March 29, 2010

Clannad: After Story

Clannad (reviewed here) by itself is pretty good. Together with After Story, the writer/director team of Fumihiko Shimo and Tatsuya Ishiyara, together with Key Visual Arts and Kyoto Animation, have again (as they did with Kanon) produced a real work of art.

Granted, tastes differ. You've got to like big-eyed moe. You've got to like melodrama. Let me rephrase that: you've got to like MELODRAMA. And the shameless yanking of heartstrings. A healthy toleration for an interminably ailing heroine also helps (paging Dr. House).

But beneath the super-cute surface and emotional manipulation (though it's so transparent it's not) shines a compelling story with keen insight into the human comedy.

While Clannad labors mightily to tell everybody's backstory (remaining true to its interactive, "visual novel" roots) and gets a bit lost in the weeds at times, After Story eventually pushes all the supporting characters to the side and focuses on Tomoya and Nagisa.

The story begins on a light note, wrapping up the loose ends as high school graduation nears. The next several episodes comprise a straightforward depiction of the bright kid who's blown his chance at college getting his act together and landing a job in the trades as an electrician.

(The favorable depiction of the trades in popular entertainment is an unfortunate rarity outside "reality" or DIY-type shows like American Chopper and This Old House.)

From there we move into family drama territory, with Tomoya and Nagisa getting married and moving into their lower-middle-class digs. Then things turn dark, and a pair of achingly tragic story arcs follow--hardly surprising given all the foreshadowing, but still terribly wrenching.

I'm reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's advice to writers: "No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of." And so Tomoya is plunged into the refiner's fire.

I mentioned previously that I missed Fuko after her storyline is apparently resolved in Clannad. As with Kanon, this first and rather odd foray into magical realism turns out to define the narrative for the rest of the series. Fuko's reappearance signals that reality is not all it seems.

The haunting and poetic "lonely robot" sequences that begin in Clannad are finally given purpose and knit together. As with Kanon, the ending clarifies the substance and structure of the middle. What was simple and obvious at first turns out to be considerably more complex.

Shimo and Ishiyara never point a finger at it. As with Kanon, it's up to us to get the subtext. Nagisa articulates the theme early on, but it's easily dismissed as glib philosophizing. By the end of the combined 48-episode series, Shimo and Ishiyara have given that glibness heart and soul.

Call it the Heisenberg principle of dramatic development: the universe evolves to meet our expectations of it. Tomoya's self-involved despair is not an independent variable. Rather, the way he sees the world orders (and disorders) the world. After Story turns this idea into an existential reality.

Rest assured that things do end happily, and the drama is leavened by quite funny comic relief. We're taken through a gauntlet to get there, though.

After Story concludes with a pair of "alternate world" episodes that posit two different "what if" beginnings to the series. Neither equals the alternate world episode at the end of Clannad, which could stand on its own as a brilliant short film. They do qualify as pretty good Jack Weyland material.

And then the series ends a second time. The first "ending" left me a tad dissatisfied. The second ties up the frayed threads and pays off completely, impressing me at just how good melodrama can be when skillful hands know how to give the transcendent its moment on the stage.

Related posts

Dying for art

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March 26, 2010

Recent AFS reviews

Angel Falling Softly contains extraordinary writing and fine storytelling. Eugene Woodbury's brilliance and depth of knowledge is clearly evident. However, mixing LDS fiction with vampire fiction limits its appeal to a narrow audience. Congratulations to Woodbury for pulling off this bizarre combination of genres with flair and fangs. (Brett Wilcox)

A little less recently:

I was dubious at first - I've read a lot of rather bad vampire fiction. But Angel Falling Softly was extremely good. The characters were so real and believable, and the backdrop of the life of an LDS family was so unusual, I found myself riveted.

There was an undercurrent of how some people use faith in their lives, but not in a preachy manner--more that there was an honest insight into how some of the characters--like some real people--use faith not as a tool of blind belief, but as an inner compass to allow them to face practical worldly problems. (Coyote Osborne)

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March 24, 2010

Baseball according to Drucker (2)

My translation of chapter 1 from 「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 ("What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?"). This isn't the whole chapter, only what's available in the Amazon preview (the prologue here).

