January 31, 2009

Chapter 9 (Dreaming of Paradise)

The Imperial Army consists of six divisions: three (right, left, center) belonging to the Palace Guard, and three (right, left, center) belonging to the Provincial Guard of the capital province under the command of the Taiho.

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January 28, 2009

The cell phone novel

The cell phone ebook format in Japan is popular enough that novels are "born digital" in that medium and then reformatted for the printed page and published the "old fashioned way." There are even cell phone novel contests offering tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The road to cell phone bestsellerdom begins with the online cell phone forums, where the novels are posted for free. As Patrick Galbraith describes the genre,

The works are published in 70-word installments, or abbreviated chapters that are the ideal length to be read between shorter train stops . . . The resulting works are emotional, fast-paced and highly visual, with an impact not unlike manga.

Like Cory Doctorow, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho claims that "the free distribution of e-books actually encourages paper books sales." And in fact, "ten of the bestselling printed novels in Japan in 2007 were based on [free] cell phone novels, and each sold around 400,000 copies."

The genre has its detractors, to be sure, citing the explicit, often exploitative nature of the material, the "lack of diverse vocabulary and a general dumbing-down of traditional literary approaches." Still, I'm with the "at least they reading and writing something" school.

Although America's car culture is a direct impediment to the commute-centric cell phone novel culture in Japan, I have the feeling that the future of the ebook may well coincide with the rebirth of the novella.

UPDATE: Lev Grossman covers similar ground here, pointing out that "Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones."

Grossman believes that "novels will get longer--electronic books aren't bound by physical constraints--and they'll be patchable and updatable, like software." I agree with the latter. I'm not so sure about the former, though I can see serials coming back into vogue.

Related posts

Typesetting Japanese

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January 26, 2009

Prince Caspian

In purely cinematic terms, Prince Caspian is better than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I liked it more as a movie. Aside from too little Tilda Swinton, the characters and the conflicts are more interesting and "authentic." And yet it all adds up to utter nonsense.

Paradoxically its superior quality makes this clearer. I've read the Narnia books many times, but watching Prince Caspian it fully registered what about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series specifically Philip Pullman finds so annoying: Lewis cheats like crazy.

The first big cheat in Prince Caspian is Lucy's insistence that she's seen Aslan, and that means they should do X instead of Y. We believe Lucy because she's a cute kid and was right the last time. Plus she's the protagonist and she's really, really sure of herself.

Outside the fanciful Y/A universe, this is a dreadful rule of thumb when it comes to taking advice from anybody, especially children. Bright lines are drawn between "adulthood" and "childhood" because (among other reasons) the judgment of children is so bad.

A passionate insistence isn't a substitution for the facts. Neither is it the equivalent of "faith." Else we should follow after every self-assured ideological zealot that comes down the pike.

Back in the real world, religions (and organizations in general) come up with various ways around this problem. For example: official spokespersons. If Lucy was the "designated person who talks to Aslan" (i.e., a prophet), that would have changed the equation considerably.

It's a classic "appeal to authority" either way, but at least the chain of attribution would remain clear. Nobody in Prince Caspian can decide who the heck is in charge. No wonder they resort to magic when they screw up massively and their backs are up against the wall.

Which makes this magic business the even bigger cheat, and the more invidious one.

All fantasy and science fiction cheats. Rather than "Once upon a time," such stories should begin, "Assuming that the standard laws of physics don't apply and the second law of thermodynamics can be violated at will." (Literary fiction cheats too, except about human nature.)

But we accept these hand-waves as a matter of course. We are willing to suspend our disbelief and consume a simile of reality as long as we're not expected to treat it as an actual reflection of reality. That's why it's called make believe.

More importantly, we accept these inventions on the condition that they conform to the internal logic of the story. But Lewis relies instead on a context outside the narrative. He exploits external connections between fairy tales and Christianity to connect the dots.

Calling it "deep magic" is another way of saying "Just because." This is not only a Narnia problem. When it comes to the Christ figures in all his books, Lewis punts. Seriously, what exactly does Aslan do in Prince Caspian other than show up at the last minute like an M1A1 battle tank?

