April 29, 2010

Let them eat literary cake

Rich Adin, who posts on the TeleRead blog, is a good example of my modified Chesterton: it's not that when people stop believing in God, they believe in anything. Rather, they take their inherent religious fundamentalism and impose it on their current cause du jour.

Because, you know, it's the most important thing, like, ever!

So instead of having to content with just one goofy religious apocalypse per religion, everything--no matter how dumb or inconsequential--ends up presaging the end of life as we know it. (This also follows the rule that the less important the issue, the louder the argument.)

Adin's apocalypse is the end of "traditional" publishing. He's been writing about it for several weeks, and the apocalyptic fever is taking over his brain. His thesis in a nutshell:

The lack of gatekeeping standards, the lack of publication literary standards that ebooks bring to the marketplace, and the sheer volume of ebooks available solely because of a person's ability to bypass traditional publishing, indicates to me a downfall in literature.

For a brief moment in time, technology did allow mass media to be highly concentrated and refereed by a small number of "gatekeepers." This was an historically anomalous period. That power is now flowing back to the unwashed masses from whence it sprang.

Hence the "mass" in mass media.

Prior to the printing press, the preservation of "high culture" depended largely on the tastes and predilections of the (self-appointed or power-grabbing) elites. "Low culture" depended entirely on the great mass of commoners liking it enough to keep it around in the collective memory.

Over time, the jots and scribbles of human creation--no matter how inspired--will largely vanish from both ends of the spectrum. The citizens of 18th century Vienna spent the bulk of their free time not being entertained by Mozart, Haydn and Salieri, but by musicians long lost to history.

As he identifies so strongly with the privileges of high culture, Adin is understandably upset over the demise of a cultural aristocracy, an attitude perhaps best illustrated in Henry V: "You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion: we are the makers of manners."

Every dilettante imagines himself a "maker of manners." I wish I were. Alas, democracy has arrived. Let them eat literary cake, I suppose.

I wouldn't worry about it, though. Adin is really only rediscovering the dichotomy paradox. It's been around for at least 2500 years. I suggest he study the Pareto principle and power law distributions and update his mathematical logic.

Over time, almost everything regresses to the mean. At any given moment, we are truly lousy at predicting what won't. Art and literature are no exception.

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April 26, 2010


NHK has a fun pop-sociolinguistics show called Minna de Nihon-GO! (みんなニホンGO!). The title is a pun on Nihon (Japan) and Nihongo (Japanese), and can be read: "Japanese, Everybody!" or "Let's Go Japan/ese!"

A recent program was about the language used in "confessions" and how the terminology had changed over the past fifty years. In Japanese that specifically means confessing love, or more simply, asking somebody to go steady with you.

One linguist theorized that changes in usage and vocabulary reflect a behavioral shift from "ABC" to "HIJK." The former is a well-used acronym in Japanese, the equivalent of the "bases" in English (apparently, if you get to second base, you're already home):

A. Kissing
B. Petting.
C. Sex.

I hadn't heard of "HIJK" before. It was new to some of the older panelists too. Unlike "ABC," which only reflects an order (like "1-2-3") and isn't a true acronym, "HIJK" is an "initialism" that reflects the sport in Japan of smashing together romaji and Japanese words.

H. Ecchi (エッチ), or sex. This is a double initialism. "H" was derived from the word hentai, a general term for anything of a salacious nature. It has since evolved to mean "sex," and is written in katakana and pronounced the same as the letter in English. In CSI: Miami, David Caruso's character, Horatio, is called "H" for short. But not in the Japanese dubbed version.
I. Ai (愛), or love.
J. "Junior" (ジュニア), referring to children.
K. Kekkon (結婚), or marriage.

In other words, a guy and a girl hook up, sleep together, fall in love, she gets pregnant, and they get married. Ah, the romance!

