October 31, 2011

The witching hour

To quote Wikipedia, ômagatoki (逢魔時 or "meet demons time") refers to the "moment at dusk when the sky grows dark." Toriyama Sekien describes it as "the time when the evil spirits of the mountains and rivers (魑魅魍魎) attempt to materialize in the world."

When I encountered the word while translating Maohden, my first inclination was to translate it as the "witching hour." Except that the witching hour usually refers to midnight (which never struck me as all that inherently spooky). So I defined it within a parenthetical:

The sepia light of early summer stained the falling dusk. Ômagatoki, it was called, the time when ghosts and demons prowled the earth.

Ômagatoki plays a big role in Serpent of Time, defining the powers of one of its main characters, the personification of a scheming Vedic yoga known as Kala Sarpa. This explanation I (made up but) attribute to the Heian Era diviner Abe no Seimei (Japan's Merlin):

During the uncertain hours of the dawn and dusk, when the stars cast a veil across human eyes and gods and ghosts walk unnoticed upon the earth, Kala Sarpa weaves in and among the worlds. But when the day fully conquers the night, when the waning light finally surrenders to the dark, all things must return to their proper time and place, to their natural homes.

Speaking of Toriyama Sekien, he was an eighteenth-century ukiyo-e artist and a collector of Japanese folk tales, a cross between Charles Addams and the Brothers Grimm. A Google image search on his name returns a rich trove of his delightful sketches and prints.

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October 27, 2011

Terra No (2)

With the treacle and dreck filtered out, the stories so far on Terra Nova have been retreads of average fare on Stargate or Star Trek. Unfortunately, they're constantly bogged down by the "Wesley Crusher" syndrome and the even deadlier Sarah Connor Chronicles syndrome.

The former tries to "connect" with the teen demographic with a wimpy teenage character whose presence shatters suspension of disbelief. The latter tries to "broaden" the appeal by layering on soap opera plots (as if dinosaurs and killer robots didn't provide plenty of conflict as is).

A running joke on Buffy is that the Apocalypse is right around the corner and all she cares about is getting a date to the prom. Some people in Hollywood apparently don't think that's a joke (memo to Hollywood writers: stop trying to relive and romanticize your high school years on my time).

The problem is further compounded by having critical story elements depend on said teenagers doing stupid stuff. The result is to turn off the core geek demographic, who want to be intellectually challenged, not pandered to, and who want to leave their idiot teenage years far behind.

Discussing the politics of ressentiment, Daniel Foster gets right to the point:

Nietzsche was correct to point out that the leaders of men, the successful few--you might even call them the one percent--are too busy acting, doing, and accomplishing to complain about their "emotional crises."

(Incidentally, one of my favorite names for a conceptual alien race is the "Nietzscheans" on Andromeda.) Or as a reviewer on IMDB puts it,

I don't want to watch another show about the estranged dad, the angsty son, the nerdy daughter, the innocent child, the worried mom, the hot girlfriend and the over-confident military guy.

To be sure, Stephen Lang as Commander Nathaniel Taylor makes a pretty good Nietzschean. But this James Kirk or Jack O'Neill has no Spock or Samantha Carter to act as a counterweight. And no mission to get the blood moving every morning, besides babysitting a bunch of listless ingrates.

A competent, go-getting alpha male with no goals. A supposedly brilliant doctor who spends all her time treating oopsies and dealing with whiny teenagers. Man, that's so depressing. Scotty, hurry up and fix the transporter and beam me back to dystopia!

Related posts

Terra No (1)
Apocalypse not now
No way to wage a war

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October 24, 2011

Terra No (1)

The best part of the Terra Nova pilot was the dystopian introduction, only because it reminded me how much I'd like to see a noir detective series set in the Blade Runner universe. That got my hopes up.

Then the whole thing started sliding down the stupid scale. Some tropes--like overpopulation, the environment being more polluted than in the past, and society becoming more violent--are so pervasive that people readily accept them when they're contrary to the facts.

In any case, the climate was much warmer, the CO2 levels at least four times higher, back during the Cretaceous. But I'm willing to give hackneyed tropes a pass as long as the writers get the rest of the science plausible right.

Alas, bad science fiction always has that moment when it becomes clear that the writer and director and producer couldn't care to get it right. The jocks show up in their SUVs (what is this, Road Warrior?) and bargain for stuff (why not just shoot them?) with a box of meteoric iron.

Meteoric iron is iron that comes from meteors. What are they going to do with it? Make hood ornaments? You'd need tons of iron to make the steel to support that level of technology in a community that size. What are they supposed to do if the axle on one of those souped-up SUVs break?

Besides, how do a bunch of rebels living in a jungle canopy keep them going? As transportation, ultralights make more sense. Another top priority would be transporting the components of a rocket system through the time rift so they could launch navigational and weather satellites.

