July 28, 2009

The birds, bees, and the trees

Along with Simoun, here are a few examples of "non-normative" sex roles and matrimony in anime series.

The Twelve Kingdoms

In the universe of the Twelve Kingdoms, parents who want to "have" a child tie a ribbon to a special tree and their offspring literally grow on the tree like fruit.

Gall Force: Eternal Story

The female race of the "Solnoids" and the reptilian (male) "Paranoids" have been engaged in centuries of ruinous warfare. Faced with the possibility of mutual annihilation, the powers that be conspire to invent (accidentally on purpose) heterosexual mammalian reproduction.

My Hime/My Otome Hime

What's out of the normal here are some rather unusual "unintended consequences" of heterosexuality. Because exposure to prostate specific antigen zaps the superpowers of the Hime, they can't get married and also have a career. (Yes, I can think of work-arounds too.)

Tweeny Witches

Alice stumbles down the rabbit hole (she falls off the roof of her school) into a world where the witches (female) have segregated themselves and the girls (except for the incompetents) from the warlocks (male). This turns out to be at the root of all their problems.


This comic space opera (profundity takes a back seat) also posits a future where men and women have separated into separate societies, though they've apparently figured out to reproduce without each other. The fighting mecha literally fuse together in a clever metaphor for sex.

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July 25, 2009

Tokyo South (excerpt)


If there is a genre of literature unique to Mormon letters in terms of the church’s social culture (as opposed to being unique, say, in terms of its theology), it is the missionary memoir—the autobiographical account of the two years a young Mormon man (and the occasional woman) spends spreading the message of the church in distant lands.

For a kid from Provo, Utah, that “distant land” may well turn out to be Los Angeles. For a kid from upstate New York, it was Tokyo, Japan. This is certainly not to say that the narratives penned by ministers of other faiths possess less literary merit or a less interesting perspective. The Mormon missionary memoir measures itself only against its own historical standard: always the same, only different.

The typical missionary hails from North America and the suburban middle class, begins his service at the age of nineteen, and sallies forth with a thin comprehension of his religion (but making up for it with zeal to spare). In the end, he’s been there and done that with the rest of his peer group, been subject to the same institutional regimes and regimens, has dealt with the same heroes and jerks.

And yet the inescapable mystery remains—that these identical pressures and deformations, punishments and rewards, produce such wildly different products at the end of the spiritual assembly line.

The majority, to be sure, are spared any true physical hardships or trials of the soul. They carry purse and scrip and wear shoes made for walking. They are weekend warriors in a lay army. The work is the kind that prepares a young mind for the challenges of the post-industrial world: long, dull hours of often purposely pointless effort interrupted by occasional moments of inexplicable wonder and discovery.

These moments can propel them into the shocking embrace of a world completely different from everything they thought they knew. It can shake the complacency out of them, and a good complacency-shaking is what the average teenager needs.

This is not, of course, the stated purpose of the program—the stated purpose being Preaching the Gospel and Saving Souls. Alas, as a purely evangelical enterprise, the missionary program hardly constitutes the most efficient use of the church’s resources. The number of graduates from the Missionary Training Center has more than tripled since I spent my two months there—evidence of enormous success, one would think—except that baptisms per missionary have dropped by half over the same time period (and continue to fall).

And, as I illustrate in the largely autobiographical account that follows, those baptisms have only an abstract statistical relationship to the official membership numbers the church publishes.

Hence the admonition that “every young man” should serve a mission was, for a time, qualified to mean not every young man (and you slackers know who you are).

Similar and understandable objections are raised by professional soldiers when presented with proposals to reintroduce the draft—not to better fight wars, but in the pursuit of high-minded goals of social engineering.

But when it turned out that the slackers knew exactly who they were, and there were a lot of them, the church reversed course once again and declared that the admonition henceforth applied to every young man and woman. And shaved a year or two off the minimum qualifying age to encourage their parents to kick them out of the house and into the arms of their ecclesiastical leaders.

The mission was thus rechristened the church’s retention tool of choice. And why not? We are an imperfect species, and the modern church remains in short supply of what universal conscription supplies a nation in times of crisis (an organized religion, by definition, being constantly in a time of crisis): a common cause and a shared experience that bridges the social fault lines.