The school year in Japan begins and ends in April (the same as the fiscal year). Except for a small number of private "American-style" high schools, public and private high schools require entrance exams and are ranked accordingly. I believe the rank of 60 cited below refers to the school's T score (偏差値).

What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?

Chapter 1: Minami and Management Cross Paths

        Minami attended a public high school in Tokyo. Hodokubo High--"Hodoko" for short--was located in the hilly Tama district at the western reaches of the Kanto Plain. The school building was perched atop one such hill with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.
        The Okutama Mountains were visible from her homeroom window. On a clear day she could see all the way to Mt. Fuji.
        The forests had been mostly cleared starting in the 1960s to make room for the Tama New Town bedroom community. Nevertheless, a few stands of trees had been left intact. Despite belonging to the Tokyo megalopolis, signs of nature were surprisingly abundant.
        Hodoko was a college prep school. It had a ranking of sixty, which placed it in the top fifteen percent. Almost everybody passed their university entrance exams. It was a good enough school that several graduates could be expected to enter Japan's Ivy Leagues every year.
        The differences between academic and athletic performance, though, were stark. Campus extracurricular activities enjoyed wide and enthusiastic participation, but none of the sports teams produced the kind of talent that could make it to a national championship.
        The baseball team was no exception. It wasn't embarrassingly weak, and neither was it particularly strong. It simply didn't compete at a level worthy of Koushien. Only once, twenty years before, had Hodoko made it as far as the fifth round, to the Sweet Sixteen.
        Most years, they were eliminated before reaching the third round. Nobody was harboring any high hopes this year either.
        Minami knew all this. But even she was surprised when she walked into the clubhouse. "Humble" was the kindest way of describing the environment she found there. Forget Koushien--they wouldn't make it past the first round in this shape.

        Shortly before Minami became manager, Hodoko lost in the summer municipal preliminaries and the seniors, right on schedule, quit the team to concentrate on their college entrance exams. Such a state of affairs was not unexpected. Still hardly anybody showed up for team practice.
        Not because the team was taking an official break. Practices were scheduled. But without even bothering to concoct a good excuse and without any prior notification, most players just skipped the workouts.
        That was the mood of the baseball team these days: Show up. Don't show up. Whatever. Nobody said they were free to do "whatever." Nobody said they weren't. Nobody was holding their feet to the fire either way.
        Only five players came to practice the first day Minami did. The team had twenty-three members. That meant almost three-quarters were absent. Attendance didn't improve much the next week. And summer vacation would soon be upon them.
        That got Minami's dander up. Carrying the status quo into the summer break was simply unacceptable. She needed to get a few things off her chest, seek agreement with her ideas, and hopefully garner some cooperation going forward.
        So together with the coach, she gathered together the handful of team members and began her speech.

        "I am going to take this team to Koushien."
        That statement prompted a variety of responses. For every kid actually listening to her, her words were going in one ear and out the other of another. The majority joked and chattered aimlessly. But the one reaction they all had in common was overwhelmingly negative.
        "That's out of the question," said the coach, Makoto Kachi.
        He paused and continued, "In the ninety years since the Koushien tournament began, only one municipal high school in West Tokyo made it to Koushien. Needless to say, it was Kunitachi Metropolitan. West Tokyo is crowded with private school powerhouses like Obirin Prep, Nichidai Daisan, and Waseda Vocational, plus at least three others that have been in the Koushien championships. Getting into Koushien means beating those schools and more like them. A goal like that is completely disconnected from reality."
        Jun Hoshide, the team captain, said, "Talk about setting the bar too high. We're not on the baseball team because we want to go to Koushien. We're here for the workouts, for the comradery, and for the memories, I guess. Some of us started out when we were kids and never shook the habit. Or were looking for a productive way to spend our afternoons. Talking up Koushien around here won't get anybody jumping on your bandwagon."
        The catcher, Jirou Kashiwagi, added, "Yeah, not exactly a cakewalk, you know? I get where you're coming from. But go sailing off half-cocked with super high-minded goals and it's going to hurt a lot worse when you come crashing back to earth. How about something a bit more realistic, like making it past the third round?"
        Then in a more subdued voice he asked, "I mean, are you serious? Do you really want to manage this team?"

UPDATE: ranked number 3 on Japan's bestseller list.

