October 28, 2010

Showa nostalgia

Musing about my musings about how the more things change, the more some things stay the same, Kate asks what makes a "classic" era classic.

Nostalgia is always about forty to fifty years in the past. Forty or fifty years ago, life was perfect! Which is nonsense, of course, but it makes me wonder if, in another twenty years, people will be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s.

I think half a century is about how long it takes to take the long view and distill from an era what's worth preserving. Or to put it another way, fifty years is about how long it takes to sort out those cultural artifacts that carbon date the time (like fashion and pop music) from those that transcend it.

Everything else then ends up in a landfill or disappears down the memory hole. As Steve Sailer points out:

The truth is that there is always an absolutely colossal amount of popular culture, the vast majority of which is almost quickly forgotten, except for a tiny fraction that stays in a few influential people's minds and comes to form our heritage of high culture.

So it's not surprising that the things we end up conserving tend to be, well, conservative. Comparing what we've preserved from the past (the less appetizing elements having dimmed with time) with the messy present can't help but foster a sentimentality for the presumably smarter, better, more stable era that produced it.

In Japan, this is epitomized by Edo Period romanticism, conveniently forgetting that the Tokugawa regime ran a heavily-policed feudal state, though one that managed to skirt out-and-out incompetence (until the mid-19th century) and that was quite stable for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.

And more recently, "Showa nostalgia."

The Showa Era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito) lasted from 1926 to 1989. Everybody politely ignores the first two decades. Showa nostalgia instead refers to the twenty years of economic recovery following the war, when everybody pitched in and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

This was the time when courageous government officials did courageous government official stuff and weren't all on the take or off starting land wars in Asia. As with the much-heralded era of "lifetime employment," it barely lasted a single generation, and yet continues on and on in the collective memory.

As exemplified in an entertaining example of Showa nostalgia like Always: Sunset on Third Street, the 1950s in Japan was not so different from the 1950s in the United States, except poorer. But starting from such a low point, those years of free, peaceful, year-on-year growth were like a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps even deserving of such rich, sepia-steeped sentimentality.

Labels: , , , , , ,

October 21, 2010

Timeless fashion

One fascinating fact about female fashion in Japan is that the yukata and kimono have remained almost unchanged for 400 years. Young women still wear kimono on Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) and yukata to the summer matsuri.

Yukata remain de rigueur for men and woman at any hot springs resort or traditional Japanese inn.

One odd exception is the adoption of the English morning coat as formal male dress, especially favored by politicians. And western-style wedding gowns (along with faux Christian wedding ceremonies) have become very popular.

But sumo refs and judges wear kimono and hakama. Sumo wrestlers must travel to competitions wearing kimono.

What has changed--for women and men--are hair styles. Nothing pins down the time period of a Japanese melodrama faster than the chonmage (丁髷). And again, sumo wrestlers sport a version (that doesn't involve shaving the pate).

Get past the awful bell-bottom stage (and the entire 70s) and this holds for the last fifty years in the U.S. The hair styles of the students in Caltech's Mechanical Universe series, more than the antiquated PCs, pinpoint its 1985 origins.

The lecturer in the series, Professor David Goodstein, looks as conservatively and consistently unhip as a geek from last week. Just as the uncool military haircuts in 2001 (made in 1968) are truly timeless. Ditto if you're Audrey Hepburn.

Related posts

The ears have it
Japan's got talent
Three good reasons to watch NHK

Labels: , ,

October 18, 2010

Three good reasons to watch NHK

Sometimes the picture really is worth a thousand words of entertainment value. And the stories are good too! But the additional pleasures of watching an attractive woman act them out is undeniable.

Yeah, I know, it's not terribly "realistic." When it comes to art, "reality" need not be "real." Just as the most "natural" food isn't at all "natural." It's painstakingly created by experts in ways that nature never intended, with a singular, sensory objective.

Now and then I do have to wonder why--other than a million years of evolution and social conditioning--my brain gets off on something so abstract. Not just attractive women, but attractive women in evolutionarily novel contexts, and the less "made-up" the better.

Satoshi Kanazawa argues that the more intelligent you are, the more you are drawn to "evolutionarily novel" things.

Following Kanazawa's thesis (which could rationalize just about anything), evolutionarily "familiar" fashion is simply a way of accentuating primitive mating cues. So appreciating an "un-dolled-up" look requires more brains. Hey, I can be an evolutionary psychologist too!

Or in Aya Ueto's case, she sports a "young urban professional" look (evolutionarily unique) that's actually "professional." Her character in the flash-forwards is more Cosmo. But we're supposed to assume she's become more dissolute. Ah, stereotypes make for such good shorthand.

Google these three young women and you'll find oodles of cheesecake. But nothing that looks half as good as the "plainer" versions. The best contemporary photo of Yoko Maki I could find is the one below taken for a magazine interview. A little goes a long way in my book.

1. Aya Ueto (上戸彩)

As Rika Onozawa, an earnest young editorial assistant, in the romantic dramedy, I'll Still Love You in Ten Years. Co-star Seiyou Uchino plays the geeky physicist who loves her, loses her, and then uses a time machine to make things right.

2. Yui Ichikawa (市川由衣)

As Dr. Katsura in the period melodrama, Chizuru Katsura's Casebook, about an Edo Period woman doctor. Her chopsocky's good enough to not make you furiously roll your eyes (though, seriously, any man could hoist her by the scruff of her neck).

3. Yoko Maki (真木よう子)

As Ryo Narasaki, the gun-toting wife of Ryoma Sakamoto, hero of the Meiji Restoration, in the historical drama, Ryomaden. Sakamoto wore western-style boots and carried a Smith & Wesson. There's no evidence his wife did, but it's a fun thought.

Related posts

The ears have it
Japan's got talent
Timeless fashion

Labels: , , , , , , ,

October 11, 2010

Blockbuster goes bankrupt

And it's about time. Blockbuster always reminded me of HBO (I speak in the past tense because I haven't been inside a Blockbuster in years). Whenever there's a free HBO weekend preview, I wander over to take a look. I invariably come away thinking: Who pays extra for this?

I got the first DVD of The Sopranos from Netflix. I usually operate under the sunken cost fallacy that compels me to watch DVDs I've paid for, but couldn't force myself to watch the whole thing. Who cares about screwed-up thugs leading amoral and utterly boring lives? I don't get it.

Ditto Sex in the City. All I wanted to do was scream at Mr. Big: "Run! Run for your life!"

The local Blockbuster is located in prime retail space and yet always had a grundy, worn-down, seedy feel about it. A whiff of desperation seemed to permeate the premises even back before Netflix was founded in 1997. (The same vibe I get watching Sex in the City.)

But what really puzzled me about Blockbuster, back in its heyday, was how it was always "incentivising" but never innovating. Why didn't it have the equivalent of interlibrary loan? Why wasn't there an electronic card catalog? Small public libraries have had them for decades.

Why didn't Blockbuster beat Netflix to the punch? Because it was wedded to the same-old, same-old.

The same goes for Barnes & Noble. A bookstore is just a library where you can rent to own. For years, whenever I visited a B&N I thought: Where's the card catalog? Why make it so hard to find books? Why make it so hard to order them? Now I frequent B&N as often as I do Blockbuster.

The "traditional" publishers are headed down the same anti-innovation path as fast as they can run. Unfortunately, all we learn from the past is that nobody learns from the past. Or as Clay Shirky puts it: "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

If nothing else, dying U.S. businesses have time and again proved themselves preternaturally loyal to the problems killing them.

Labels: , , ,