All politics is local, Tip O’Neil observed, and that is especially true of religious politics. A geographically concentrated church can only achieve “worldwide” status by uprooting its youth and sending them abroad—as metaphysical pirates, scavengers, and ambassadors of good (and bad) will—so that they will bring home with them a more expansive sense of the world “out there.”

Self-funded and run and staffed by rank amateurs, the missionary program is not sustainable as a proselytizing organization. But compromises must be made, and without the draw of a universal, shared (and occasionally exotic) experience, there soon wouldn’t be anybody left to spend two years even pretending to proselytize.

It is especially important for young men, who are provided by modern society with little in the way of canonized “coming of age” ceremonies. (Which is why I find it difficult to disparage missionary farewells and homecomings, their silly and self-aggrandizing tendencies notwithstanding.)

The exponential expansion of the number of missionaries means there is a lot more pretending going on these days (about what all these missionaries are actually going to accomplish). And, by force of circumstance, also a lot less lying about what teenagers are actually capable of when it comes to recruiting converts.

The rise and fall of the Tokyo South Mission (itself a Buddhist metaphor for the fleeting nature of things) set in motion a reactionary but rational response that, decades after the fact, still outlaws anything resembling “catch sales” street proselyting techniques.

At some point in the final decades of the twentieth century, the church was finally forced to abandon (without ever admitting it) the long-held triumphalist fantasy of becoming something other than an oddball fringe offshoot of Christianity.

This was the dazed and confused end of an era, when a naive teenager from upstate New York could mingle with the saints and sinners (meaning the saints and sinners found among his fellow missionaries) without anybody asking what in the world he was doing there or what he hoped to accomplish.

So I remain grateful for those two years when The Powers That Be shrugged at my real reasons—because I was supposed to, because it was what all my friends at church were doing, because I’d never honestly considered the alternatives, or, for that matter, deeply questioned any aspect of my religious life—and said, “Fine, if that’s what you want to do. Maybe it’ll do you some good.”

Well, it did. But not in the way I expected or the way they intended.

First District: Senzoku

Chapter 1. Lost in the Works

Elder Thomas Thackeray pressed the glowing button. Nothing happened. He stared at the strange Japanese writing and wondered what to do next. He was supposed to buy a 270 yen ticket. But the machine had all his change and he still didn’t have a ticket. So he hit it. Hard.

There he was, an American in an off-the-rack, three-piece suit, beating up on a ticket machine in Shinjuku station. But the people standing in the line behind him seemed to approve.

He was winding up for another try when the machine surrendered with a metallic thunk. The copper and silver coins jangled down into the smooth metal tray.

Thackeray scooped up the coins and shoved them into the adjacent machine, glancing over his shoulder in time to see Elder Patrick shepherding the rest of the missionaries down the staircase to the subway platform.

“Wait!” he shouted. He punched the button. The ticket spit out into his hand. He sprinted to the turnstiles and stumbled down the steps to the platform.

Subway cars waited on each side of the platform, pneumatic doors gaping wide open. Thackeray froze. WHICH ONE?

He ran down the platform, searching frantically for the navy-blue suits and pale Caucasian faces. A bell clanged loudly above his head. The conductors blew their whistles. Red running lights flickered to green. The doors hissed shut.

“WAIT!” He held out his arms as if he could bring the trains to a halt through shear force of will. The couplers pulled tight with a dull thud. The cars rolled away from the platform.

“Wait—” he said again, his voice fading to a taut whisper.

Thackeray paced the platform in a daze. For an hour he watched the subways come and go. But after each arrival and departure, after the crowds dispersed, he was still alone.

Finally he walked back up the stairway to the concourse. “I should have gone with Elder Carpenter,” he muttered to himself. Carpenter had carted the luggage back to the mission home in the mission van. Two new missionaries went with him.

He looked up and stopped. A policeman was standing in his path. “Excuse me,” he said, backing up a step. The policeman frowned and said something. Thackeray shook his head and the policeman repeated himself.

Thackeray concluded he was asking for his passport. He produced it from his suit coat pocket. The policeman snapped open the booklet, peered at Thackeray, then at the photograph in the passport.

Nyu Yoku desu ne!” The policeman raised an eyebrow and said something Thackeray took as a reference to New York City. He wasn’t from New York City but figured the best tactic was to agree with whatever the cop said.

