November 28, 2011


Tangled is the kind of Disney fairy tale adaption I usually wouldn't pay any attention to, but Orson Scott Card was totally right about How to Train Your Dragon (one of the best movies of the past decade) and so when he recommended Tangled, I figured I should give it a chance.

As it turns out, he was completely right twice.

Like all good Disney animated features, Tangled has more to say to the adults in the audience than the kids (don't tell the kids that). To be sure, there's plenty of low-brow slapstick involving conking people over the head with frying pans (which I found hilarious) and a horse that acts like a dog (even more hilarious).

The hero (Flynn Rider) and heroine (Rapunzel) are pretty much the same only—well, the same—except with humor, panache, and a keen insight into human nature. These elements come together in a bitingly funny psychoanalytic montage that has Rapunzel harboring second doubts about disobeying her wicked witch of a "mother."

And even the wicked witch is less "wicked" (well, kidnapping and murder aside) than vain, manipulative and self-centered, dysfunctions exhibited under the guise of being "overprotective." If nothing else, Tangled makes for a perfect parable about overparenting.

As Card points out, the climax also contains a perfect example of "eucatastrophe," Tolkien's word for the point in the plot when it is darkest before the dawn, and then redemption springs unexpectedly from utter loss. Or as Milton puts it, "All this good of evil shall produce."

Of course, this is basic, by-the-numbers monomyth stuff, following the classic narrative arc that Robert McKee goes on and on about. Except that sticking to the basics is what makes these stories not only last but often improve in the retelling, like old Neil Diamond songs that get covered by hip bands and take on a new life of their own.

(Consider "I'm a Believer" as a case in point. We now have Neil Diamond covering Smash Mouth covering Neil Diamond covering The Monkees performing a song written by Neil Diamond. It's all good!)

But what again confirmed for me that popular entertainment is the place to find true "artistic genius" is the comic relief, especially Max (the horse). This isn't an actor mugging for the camera, but the writer (Dan Fogelman) and artists dreaming up a bunch of vaudevillian routines and then drawing them (albeit digitally), a skill I truly envy.

These powers of imagination are a tad lacking at the beginning and end of Tangled. The story clunks along getting started—more in medias res would have helped—and stumbles a bit finding the right note to end on. But those are tiny criticisms when the other nine-tenths of the movie is so wonderful.

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November 24, 2011

The hostage system

In medieval Japan, the exchange of "hostages" reached its apotheosis during Warring States period as a way of strengthening alliances between rival warlords.

Family members would take up residence in the castle of a rival to ensure against a double-cross or surprise attack. This meant, though, that things could get chancy for them if and when the alliance broke down.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi began systematizing the exchange of hostages during the late 16th century. The Tokugawa shogunate that followed converted it into a formal political institution known as sankin kôtai (参勤交代), or "alternate attendance."

Under sankin kôtai, provincial governors were required to spend every other year in the capital, and leave their wife and principal heirs behind when returning to their home territories.

Moving the seats of provincial government back and forth was a considerable undertaking. A Keynesian economist might point to the importance of sankin kôtai in maintaining Japan's heavily-trafficked coastal highways and inns.

However, the more Machiavellian purpose was to further weaken already overtaxed "outsider" clans by forcing them to make these massive expenditures, and to prevent them from concentrating their forces in one place.

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November 21, 2011

Occupy the past

Writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement, Victor Davis Hanson observes that

Revolutionary movements throughout history are so often sparked by the anger, envy, and disappointments of an upper-middle cohort, highly educated, but ill-suited for material success in the existing traditional landscape.

This brings to mind the Japanese term gekokujô (下克上), or "juniors dominating seniors," which is used to describe revolutions from below.

Such as the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime in the mid-19th century. Not only was the regime brought down by the "outsider" clans (clans defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara back in 1600), but the governors of those provinces often banded together with lower-ranked samurai against the entrenched interests of upper-class samurai.

The upper-class samurai—think of them as tenured professors—were fully invested in the system going on the way it was. They had theirs and as far as they were concerned, the entire purpose of society, government and the economy was to keep on providing it until the end of time.

Given misery stipends and prevented by sumptuary laws from engaging in "vulgar" business, lower-class samurai—think of them as adjuncts—were often worse off than the merchants at the bottom of the class structure. When the feudal order broke down, these lower-class samurai were at the forefront of the political and economic revolutions.

Unfortunately, even after upending the status quo, many remained prisoners of the delusion that the system could continue with slight modifications (namely, they'd be in charge). They became the personification of Upton Sinclair's observation, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

But there are limits to government largess, no matter how worthy the recipients. One of the first policies enacted by the Meiji government was the elimination of the feudal classes and the stipends paid to the samurai simply for being born government employees. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, they'd run out of other people's money.

The same samurai who'd overthrown the Tokugawa shogunate decided that this was a bridge too far and recruited Saigô Takamori to launch a counter-revolution. In the ahistorical Hollywood version, we're supposed to identify with the ex-samurai fighting to preserve the feudal order and their class privileges. A probably unintended message, but still very telling.

The expectation that because we've been getting a "defined benefit" in the past, we deserve to keep on getting it (plus a cost-of-living adjustment) forever is deeply ingrained in human nature. It is our economic original sin and we can't bear to leave Eden. Which is why David Brooks throws up his hands and says "We're going to be Greece."

The tragedy of the Meiji Restoration is that Saigô Takamori's back-to-the-future vision only grew stronger after his death. It took the destruction of the entire country to finally quench the flame. The worse thing we can do now is imagine that things can go back to the way they were. If we can't learn from the past, at least we can refrain from trying to live there.

