April 29, 2009


Like space opera and romance, the "harem" anime genre is easy to make snooty fun of because most of it is so bad. Sometimes on purpose, often unintentionally. But just because the bulge of the bell curve ranks high on the kitsch index doesn't mean there's nothing on the "amazing" meter a few standard deviations out.

At one end of the harem spectrum, for example, is Elfen Lied, a blood-spattered S/F horror series. And at the other is one of the most poignant romances--and most complex psychological dramas--I've ever seen, with a demanding, multi-layered narrative structure that indeed deserves to be described as "literary": Kanon.

The story has a long and twisted pedigree (though not that uncommon in anime), having originated as an "adult" video game in 1999 (a "visual novel," for which there is no counterpart in the U.S. gaming market), then a G-rated version, and consequently as a light novel series, a manga series, a drama CD, and two anime series.

But it was the latest--2006--version produced by the innovative Kyoto Animation, directed by Tatsuya Ishihara and written by Fumihiko Shimo (who penned three episodes of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), that molded it into an authentic work of art. Voice actor Tomokazu Sugita also deserves a lion's share of the credit.

Sugita is probably better known as Kyon in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the straight man to the frenetic Haruhi, the grounded center of whatever maelstrom she's cooking up next.

Haruhi's world is so unhinged that it's all Kyon can do to keep it from flying apart. In the process, though, we don't have many opportunities to invest ourselves deeply in the fate of the characters themselves. As in any madcap sitcom, we always expect some crazy rabbit to get pulled out of the hat by the time the credits roll.

That's a good part of the fun, but at the end of the fourteen-episode run, it seems more that the writers wrote themselves into one too many corners than the story came to a carefully scripted conclusion. Like a Mobius strip, you could feed the last episode into the first one and start the whole thing all over again.

I highly recommend the series for its quirky exuberance, Sugita's straight-man performance, the dance number in the opening credits, and because its general craziness inspires equally inventive fan analyses. The individual parts aren't only greater than the whole, they're often downright brilliant.

Kanon, though, exists as a completely realized artistic effort from beginning to end, where the characters are so changed in the process that there is no going back. It may not seem that way at first, as Yuichi's unflappability comes across as too nonchalant, given the quirky, illogical nature of the events around him.

But this is on purpose. Nothing in Kanon happens for lack of a better idea at the time.

As the story begins, Yuichi Aizawa (Sugita) has moved to snowy Hokkaido to live with his aunt and niece while he finishes his senior year in high school. He initially comes across as an unusually normal teenager, more a counterpart to John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything than the typical teen romantic lead from anime-land.

Unlike the neurotic, clinically introverted, "lesser male" harem protagonist, Yuichi has reasonable good sense of himself, is prone to reflection rather than panic, and doesn't turn into a tongue-tied imbecile around girls. He's pretty much a rock, if a slightly cynical one, a more extroverted and involved "Kyon."

To be sure, few teenage boys of any stripe are that calm, cool and collected. The neurotic "lesser male" of harem comedies is probably closer to reality. But as Ron Rosenbaum quips in Slate, "I hate characters I can identify with. I read to escape myself; I'm tired of my identity."

However, it does turn out that Yuichi has one thing very wrong with him: he's forgotten practically everything about the last time he lived there. Still, he treats this massive case of amnesia with suspiciously good cheer as he becomes reacquainted with a half-dozen girls who know him for important reasons he can't remember.

The series proceeds with a series of interlocking stories about how each of their screwed up lives (varying from "somewhat" to "a lot") relate to Yuichi. Little by little these experiences pry open the lid of his memories and the tragic truth we suspect lies at the heart of it. And the brilliant gem of hope that resides there also.

Uniting these stories is the series-long arc about the mysterious Ayu Tsukimiya--who runs through the closing credits wearing a knapsack sporting a pair of wings. She shows up at first as comic relief, but as the other variables fall away she moves closer to the center of the story, just as Yuichi moves closer to the truth about himself.

To be sure, a staple of the Hollywood melodrama, from Rebel without a Cause to Ordinary People to Good Will Hunting is the angst-ridden young man with the troubled past who works through his "issues," usually with the help of empathetic shrink and a faithful girlfriend.

Not to denigrate the genre (I liked the aforementioned movies), but it's awfully solipsistic stuff, all about how tough it is being me and how much I deserve to be loved because nothing bad that ever happened to me is really my fault. As the credits roll, we cheer the resurrection of the protagonist's self-esteem.

There's not a shrink to be found anywhere in Kanon, which argues instead that the one effective way to work through your "issues" is to do good by others. I know, even writing that it sounds saccharine. This is where Fumihiko Shimo's script and Tomokazu Sugita's performance carry the day.

Like Hugh Laurie's Dr. House, Yuichi doesn't run around doing good because he's a selfless altruist brimming over with charity for his fellow (wo)man. Rather, like House, he's drawn to the people he ends up helping out of curiosity about their plights and about his own curious mental state. And does more good as a result.

