December 31, 2012


Ever since Toy Story, Disney's in-house animation studio has been playing second fiddle to Pixar. The expectation has grown that whatever Disney does, Pixar will do better even when, like Procter & Gamble, they're selling the same product lines under the same roof.

But Disney and Pixar recently released two films with similar themes: Tangled and Brave. And this time, Disney produced a true work of art, while Pixar cranked out a $185 million episode of The Simpsons. And an only average episode at that.

Brave starts with the same problem as John Carter: an utterly useless title. At least John Carter is the name of the main character. But who does anything brave in Brave? It's a bait and switch: promise monomyth and instead deliver a mother/daughter squabble.

A teenager desperately trying to fix a problem she caused entirely by herself and in peevish snit is not "brave." As I said, it's sitcom material, like Lisa and her mother resolving some mother/daughter issue while Homer and Bart bumble around causing small disasters.

The male characters in Brave make Homer and Bart look droll and witty by comparison. At least Homer often gets the last word (if only despite himself). And when Bart screws up and nearly destroys Springfield (again), at least Homer gets to literally throttle him.

And here we get to the most troubling failing of Brave, and it's a profound moral failing: there are no consequences proportional to the damage caused.

It's one thing to end an family sitcom episode revolving around some parent/child misunderstanding with a round of apologies. But a couple of "I'm sorries" won't cut it when the dumb teenager pulls a stupid stunt that almost gets her whole family killed! As in DEAD!

Unlike The Simpsons, this isn't a Looney Tunes universe that resets itself every week. We are fully intended to believe that these are life and death stakes.

By comparison, in Tangled, Rapunzel's defiance of her "mother" (who really is wicked, not just bossy and overbearing) leaves her torn inbetwixt and inbetween, even when we're rooting for her to run away. A few apologies at the end certainly won't resolve the conflict.

There are a host of other problems with Brave. To start with, the story turns entirely on deus ex machina plot points. The witch conveniently shows up to grant Merida's dumb wish and then conveniently leaves town (though that is one of the funniest scenes).

Then Mor'du turns out not to be a legend after all. Other than being bewitched by the witch, what's the connection? I don't know. There's no firm chain of cause and effect that ties all the supernatural elements together in a way that guides the plot in a specific direction.

And to top it off, the big climax has two black bears fighting at night. I honestly could not make out what was happening on the screen until Mor'du gets killed. I think. And his spirit goes to heaven. Or something.

I thought they were going to riff off the old "quest for the hand of the princess" thing, in which case Merida entering the quest to win her own hand would be quite clever. The quest would be to bring back the head of Mor'du, who's been terrorizing the countryside.

Since the witch is responsible for Mor'du's state, she'd have a vested interest in the outcome. In the climax, the brave thing Merida would have to do is not shoot it, at some cost to herself. Heartfelt sacrifice is what makes Tangled more than just another Disney cartoon.

Merida ends up getting everything she wants without having to sacrifice anything. And while that might be the way we wish our own lives would turn out, it makes for lousy storytelling.

Related posts

John Carter

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December 27, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa (10)

Large cities are essentially castle towns, with the castle compound (government offices) surrounded by the inner loop road, and the outer loop road accessible through twelve gates. Each gate is identified by a member of the Chinese zodiac: rat (子門), ox (丑門), tiger (寅門), hare (卯門), dragon (辰門), serpent (巳門), horse (午門), ram (未門), monkey (申門), rooster (酉門), dog (戌門), boar (亥門).

The Earth Gate (地門) in Ken is a noted exception.

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December 24, 2012

Japan's Bond legacy

Kaori Shoji recently reminisced in The Japan Times about James Bond's one and only adventure in Japan way back in 1967 (perhaps not coincidentally on the heels of the 1966 Cary Grant comedy, Walk, Don't Run, which takes place during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics):

The gentleman spy came to Tokyo and Fukuoka, saw some sumo, consorted with ninja and got intimate with two homegrown Bond girls. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice goes down in Japan's collective memory as the one and only time 007 made it to these shores.

You Only Live Twice was also the movie, along with Go for Broke (1951), that got me interested in all things Japanese. As I have Thackeray recount in Tokyo South,

"I think the first time I thought about going to Japan was after I saw that James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. What kind of a reason is that?"

As a vehicle for communicating Japanese culture to a worldwide audience, You Only Live Twice canonized the silliest of modern stereotypes about Japan. The Japanese, though, were delighted with the whole thing. Just as Americans are the world's biggest "Occidentalists" (we're all "cowboys"), Japanese are the world's biggest Orientalists.