I can't help thinking of the scene in Red Dwarf where Kryten invades a Jane Austen virtual reality simulator in a tank because the crew blew off the lobster dinner he'd been slaving over all day. One of the funniest things I've ever seen. But, really, this isn't much different.

Anyway, being generally short on battle tanks, I can imagine the faithful resorting to all sorts of cargo cults to get Aslan to reliably show up when the chips are down. Based on Prince Caspian, I guess it comes down to trusting in unknown forces and taking an intellectual swan dive off a cliff.

Oh, and getting a whole lot of people pointlessly killed first.

But if I wanted New Agey, self-actualizing claptrap, hey, give me Richard (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) Bach. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, set himself the task of reconciling an upstart Jewish sect with the cosmology of the Greco-Roman-Egyptian universe (Acts 17:23 NIV):

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

The end result was modern Christianity. But what we've lost since then is that original cosmology, the known and unknown gods that ruled Paul's world. The gods of the Old Testament and The Aeneid, full of parts and passions. Gods that could be argued and wrestled with.

Mormon Gods, in other words. At least before Mormonism got embarrassed of them.

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January 24, 2009

Chapter 8 (Dreaming of Paradise)

This chapter casts a keen eye on the problem of political idealism, particularly when Junkou observes:

The picture of the perfect kingdom my brother [the king] paints is a place where the common man--the ordinary fool--couldn't live. All the ministers will know right from wrong, will keep their passions in check, and work for the good of all mankind. The people will all obey the law, virtuously and humbly, and work diligently from sunup to sundown. Those who do not are not part of the equation. Where will they go? Exile them? Execute them? In order to keep wickedness and sloth at bay will they be watched and disciplined every minute of the day? At times like this, I can't help thinking that my idea of a utopia would be one that could tolerate no small amount of laziness and conniving and stupidity and inefficiency.

"East Palace" (東宮) is a literal translation. The word also means "Crown Prince" or "Palace of the Crown Prince." However, as explained in chapter 44 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind, in the Twelve Kingdoms, a person with the same surname as the prior king or empress cannot succeed to the throne. So in any case, this would be a purely ceremonial position.

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January 21, 2009

Presidential and Imperial poetry

The general consensus seems to be that Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem struck the one hollow note during the proceedings.

Rick Warren's bombasticity made me cringe. Joseph Lowery made me grin. The Chief Justice's flub was comic human fallibility. (I think aides should ceremoniously hold up copies of the Constitution for both parties to read from.)

But Alexander's effort was obviously written to be printed in an obscure literary journal. As Adam Kirsch observes in The New Republic, "Her verse is not public but bureaucratic--spoken by no one and addressed to no one."

Presidential inaugurals should follow the example of the Japanese Emperor and use waka-style poetry. The Emperor's year-end and New Year's poem readings feature short, topical verse often relevant to the lives of his subjects.

Granted, when the poems are formally read aloud, they are orated in a classical style that is incomprehensible to my ears. But the text is helpfully displayed on the television screen.

And while we're at it, the Emperor's State of the Japanese Union address runs (in English) a whole 180 words. Another good precedent to follow.

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January 19, 2009

I'm number one in something!

Over the weekend at Amazon, volume one of Ai no Kusabi bobbed back to #1 in Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Yaoi > Novels. And briefly this morning, it ranked as high as #55,138 in Books. I've never broken the top 100,000 for my own novels.

Granted, if there was a category for Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Horror > Mormon Vampires Novels > Featuring Actual Mormons, I'd be number one in that too! (like those self-esteem courses that are supposed to make kids feel so special about being their unique little selves).

But having apparently offended the tender sensibilities of several readers with the "graphic sex" in The Path of Dreams and Angel Falling Softly (man, those are some really tender sensibilities), I have to say I'm amused (in a totally good way) by reader comments for Ai no Kusabi like:

Those who are looking for graphic scenes are going to be fairly disappointed. Aside from a heated, however vague, piece in the first chapter, there is virtually nothing of note in this book.

In the eye of the beholder indeed! So if Angel Falling Softly tests your limits, run away! (I can assure Ai no Kusabi readers that there are way more explicit passages in subsequent volumes.)

