September 30, 2013


Watching the trailers for Emperor, I feared a revisionist docudrama in the works, suggesting that General MacArthur had an active curiosity about Emperor Hirohito's possible culpability as a "war criminal."

As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. In the end, Emperor has MacArthur simply using General Bonner Fellers to rubber-stamp the outcome he'd planned for all along.

In any case, the narrative is so meandering and muddled it'd be hard to read any political or ideological point of view into what takes place on screen.

The problem is a script that tries to do two incongruent things at once: Fellers investigating the emperor's war-time record, on the one hand, and chasing down Aya, his long-lost love, on the other.

Neither ends up going anywhere worth making a movie about. Only at the very end does a compelling story emerge, when Fellers stumbles on an account of an attempted palace coup in the final hours before the surrender.

The best cinematic account of those events is Japan's Longest Day (1967), with Toshiro Mifune as die-hard War Minister General Korechika Anami.

The argument in that film and this one is that since the coup was an attempt to prevent the surrender against the ostensible will of the emperor, he must have been in the right about everything else too.

The moral logic doesn't follow, but it's a more interesting thesis that what actually transpired. In real life, Fellers had already convinced MacArthur to exonerate Hirohito, not that MacArthur needed any convincing.

MacArthur was Hirohito's biggest cheerleader, and would later clearly state that "the preservation of the Emperor system was my fixed purpose. It was inherent and integral to Japanese political and cultural survival."

It was up to Fellers to get everybody else involved in on the fix and then throw Hideki Tojo under the bus during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The historical Fellers is far more interesting as an amoral manipulator of events on a par with the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files. But that's not the kind of heroic character you can build this sort of a movie around.

I would have dispensed with the romance from the start, using it instead as an excuse for Fellers to hook up with Aya's uncle, (the fictitious) General Kajima, played by the great character actor Toshiyuki Nishida.

Together they would stitch together an account of the attempted coup. This way, the script could tread firm and fairly objective historical ground while describing in depth a series of truly dramatic events.

Emperor is a good example of a "historical" drama where a little more fiction would have served the available facts much better.

Related posts

Emperor trailer
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
The Pacific War on screen

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September 26, 2013

Japan photo tours

If you're looking for a higher-resolution Japan travel experience than Google Street View (short of actually being there), your best option is an ambling photo blogger with a decent camera. Danny Choo has assembled a generous collection of mostly Tokyo-based photo tours here and here.

Places to visit in Japan

Tokyo Photo Walk

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September 23, 2013

The danchi revolution

NHK's Bakusho Mondai science series (hosted by the high-brow comedy duo of Yuji Tanaka and Hikari Ota) recently did a pair of shows on danchi. (Scroll down here for stills from the show.)

Danchi were massive urban housing projects initiated in the late 1950s. They were designed to accommodate the burgeoning population and lure people out of their wooden apartments and single-family fire traps.

The great majority of the deaths in the Great Kanto (1923) and even the Great Hanshin (1995) earthquakes were caused by collapsing wooden buildings and the fires that followed.

At the time, danchi were considered very modern and upscale. The Emperor visited what would become the Takashimadaira housing complex--still the largest in Tokyo (10,170 units)--to lend his stamp of approval.

The image below comes from this detailed photo blog: "You can't talk about danchi without mentioning Takashimadaira."

Courtesy Dhanow.

Bakusho Mondai showed a television ad from the era, featuring a "cool" couple entertaining in their cool new digs, with one cool guy mixing a martini. It was like something straight out of Mad Men.

The big architectural and cultural innovation danchi introduced on a widespread basis was room specialization, bedrooms separate from the dining room separate from the living room.

Though a second look reveals just how tiny those living rooms were. The couch and coffee table in the original Dick Van Dyke Show would have completely filled it with no room left for anything else.

These original structures are now seen as cramped and decrepit. In order to attract tenants, older danchi are combining units and liberalizing leasing requirements and zoning, such as converting ground floors to retail.

Later housing projects like Tama New Town (which grew into an entire city) and Port Town (where I lived for a year) accommodated an "urban-suburban" mix from the start, with larger apartments, green space, and shopping malls.

Port Town, Osaka.

Upscale danchi have been rechristened "mansions" (condos). These days, though, a room of one's own isn't enough. The middle-class dream revolves around "Mai Hoomu" (マイホーム), a house in the suburbs.

Make that new homes and condos in communities close to the cities. The result is a growing surplus of old and abandoned houses in the exurbs (as in The Wolf Children). There's little affection for "this old house" in Japan.

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September 19, 2013

Virtual disaster tourism

As xkcd points out, you can see the world these days without ever leaving home.

That now includes disaster tourism. Earlier this year, Google sent a Street View car through the town of Namie, next door to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The area's been evacuated because of radiation contamination.

It's Life After People, only for real.

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September 16, 2013

From up on Poppy Hill

I've got a soft spot for feel-good, post-war Showa dramas that take place during the 1950s and early 1960s. Pure Horatio Alger stuff, an entire nation pulling itself up by the bootstraps. From up on Poppy Hill plays the heart strings with all the right chords.

Unlike most Ghibli films, From up on Poppy Hill has no surrealistic or fantasy elements. As a girl-meets-boy high school melodrama, it could be favorable compared with Whisper of the Heart, that takes place a generation later.

The story begins with Umi managing her grandmother's boarding house on a hill overlooking the Port of Yokohama. Her mother is doing post-doc work in the U.S. Her father was killed during the Korean War when his ship hit a mine, so she also watches after her brother and sister.