Several massive extinction events occurred between then and now, caused not only by asteroids, but supervolcanoes and ice ages. If the survival of the human race is the whole point, they'll need to gather a lot of hard data about the planet to stay ahead of the Darwinian grim reaper.

And speaking of culling the slow and the stupid from the herd, running around in shorts would sure do it, not to mention stripping down to a bikini in a prehistoric rain forest. Okay, maybe they chlorinated the water and bombed the place with DDT first (the contrarian in me likes that idea).

I was hoping for a Cretaceous version of Star Trek or Stargate, about exploring the "strange new worlds" in our own past. What I got was a painfully predictable soap opera about the most exclusive summer camp for spoiled rich kids ever, and run like a country club penitentiary.

Where are the explorers? A prehistoric Ferengi or two looking to get rich? There should be splinter groups and outlying colonies all over the place, not just one bunch of ineffectual conspirators. Our Guy in Charge would be working overtime keeping the unum in e pluribus.

That means multipurpose, military/scientific scouting teams, the challenge of establishing and enforcing the rule of law, and keeping the colonies from splitting into tribes warring over limited high-tech resources. That means plenty of story possibilities.

Instead, the primary concern is a squabble between the preps and the jocks so arcane nobody can explain it. I'm getting the feeling they can't explain it because the writers haven't got a clue. But who knows, maybe it's a scheme to get rid of the "useless third" of the population!

Because this bunch sure isn't useful for anything.

Compared to them, the Ingalls family was more adventurous. As Kate says, "the Stargate philosophy is that exploration is better than playing it safe, no matter what the consequences." Terra Nova is all about playing it safe and fretting over the consequences. That's boring.

Related posts

Terra No (2)
Apocalypse not now
No way to wage a war

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October 20, 2011

My kind of fanaticism

Nettchuujin is a fascinating "reality" show on NHK. The title loosely translates as "The Hobbyists." The meaning of nettchuujin (熱中人) makes it closer to "The Fanatics." Each fifteen-minute vignette documents the mostly solitary and very single-minded pursuit of some obscure avocational activity.

For example, making vacuum tube amplifiers (a different one for each artist in his record collection); restoring 1980s cassette boomboxes; tracking down and cataloging (often working) Edo Period wells; cataloging urban intersections; a 72 year old man who racks up "home run" records at batting cages.

This isn't the usual Nelson Muntz treatment ("Ha! Ha!"), but an honest appreciation of the singular obsessions of men (and the occasional woman).

In some cases, like the guy with an apartment stuffed with old boomboxes, even I think: Dude, there's medication for that. But there are also some who'd get "respect" as "real" hobbyists, like the guy who flies home-built airplanes, or the woman who puts on horse-mounted archery demonstrations.

The substance of these mini-documentaries jives with Seth Roberts's theory of art, technology, and human social evolution. He argues that

the specialized use of free time (resembling hobbies) created demand for hard-to-make "useless" things, [and so] shifted resources to skilled artisans, who innovated more than other people. Desire for novelty (fashion) and small improvements (connoisseurs) pushed artisans to innovate.

These amateurs additionally exemplify Roberts's contention too many scientists have abandoned the foundational tenants of true science, airily theorizing instead of collecting lots of data and experimenting. The hobbyist is a role model for good old-fashioned science, to a fanatical degree.

Related posts

Tameshite Gatten

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October 17, 2011

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix is somewhat misnamed, as 600 of 700 pages deal with the first half of Hirohito's life, from 1901–1950. 1950–1989 constitutes a long footnote. It's more Hirohito and the Making of WWII. Bix's analysis of WWII sets this hefty biography apart from previous efforts and the prevailing wisdom.

In short, Bix argues that the Showa Emperor, rather than being a passive pawn of the Tojo militarists, was deeply involved in every aspect of WWII. He was, to mix modern terms, an "activist" emperor who hung onto power as long as he could and deeply resented giving it up.

Perhaps Bix's most disturbing claim is that Hirohito himself was responsible—contrary to the propaganda fashioned both by MacArthur's GHQ and the Imperial staff and Hirohito himself—for delaying surrender until after Nagasaki, while he attempted to secure (largely through fruitless negotiations with the Soviet Union) the continuation of his reign in a post-war Japan.

Bix is not as compelling a writer as John Dower (Embracing Defeat). For one thing, Dower draws from a wider spectrum of secondary materials, such as mass-media publications, to flesh out his arguments. Bix's primary sources—diaries and interviews by members of the Imperial household, the parliament and the cabinet—bring us eyeball-to-eyeball with the day-to-day machinations that drove both the war and the peace, but it also results in dryer prose. It's all "inside politics."