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April 22, 2010

Chapter 63

TokyoPop recently published A Thousand Leagues of Wind, the Sky at Dawn (as The Twelve Kingdoms: The Skies of Dawn). Coincidentally, I noticed an odd spike in my web stats for "entry pages" (keeping in mind that a "spike" for me is a hundred hits above average). The cause was a comment in this review of the book:

I noticed the rather big jump at the end of chapter 16 too and checked it out against Eugene Woodbury's translation [which predates and is completely unrelated to the TokyoPop translation]. It looks like the entire of chapter 63 in the original is missing from Tokyopop's version.

Confirmed in this Amazon-Japan comment:

This English-translated book lacks one of the most important episodes, that should be in the last part of the chapter 16. I am so disappointed with the editors because their works on volume 1 to 3 seemed great.

To clarify, my "chapter 63" is actually chapter 16, part 4. Fuyumi Ono divided the novel's two volumes into 21 chapters (plus a prologue and afterword), and subdivided the chapters into sections. For file management reasons, I put everything in numerical order. But I do begin each chapter with the author's originally numbering convention.

I was curious, so I checked my archives, and my original files are dated 2005 and early 2006. Good grief, eons ago. Looking at old translations is a bit like looking at old, half-finished novels--which I try not to do, because I will surely be driven into a frenzy of editing, even if said scribblings will never see the light of day.

Speaking of editing, in the aforementioned comment section was the following, which is depressing but to the point: "Honestly, if Tokyopop has to degrade the quality just to get it all released, that's a price I'm willing to pay."

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, and size is in the eye of the beholder. During the early days of the World Wide Web, salesmen would show up at Linguatech and realize--oh, it's a couple of guys working in a basement. After Linguatech, I worked at an online computer journal with four employees (and stringers).

Small companies, like puffer fish and peacocks, can accidentally or on purpose make themselves look bigger and more grandiose than they are. Erica Friedman stresses this point: "success" at the niche end of publishing business means selling a few thousand copies (at most!) and hopefully making enough to keep the lights on.

Though I suspect a big part of the problem in TokyoPop's case is recognizing how difficult copyediting is and giving it its due. Zarahemla Books is a mostly one-man operation, but Chris copyedits better than the big publishing houses (and, no, doing a grammar and spell check in Word doesn't count).

With A Thousand Leagues of Wind, I didn't do much besides translate, post, and correct obvious errors and ones spotted by my readers. Shadow of the Moon, on the other hand, was compared to the TokyoPop version by a diligent reader. All the deltas have been noted and addressed. That version is as accurate as can be expected.

The great thing about publishing electronically is that no typo need last longer than the next FTP session.

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April 19, 2010

Content is King

My brother links an article by John Yemma, editor of The Christian Science Monitor, in which they (my brother and John Yemma) agree that Rupert Murdoch is right when he says, ""Content isn't just King, it's the Emperor of all things electronic." Yemma goes on to argue that

Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there's no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There's no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site's brand because of cool multimedia.

Too few people remember the failure of the "media rich" reference CD-ROMs back in the 1990s--maybe because the format crashed and burned so quickly. What did survive and made the transition to the Internet were plain vanilla CD-ROM indexes with plain vanilla interfaces. Google, in other words.

I laugh when pundits tell us the iPad has created the platform for the "enhanced" novels that everybody's been waiting for. You mean, like movies? What people want from a novel are words worth reading. (And a good TTS engine--another example of the self-destructive publishing industry in action.)

Back in the day, I worked for a company that made "media rich" educational CD-ROMs. We went out of business at the end of the 1990s (at least with a whimper, not a bang). Thinking back about it now, what the product needed was a simpler interface, less "interactivity," and better content.

(The biggest problem with such products is that the idea of educational software is more compelling in the abstract than in reality. Want to learn Japanese? Forget about fancy software programs. Start by watching a lot of Japanese TV and read a lot of Japanese language manga. Seriously.)

Unfortunately, the producers of even marginally popular content were, as they are now, convinced that every frame touched by their sacred breath was worth a jillion dollars, and have made it utterly impossible for anybody without deep pockets and an army of IP lawyers to license their precious content.

