June 29, 2006

Silver screen charisma

Charisma is probably genetic (though a combination of traits rather than a single expression, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was tracked down to a single gene). It bestows obvious evolutionary advantages, like becoming a movie star. This was brought home to me by a lackluster Toshirou Mifune vehicle, Samurai Assassin.

It's a melodramatically ambitious film, more Greek tragedy than traditional samurai chanbara eiga. In the key scene at the start of the movie, the camera slowly pans across a room. And then, bam! there's Mifune, slouching against a wall with the rest of the rough-looking wannabee rebel rounin. But Mifune's presence lights up the scene, like he's got a spotlight turned on him.

Following Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Mifune was at the height of his career, so you anticipate his appearance, though you're still blown away. Ditto the first time Grace Kelly walks into frame in Rear Window, and practically walks off the screen into your lap. Holy freaking cow!

But more interesting is spotting that magic before it's acknowledged as a universal fact. For example, Crazed Fruit (1956), a low-budget film in the Rebel Without a Cause genre, featuring a cast of unknowns. But the moment Yuujirou Ishihara runs into the frame, outshining everybody around him, you say to yourself, he's going places, and he did.

It doesn't always turn out that way. In the 1971 exploitation flick (though it's not all that exploitative) Delinquent Girl Boss ("Zubeko Bancho: Zange no Neuchi mo nai") from the Pinky Violence Collection, it's not only Reiko Oshida's natural charisma that leaps off the screen, but her husky Lauren Bacall voice that comes thrumming through the speakers.

In the penultimate scene, the girls dress up in blood-red trenchcoats and Oshida delivers a pitch-perfect oath of retribution before going off to kick yakuza butt--the very antithesis of kawaii, but stop-your-heart seductive. Cut out the several "Austin Powers" moments, ignore the Shinjuku skyline and Oshida's hot pants, and you'd hardly notice the intervening 35 years.

Unfortunately, Oshida must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or working for the wrong studio in the wrong film, or simply wasn't considered chirpily kawaii enough, because she never broke out as a major star. What a loss! But what a voice!

And while we're in the preternaturally low voices category, Joji Nakata, who plays the Count of Monte Cristo in Gankutsuou, has one of those delicious, floor-rumbling bass voices, a kind of cross between James Earl Jones and Leonard Cohen.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sakiko Tamagawa, who plays the very lethal but childlike Tachikoma robots on Ghost in the Shell: SAC. Tamagawa's talents turn them into the smartest, cutest, and yet most believable self-aware armored personnel carriers ever devised. R2D2 comes across with the personality of a Campbell's soup can in comparison.

Splitting the difference is Ayumi Ito, who voices Tifa in Final Fantasy VII. Having no interest in video games myself, I hadn't the slightest idea what the movie was about from the first scene until the closing credits started rolling. Unlike the original Final Fantasy movie, Final Fantasy VII was obvious made by game players for game players. Well, all the power to them.

I did manage to sit through the whole thing, though. As it's pretty much a high-def video game, it was like watching the Road Warrior version of Cirque du Soleil. And like I said, there's Ayumi Ito. Honestly, I could listen to her read the phonebook.

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June 22, 2006

Shadow of the Moon PDF

One of my readers has been copyediting my Shadow of the Moon posts (catching a fair number of errors in the process), and converting the HTML files to downloadable PDF format, replete with footnotes and appendices. Book 1 is now available on his website, and he's hard at work on Book 2.


June 21, 2006

Not so wonderful

The recent network broadcast of another one of those silly AFI "best of" lists gives me a good contrarian opportunity to rant about their #1 and #5 picks. As Tim Cavanaugh puts it, "If your idea of a great movie experience is to line up for Gone With the Mockingbird Who Came To Casablanca While Saving Schindler's List of Arabia, this year's list is for you."