Manga and anime would soon embrace the silliness and fashion from it an unique pop culture movement. The latest incarnation of the anime series 009-1, in particular, is a great homage to the Bond oeuvre, with a female android in the title role.

You Only Live Twice certainly isn't any dumber than dreck like Ridley Scott's Black Rain (1989) and Rising Sun (1993). A notable exception from that era is the grossly under-appreciated Mr. Baseball (1992), a sort-of film version of Robert Whiting's witty analysis of Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa (1990).

The Last Samurai (2003) may be the best-looking Hollywood movie made about Japan, but it tries so hard not to recycle the recent stereotypes that it ends up recycling all the old ones, getting the historical context completely backwards and upside down. The campier Shogun (1980) is a far more accurate romanticization of history.

In that light, what I find more intriguing is that a decade before Bond's arrival in 1967, no doubt due to the interest engendered by the American Occupation and the Korean War, the 1950s produced some of the best Hollywood movies filmed on location in Japan, and with big-name stars. Such as:

House of Bamboo (1955, with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack)
Teahouse of the August Moon (1956, with Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Eddie Albert, and Harry Morgan)
Sayonara (1957, with Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Red Buttons and Ricardo Montalban!)
Escapade in Japan (1957, with Jon Provost of Lassie fame)

If nothing else, these films are time machines back to before Japan became a first-world nation and an economic powerhouse. And here is where contemporary directors like Sofia Coppola and Edward Zwick fail miserably. Their time machines keep on going. As Kiku Day bitterly observes about Lost in Translation (2003):

[Ancient Japan] is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The "good Japan," according to [Coppola (and Zwick )], is [samurai,] Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays the contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.

Perhaps because the stereotypes hadn't yet become part of the zeitgeist, Hollywood directors in the 1950s simply filmed what they saw looking through the lens. There is certainly far more truth and wonder to be found in the wide eyes of seven-year-old Jon Provost in Escapade in Japan than in the jaded, postmodern gaze of Bill Murray.

Related posts

Dances with Samurai
Lost on location
The Pacific War on screen

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December 20, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa (9)

The kanji the author uses for "kimono" in this chapter is pronounced ruqun in Chinese. It consists of a blouse (襦) and a wrap-around skirt (裙). See illustrations here.

The drop cap font at the beginning of each section is "FFF Tusj" by Magnus Cederholm.

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December 17, 2012

Back in the saddle

This is what a landslide looks like. In Sunday's election, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party)/Komeito coalition captured a veto-proof majority in the Lower House of the Diet while the ruling DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) saw its seat count fall from 230 to 57. Wipe out.

(Ignore what the initials stand for. The LDP are the Rockefeller Republicans in this equation, red to the DPJ's blue.)

Incoming PM Shinzo Abe candidly admits that this election was more about the voters kicking out the DPJ than embracing the LDP. For the past year, the LDP caved on the critical issues and merrily obstructed everything else until the voters could vent their frustration.

Outgoing PM Noda did the thankless work of doubling the sales tax in order to fight Japan's sky-high national debt. Naoto Kan, PM when Fukushima melted down, lost his own seat. Basically, everything bad that could have happened happened under the DPJ's watch.

After a disappointing stint as PM in 2006-7, Abe is back promising to weaken the yen with Bernanke-inspired tactics (buying bonds with printed money) and take a harder line against China. On the stump, he's apologized for not being nationalistic enough last time.

If the LDP makes similar gains in the Upper House elections next summer, Abe's public musings about amending the Japanese constitution to put more muscle in Japan's military (namely, taking the "Self" out of the "Self-Defense Forces") may well become a reality.

China's foreign policy stance towards Japan--talk loudly, wave a big stick, and riot on occasion--is bearing fruit, and they sure ain't gonna like them apples.

For fifty years following the war, the LDP ruled Japan as a de facto one-party state. After being swept aside a few years ago, the LDP returns to office with a clean slate, shared enemies, and a fresh source of revenue. There's no end to the second acts in Japanese politics.

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December 13, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa (8)

The joufuu (条風) are the winter winds that sweep out of the north.

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December 10, 2012

John Carter

John Carter deserved a better reception than it got, but this supposed box office bomb (it technically broke even in worldwide distribution) was very much hoist by its own petard on both the marketing and production sides.

The name, to start with. Besides providing no indication of the genre or indended audience, it's simply too generic. You mean, Get Carter? No, that's the movie with Michael Caine (remade by Sylvester Stallone). The Terminator? No, that's John Conner. There's a Carter in Person of Interest. What Carter are we talking about?

The proper title is: John Carter on Mars. What marketing genius thought that last part didn't matter?