“Can I help?” said a voice in heavily-accented English.

“I think I’m lost.” Thackeray didn’t know who had spoken to him, but the English was gracious music to his ears. A college student walked up and introduced himself. He and the policeman exchanged a few words.

“Where you going?” the student asked.

“I’m not sure. I think—I think maybe I have something—” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope Elder Patrick had given him at the airport. “Will this do?”

The two Japanese men examined the return address on the envelope. The policeman’s eyes lit up. “Ah! Hiro desu.

He knows the address,” the student explained. “It’s not far from here.”

The policeman sketched a map on the back of the envelope. He traced over the coarsely drawn lines with his pen as he spoke.

“Go through the turnstiles over there,” translated the student, pointing. “And take the right subway. Hiro is the seventh stop. Go up the stairs and left. About a hundred meters down the street.”

Thackeray didn’t stop to think why the subway to Hiro was in a completely different direction than where he’d last seen Elder Patrick. All he knew was that he could get from here to there. The icy desperation in his gut began to melt.

“The policeman will change the ticket,” said the student.

Thackeray turned to thank him but he was already gone, lost in the crowds.

“Come, come,” said the policeman, assuming an impatient, official tone. He approached the ticket taker sitting in the booth between the entry and exit turnstiles and spoke briefly. He turned and snapped his fingers. Thackeray held out the ticket. The ticket taker marked it with a transfer stamp and handed it back.

“Uh, domo arigato.” Thackeray stuck out his hand, then corrected himself and bowed. The officer grinned and nodded in return.

Thackeray pushed through the turnstiles and walked down the stairs to the subway platform.

Hiro was the seventh stop, just as the student had promised. The station name was written in bold romaji letters on backlit signs along the station wall.

Up on the street, the city was dark and quiet. It was past ten at night. Thackeray vaguely remembered eating breakfast in the Missionary Training Center in Provo twenty hours before. But he wasn’t tired. He set off down the sidewalk.

The mission home was an office building, five stories of gray metal and tinted glass that glistened in the rain-streaked darkness like black, polished granite. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Thackeray read aloud. The lettering was etched into the glass above the entranceway. He walked up the short flight of steps to the landing and pulled on the door handle.

It didn’t budge. The door was locked. He pushed. Definitely locked. Had they forgotten about him altogether?

“Hey! Anybody home?”

Thackeray paced back and forth on the narrow landing. He felt stupid, the same way he’d felt his first month in the MTC. Boy, was he glad that was over. Eight weeks memorizing discussions and cramming vocabulary lists. By the halfway point, four groups of Japan-bound missionaries had come in behind him. At least they knew less than he did. By the time he left he was an old sage. Knew everything about the MTC, everything about Japan. Or so he thought.

Now he didn’t know a thing. He was losing IQ points by the minute. He stepped down to the sidewalk and stared up at the obsidian-like glass.

A man strode down the sidewalk. He was wearing a bowler hat and a charcoal gray overcoat. Even more unusual, he was a good two or three inches taller than the missionary. He touched the rim of his hat as he passed.

“Good evening,” he said in a clipped British accent.

“Good ev— Hey, wait!” Thackeray ran down the sidewalk after him.

“What is it?”

“I—I think I’m lost.”

“So where do you want to be?”

“The Tokyo South Mission?” It was as much a plea as a statement.

“South?” The man chuckled. “You definitely are lost. You found the right place on the wrong side of town. These are the offices of the Tokyo North Mission.”

“Tokyo North—”

“Yes. President Atkinson’s children attend my school.” The man asked, slightly puzzled, “How did you get here in the first place?”

Thackeray handed him the envelope.

“Ah, yes. That’s the address. Do you have anything else?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, there might be something in this envelope.”

“I guess,” said Thackeray. He’d only looked inside the envelope to get traveling money. Dumb and dumber.

The man sorted through the contents: a letter of greeting from the mission president, a handful of proselyting leaflets, and several thousand-yen notes. The man pulled out one of the leaflets and turned it so the light from the street lamp fell on the paper.

“There you go.” He pointed at two telephone numbers and a small map printed on the back of one of the leaflets. “Those are probably the phones at your office. Give them a ring. They should be able to help.” He handed the envelope and leaflet back to the missionary. “Good luck, eh?” he said, waving off. “If you get lost again, find a koban—a police box—and give that slip of paper to an officer.”