Get past those "obstacles" and some narrative repetition (the story was serialized, published as a single volume, expanded into a light novel series, and now a second anime series), and Rieko Yoshihara has insightful things to say about Caligulan moral decay and the rotten fruits of political idealism.

Granted, the supercomputer-running-everything motif (e.g., Appleseed) is a bit dated, but then again, it's mostly there as backstory and not an active part of the narrative.

As the series progresses, I'd swear Yoshihara is poking Swiftian fun at child-poor but dog-crazy Japan (to quote The Independent: "One in five families has a dog in Japan and they are treated not like pets, but like part of the family") and the "Lolita" subculture (the most morally disturbing parts).

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. I am wont to do that (but only because it's so much fun).

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January 18, 2009

Anastasia and Sam

The fabulous Anastasia and Sam series by Louis Lowry.

Anastasia Krupnik
Anastasia Again!
Anastasia At Your Service
Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst
Anastasia On Her Own
Anastasia Has The Answers
Anastasia's Chosen Career
Anastasia At This Address
Anastasia Absolutely

All About Sam
Attaboy, Sam!
See You Around, Sam!
Zooman Sam

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January 17, 2009

Chapter 7 (Dreaming of Paradise)

節州 [せっしゅう] Sesshuu; capital province of Sai.
松下園 [しょうかえん] Shouka Park ("beneath the pines")

As Taifu, Shinshi is Minister of the Left, so the "Naiden Office of the Left" would probably be hers.

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January 15, 2009

The rice diet

Gary Taubes addresses the question: "How do Asians living a seemingly high-carb existence manage to escape the consequences?" Here are a few more variables I came up with worth considering:

1. Cooking medium-grain rice isn't like popping bread into a toaster. Japanese rice cooker technology is amazing. But you've got to scoop the rice out of the bag, rinse it (a long-ingrained habit), and wait for it to cook. And then wash the cooker before using it again.

2. As a side-dish, white rice is not flavored. Try chowing down on a big bowl of mashed potatoes with no salt, pepper, butter, milk. Or a loaf of bread made without salt.

3. Because of government price-support policies, white rice in Japan is expensive. Price signals work not only in terms of demand, but affect a food's social status, and its "culture of consumption." There is such a thing as "luxury" rice that costs even more.

4. You eat the whole rice grain--that when cooked expands considerably in volume--not a ground flour made from the rice. The rice grain itself has a unique and "mouth feel" that is "filling" all by itself.

5. There's no equivalent of gluten intolerance with rice. I suspect that the human body reacts much differently to refined rice carbohydrates and starches than to refined wheat carbohydrates and starches.

6. Chopsticks. Seriously. Chopstick users don't actually eat delicately with chopsticks the way non-chopstick users think they do, but the "shovel" factor is still less than using a spoon.

Taubes believe that the total consumption of sugar is the most important variable. Along with total caloric intake, I think he's right.

Also, having watched a lot of Japanese cooking shows, I don't believe "low fat" is an entirely accurate adjective. It seems that every other recipe is deep-fried this or bacon-wrapped that or smothered in olive oil. High-fat maguro tuna is preferred for sushi. And there's no better "fast food" meal than a deep-fried chicken or pork cutlet donburi.

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January 13, 2009

The Girl who Leapt through Time

If this were the typical Hollywood product--even getting past the image of Michael J. Fox that certainly springs to mind--you could probably picture the entire movie from the title alone. As a teen science fiction actioner, the plot practically writes itself.

1) A goofy mad scientist with a time machine chased by bumbling bad guys and shadowy government agents (often one and the same), and a geeky kid who unintentionally gets mixed up in everything yet manages to pull it together and save the world and get the cute girl.

2) Or cashing in on the Lord of the Rings and Narnia, a medieval romance with many "clever" anachronisms (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) and a couple of handsome knights and/or cute maidservants with suspiciously contemporary sensibilities.

And you'd be wrong. Director Mamoru Hosoda's adaption of this Japanese Y/A classic is a perfect example of plot as a necessary condition but character as the sufficient one. A legitimate criticism of the film, in fact, might be that the science fiction scaffolding is so sparse.

But that's because the story only takes the bare minimum of what it needs from the time-travel fantasy sub-genre to build a complex narrative that evolves out of the character of its protagonist, Makoto.