Once the movie starts, the framing device turns into another example of the backstory getting in the way of the main narrative. The frame pays off in the end, but 130 minutes is too long to wait. I think writer/director Andrew Stanton got overly vested in working in a Burroughs reference to the detriment of the rest of the film.

The sad thing is, the John Carter on Mars part is perfectly fine space opera. Still a tad overcomplicated, and with an initially too-dour leading man, but with a great sense of place, inspiring vistas, and fun special effects.

Pixar veteran Stanton does a good job translating his animation skills (Finding Nemo) to the live-action (well, CGI) screen. John Carter really does capture the (safely-PG) pulp-era science fiction look and feel. His aliens are everything Jar Jar Binks should have been if George Lucas had a fraction of Andrew Stanton's talent.

Strangely enough, it's not that much of a reach to see John Carter capping off a weird trilogy: Dances with Wolves, Dances with Samurai, and now Dances with Aliens. But enough of 19th century cavalry officers and their white man's burden. John Carter should have been set in the present day. Call it A Marine on Mars.

Instead of getting chased by Indians in the Wild West, have John Carter get spirited away from Afghanistan while on a mission with Indiana Jonesy overtones.

There'd be no end to the great geeky fun they could have with NASA's recent string of successes, like fenced-in areas marked with signs that say: "Don't Disturb the Rovers." Parts stripped off the old Viking probes (the nuclear batteries should still be producing power). Using the Mars orbiters as a communications platform.

But mostly the problems with John Carter were brought on by too much "artistic" latitude and too few budgetary constraints. At half the cost and two-thirds the length, it would have been a deserved blockbuster.

Ridley Scott famously loathed the studio-mandated voice-over in Blade Runner, but it was a better film for it. I've never seen a "director's cut" that improved on the original. John Carter is what happens when the studio doesn't put its foot down and the "director's cut" ends up in the theaters.

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December 06, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa (7)

Rinken (臨乾) literally means "facing Ken."

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December 03, 2012

Perseverance makes perfect

This NPR story highlighting the differences between Eastern (Asia) and Western (U.S.) approaches to classroom learning accurately sums up the prevailing attitudes in Japan, where it is

assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

It's an ethos and a state of mind summed up in the verb ganbaru, often expressed in the volitional form: ganbarou! (がんばろう!), meaning to persist, to hang on, to stick it out. But there are limits to what sheer effort can accomplish, and dangers in not acknowledging them.

Until they saw the wisdom of the "American style" of training, Japanese baseball coaches regularly burned out pitchers and exhausted players in the mistaken belief that perseverance alone made perfect. As described in this New York Times story, Yankees pitcher Hiroki Kuroda

is one of the last of a cohort of Japanese players who grew up in a culture in which staggeringly long work days and severe punishment were normal, and in which older players could haze younger ones with impunity.

To be sure, the hand-wringing in Japanese educational circles over the stubborn persistence of ganbaru-based pedagogies and the dearth of more "creative" options is real too, but nothing compared to the industrial-scale educational angst on this side of the Pacific.

A big part of the problem in the U.S. are conflicting ideologies that ricochet back and forth between assertions of inborn genius and the child's mind as a blank slate, the Panglossian belief that given the right pedagogical touchstone, kids can be programmed like computers.

The more realistic Asian approach has recently found pop-science acceptance in the "10,000 hour rule." However equalitarian it may appear, though, at the end of the day, how perfect practice makes you will correlate to inborn talent or IQ or whatever gifts God blessed you with.

10,000 hours of practice can make most people competent at a skill. Only a few will become truly excellent. Yes, Mozart practiced a whole lot, but chain the average child to a piano bench and he'd chew his arm off before getting anywhere close to the 10,000 hour mark.

There will come a point of diminishing returns when you have to decide how much more work is going to make the difference. In most cases, you're going to hit a plateau that is fine for a hobby but short of professional grade. (Not that there's anything wrong with hobbies.)

Giving up at what you thought you wanted to do with your life is often a prerequisite to discovering what you're actually good at, what is actually worth spending your time and effort on. The art and talent of cutting your losses and quitting deserves a lot more respect.

No matter how hard they study, no matter how many cram schools they attend, no matter how often they retake the entrance exams, most Japanese kids aren't going to make it into an elite university. A system that encourages them to waste their time trying is seriously flawed.

Except that in Japan, the blame is placed almost entirely on the kid who fails, not on the system. He just didn't ganbaru enough.

The NPR story misses this huge irony. A ganbarou! culture ultimately consigns responsibility to the individual. Americans see educational failings as institutional, while the Japanese portray them as personal. Maybe it's those attitudes we need to swap most of all.

Related posts

Dragon Zakura
Ganbarou! Japan
Feeling (too good) about ourselves

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