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November 17, 2011

The Dragon Princess

Ryô (龍) means "dragon." Most famously, Ryô was the name of the wife of Sakamoto Ryôma (Japan's 19th century Alexander Hamilton), whose given name ("dragon horse") coincidentally shared the same first kanji.

Sen (千) means "one thousand." Princess Sen (千姫) was the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun. She was married to her cousin, Toyotomi Hideyori, in an effort to unite the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans.

The effort failed. These martial connotations may explain why Ryô and Sen are rare names for girls these days. The modern kanji for "dragon" (竜), pronounced ryû, is a boy's name.

The kun'yomi (Chinese reading) of 千 (chi) is more widely used in kanji compounds. In Spirited Away, Sen is the name the witch gives to Chihiro (a common name). The kanji is the same.

The subject of numbers as names for girls immediately brings to mind "Thirteen" and "Seven of Nine." As we'll see later on, numbers remain more popular in names for Japanese boys than girls.

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November 10, 2011

The Lake Biwa dragon

Chapter 2 of Serpent of Time takes place at Hikone Castle on Lake Biwa.

Like Loch Ness, Lake Biwa has a dragon. According to the classic fairy tale, the Dragon Queen of Lake Biwa entreated Fujiwara no Hidesato to slay the giant centipede that killed her children. As a reward, he was given a bag of rice that never ran out. He was known ever since as the "Lord Bag of Rice."

But perhaps Lake Biwa's most incongruous aquatic attraction is a Mississippi-style paddlewheeler called "The Michigan."

When I was a kid, my family often vacationed on Lake George in upstate New York. We rode across the lake a couple of times on a steam-powered paddlewheeler, the "Minne-Ha-Ha." Incidentally, Lake George has its own aquatic monster, though this one is an admitted hoax.

There's something about deep-water lakes that seems to attract magical serpents and paddlewheelers.

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November 07, 2011

Just stand there

One of the most destructive political impulses in the world today is the conviction that every identifiable problem must be addressed by having the government, at the highest levels, do "something" about it: invade it or regulate it or outlaw it or subsidize it or bail it out.

Bryan Caplan calls this the "Activist's fallacy":

1. Something must be done
2. This is something
3. Therefore, this must be done.

As Northern Japan found out, you can spend billions of dollars building a "solution" to a known problem, only to see it completely fail. And in the process, exacerbate the original problem by creating a false sense of security.

NHK has been conducting interviews with survivors from these costal town (an abridged version was broadcast on PBS). One thing that becomes clear is that people who could see the coastline got away, while those behind the immense sea walls--that turned these villages into medieval walled fortresses--often had no idea what was going on.

TEPCO was certain the sea walls surrounding Fukushima Dai-ichi couldn't be breached. The situation might have turned out completely differently had they built the plant with the assumption that a tsunami would flood the plant. The solution in that case--more redundancy in the backup power systems--would have been far more effective.

A Nightly Business Report (October 04, 2011) story from the fishing village of Kesennuma represents the kind of thinking that's too often missing when the gears of government begin to grind. Instead of fighting nature, the new Kesennuma wants to forgo the massive sea walls.

Especially because we want to draw more tourists, building a wall to block off the sea is out of the question. Tsunami are a natural phenomenon. There's one major tsunami every few centuries. So you insure yourself and figure out how to make it safe to live and work around them.

As correspondent Lucy Craft points out, "Even huge tsunami waves couldn't topple most of the concrete-reinforced shops in downtown Kesennuma and floodwaters rose no higher than the second story."

As it has turned out since, some large structures failed because they paradoxically became boyant. In other words, the basement levels and first floors of coastal buildings should be designed to "fail" and flood, not remain watertight and trap air.

This is another good example of drawing the line--between a storm surge and a tsunami--when it comes to confronting nature. And we really need to start drawing those lines. Rather than acting, Congress needs to learn when to sit on its hands. Don't do anything, just stand there!

Don't (re)build cities below sea level. Don't build suburbs in flood plains. Don't reinsure people who build seaside houses in the path of hurricanes. Quit lining every waterway with levees. We don't live in freaking Holland! (Oh, and don't give home and student loans to people who can't possibly ever repay them.)

Whether a bank or a flood wall or that latest Keynsian extravaganza, if it's "too big to fail," then the faster it fails the better. We'll pick up the pieces (the smaller they are, the easier to pick up), learn from our mistakes, learn to live with what we can't actually change or realistically prevent, and move on.

Related posts

Apocalypse not now
The Sendai earthquake

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November 03, 2011

The symbolic role

Writing about the daily life of the pre-Meiji emperors in the late Edo period, Donald Keene observes that

Even if they resented the supremacy of the shogunate and recalled nostalgically the distant past when the emperor reigned supreme, most emperors and members of the aristocracy did not chafe under the regulations to which they were subjected. The world they lived in was tiny, but they seemed unaware of its limitations, and matters of the most minute concern could occupy their minds for decades.

Emperor Go-Daigo and his successors in the Southern Court did resent it and rebelled. Their resistance lasted a mere half-century before it was quashed by the Ashikaga shogunate. The emperor would not reign supreme in Japan for another 500 years, and even then, not really.

The following description of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the President of the Galaxy springs to mind in this regard: "A role that involves no power whatsoever, and merely requires the incumbent to attract attention so no one wonders who's really in charge."

Japan's post-war constitution, which formally stripped the emperor of any actual political or military authority, consequently made the "soft power" of his constitutionally-defined "symbolic role" more dynamic and influential than almost all of his predecessors.

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