“Where’s a phone?”

“There’s a cafe up the street.”

“Thank you!” said Thackeray. The Englishman waved back without turning around.

The cafe was closed. A single bulb burned in an overhead fixture. An old woman, wearing a pleated white smock over a faded kimono, was meticulously sweeping the floor in the warm, yellow light. She looked up with squinted eyes when Thackeray rapped on the colored panes.

She opened the door a crack and peered out.

Denwa?” said Thackeray. At least he remember the word for telephone.

The cleaning woman slowly opened the door and stepped back into the middle of the room, giving him a wide berth. She pointed at a pay phone in a small nook behind the cash register. There was a single slot on the top of the phone, a large “10” stamped into the chrome. Thackeray dug into his pockets and pulled out several coins, but he had none in a 10 yen denomination.

“Uh, sumimasen? Excuse me?” He held up one of the silver coins and pointed at the phone. The woman took the coin and walked over to the cash register and scooped out ten copper coins. Thackeray nodded and returned to the phone.

The phone at the other end of the line rang once.


“Hello? Who is this? Thackeray—is that you!? Where are you!?”

“A cafe about a block from the North Mission in Hiro.”


“Uh, that was the address on the envelope I got at the airport.”

“THAT’S OLD STATIONERY!” wailed Elder Patrick.


“You found our address, didn’t you?”

“Well, there was this leaflet in the envelope and—”

The phone clicked and went dead. The dial tone hummed.


Thackeray pushed another coin into the slot. He dialed the mission home number. Busy. He looked at the leaflet and dialed the second number. The phone rang several times.

“Hello!” wheezed Patrick, having sprinted from the clerk’s office back to the secretary’s office. “Listen, Thackeray Choro, how many ju-en do you have? That’s those ten yen coins.”

“Ju-ens? Oh, eight.”

“Put them all in.”

Thackeray slipped the coins into the slot. The receiver clicked as each coin rattled down through the mechanism.

“Listen,” Patrick went on. “Can you remember how you got to Hiro from Shinjuku?”


“The place you got lost.”

“Oh, I think so.”

“Go back to Shinjuku and get on the Keio train, outbound. That’s the one on the right going down the stairs from the ticket machines.”

“How do I know when to get off?”

“Just ask someone,” said the exasperated Patrick. “Just ask, Fuchu desu ka? That’s where you want to go. Fuchu.”


“You got that? If you get lost again, call!”

The line went dead. Thackeray hung up the phone. Three coins rattled down into the coin return slot. He picked them up and turned to leave.

Domo arigato,” he said, bowing. The woman smiled, likely in relief at his imminent departure, and bowed in return.

The Shinjuku-bound subway was more crowded than the one to Hiro. A pack of teenagers wearing copycat James Dean leather jackets milled together at the far end of the car. They were surprisingly unintimidating.

The train jerked forward. Thackeray grabbed a strap. A girl with blue and red hair held onto the strap next to him. Unique, he thought. It was all unique. He was from upstate New York. He’d never been on subway before. He’d never been lost before. He’d always known where he was going. Until now.

The train pulled into a station. Thackeray glanced out the window to check the destination sign, but it flashed by too fast. I missed it! he thought. He leaned over the seats and craned his head to look down the platform. Was this stop five or stop six? It couldn’t be stop seven—could it? The girl with the rainbow hair eyed him curiously. He looked at the open subway doors and back at the girl. He took a deep breath.

“Is this Shinjuku?”


What does that mean? The bell clanged. He stepped towards the door.

The girl grabbed his arm. “No! No!”

“The next one?”

She nodded. When the subway arrived in Shinjuku, the girl touched him on the shoulder. “Shinjuku desu,” she said.

Domo arigato,” said Thackeray. He wanted to say more but didn’t know how.

He found his way back to the concourse, back to where he’d started. He was no longer afraid of the city. In fact, he was enjoying himself and was sorry that the adventure would have to end. He bought a 270 yen ticket and walked down to the Keio line platform. The train arrived several minutes later.

“At least I know my way around Shinjuku Station,” he told himself as he found an open seat.