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (1)
Baseball according to Drucker (3)
Baseball according to Drucker (4)
Baseball according to Drucker (5)
Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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March 22, 2010

Baseball according to Drucker (1)

I love a good "Reese's moment" (You got peanut butter in my chocolate!). I had one the other day, watching a story on Good Morning Japan about how, in these uncertain times, businessmen were turning for inspiration to the classics. Such as Nietzsche (!).

Or rather, books explaining Nietzsche. The professional explainer is a revered occupation in Japan. Like the grandpa in The Princess Bride, a good explainer sums up the important stuff, provides simple examples, and smooths over the big words and archaic syntax.

A comparison that springs to mind is the "Books That Changed the World" series (such as On The Wealth of Nations by P. J. O'Rourke). Except more popular. Professional explainers like cognitive neuroscientist Ken'ichiro Mogi sometimes seems as ubiquitous as Oprah.

Discussing other unique and not-boring books about business, they mentioned one with the title: 「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 or "What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?" written by Natsumi Iwasaki.

That strange juxtaposition got my attention. The next day, Today's Close Up (NHK's version of Nightline) was about Peter Drucker's influence on business culture in Japan. Like Edward Deming, Peter Drucker has found more honor in Japan than in his home country.

Featured was an interview with the author of the aforementioned book, Natsumi Iwasaki (岩崎夏海). He said that he'd gotten interested in the subject observing the difficulties players in MMOGs like Final Fantasy encountered organizing and managing teams.

"What if the girl manager of a high school baseball team read Peter Drucker's Management?" (ISBN 978-4478012031) is available from Amazon-Japan. They have a preview, so here's my translation of the prologue (I'll post the first chapter on Wednesday).

In Japan, the "managers" (assistant coaches who tend to non-coaching duties) of high school sports teams are usually girls. This excerpt from Kokoyakyu, a very good documentary about high school baseball in Japan, briefly features the team's girl managers.

What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?


        Minami Kawashima became the manager of the school baseball team her junior year of high school. It was the middle of July, just before summer vacation.
        It happened quite out of the blue. Until practically the moment before, she'd been just another ordinary student, uninterested in any after-school activities, let alone baseball. Being the manager of a high school sports team was the furthest thing from her mind.
        Her junior year in high school--and days before summer vacation--was about the most least opportune time of the year to arrive at such a decision. But an unforeseen set of circumstances led her to make the plunge.
        Minami had only one goal in becoming manager. And that was taking the team to the Koushien National High School Baseball Championships. This wasn't a vague or fanciful dream. It wasn't a wish. It was a concrete objective. It was her mission in life.
        Minami didn't say, "I'd like to take the team to Koushien." She said, "I'm going to take the team to Koushien."
        Which was all fine and dandy. But the truth was, she didn't have the foggiest idea how to turn this conviction into reality. As has been noted, she'd had zero contact with the baseball team before then, and wasn't quite sure what being the manager even involved.
        But that didn't slow her down in the slightest. She naively assumed she'd figure it out along the way. Minami was the kind of girl who leapt before she looked.
        That was certainly her state of mind when she became manager. Before thinking, "How does one take a baseball team to Koushien?" she'd already resolved, "I will take this baseball team to Koushien."
        And having committed herself to that end, she did not pause to ponder. But turned directly to action.

Go to Chapter 1.

UPDATE: It's being made into an NHK anime series.

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (2)
Baseball according to Drucker (3)
Baseball according to Drucker (4)
Baseball according to Drucker (5)
Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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March 19, 2010

Japan's got talent

No discussion of attractive women with slightly unusual physical characteristics can be deemed complete without mentioning the owner of the world's cutest overbite. When Disney anthropomorphizes a pretty girl chipmunk, what they must surely have in mind as the ideal is Shouko Nakagawa (中川翔子).

Nakagawa came up through the traditional "idol" ranks, which presupposes a nominal (often very nominal) amount of singing and acting skills. But these days she is mainly known as a "talent" (tarento).

A "talent" (an actual title and job description in Japan's entertainment industry) is a person whose fundamental "talent" is being famous for being famous. Talents are the backbone of the game, chat, and variety show circuits in Japan. Their job is to have charisma, a fan base, and always something interesting to say.