Makoto is a bit of a tom girl with a normal family and normal friends. But at the end of a particularly bad day when everything goes wrong, she trips over a gadget at the back of the high school science lab and wakes up to find she can travel backwards through time.

What does she do with this power? After stealing back a stolen dessert from her little sister's clutches, she sets out to make her bad day right. But for everything made "right," something goes "wrong," and she is soon consumed by the quest just to get things back to the way they were.

How she judges the morality of a relative gain for herself against a loss for someone else in each instance is ultimately what matters. We understand why it matters to her because the movie makes us care about what happens to these secondary characters.

A good measure of a good story is how compelling the secondary character are (without upstaging the protagonist). I'd like to see more of Makoto's super-cool "Aunt Witch," and more of the relationship between Kousuke and Kaho that Makoto engineers.

And, of course, find out whatever happens to Chiaki (it's literally all about art appreciation).

All those loose ends don't tie themselves up in nice little bows. To be sure, while it's easy to criticize "bad art" for emphasizing the happy ending and the moral of the story to be imparted, it is the tendency of much worse art to insist that there isn't any point.

There isn't a climactic "Ah ha!" moment or the false promise of a together-forever denouement at the end of The Girl who Leapt through Time. Instead, I came away feeling that I'd watched a trio of fast friends grow and mature in truly meaningful ways.

And that is the most powerful point of all.

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January 11, 2009


Chemokine (C-C motif) receptor 5 (CCR5) is a gene on human chromosome three. Because of its effect on T cell function, a mutation on this gene known as Delta 32 (CCR5-D32) imparts full or partial immunity to a surprising number of diseases, such as smallpox, Black Death and HIV.

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January 10, 2009

Chapter 6 (Dreaming of Paradise)

小宰 [しょうさい] Shousai; the vice-minister of the Ministry of Heaven.
大昌 [だいしょう] Daishou (big prosperity)
長明宮 [ちょうめいきゅう] Choumei Palace (long light)
嘉永宮 [かえいきゅう] Kaei Palace (auspicious eternity)
後宮 [こうきゅう] Koukyuu ("the palace at the back")

The Ministry of Summer (夏官) in in charge of defense. The Taisai (太宰) runs the Ministry of Heaven, which is responsible for the operation of the Imperial Palace.

The Sankou (三公)

太師 [たいし] Taishi, lit. "big teacher" (Lord Privy Seal); in medieval China, the Taishi was also responsible for the education of the prince royal.

太傅 [たいふ] Taifu, lit. "big tutor" (Minister of the Left)

太保 [たいほ] Taiho, lit. "big protector" (Minister of the Right); not to be confused with the Taiho (台補), referring to the kirin.

The Sankou shows up in Heian Era anime series such as Otogi Zoshi and movies like Onmyoji, usually pulling the strings behind the throne.

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January 08, 2009

Gonzo versus the pirates

The Anime Almanac reports here and here on how Japanese anime studio Gonzo beat Internet piracy by abandoning DRM. Rather, they responded quickly with a quality product at a reasonable price that was easy to download. This seems painfully obvious, but as Scott VonSchilling points out, getting media execs to grasp the obvious can be painfully difficult.

I've long wondered why anime studios didn't crank out a subtitle/dub script at the same time they finished the Japanese master (what U.S. studios do with closed caption scripts). Even in Japan, it'd be a blip in the budget. Mostly, VonSchilling explains, because the importance of quickly addressing demand in a wired world hadn't occurred to them.

This reminds me of an anecdote related by David Halberstam in The Reckoning, about the decline of Detroit and the rise of the Japanese auto industry during the 1970s. Upon hearing that Americans were using light pickups to commute to work, Nissan's reaction was that "Americans had no right to use [Nissan pickups] to drive to work, particularly to offices!"

Of course, the proper reaction was: "Who cares? Sell them more!" Which they eventually came around to.

When I first lived in Japan 25 years ago, Hollywood movies showed up in Japan several months after debuting in the English-speaking world. Now big Hollywood releases often debut in Japan. The prepping of television series like CSI for international release takes place at breakneck speed. Hollywood has at least figured out that part of the equation.