"Well, this is an interesting development," you can all but hear him thinking. So when the ninety and nine finally band together to care for the one, it comes across as authentic. In fact, the whole series could be read as an argument for why, in the final episodes, a bunch of teenagers should act so selflessly.

Kanon ultimately only makes sense after you've seen it. The pieces won't fall together until they're all there. Along the way, it can be treated as fantasy, magical realism, or straight psychological drama. In comparative terms, Orson Scott Card's Lost Boys springs to mind, as does The Sixth Sense.

Like The Sixth Sense, Fumihiko Shimo relies on the viewer jumping to the wrong conclusions. Still, he tips his hand early on with an updated version of "The Fox Wife," a classic Japanese fairy tale. This story-in-a-story creates the lens through which the rest of the series should be viewed.

If you would forgive the spoiler, what we have been watching all along are the stories Yuichi told Ayu while she was in a coma at the hospital. Except that, aside from one key scene, the points at which the surreal invades the real aren't clearly delineated, and that's fine with me. As Fox Mulder would put it, I want to believe.

Storytellers who build castles in the air and then preen as they shoot them down annoy me. If the castle's floating in the air, I know it's a castle in the air. As a case in point, does Mai possess healing powers, or is that a literary device too? Or another story-in-a-story? Hey, stop overthinking everything!

There's no overthinking the message of Kanon, though. Contrary to the assurances of the pop psychoanalytic culture, a true understanding of the self comes not from discovering your inner whatever, but from looking outwards at the rest of the world and examining why it is there and what it has to say and dealing with it.

Related posts

Dying for art
Clannad: After Story

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April 26, 2009

RNA interference

RNA interference controls the behavior of a cell by "silencing" or turning off specific genes. When treating cancer with gene therapy, the challenge is to develop a delivery system (a "vector") for injecting the RNA silencing instruction (RNAi) into the tumor cell. One method for doing this is by infecting the patient with a virus that contains RNA (a "retrovirus") instead of DNA. This method remains experimental.

In this case, though, Kamilla is describing how the homo lamia virus actually works.

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April 25, 2009

Chapter 21 (Dreaming of Paradise)

大宗伯 [だいそうはく] Daisouhaku, head of the Ministry of Spring

The Hakuchi (白雉), or "White Pheasant," resides in Godou Palace (梧桐宮) and announces the beginning and ending of a dynastic reign.

The process of abdication (without the kirin dying first) is explained in chapter 59 of Shadow of the Moon.

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April 23, 2009

Lead non-story of the year

NHK's 15-minute (that's with no commercials) noonday news wrapup breathlessly began with four solid minutes—a quarter of the broadcast—devoted to the shocking! news that Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the aging boy band SMAP, was arrested in Tokyo's Hinokicho Park at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk and buck naked.

Reportedly when being arrested, he said, "What’s wrong with being naked?" Give him credit for rhetorically improving on Mel Gibson's dumb drunk performance.

As "Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the aging boy band SMAP, was arrested in Tokyo's Hinokicho Park at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk and buck naked" sums up the entire substance of the story, the next 3 minutes, 45 seconds consisted of reporters somberly repeating the same thing in different locations, and his manager having "no comment."

Then the anchorperson droned off a list of the corporations that had abruptly canceled commercials featuring Kusanagi, including NHK, which was using him as a spokesman for Japan's DTV conversion drive. This may explain why the staid NHK suddenly started channeling the National Enquirer (while it wiped the egg off its face).

After that, they managed to squeeze in a little actual news for anybody other than SMAP fans and embarrassed bureaucrats. I applaud the anchorguy for managing to keep a straight face throughout.

The most disturbing thing about the whole farce was that, based solely on a drunk & disorderly (despite a negative drug test and the fact that only the cops saw him starkers), the police executed a search warrant on his home. Let's see NHK do a story about that. Elsewhere in the free world, some due process rights are created more equal than others.

And "serious" journalists wonder why people don't take the MSM press seriously.

UPDATE: On Friday, Good Morning Japan commendably spent only a minute on the story in the second half of the program. During a wrap party after shooting a commercial, Kusanagi downed at least 10 glasses of beer and shouchuu. He has no idea why he took his clothes off. Well, except for the obvious reason that he was totally sloshed.

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April 22, 2009

Japan's pop-culture economic recovery

Prime Minister Taro Aso says that Japan's "cultural" exports--video games, manga and anime--will constitute one of the "three pillars" (Obama has five) of Japan's economic recovery (along with a "low-carbon revolution" and a "society of health and longevity").

That sounds way more fun than stuff like "TARP."

I'm skeptical about "low-carbon" anything ("low-fat" made us all fatter), but Japan already has the longest lifespans and the fastest-aging society in the world. Wherever the post-industrial economies are headed demographically, Japan will get there first.

They may have something to teach us in that respect, though I suspect cultural idiosyncrasies will make importing health care systems problematic. I doubt the average American would be at all happy with Japan-style health care, no matter how well it works for the Japanese.