And unlike with Germany, one finds not so much a banality of evil arising out of deliberate, malicious intent, but rather a banality of evil rising out of ego and incompetence and self-ingested propaganda and raw political power struggles. Japan's war-era cabinets tossed around prime ministers like juggling balls.

One apt criticism of Bix's approach is that his focus is so narrow that he never pulls back far enough to examine in any kind of depth the horrifying consequences of this Machiavellian, play-king gamesmanship.

But as does Dower, Bix concludes that the Tokyo trials ended up a farce to equal any Stalinist show trial. The real quest for the truth was corrupted by MacArthur's desire to use Hirohito for his own purposes, and, as Bix notes, Hirohito was only too happy to be used if it'd get him off the hook (and sell his subordinates down the river in the process).

To make matters worse, a dozen judges from Pacific Rim nations showed up at the trials, all with competing agendas.

The Nationalist Chinese, who had collected mountains of evidence of war crimes, checked their severest indictments in hopes of securing Japan's backing against the Communists. The OSS spirited away all the hard evidence of Japan's battlefield use of biological and chemical weapons. An iconoclastic judge from India was hardly upset that the British had spent four years getting their butts kicked by Asians.

Of course, MacArthur made sure that his battlefield enemies in the South Pacific were summarily tried and executed. Bix does credit MacArthur for being as aggravating to the Japanese as he was to the Joint Chiefs. The Japanese navy had anticipated a winner-take-all contest with Nimitz in the central Pacific, believing that the ultimate objective of naval warfare was "to win by hurling a large, powerful fleet into a single decisive battle."

After Pearl Harbor, every time the Japanese navy maneuvered itself into such an engagement, it lost, and badly. Equally unprepared to support a land war against MacArthur at the same time, it ended up throwing away a third of its resources in the process.

Perhaps Bix's most astute observations comes in the parallels he draws between MacArthur and Hirohito. They were diametrical opposites in terms of physical presence and personality, but both saw themselves at the center of all victory—the sole reason any great effort should and would succeed—while ascribing failure to dark forces and political conspiracies and placing the blame on their subordinates (and expecting them to do impossible things).

In the end, Hirohito's fascination with his own manufactured image as a divine emperor, combined with his incompetence (rarely questioned by his handlers), both led to the war and guaranteed that Japan would never win it. MacArthur's ego and presumptuousness (bolstered by a powerful cohort of ideological sympathizers in the State Department) meant that the emperor, and by extension the nation, would never take responsibility for it.

That is the Showa Emperor's true legacy, and one that unfortunately continues to this day.

Related posts

Kantai Kessen
The last shogun
The known unknowns

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October 10, 2011

In praise of caricatures

As I observed a while back, the supporting (stock) characters in How to Train Your Dragon are caricatures, but they come across as more "real" than flesh and blood actors in most live-action movies.

One thing that caught my attention early on was the running joke where the adults all speak with thick Scottish brogues and the kids don't. I think it's brilliant--because every teenager knows his parents speak a foreign language. They turned a caricature into a meaningful metaphor.

You can't play against types and expectations unless there are types and expectations to play against. This applies to storytelling. Just as cliche has great utility, so do caricatures. You can expend only so much time and so many words before getting a story underway.

It's the literary equivalent of the pyrotechnic crew adding gasoline to a cinematic explosion, because that's what people have come to expect. And it looks really cool. If "reality" is what you want, watch Mythbusters instead. As Sarah Hoyt puts it,

Don't be afraid to give your characters outrageous characteristics or to make them larger than life. Even if you're writing "real life" you'll need to do that to some extent, or people will think they're blah and boring.

It's a balancing act at both ends of the scale. One of the great delights in genre fiction is starting with a stock character and watching as he first defines  the caricature of a "bad guy," then moves beyond it, while doing what a stock character is supposed to--move the story forward.

A good example is Karl Urban in Red (he's McCoy in the latest Star Trek). For about 99 percent of the movie he is trying very hard to kill Bruce Willis. He starts off as a ruthlessly over-the-top stock villain, but slowly evolves into somebody we can almost empathize with.

This isn't one of those insipid gotcha! switcheroos, where the bad guys turns out to be the good guy (a truly uninspired dramatic device 99 percent of the time), but a simple recognition that making the bad guy a tad more interesting makes the good guy way more interesting.

To be sure, Karl Urban can't be more interesting than Bruce Willis. Especially in genre fiction, the protagonist is the character who changes the most or causes the most change. Bruce Willis goes from being a retired spy to action hero with a babe on his arm, plenty of change for an action flick.

Karl Urban doesn't have to do a one-eighty, just a ninety, or a forty-five. His character has to change enough to convince us of the open-ended possibilities in the big climax, and no more. Otherwise, the movie would be about him.