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January 05, 2009

A lily by any other name

I usually save few minutes at the end of the day to read manga, dessert to cap off the main course. As I happen to be translating yaoi for a living these days, I've been reading a good deal of yuri of late. Some yin to balance out all that yangy yang. And, to be honest, I do find women to be infinitely more interesting creatures than men.

My first sale as a writer was an autobiographical story to Cricket Magazine. In the published version, the editor changed the main character to a girl. I've favored female protagonists ever since. The New Era managing editor Richard Romney once said that I wrote female characters better than Jack Weyland. I still consider that one of the nicest compliments I've ever gotten.

Just to clarify, yaoi is a romance genre featuring guys falling for other guys. Yuri (meaning "lily") is a romance genre about girls falling for other girls. At first glance, the two would seem a complementary pair. Both are written (mostly) by women for (mostly) women. Just as yaoi is not seriously categorized as "gay" literature, yuri is not a synonym "lesbian" literature.

Furthermore, I've come to consider yaoi, if anything, as a rather strange "old school" extension of the Harlequin romance. Yaoi provides a curious solution to a knotty problem with the standard romance formula. Namely (and this is largely my sister's insight), that yaoi is a way of exploiting unequal power dynamics in romantic relationships while avoiding the taint of misogyny.

The "traditional" historical romance centers social and physical power in an alpha male--the pirate or prince or highwayman. The woman counters the total domination by the male with her sexuality and "feminine wiles." Following the customary evolutionary roles, the man ultimately "captures" the woman, and the woman in turn "tames" the man.

Translated to a contemporary context, though, this formula crashes into the wall of political correctness. The typical dodge is to give the alpha male a high-testosterone occupation or a much higher socioeconomic status than the woman (Michael Douglas in The American President, Tom Hanks as a corporate exec in You've Got Mail, Edward as, well, Edward in Twilight).

In a "chic lit" classic like Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget is involved in relationships way above her social and economic class. And making women as sexually promiscuous as men, as in the hopelessly dreary Sex and the City, ultimately plays right back into the predatory male game plan, the old formulas rather transparently repackaged.

But if the relationship involves only men (quoting Kate),

then nobody has to excuse the blatant use of power. So teenage girls, who may feel rather powerless (since they have just seen their male counterparts gain weight, muscle and height that they don't have), may be drawn to material where real issues of power are played out without excuse or without the pretense that power isn't real, there and in your face.

The exaggerated and often S/M power differentials in yaoi essentially mirror Rhett Butler sweeping Scarlett off her feet and hauling her up to the bedroom, her protestations notwithstanding. It's retro Harlequin that conforms to every Freudian stereotype in the book.

Yuri, in contrast, tends to favor stories in which conflict arises from character largely outside men-are-from-Mars, testosterone-driven power struggles, and thus oddly mirrors classic action flick "buddy" pairings. In any case, class and power can't be entirely expunged from the narrative. There must be an aggressive member in the dyad or nothing would happen.

But while yaoi and genre romances tend toward idealistic or artificial narrative constructs (not that there's anything wrong with that--the same goes for guy entertainment), yuri (which, to be sure, hits porn at one extreme and lesbian literature at the other) remains largely rooted in how real people--specifically women--actually relate to each other in the real world.

As Erica Friedman puts it, yuri features "intense emotional connections between women" that can't necessarily be classified as love, but involve a "seriously intense bond that could easily become something more." Hence, to generalize, "mainstream" yuri can be said to revolve mainly around the evolution and devolution of friendships.

Many of the bittersweet, superbly-written short stories in Kawaii Anata ("Adorable You") by Hiyori Otsu, to take one exemplary example, could have run in the The New Era with very little tweaking. (The one place the short story is alive and well and widely-read by teenagers is Japanese manga.)

Similar yuri elements can be found throughout the Y/A canon. The kind of relationship Anne and Diane enjoy in Anne of Green Gables is a mainstay of yuri fiction. In her short story collection, Kuchibiru, Tameiki, Sakura-iro ("Her Lips, a Sigh, and the Color Pink"), Milk Morinaga has a character introduce herself as "I'm Diane to your Anne."