Gazing fondly at the green grass elsewhere, the results of quasi-socialized medicine we like, the means not so much (the same way that, no matter how "good for us" high gas prices would supposedly be, nobody actually wants to pay them).

Anime, on the other hand, is a 20 billion dollar industry in Japan. It's a tenth of that in the U.S., but two billion bucks is nothing to sneeze at. Manga is worth 4.5 billion dollars in Japan, while licensing brings in only a 20th of that in the U.S. So there's a lot of room to grow.

And speaking of room to grow, the economic impact of Japanese genre fiction translations--my specialty--is currently too small to measure. But that means there's only one direction the market can go: up! (he says, crossing his fingers).

Mr. Prime Minister, I am doing my best to help Japan's economy recover. Perhaps a special favor? When's a new edition of Yokohama Shopping Log coming out? Here I am all ready to spend my hard-earned dollar-converted yen, and it's out of print! Aarrgh!

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April 19, 2009

Delta 32 mutation

A fascinating news story from Germany about a leukemia patient with AIDS (unrelated to the leukemia) who was given a bone marrow transplant from a donor who had the Delta 32 mutation. When the patient recovered, the AIDS had disappeared as well. Commented Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases in the U.S.:

It helps prove the concept that if somehow you can block the expression of CCR5, maybe by gene therapy, you might be able to inhibit the ability of the virus to replicate.

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April 16, 2009

April showers


April 15, 2009

Manga economics

A breakdown of earnings vs. expenses by a successful manga artist. Like the manga magazines that carry his work, Shuho Sato loses money on first syndication rights and turns a profit with the compiled volumes (tankoubon).

Even there, he earns a 10 percent royalty on an average $5.80 retail cover price (which suggests his publisher uses JIS B6).

Manga magazines in Japan are typically loss leaders that serve to sort the wheat from the chaff and to publicize popular authors and series that will get anthologized in paperback format and/or made into anime.

Manga artists in Japan generally work as independent contractors, employing a small staff to do the cleanup and inking and (these days) digital scanning. (Except for SFX, lettering in manga has always been typeset.)

In popular culture, free-lance mangaka are the stereotypical artistic rebel outcasts. Very hip artistic outcasts, to be sure, as measured by the enormous popularity of comic book conventions like Comiket.

The action/comedy/romance television series Yasuko & Kenji is a good example of this. Kenji is an ex-biker gang leader who draws a fluffy girl's romance manga to support his kid sister Yasuko after their parents die.

Kenji employs two loyal members of his gang (a Laurel & Hardy pair who provide the slapstick comic relief) to do the cleanup and inking, and writes under a closely-guarded pseudonym (but still keeps getting into fights).

Novelists also enjoy this kind of nonconformist reputation in series such as Fruits Basket and Kodocha, along with the stock character of the beleaguered editor from the publisher always fretting about deadlines.

Related posts

The teen manga artist
Manga circulation in Japan
The manga development cycle

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April 08, 2009

"Yashakiden" publication date

Digital Manga has announced a publication date for the first volume of Yashakiden: "The Demon Princess," by SF/horror maven Hideyuki Kikuchi.

Alas, it won't be out until December 2009. But if you're a fan of Kikuchi's other novels and anime adaptations, such as Vampire Hunter D, Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku, or if your tastes slant towards epic-length supernatural actioners, then it will be well worth the wait.

Imagine Angel with an irredeemably nasty and perverse Darla.

Thanks to the fascinating world creation, creepily creative horror gore, and a couple of explicit sex scenes, I'm seriously enjoying translating it. Like other popular authors in the genre, Hideyuki Kikuchi possesses a natural sense of pacing that keeps the narrative zipping along and the cliff hangers hanging.

I'll be posting more updates as the publication date draws closer. In the meantime, you can read more about Yashakiden here, here and see a sneak preview here.

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April 05, 2009

Main site offline

Early Saturday morning, somebody stole the wheels off the car. Now it's up on cinderblocks. I'm waiting to hear back from the mechanic. The damage seems minor, so hopefully this shouldn't take long.

UPDATE: Restored, up and working as of 4:09 PM MDT. It may take a bit longer for the updated DNS records to propagate across the network.


April 01, 2009

The cherry blossom front

In Japan, the school year, fiscal year, corporate orientation for new employees, and the television season begin on April 1 or during the first week of April.

Exercising more common sense, Japan doesn't do Daylight Savings Time.

The cherry blossoms start blooming in Tokyo around the last week of March, so falling cherry blossoms have become a symbol of transition, of endings and beginnings, guaranteed to show up in any high school melodrama.

The Japan Meteorological Agency--primarily responsible for important stuff like long-range weather forcasts and earthquake/volcano/tsunami alerts--also officially announces the beginning of the cherry blossom season and provides detailed weekly updates.

Sort of like tracking the changing of the leaves every autumn in New England, only with that ritual Japanese formality.

Because the cherry blossom season is tied to the growing season of each area, it moves in stages, from south to north and from the coasts inland. It's called the sakura zensen (桜前線) or "cherry blossom front."

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