At the next station a young boy, no older than fourteen, boarded the train and slid into a seat across the aisle from him. The boy wore a dark blue suit that Thackeray recognized as a school uniform. He held a small black leather attaché case on his lap. The salaryman training started early.

The train pulled into a station. Thackeray turned around to see the destination sign. When he turned back, the boy blurted out, “Are you American?”

Thackeray nodded.

“Where are you from?” The boy strained at each word, but his accent was better than the college student’s.

“New York.”

“New York City?” said the boy with wide eyes.

“No.” Thackeray laughed. “Upstate. Uh, the country—” He gestured with his hands trying to mime the word.

“Oh. Inaka,” said the boy.

“Yes. Hai. Inaka desu.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a missionary. Senkyoshi desu.” Thackeray handed him a leaflet.

The boy took it eagerly. “I don’t know Morumon Kyokai,” he said, studying the small map on the leaflet. “You going here?”


“Lots of Americans here.”

“Yeah. There probably are.”

The train slowed as it approached a station, the sharp hiss and squeal of the air brakes. The boy jumped up and stood by the exit doors. “Can I keep?” he asked, holding up the leaflet.


The train shuddered to a stop. The doors hissed open.

Fuchu wa tsugi no tsugi. Next after next.” The boy hopped down onto the platform and scooted away into the night.

Thackeray listened carefully as the train coasted into Fuchu station. “Fuchu de-gozaimasu, Fuchu de-gozaimasu,” the conductor’s voice squawked over the loudspeakers.

Thackeray stood by the door as the boy had. The train stopped. He stepped out into the cold night air. As he walked down the short flight of stairs from the platform, he could see Elder Patrick and another missionary waiting next to the turnstiles. He handed his ticket to the ticket taker and joined them.

“Well, tell me, Thackeray,” said Elder Patrick. “What was it like getting lost in the biggest flippin’ city in the world?”

He shrugged. “Not so bad, I guess.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the empty station platform. He could still feel where the girl with the rainbow hair had grabbed his arm.

Read the rest


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July 21, 2009


Another compelling entry in the "non-traditional sex/marriage models in fiction" category: the anime series Simoun. In the world of Simoun, everyone is born female. One's permanent sex is chosen at the age of seventeen in a religious ritual that looks a lot like baptism.

This puts a whole new spin on the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

What makes this metaphor work better than the similar (but heavy-handed) Star Trek: TNG episode is that the "agency" issue is not the point of the show, but an aspect of the society. And the emphasis is on the weight of having to make a choice rather than the choice itself.

We are told that some of the "less advanced" societies on the planet do insist on the equivalent of a "prearranged marriage." However, the "freedom to choose"--or the choice to leave things to chance--can be just as overwhelming to the psyche. Freedom is good, but it's not easy.

The religious aspects of the story are similarly compelling. The "Simoun" are fighter aircraft piloted (in squadrons of twelve) by the "Simoun Sibylla," young women who haven't been "baptized." Although they know how to fly and maintain the Simoun, nobody knows what makes them "go."

Anthropologically speaking, a complex cargo cult has arisen to explain the existence of the Simoun and why only a select number of young women can fly them. The "Simoun Sibylla" are ordained as priestesses and the Simoun are treated as instruments of the divine.

The result is a theocracy with super-advanced military technology it doesn't understand at its fingertips, surrounded by and increasingly threatened by secular regimes armed with the steampunk equivalents (that they do understand), and getting stronger and more belligerent by the day.

When war breaks out, the priestesses must turn their "divine instruments" into killing machines. Some suspect that the Simoun are comprehensible mechanical devices, but this is heresy. Unable to exploit this technology, they risk being overrun and conquered, if only by sheer numbers.

Perhaps most interestingly, Simoun is ultimately a story of failure and the inability of a religious culture to adapt in the face of radical change.

Related posts

The birds, bees, and the trees
Gall Force: Eternal Story

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July 16, 2009

Dying for art

The interminably hospitalized or ailing characters in Air, Clannad and Kanon (both of which have two) remind me of the dying heroines in operas like La Boheme, who manage to expire while everybody's singing up a storm. "Mimi! Mimi!"

The "dying kid" theme shows up a lot in Japanese melodrama. A large part of it is dramatic convenience, but there's actually a medical reason behind it. Despite having the world's longest lifespans and some of the most modern medical technology in the world, Japan does very few cadaverous organ transplants.