The digital "dog in the manger" syndrome writ large.

Information does "want to be free" (it can't be copyrighted), but content does not. But it has to be able to be bought. However screamingly obvious this may seem, it's amazing how many (if not most) content producers make it unbelievable difficult for law-abiding folks to give them money for their stuff.

Sony, for one, seems perversely--insanely--committed to making sure that nobody outside of Japan can buy Japanese pop music, except at exorbitant prices through small exporters. I can buy books from Japan with a U.S. credit card, but not songs from iTunes-Japan. Amazon-Japan sells zero MP3s.

That's a big reason why Sony, after inventing the Walkman and the whole concept of "portable music," stupidly handed over its entire market share to Apple. The same attitude doomed WordPerfect (along with their disastrous first attempt at a Windows version) once Microsoft started bundling.

And so it ends up as a battle between the conquistadors and the pirates.

The major book publishers are now trying their best to repeat the mistakes of the past. They're doing a bang-up job of it too--except for one publisher in particular: Harlequin. Harlequin has been ahead of the publishing curve for decades, though nothing it does can't be done by anybody else.

This article shows how Harlequin has adapted its publishing model to the Japanese market with a heavy emphasis on manga and digital delivery. Harlequin continues to be the most innovative publisher in the business.

Harlequin understands that the only real "enhancement" that matters is getting the content (no matter how same-old, same-old it may be) to the reader in whatever medium she find the most convenient and accessible.

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April 15, 2010

A matter of height

An Asadora protagonist is always a woman. The lead of Ge-Ge-Ge no Nyoubou is played by Nao Matsushita, who is 175 cm (5'9") tall. The average Japanese female is 158 cm (5'2"), the average Japanese male is 172 cm (5'8") tall, so she towers over almost everyone.

Watching enka singer Kiyoshi Hikawa's variety show, I was sure he was at least six feet, but it turns out he's 177 cm (5'10"). It's just that he was that much taller than his guests.

I'm 176 cm tall, the exact average for the American male. I used to have a pretty unobstructed view standing in a subway car in Japan. But over the last quarter century, adult male height in Japan has gained 3 cm, so not for long.

The average Japanese eleven-year-old has gained an amazing six inches since the end of the war.

Thirty years ago, Japan's most famous tall actress was Youko Shimada. To prevent a comical mismatch of height in the Shogun miniseries, the 171 cm (5'7") Shimada was cast against the 185 cm (6'1") Richard Chamberlain.

Nao Matsushita's character really was a couple standard deviations taller than the average (Nunoe Mura was repeatedly turned down for marriage proposals because of her height), and she is playing opposite the six foot Osamu Mukai.

So in historical and relative terms, the role does call for someone with height on her side. (Incidentally, theirs was an arranged marriage, and Nunoe Mura and Shigeru Mizuki were married a week after their omiai.)

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April 12, 2010

Ge-Ge-Ge no Nyoubou

NHK's daily (six days a week) 15-minute long, family-friendly morning melodrama (Asadora) is doing something a bit different this time around: a non-fiction series. The story is based on the autobiography of Nunoe Mura, wife of famed horror mangaka Shigeru Mizuki.

During WWII, Shigeru Mizuki was an infantryman in Papua, New Guinea, and lost his left arm in a bombing raid. Originally left-handed, he had to teach himself to draw with his right. When the war ended, he considered staying behind in Rabaul, but returned to Japan.

His affection for New Guinea has since been reciprocated, with a street in Rabaul being named after him. (The Taiwanese also remain relatively well-disposed toward the Japanese, probably because the Imperial Army treated them better than the Chinese Nationalists.)

Mizuki's most famous work is Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitarou ("Kitarou of the Ge-Ge-Ge"), so the Asadora series is titled Ge-Ge-Ge no Nyoubou, or "Ge-Ge-Ge's Wife." The "Ge-Ge-Ge" are a tribe of youkai, or spirits and demons. Mizuki is largely responsible for popularizing Japan's rich youkai mythology.

