opportunity cost, not to mention artistic integrity.

The logic of building sets thousands of miles away from the actual location was more compelling in the previous Hollywood extravaganza about Japan, The Last Samurai. After all, the flood plains where armies used to battle are now filled in with cities, and while tiny, remote hamlets do exist, the problem is that they are tiny and remote. But $100 million remote? NHK television produces a costume drama every year. Their location director and costume designer could have done the job in their sleep.

But I suspect that the decision to build an entire city block of the hardly-remote Kyoto from scratch, replete with all the kimono and accouterments, had less to do with the "artistic vision" of the director, and more to do with cutting down on the commute time. Plus the uglier truth that (mis)casting Chinese actresses in a movie that takes place during Japan's (unmentioned) invasion of China, and then shooting it in Japan, would have proved even more politically incorrect than it already has.

And lastly, because Sony Pictures signed the checks and said they could. The difference between men and boys is the price and size of their toys. But you can't help wondering whether that $85 million would better invested, both monetarily and cinematically, in four or five films, rather than just one.

Hiroyuki Sanada, who also appears in The Last Samurai, observes in an interview for Twilight Samurai that the former cost 100 times the latter. Rough calculation suggests that Memoirs of a Geisha cost more than all of Twilight Samurai director's Yoji Yamada's 70 films put together. Yet for all its big screen, soap-operatic excesses, there isn't a single moment in Memoirs of a Geisha that holds a candle to the brief scene in which Hiroyuki Sanada turns to find Rie Miyazawa waiting behind him.

Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy honest emotion, nor can all the hired consultants in the world truly inform the artistic sensibilities of a director who ultimately doesn't know what he's talking about. After two hours and fifteen minutes, we're left with what one of the Japanese dance instructors quips in the "making of" segment is not very Japanese, not very dramatic, but very "razzle-dazzle."

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April 05, 2006

Whisper of the Heart

Of all the Studio Ghibli productions, my sentimental favorite is Yoshifumi Kondo's Mimi o Sumaseba ("If you listen closely"), written and produced by Hayao Miyazaki (note the Kiki doll hanging over Shizuku's desk), based on the delightful manga by Aoi Hiiragi.

Shizuku, the teenager at the center of this coming-of-age story, lives an ordinary life with her danchi-dwelling middle-class family. Miyazaki's adaptation shifts the family down a socioeconomic rung from the manga. But this affectionate and straightforward depiction of lower-middle class Tokyo family life proves one of the pleasant surprises of the film.

You can find communities like this in western Tokyo, where the Kanto plain begins rising into the Japan Alps (the same setting as Initial D). Scenes in the movie bring back memories of the Odawara hills (at the foot of Mt. Fuji), and of bedroom communities on the Nankai line heading southeast out of Osaka toward Mt. Koya.

I lived in a similar danchi (apartment building) in Osaka, though newer and a bit more upscale. But the depiction is spot on, down to the futons airing out on the balcony railing.

Another thing that sets Mimi o Sumaseba apart for me is its depiction of the creative process. It's rare that a movie can talk about any aspect of literature, especially writing, without falling into glib stereotypes about "being an artist."

Miyazaki and Kondo find the right balance by analogizing physical craftsmanship (making musical instruments) with the harnessing of thought through the written word. In either case, artistry is ultimately the product of hard work and sacrifice, and not simply the unconstrained currents of the unfettered imagination.

All of Hiiragi's core themes, characters, and settings--especially the Earth Shop and Sir Cat--are faithfully preserved. In any case, this is not a case of the book being "better" than the movie, or visa-verse, but each standing well on its own and complementing the other.

The dub is well done, with voices by Harold Gould, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Jean Smart, and Cary Elwes putting in a cameo as the Count (the featured role in The Cat Returns, a companion film to Whisper of the Heart). Oh, and John Denver's "Country Roads" (vocal by Olivia Newton John) is in the original, too.

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