Most transplants are live-donor organs such as kidneys, and weighted for population, Japan does less than a tenth as many as the U.S. Only eleven heart transplants were performed in 2008. This has led to "organ transplant tourism," such as the three yakuza lieutenants and a yakuza oyabun who received liver transplants at UCLA.

EU countries have long complained about this, and only U.S. hospitals still place Japanese nationals on heart transplant lists. Cadaverous organ transplantation was formally legalized in 1997. A bill passed the Lower House in June 2009 intended to bring Japan's medical ethics laws into line with World Health Organization guidelines.

This doesn't really "solve" the problem, as the definitions of "brain death" and the legal concept of "consent" remain far from settled in the public mind. As the Mainichi Shimbun opined about the bill:

It doesn't appear that thorough deliberation of the various proposals has taken place, nor does it seem that Diet members and the public have reached a real understanding of the issues.

What makes this all the more interesting is that abortion is legal in Japan and is little debated. Japan is one of the few developed countries besides the U.S. that has a death penalty and regularly uses it. It is also little debated.

When it comes to surveys showing how "atheistic" Japanese are, it should be remembered that a belief in a Judeo-Christian deity says little about people's beliefs when it comes to life-and-death matters such as transplantation and cancer. Japanese doctors still regularly (as high as 70 percent) hide diagnoses of cancer from patients.

They do so even in the face of studies showing that the decision to conceal the "true diagnosis was not related to the presence of psychiatric disorders in Japanese cancer patients" (informed patients had a lower rate). Doctors are acting upon religious and cultural beliefs, not science.

I believe that at the heart of the matter is the firm hold Buddhism still maintains over all aspects of funerary culture in Japan, including Obon, the second most important holiday after New Year's. (On the other hand, faux Christian marriage ceremonies have become more popular than the traditional Shinto rites.)

In fact, after I wrote the above paragraph, the aforementioned bill passed the Upper House (13 July 2009). This is a "sea change," explains Mari Yamaguchi of the AP, "because of Buddhist beliefs [that] consider the body sacred and reject its desecration."

So the languishing patient remains a very believable possibility in Japanese melodrama. Another good example is My Hime, in which Mai's little brother languishes away for the entire series before going to the U.S. for a heart transplant in the happy ending.

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July 14, 2009


Clannad is best examined in reference to Kanon. It's pretty much the same, only different. Which is to say it's very much worth watching. Good, not great, though there are many moments of greatness. The better the idea, the more it should be ripped off. The world hasn't run out of worthy homages to Pride and Prejudice.

As with Kanon and Air, the story and character design were created by software developer Key Visual Arts. The anime version was produced by Kyoto Animation, directed by Tatsuya Ishihara and written by Fumihiko Shimo. This team has a good thing going. I hope they keep at it.

Clannad, like Kanon, is on the surface a high school harem melodrama with a wise-guy male lead (Tomoya Okazaki, voiced by Yuichi Nakamura), surrounded by a bunch of girls with "issues." But while Kanon starts out with a story derived from traditional folklore, Clannad begins as a theater of the absurd.

Tomoya sets out help Nagisa join the drama club. The drama club was shut down for lack of interest. They can start it up again if they can attract a quorum of members. But they can't officially recruit because it's not a club. And nobody wants to join because nobody's interested in joining what's-not-a-club. That sort of thing.

The comic relief is broader. The repartee between Tomoya and Fuko is fall-down funny (though the patter can be tough to follow even with subtitles).

We also find out about everybody's "after school special" problems much earlier. This makes Clannad more by-the-numbers, less dramatically complex than Kanon. Rather than weaving several stories together, the narratives follow one after the other in an episodic fashion, almost independent of each other.

The story arcs thus tend to hang separately than together, and never quite surmount the first featuring Fuko (or address the implicit magical realism). The writer seems to have realized this and has Fuko popping up randomly throughout the series doing a "magical girl" parody that though funny, only serves to remind how much she is missed.

Anybody who's seen Cipher in the Snow will recognize the same theme in the Fuko arc. Both Clannad and Kanon deal seriously with the weight of memory and loss and the burden of guilt—and about disparate people uniting in a common cause largely despite themselves.