Shouko Nakagawa has greatly extended her audience not just by being very cute, but by demonstrating a genuine interest in, and knowledge of, all things otaku. She can share the stage with either comedians or professorial types and acquit herself nicely. And she's respectable enough to appear regularly on NHK.

She is the incarnation of the geek daydream, a flesh and blood moe character come magically to life: big eyes, big ears, a dainty overbite, beauty and brains.

In Japan, it a respectable sideline for people with real talent to do stints as "talents," such as actor/director Takeshi Kitano, who hosts a weekly chat show. Marty Friedman, lead guitarist for the metal band Megadeth, now lives in Japan and makes regular appearances as a "gaijin talent" (another actual category).

By way of comparison, Ryan Seacrest on American Idol is an "announcer" (anaunsaa), a specialized kind of "talent." Ellen is an "announcer" on Ellen but a "talent" on American Idol. David Hasselhoff on America's Got Talent is a "talent," because nobody can remember what he's famous for anymore.

Related posts

The ears have it
Three good reasons to watch NHK
Timeless fashion

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March 17, 2010

The ears have it

Google actress/model Mayuko Iwasa (岩佐真悠子) and you'll find plenty of photos displaying her in various states of attractive (un)dress.

But few and far between are those showing off her most impressive pair of assets: her amazing ears. Paint her blue and she could pass for one of those Avatar chicks.

Mayuko Iwasa has a supporting role on the current NHK Asadora Wel-kame ("welcome" + kame [tortoise]). She plays a doctor who's fallen for the fisherman's son (go ahead, roll your eyes). That means she wears a lab coat, her hair back, and a serious expression constantly on her face.

But at least we get to see the ears!

After her starring role in Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey got a nose job that so changed her appearance that on the short-lived series It's Like, You Know, the running joke was that, even playing herself, nobody recognized her. She said, "I went in the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous."

Seriously, Mayuko, don't mess with the ears.

Related posts

Japan's got talent
Three good reasons to watch NHK
Timeless fashion

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March 11, 2010

Totoro in "Toy Story" trailer

In the latest Toy Story 3 trailer, you can spot a Totoro plush toy (from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro) at the :48 mark (sorry, no embed code). Pixar's John Lasseter is largely responsible for keeping the Ghibli library alive at Disney and for producing some excellent dubs.

For those of you not familiar with Totoro:

Incidentally, Miyazaki's witch girl Kiki (Kiki's Delivery Service) makes a cameo in Whisper of the Heart (look for her riding her broom over Shizuku's desk). And speaking of Studio Ghibli, the first trailer for The Borrowers.

The titles read: "Never be seen by humans. That is the law of the little people who live beneath the floor."

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March 08, 2010


Ponyo has enjoyed the most successful U.S. theatrical run for a Studio Ghibli/Disney release to date (albeit only a tenth its Japan gross). It is the most "Disney-like" Ghibli production since Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, has the youngest protagonists, and the most obvious fairy tale pedigree since Isao Takahata's Pom Poko.

Pom Poko, however, was based on traditional Japanese folklore--of the bawdy, rough and tumble variety (like the original Grimm and Andersen), not the cleaned up Disney versions--making it probably Ghibli's least accessible film outside Japan (I give Disney credit for distributing it; now they need to rescue Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves).

Ponyo is pretty much the Little Mermaid (Miyazaki has acknowledged as much), with a bit of Captain Nemo mixed in, and a dash of Ron Howard's Cocoon at the end. Sousuke's mom obviously took driving lessons from Lupin III.

Unusual for Miyazaki, Ponyo doesn't have much of plot or philosophical depth. Ponyo just wants to get back together with Sousuke, and in her single-minded determination triggers a natural disaster (that manages not to injure anybody) and a madcap oceanic return to the Devonian Period.

For Sousuke--for any kid who dreams of toy boats and primordial seas suddenly springing to life--this is the adventure of a lifetime. (I'm sure that I played with one of those "pop-pop" steamboats when I was his age.)

There's no real antagonist or character arc (Sousuke and Ponyo are only five, after all). Just one crazy thing after another, leading up to a literal deus ex machina happy ending (though we are left to wonder what they're going to do with all the water and all those prehistoric sea creatures).