Ghibli's Pom Poko belongs to the youkai world, while the creatures in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are more Shinto in orientation. They live alongside the gods of Japan's creation myths and various Chinese and European imports. The Venn diagrams overlap quite a bit.

By comparison, think of the difficulty in classifying all the gods and demons in the Western tradition (Greco-Roman, Christian, Norse, just to name a few), along with the pagan religions, fairy and folk tales (original and revised versions), plus recent inventions like Dracula and Frankenstein.

The propensity for human being to create transcendental realities seems bred in the bone (if not the genes). Not satisfied to just create them, we then arrange them into insanely complex taxonomies. This, incidentally, is why evangelical atheism is ultimately doomed to plow the ocean.

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April 08, 2010

"Mononoke" vs. "Avatar"

On a more serious cinematic note, Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke makes for a better critical comparison to Avatar. Like Jake in Avatar, Ashitaka journeys into a magical forest protected by a willful princess. The archenemy is Lady Eboshi, who needs the lumber and iron ore in the forest for her foundry.

The difference is, Hayao Miyazaki doesn't reduce things to simplistic, black and white terms. He let Lady Eboshi compellingly argue that the gains from economic development accrue to the most dispossessed. The boars defending the forest are boorish and ugly, and tend to turn themselves into cannon fodder.

And when the modern goes up against the primitive, no matter how pristine and spiritual it may be, the primitive will—sooner or later, rightly or wrongly—get its butt kicked. As Kate says about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Yeah, sure, Winnie the Pooh versus lasers. My vote is on the lasers."

Another good Ghibli comparison is Pom Poko, in which a bunch of tanuki (racoons) band together to kick the humans out of the Tama New Town housing development. The effort fails for the same reasons such efforts usually fail: zeal can't compensate for incompetence, and little furry animals can't compete with bulldozers.

In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has Lady Eboshi presciently declare that, "When the forest has been cleared and wolves wiped out, this place will be the richest land in the world." For a time, it literally was. Miyazaki is not denying this fact, nor his own good fortune at being able to share in it. He is saying, "Yes, but."

Yes, economic progress is good, but there are costs. Yes, the environment is harmed, but we benefit enormously. And having seized those benefits for ourselves, it is awfully self-serving to pull an Augustine and pray, "Give everybody else chastity and temperance now, and thank God we didn't have it then."

We're like the tanuki, who shout and protest loudly, only to discover in the end that golf courses make for nice habitats. There's a great scene at the beginning of Pom Poko, reminiscent of Life of Brian, where the tanuki get sidetracked talking about all the great human stuff (television, garbage cans) they can't live without.

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April 06, 2010

Secret unreleased "Avatar" trailers

Previously unreleased Avatar trailer.

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April 01, 2010

Red-hot government bureaucrats

Saga Prefecture's recruiting website may well be the grooviest official government website in the world. The Japan Style blog describes its enthusiastic, manga-inspired, tongue-in-cheek approach here.

Along with 「魂」 ("spirit" or "spirited"), the site also uses 「熱血」 ("hot-blooded," "zealous") as an all-purpose prefix. The governor (Yasushi Furukawa) is a man with a sense of humor. ("I'm waiting for you!" he says in bright, red characters.)

The top banner reads: "Sweat and Tears and a Passionate Spirit!! Saga Prefecture's Big Government Employee Recruiting Drive!!"

Below the banner in small characters: If you're a young person burning with enthusiasm and not hemmed in by convention, Saga wants you!!" Above the banner in small characters: "Saga Prefecture's official website! No joke!"

It's not that kind of joke. This page has been up for a while. April 1 is a very serious day in Japan, the beginning of the fiscal (and school) year. Corporations (and schools) hold very serious assemblies on April 1 to welcome new employees (and students).

The more sedate "officially official" Saga Prefecture website is here. The English website is here.

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