In Under Siege, Tommy Lee Jones gives us a caricature with two twists. Like Alan Rickman in Die Hard, he starts out as the sane thief pretending to be crazy. By the end, he really is nuts. But not without reason. He had this great plan and then Steven Seagal went and ruined it.

He's still the bad guy. We're not rooting for him to nuke Honolulu. But, yeah, I get where he's coming from, and that makes the cliffhanger ending all the more believable. Jones walks away with most of the movie in the process, but there's nothing wrong with that either.

Related posts

In praise of cliche
Playing by the rules

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October 06, 2011

Before and After

Before and After (not a translation) on ABC (Asahi Broadcasting) is like This Old House, except they do one house an episode. That means they race through the interesting stuff--the foundations and framing and plumbing--and spend more time on the boring stuff like interior decor.

Enough attention is paid to the nuts and bolts to make it clear that while ferroconcrete structures in Japan are the most solidly built in the world, and residential building codes have improved since the Great Hanshin earthquake, they still aren't as strict as building codes in the U.S.

One week on This Old House, while tearing down an old floor, Tom Silva pointed out all the once-standard construction methods that were no longer code. That same week on Before and After, there was an army of carpenters busily repeating pretty much every single one of them.

One of the big challenges on This Old House is retrofitting old structures for modern plumbing, heating and AC. The biggest plumbing challenge on Before and After is allowing the o-furo water heater to be turned on from inside the bathroom, instead of leaning out the window.

As I noted previously, south of Hokkaido, Japanese houses aren't likely to have central HVAC, high pressure hot water, or insulation. In my apartment in Port Town, the hot water in the bathroom and kitchen sinks ran off the heater attached to the o-furo, but only one faucet could be on at a time.

Another thing that becomes clear is that, as Alex Kerr laments, Japanese are pretty unsentimental about ordinary old stuff. The debut episode involved restoring a century old house. In the U.S., historical preservationists would have been crawling all over it. Break out the jackhammers!

To be sure, the idea of buying a house as an investment is a foreign one in Japan. The only worthwhile investment is in the property it sits on. You build a house in Japan knowing that the next earthquake may knock it down, and the next tsunami may wash it away. But there are exceptions.

The laundromat I used in Osaka was off a street crowded with old, two-story residences. Over the span of six months, I watched one get torn down to the ground--leaving a gap in the street like a missing tooth--and then rebuilt exactly the same, but using a frame of steel I-beams.

That's one house that isn't going anywhere, come hell or high water.

Related posts

Dogs, demons, and construction companies

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October 03, 2011


A recent Heritage Foundation study counters a U.S. Census Bureau claim that "over 30 million Americans are living in poverty," by pointing out that

most of the persons whom the government defines as "in poverty" are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs.

In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson responds that critics have pointed out that "many families in poverty rent apartments where fridges and air conditioning units come automatically" while conceding that the "ubiquity and affordability of consumer technology is an astounding testimony to productivity in the electronics sector."

What caught my attention in this case are the assumptions about what comes "automatically" with an unfurnished apartment.

Port Town in Osaka is the kind of high rise, middle-class, high-density planned community that urban planners dream about. It really is a great place to live: modern, safe, clean, convenient, with two tram stations and two shopping centers within walking distance, lots of parks, trees, space and a nice view of the harbor.

For a sense of the size, the "green" spaces are the bedrooms. Each rectangle is a tatami mat approximately three by six feet (the number indicates the number of tatami mats, a common way of describing room area). By comparison, this apartment is at least twice the size of Shizuku's danchi apartment in Whisper of the Heart.

My apartment there was the largest I'd ever had in Japan, a 3DK. Here's what a nice unfurnished apartment in Japan doesn't provide: no refrigerator, no stove, no heat, no air conditioning, no phone (back in the day, a dial tone from the NTT monopoly cost you a $500 security deposit). Barely any insulation. And no lights.

No lights!

Well, there was inset lighting in the foyer, over the sinks in the kitchen and vanity, and in the bathroom. But in the dining room and bedrooms, just the ceiling jacks. You had to buy the whole lighting assembly and snap it into the jack. Very clever and very inconvenient. I spent the first night there wandering around in the dark.

The rooms had connections for a heat pump, but it had to be purchased separately.

Probably the worse aspect of renting in Japan is "key money." Key money is the product of a tight housing market and well-meaning legislation that makes it difficult to evict tenants. Landlords calculate how much they stand to lose--half a year's worth of rent--and demand that much up front. It doubles as a legal bribe.

Since the housing bust in the 1990s, more and more landlords are offering to waive key money.

For foreigners, key money is usually a non-issue because few landlords will rent to non-Japanese without a Japanese guarantor. As a result, specialized real estate companies have sprung up in big cities that buy properties and then sublet apartments--high and low end--on the same terms you'd expect to find in the U.S.

Related posts

Before and After
Dogs, demons, and construction companies

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