The family-friendly surrealism provides most of the fun, reminiscent of the trippy imagery in Spirited Away. The familiar setting of a present-day fishing village also helps make the world of Ponyo so fantastic. (Sousuke's home reminds me of my parents' place on Casco Bay in Maine.)

A year ago, NHK's The Professionals devoted two episodes to Miyazaki's storyboarding of Ponyo. I can confirm that he was stone cold sober the whole time, a genius working hard at the hard work of unleashing his imagination and being truly creative.

Though nearing 70, Hayao Miyazaki still possesses that unique abilty to directly render with pen and paper the output of his prodigious mind. He is one of the few remaining movie directors with no need to subcontract his creative energies to a CGI render farm.


March 04, 2010

Cancer and statistics

If you recall the rekindled controversy about cancer screening a few months back, here is a detailed explanation about why the issue is a lot more complex and counterintuitive than the sound-bite reports or staged debates between lobbyists make it out to be.

As Dr. Kramer vividly illustrates, the statistical tools used to evaluated the "success" of screening methodologies are extremely susceptible to unintended manipulation. The greater ability to detect health problems often does not correlate with a greater ability to decrease mortality.

Thus the results of screening can be as harmful as they are well-intentioned. This Wednesday (3/3/2010), the American Cancer Society followed exactly the advice Dr. Kramer gives (11/25/2008), saying that "Routine [prostrate] screening isn't recommended for most men."

This again affirms my belief that in high school math classes, teaching statistics should take precedence over teaching anything beyond basic arithmetic. Related thoughts here by Car Talk guy (and MIT grad) Tom Magliozzi.

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March 01, 2010

Dirty sexy money

Funny, fascinating article about a literary writer who moonlights writing porn. Great quote:

Books in which children are abused, women murdered and men brutalised crowd the shelves of WH Smith [and the plots of Law & Order]. Books in which consenting adults enjoy each other for the healthy entertainment of literate wankers do not.

Interestingly, what is true about yaoi in Japan--"a field dominated by women, who approach any and every kink with gusto"--appears also to be true of the same market in Great Britain.

Speaking of consenting adults enjoying each other for the entertainment of literate wankers, the small, independent film Man, Woman and the Wall is one of the more enjoyable erotic thrillers I've seen in a while. Though it ends up being more clever and comic--on purpose--than "thrilling."

Start with The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's post-Watergate cult classic about a bunch of spies (led by Gene Hackman) planting bugs on each other. And then imagine the script getting mixed up with Revenge of the Nerds. And this is pretty much what you'd end up with.

Though the underlying theme of imagination and perception colliding with reality may be asking too much of this particular vehicle. Give it points for trying, though.

"AV" idol Aoi Sora is the object of the spying, so we can expect to literally see a lot of her. But then there are the eavesdroppers eavesdropping on the eavesdroppers. The creepiest of them gets his comeuppance--because who's doing the spying matters. Some voyeurs are way more equal than others.

As Tracy Lamb puts it, "When I reread [Twilight] more analytically, I realized that a guy sneaking into a girl's room without her knowledge could seem a little stalker-like. But the first two times I read it, it just seemed flattering."

Aoi Sora also shows up in Siren. It's more conventional erotic thriller fare, about a bunch of thieves who pull off the score of their lives, and then knock each other off one by one after a mysterious woman injects herself into the gang and reveals the disloyal darkness in each of their larcenous hearts.

Sora has that creepy "black widow" smile down ("We'll have sex and then I'll bite your head off"), but in this case she doesn't bring much to the role besides nudity. Siren struck me as an interesting idea that never made it beyond the outline stage. It needed either more substance or more sex.

The artsy-fartsy shakey cam also makes it well-nigh unwatchable. Hey, all you too-cool, art-house movie directors, please memorize this one word: "TRIPOD." Or this one: "STEADICAM." Or these two: "IMAGE STABILIZATION."

But as I observe here, the revenge drama--in which a vigilante or supernatural grim reaper deals out justice and balances the cosmic scales--is quite popular in Japan. The anime series Hell Girl is representative. Alas, the genre gets awfully repetitive. After a couple of episodes, seen one, seen them all.

Many commenters on Netflix recommending skipping the first volume of Hell Girl for exactly this reason. Maybe I'll take that advice and give it another shot.

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