The concluding arc featuring Nagisa tries to tie up the lose ends, but raises more questions than it settles—about Nagisa's parents, about the relationship between Tomoya and his father, about the metaphorical significance of the poignant "lonely robot" vignettes—and doesn't quite deliver on the original promise.

If anything, Clannad is cursed by an abundance of good ideas and the inability to choose the right ones to follow through on. (The story as a whole becomes much clearer after seeing Clannad: After Story.)

Which is perhaps why, far and away, the best-written episode is a stand-alone short story tagged onto the very end (it expands upon a secondary character and conflict raised during the series). Rather than focusing on group dynamics, it's about two individuals coming to terms with each other and their place in the world.

Essentially, a high school senior slacking his way through life realizes he's not half the man his girlfriend thinks he is and finally grows the heck up. In only twenty minutes, the story comes to a well-crafted conclusion and a satisfying moral point but without a hint of moralizing. It is a superbly directed and edited short animated film.

Although Clannad takes a more meandering and uneven path than Kanon, it does begin and end on two very high notes.

Related posts

Dying for art
Clannad: After Story

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July 10, 2009

You gotta do better than that

My father only listens to all-classical radio (my parents have never owned a TV). He once told me that the brief news summary at the top of the hour told him everything he really needed to know about the "news" (solid-state physicists do tend to be eccentric like that).

The local Fox affiliate runs its late-night news an hour earlier than the competition, and does a recap at the top of the hour to keep viewers from switching to the other stations. As I've grown older, I've found that on most days that recap tell me everything I need to know.

Hand-wringing aside, much "professional" news content is being devalued because it's useless. The Internet makes that obvious. For example, Daniel Gross (a fine person, I'm sure) traveled to Japan and in 750 words manages to say nothing. As one commenter noted:

Wow, Mr. Gross flew all the way to Japan, went straight to the Roppongi district in Tokyo, and saw a lot of American chain restaurants there. Ergo, the Japanese love American fast food.

It's rather like analyzing "America" by hanging out in Times Square and eating at the Hard Rock Cafe. As travel writer Rolf Potts observes (read his far more insightful analysis of the international McDonald's experience here),

I'd wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald's has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of "otherness" that are an inherent part of travel.

As a result, Gross completely missed the bigger story, namely that

McDonald's and other fast food establishments, rather than providing a symbol of the exotic foreign or non-Japanese other, have become ubiquitous establishments that serve important needs and tastes of the Japanese within their own culture.

Even more surprising, "many Japanese, and especially younger Japanese, are unaware that McDonald's is not a Japanese company."

In any case, Mr. Potts notes that "McDonald's (and other fast food) is easy to avoid." Anyway, it's hard imagining a Japan-based blogger being this boring on purpose. Basically, Mr. Gross was being glib and lazy and his editors let it slide. Those tough journalistic standards at work.

Read, for contrast, Japan newbie Orson Scott Card describing (among other things) dining in Tokyo. He gets off the beaten track. He tries different stuff. He observes. Card is a professional writer, but his blog is exactly the kind of "free" that Chris Anderson is talking about.

The Wall Street Journal can charge for content because it provides valuable information (that is at least perceived as such) that can't be found elsewhere. And like Fox News, its conservative perspective makes it "unique" compared to the rest of the MSM.

As Mark Cuban puts its succinctly, "When you succeed with Free, you are going to die by Free." There's no "more for less" when you start at zero, and you can't charge more--in money or attention--for more of the same when the "same" wasn't worth anything to start with.

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July 07, 2009

Paying the piper

Malcolm Gladwell begins his review of Chris Anderson's Free with a misconstrued anecdote and buries the lead to boot. Apparently James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, is peeved about the royalties offered by Amazon to post the paper's content on the Kindle.

Newspapers, Gladwell incredulously reports Anderson concluding, "need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business."

I wasn't aware that this conclusion was being debated by anybody. In any case, I'm not interested Gladwell's opinion of Anderson's book, except to say that I think Anderson is making an obvious point (and, yes, perhaps too glibly), and Gladwell is doing his level best to miss it.

To start with (as Anderson himself can't help quipping), Gladwell's review is free too.

But a long paragraph later, Gladwell marries that first anecdote with his thesis by concocting a straw man. Moroney was originally protesting Amazon's 70 percent cut on Kindle subscriptions. Then Gladwell tells us that "Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free."