In the case of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#5) we have a supposed paean to American democracy featuring a protagonist who wasn't elected to anything. More importantly, set against Senator Paine's pork barrel dam project is Senator Smith's idiotic proposal to build a national park in his back yard. Corruption aside, the federal government has a real interest in building dams, and zero business building Boy Scout camps. Herein we see the justification of a disastrous political philosophy that condones the extension of federal control into any aspect of life as long as our politicians "mean well."

The real disservice, though, is the film's groveling before populist myths about representative governance. Our Founding Fathers rejected the Athenian model for exactly the reasons depicted in the movie. If a junior senator could shove a bill through Congress simply by delivering a stirring speech, think of the wreck this country would really be in. Even as powerful a Senate majority leader as LBJ could not accomplish anything without twisting a lot of arms. The whole reason for a separation of powers and checks & balances is to make it difficult for the government to act so arbitrarily.

As for It's a Wonderful Life (#1) Greg Kamiya sums it up well. But I'll throw in another cheap shot from A.S. Hamrah: "[It's] a dark movie about a guy who realizes what a loser he is: He never even got out of his hometown, and he's suicidal because he realizes his life was pointless."

To which I'll add that the movie proposes an insidious thesis--that the sum of a person's life is limited to a handful of documentary moments. If George Bailey didn't exist, none of those particular "lifesaving" moments would have evolved to exist either. But since George Bailey's life is considered by others so important to their own welfare, the world is dumped on his shoulders, in disregard to his existence as an individual human being. His happiness comes from the realization that this Borg-like assimilation of his soul is just and deserved because the ends justify the means. Hello Orwell.

As for a truly inspiring movie? Blade Runner (before Ridley Scott recut and ruined it). Rutger Hauer's death soliloquy ("I've seen things you people wouldn't believe") is suffused with a poignancy and love of life rarely matched by deliberately "inspirational" films. Another good example from an unexpected quarter (and one inspired by Blade Runner) is Ghost in the Shell. Motoko Kusanagi sets out to catch the bad guys and by the end of the movie has pretty much solved the existential riddle of her life in the process (though it's kind of a bummer for Batou).

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June 14, 2006

Chrestomanci vs. Harry Potter

At the library the other day I noticed a dozen newly-released paperback editions of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci and Dalemark series, clearly an attempt to leverage the Harry Potter phenomenon. Well, if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes. Gift horses in the mouth, and that kind of thing.

The first book in the Chrestomanci series, Charmed Life, was published about the time I became too sophisticated for young adult literature, a problem that has since been remedied by age. But age also has the benefit of allowing one to experience authors I'm pretty sure I read Back Then as if for the first time. (See: Red Dwarf, when the AI unit has Lister erase its memory so it can re-read all the Agatha Christie novels.)

My reaction: amazement. Several times I found myself stopping to flip back to the title page to check the original copyright date. Yep, 1977. Because I kept thinking, she borrowed this from Rowling, right? And that? And this bit here? That one, there? But, no, excepting the possibility of time travel, the other way around, more likely.

I'm not talking about plagiarism. Other than the common elements of the "family romance," there is little resemblance in plot or character (although Chrestomanci himself is routinely referred to as "he whose name should not be spoken," by those who are terrified by its mere mention).

I would make the following comparison: an entire arm of the publishing industry (legal and samizdat) is devoted to the third-party exploration of copyrighted universes, expansions upon existing characters and settings that are, frankly, often better than the original. Dave Wolverton's Star Wars novels, for example. In Japan, there's the whole doujinshi movement.

Nothing even that specific, in this case; rather, a "sense of the world" which makes Jones's and Rowling's universes seem so similar. Call it convergent evolution: establish the same environmental variables, the same shaping narrative, and you end up with remarkably similar creatures at the end of the biological tree.

But this is somewhat besides the point I'm getting to (to quote Monty Python: "Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who"). The question is, why Rowling and not the far more talented Jones? Now, to be sure, Diana Wynne Jones is hardly a commercial or artistic failure as an artist, just not warping-the-fabric-of-space successful the way Rowling is.