The core material from Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of Windy Poplars fits squarely into the yuri genre. Interestingly, these are the three novels that Kevin Sullivan tapped for his two miniseries, leaving out most of the formulaic (hetero) romance material from Anne of the Island.

Other examples includes Harriet and Beth Ellen from Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret (which I've always considered the better book) by Louise Fitzhugh. And at the other end of the genre scale, Lynne Ewing's Buffyesque Daughters of the Moon series.

Evolutionary psychology provides a useful tool for analysis here. Unless placed in a competitive context or placed outside behavioral norms (the nerds in any John Hughes flick) or given special attributes (every sports and superhero fantasy from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Spider-Man), normal boys are not that interesting. Unformed clay.

This is apparent in the NHK kid's show Whiz Kids. Imagine if the old PBS series Electric Company was produced by the Dr. Who people. The anime series Kodocha is based on shows like this, a bunch of preternaturally smart kids doing what a bunch of preternaturally smart kids would do with a television studio at their disposal.

Aside from the handful of adults who help "anchor" the show, the age cutoff for the cast is around twelve or thirteen. And reflecting a phenomenon that every geeky teenage boy is painfully aware of, while many of the girls can be categorized as "young women," the boys are still Bart Simpson. Even the preternaturally smart ones are candles competing with tungsten arc lamps.

Manga publishers and anime producers have long known that they can exploit this painful differential with some gratuitous nudity or by dropping yuri-ish hints into otherwise "guy" material--the vicarious thrill of imagining girls getting hot and heavy with each other being preferable to watching the kind of girl you'll never have doing the same thing with the BMOC.

The necessity of this spark remains when the hinting and nudging is taken away. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon is a blank slate until Haruhi bounds into his life. In Ah! My Goddess, Keiichi is immobility incarnate, even after Belldandy shows up. In Sing Yesterday by Kei Toume, Rikuo hasn't gotten to first base with Shinako or Haru after six volumes.

Alas, the brilliant Ranma 1/2 begins to grate when you realize that, male or female, he's never going to grow up.

To compare, Akiko Morishima's collection of yuri short stories, Rakuen no Joken ("Conditions of Paradise") isn't chock full o' plot either. But Morishima's wonderfully-drawn stories and realistically-aged characters do depict lives moving forward, which is enormously more satisfying.

The odd shounen exception proving the rule are manga like the Kimikisu series, based on dating sims. Because the whole point of a dating sim is to challenge the player to round the bases, the story has to go somewhere with a refreshing alacrity. Kimikisu boasts little else in terms of plot--getting to first base alone is a challenging-enough goal. But at least they get there!

Now, I do understand characters like Ranma, Rikuo, Kyon and Keiichi. The old evolutionary instincts grinding away in the background. It's hard for guys to move off the dime without the sense that they're accomplishing something concrete, conquering new lands, rising in a hierarchy. As in every Bond film, consummating the relationships celebrates the end of the quest. Game over.

Hence the constant keeping of things at arm's length. In contrast, shoujo and yuri protagonists are more likely to get up close and personal, pushing the story along romantically and physically. Because that's when things start getting interesting.

Nor, I find, am I alone in this assessment, as yuri manga-ka like Milk Morinaga and Takako Shimura write for magazines whose primary market is men.

To be even-handed, an equally deadly plot device on the shoujo side is the love triangle. Again, evolutionary psychology explains why geeky guys in particular loath the conceit: when two males compete for a female, somebody's going to get hurt, and probably the guy wearing glasses. For the Mary Sue, the duplication of attention is great for her self-esteem. Hell for everybody else's.

In Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery creates two interlocking love triangles, which means that everybody suffers. Kevin Sullivan's adaptation skips quickly through the love triangle business (using an either/or formula which denies the hedged bet), making the movie better than the book (though as I point out here, it slights Anne's educational accomplishments).

Granted, shounen manga and anime writers invented the male version of this, known as harem. And it's just as annoying, especially lacking any hope (in the non-porn genres) of consummation.

To be sure, Robert McKee argues that we shouldn't expect fiction to mirror real life, but for fiction to capture something that is like real life, a distinction that confuses too many artists. In the excruciatingly gorgeous 5 Centimeters Per Second, Makoto Shinkai vividly captures (in the very last frame) a very real moment of self-realization. Been there, done that. I can identify.