As Clint Eastwood's Will Munny would put it, "Want's got nothing to do with it." I want to get paid the same rates that Gladwell gets paid, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.

The more important question Gladwell completely misses--despite it staring him and James Moroney in the face--is why Amazon can charge those usurious rates. The answer is easy: because Amazon has a monopoly (or when it comes to buying Kindle content, a monopsony).

And why does Amazon have a de facto Kindle monopsony? Because what we learn from history is that nobody learns from history. Especially, these days, publishers.

The RIAA spent the better part of the past twenty years insisting that CDs are king! And if they aren't, then any content produced by RIAA members is worth a gazillion dollars! And so must be locked up and DRM'ed like Fort Knox lest it fall into too many prole hands.

Of course, the cruel fact is that most musicians and writers make minimum wage at best. The RIAA exists to protect an aristocracy. Yet I believe in copyright protection (though reasonably limited to the life of the artist) and believe that ISPs can and should block file sharing ports.

But most content is not worth what the content producers wish it was. It sure isn't worth what I wish it was. And the actions of publishers to defend that fantasy are only making the situation worse.

It was Steven Jobs--not the RIAA--who married the MP3 player to a storefront and started making lots of money. Jeff Bezos added a twist: Amazon would do the same thing but use a non-proprietary format. So now it's the retailers--not the RIAA--running the show.

With the Kindle, I wouldn't be surprised if Bezos got the idea from Jobs: mash up a storefront and proprietary hardware and make the content creators come to him. Ironically enough, he can count on the Luddite publishing industry to enforce his marketing monopoly.

He dangles DRM before their eyes and they bite down hard. Hook, rod and reel. But at the end of the day, Bezos is the one holding onto the end of the pole.

If James Moroney doesn't like Amazon's terms, why haven't he and his fellow publishers deployed their own push technology? There are plenty of e-readers out there and a non-proprietary standard (ePub). I believe it again comes down to delusions about content value.

As a running-dog capitalist, I'm mostly fine with charging what the market will bear. The flipside of that equation, though, is that when the market can't bear so much, the price must go down. As with a housing bubble, that painful realization takes time to sink in.

By the time it does, though, book and newspaper publishers may find themselves again in the unenviable position of having the more technologically adventurous distributors and retailers dictate the terms to them.

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July 01, 2009

Prohibition ends (sort of)

In chapter 17 of Angel Falling Softly, Milada and Kamilla walk into a bar. It is kind of a joke.

They had to buy a four-dollar membership to get in the door--the product of some strange nexus between state liquor laws and the teetotaling Mormon population.

This remnant of 19th century "blue laws" has long irked the tourism industry here in Utah, so much so that the Mormon governor (Huntsman, who recently resigned to become ambassador to China) pushed hard for repeal. On 1 July 2009, it was finally put out of its misery.

Also gone is an actual physical barrier. A provision in the old law forbade bartenders from directly serving customers, and running down the middle of the bar in every bar was a partition fondly known as the "Zion Curtain." In the novel I pretended it wasn't there because even in a story about vampires, reality can be stranger than fiction.

The distinctions between a "social club" (a bar), a "dining club" (50 percent of receipts from food) and a restaurant (70 percent of receipts from food) remain, along with restrictions on when alcohol can be served, (10:00 AM or noon to midnight or 1:00 AM) and whether minors can be admitted unaccompanied by an adult.

But the more things change, the more other things remain the same. In chapter 22 of Angel Falling Softly, Milada "savored a respectable 1993 Merlot and watched the quiet neighborhood dramas play out in the driveways and front lawns," and muses to herself that "obtaining the Merlot had approximated a visit to a twenties-era speakeasy."

In fact, "packaged liquor, wine, and heavy beer [over 3.2 percent]" will continue to be sold only in duly licensed state liquor stores. Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control boasts that Salt Lake City "offers a world class wine selection at four specialty wine stores."

Count 'em, four! (There are 37 "full service" liquor stores state-wide.) But the legislature did agree that wine bottles no longer needed to carry the official Utah tax stamp (which had to be tediously pasted on every single bottle sold), as the smuggling of bottled wine into Utah was pretty much determined to be a nonexistent crime.

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