Let's explore some possible reasons:

1. Not too close for comfort

Rowling snugs the Muggle universe and Magical universe side by side. In Chrestomanci, Jones is thinking more along the lines of L'Engle: parallel universes. Moving from "our" universe to the Chrestomanci universe is difficult, and entails serious repercussions.

Morever, in the Chrestomanci universe, as in Rowling's, advances in modern technology have been hamstrung by the pursuit of magic. But unlike Mr. Weasley's fascination with all things Muggle (one of my favorite characters), that world is too far away in Chrestomanci to have immediate relevance. You can't take your Sony Walkman with you.

I am no fan of the theory that children must identify with characters that are somehow copies of themselves, socially/racially/economically. Half the fun of a story is getting as far away from yourself as possible (besides, all those Star Trek aliens behave exactly as you would expect a normal human being to, unlike the normal human beings).

But there is something to be said for easing the ability to project oneself onto a protagonist. By making transit between the normal and the magical as simple as literally taking the train, Rowling makes it that much more accessible to her readers, who can imagine making the journey themselves, without having to make the existential leap of abandoning everything they know.

Consider, as well, Hogwarts. As foreign as the British boarding school may be, its social structures and politics are recognizable to any secondary school student. Chrestomanci also has a school of magic, in a castle, but it only has four pupils. Harry Potter for the home-schooled, perhaps.

2. If it's not baroque, don't fix it

Simply in terms of style, you can say this about Harry Potter's universe: there's a whole lot more of it. The entire Chrestomanci series would fit inside Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Rowling perhaps demands comparison to Dickens, who (and I'm paragraphing somebody else) wrote long because nobody back then had television.

Rowling didn't simply prove that kids will read a LOT given good reason to, but she also disproved the canard that they will only read simple, short, solipsistic stories about themselves, and furthermore that only nerds will wade through baroque, 1200 page genre fantasy epics, such as Robin Hobb's Liveship triology (BTW, recommended!).

Rowling's American editors actually did edit her manuscripts, removing the more "British" examples of the language, but I doubt that was ever necessary. It's all about the narrative, about "what happens next."

3. Market timing

I've heard Madeleine L'Engle speak directly to this matter. When the manuscript of Wrinkle in Time was first circulated by her agent, it was turned down with hardly a second look. It languished so long in publishing purgatory that L'Engle feared it would never see the light of day. But that delay, she believes now, in large part accounted for its success. By the time it was published (1963), an audience had evolved that was ready to embrace it.

Jones, an Oxfordian who attended lectures by Lewis and Tolkien at Oxford (suppressing envy, suppressing envy), started publishing in the 1970s. Charmed Life came out the same year as Star Wars, and for the next decade Space Opera (much of it very bad indeed) ruled the day and soaked up all those wandering attention spans instead.

Harry Potter, in contrast, arrived on the scene when the trend in young adult publishing had been for a decade towards "utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons--actual and moral--in the most punishing way possible," what Moira Redmond terms "Dreadlit." The neuroticism of Dreadlit, she notes, "may be the millionth reason why children like Harry Potter so much."

Incidentally, the amazing Ghibli Studios has done a very good job with Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, with Miyazaki coming out of retirement to direct for likely the very last time. Although not as well received as his previous feature efforts, I find that Miyazaki's visual depiction of Sophie's every-changing appearance makes her one of his most subtly and insightfully-rendered of all his female protagonists.

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June 07, 2006


Another picture from the archives, this one taken in the hills outside Odawara. Odawara is located at the southwest tip of Kanagawa Prefecture. It's a gateway to Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji. During the Tokugawa Era, it was a castle town and a major station along the Toukaido, guarding southern access to the Kantou Plain and the capital city of Edo.

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June 01, 2006


Searching for cover art for my forthcoming novel, I've been going through old photographs from 25 years ago. I took this picture at Hakuraku station, a small city outside Yokohama (click on the photo for a larger version).

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