And that's the problem. Plot is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. We ultimate invest in the character of the characters. And at the end of 5 Centimeters Per Second, we realize we've invested an hour of our time in a character who doesn't have any. Real? Like, man, I'm grokking it totally. But entertaining? Not beyond the dazzling cinematography.

In Video Girl Ai, Youta spends the entire series summoning up the courage to admit that he loves, well, Ai or Moemi, he's not quite sure. But at least in the end he's willing to pay a literal ferryman and literally walk across broken glass to seal his decision. Just punishment for all the angsty dithering he's put us through.

If nothing much is going to happen--essentially the most real thing about real life for most of us--then character must become the summum bonum of the story, without placing the protagonist's travails infinitely beyond the grasp of the reader. For me, yuri's consistent ability to accomplish this makes it perhaps the most "realistic" of niches in the otherwise unreal romance genre.

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January 04, 2009


A Hungarian reader provided the following historical clarification:

[The novel] describes the three sisters' travels in "Budapest, London and Paris," apparently around 1600. Budapest originally consisted of three independent cities: the old Obuda, Buda, the seat of kings, and the more "bourgeois" Pest, and did not become Budapest until 1873. So in the 1600s they would have been in Buda.

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January 03, 2009

Chapter 5 (Dreaming of Paradise)

青喜 [せいき] Seiki (blue joy)
慎思 [しんし] Shinshi (prudent thoughts)
太傅 [たいふ] Taifu, lit. "big tutor"; Minister of the Left in the Sankou (三公)

A Hyoufuu (飄風) or "Whirlwind King" is one chosen from the first group of pilgrims traveling on the Shouzan. The author derives the word from a saying attributed to Lao Tzu: 「飄風は朝を終えず驟雨は日を終えず」"A squall doesn't last the morning, a sudden shower doesn't last the day," meaning that quick solutions don't last long.

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January 01, 2009

Typesetting Japanese

Over at TeleRead, David Rothman mentions the cell phone ebook format popular in Japan. It's popular enough that novels are being "born digital" in that medium and then reformatted for the printed page, in some cases preserving the format's original constraints.

Rothman wonders about "this relationship between content and format," and the advisability of preserving the "look and feel" of the cell phone format.

Japanese writers have long employed a more "granular" approach to formatting text. For example, dialog gets its own paragraph, separated from the dialog tag. The Japanese "quotation mark" font often presumes the indent. Manga has probably been a recent influence as well.

And speaking of manga, unlike American comics, the text in speech balloons has long been typeset in a standard font, while sound effects and marginalia are hand-lettered (and consequently often well-nigh unreadable by semi-literate gaijin like myself).

Also in the unreadable department, because kana is a phonetic syllabary, Japanese writers regularly reproduce dialog that reflects actual vernacular usage, a practice that has markedly decreased in English letters over the past century (thank goodness).

Parentheses are used instead of italics. The em-dash becomes a double-em dash (kanji are by default fixed-width, so one "em" is one character wide). In fact, most "text decoration" is done with typographic symbols (which makes ebook conversion straightforward.)

Vertically-read text can be emphasized with a period (a "side dot") or vertical line to the right of each character.

The reasons for this become obvious if you think about traditional typesetting in Japanese. To typeset a line in italics, for example, would require having on hand a completely separate set of lead type for each of the approximately 2000 standard kanji (plus duplicates).

Computers have changed all this. Italics and bold and all the other permutations are now just a click away. It's probably only a matter of time before they show up in traditionally typeset text.

There is considerable variation among writers, but it seems to me that Japanese writers can get away with a lot more paragraph breaks. On the other hand, written Japanese grammatically allows for paragraph-long sentences that have to be broken up to make sense in English.

Mass-market paperbacks use the "ebook-sized" A6, and the "light novel" maxes out at about 40,000 words. The manga "short story" is alive and well. I'm not the greatest short story fan, but I love the manga "one-off." Like haiku, brevity is not only studied but applied.

On a related note, I've noticed that Harlequin's minimum word length for submissions has dropped to 50,000 words, and that it's now buying novellas. Seriously, anybody interested in the publishing business should keep an eye on what's going on at Harlequin.

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