Upon meeting Shun, however, our super-competent protagonist is thrown for a bit of a loop.

Shun literally falls out of the sky while staging a publicity stunt in an effort to save the ramshackle old building that houses the high school's clubs from the wrecking ball. The delightful Ye Olde Curiosity Shop depictions of the clubhouse alone are worth watching the movie for.

Shun publishes the school paper, and had already caught Umi's attention with a haiku not-so subtly directed at her. Recruited to the cause along with her sister, Umi naturally devises a highly practical approach to the problem, which Shun quickly sees the wisdom in.

Halfway through the movie, however, the quiet pace of their high school romance is unsettled by a dramatic plot twist that revolves around Japan's peculiar family register system. (This particular plot twist is a not-uncommon one in Japanese melodramas.)

So now it's a race (some actual racing about does take place in the final act) to save the clubhouse and their relationship. But even then, nobody wigs out. Everybody's got his head screwed on right. Thankfully, even the grown-ups are grown up.

This backwards glance at the Japan of a half-century ago is certainly steeped in nostalgia. Though thinking about the Japan I experienced twenty years later, the cluttered, warmly-lit nooks and crannies of Tokyo and Yokohama at times looked awfully familiar to my eyes too.

I've bought croquette and tonkatsu at shops just like that.

From up on Poppy Hill is a gentle melodrama about good, decent, hardworking people. There's no reason for that to ever grow old.

The English script adaptation and dub are excellent, with Sarah Bolger and
Anton Yelchin (Chekov in Star Trek) in the leads, and featuring the voices of Chris Noth, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, Bruce Dern, and a few lines from Ron Howard.

A note about the names: Umi (海) means "sea." Sora (空) means "sky." Riku (陸) means "land." Shun (俊) means "sagacious."

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September 12, 2013

Upcoming projects

My next book in the Twelve Kingdom series (chosen simply because I have it and I want to read it) will be Higashi no Watatsumi, Nishi no Sokai ("Poseidon of the East, Vast Blue Seas in the West"). TokyoPop did a version but it's since gone way out of print. Hisho no Tori ("Hisho's Bird") will probably come after that.

I can't say for certain when I'll start posting chapters, but it should be in the next month or two.

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September 09, 2013

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China went straight to cable when it was released back in 1986. It's been recently been making the rounds of the free and preview cable/satellite channel outlets, and I've taken the opportunity to watch it twice over the past couple of weeks.

Not only is John Carpenter's underappreciated homage to the wuxia/chopsocky genre as funny as it ever was, it stubbornly refuses to age. Now more than a quarter-century old, it's hardly dated at all, a real achievement in an action comedy.

Big Trouble in Little China is "tight" movie making at its best, zooming along from start to finish, never stopping to admire itself. Entirely self-contained, aside from a few second-unit scenes, it looks like it was shot on a single soundstage.

The script eschews topical references. Oh, you might spot the mention of "Peking" and Russell's CB radio monologues that open and close the movie (does anybody born in the past twenty-five years know what CB radio is?). But they set the mood all the better.

Trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell, who delivers his lines like he just motored off the set of a John Wayne western) and do-gooder Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) get roped into helping Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his fiancee from the clutches of the evil Lo Pan.

This is high camp done right, made all the more fun by Carpenter having everybody deliver their cornball lines with dead seriousness, no winking at the camera. Russell proves himself a good sport too, playing both the leading man and the butt of most of the jokes.

But the real delight is character actor Victor Wong as Egg Shen, in a screwball performance worth watching the movie for. The whole ensemble together accomplishes a rare feat: poking good fun at an established genre while paying loving tribute to it.

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September 08, 2013

The Wings of Dreams

September 07, 2013

The Wings of Dreams (covers)

September 06, 2013

The Wings of Dreams (notes)

September 05, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (46)

Saishou (蔡晶) is Shushou's imperial name. The kyouka (供果) is the fruit that bears the kirin of Kyou. The kouki (黄旗) is the flag of the kirin.

Calendar years across much of Asia were traditionally counted according to the years the emperor had reigned. This is still done in Japan, which uses the nengou system side-by-side with the Gregorian calendar (2013 is Heisei 25).

The counter could also be reset based on significant dates in the sexagenary cycle and even according to an emperor's whims, though thankfully that isn't done nowadays. The present system is confusing enough as is.

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September 02, 2013

Twilight of the Zero

NHK recently ran a two-part documentary about the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, featuring interviews with Zero pilots. One point made very emphatically was how quickly the Zero's air superiority ended after Pearl Harbor.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Thanks to a Zero recovered nearly intact from the Aleutians, the Navy figured out (as Chennault had years earlier with the P-40) that the slower F4F Wildcat could easily outdive a Zero.

A Zero attempting to outdive a Wildcat, observed one Zero pilot, would "fall apart."

F4F pilots were explicitly instructed "not to dogfight." Instead, they employed a "boom and zoom" tactic called the "Thach Weave," which erased the Zero's once unapproachable 12:1 kill ratio and increased the F4F's to 6:1.

By Guadalcanal, Grumman F4Fs were picking away at Zero squadrons. Japanese air crews never recovered from this loss of talent. The Zero was a complex aircraft to manufacture and training pilots took time they didn't have.

Consequently, as early as the Solomon Islands campaign, which relied heavily on the Zero's extended cruising range (made possible in part by the lack of armor), "Most rookie Zero pilots didn't survive their first sortie."

As Hayao Miyazaki observes, "Structurally, the Zero was not designed for mass production."

By comparison, Grumman's fighters were designed to be relatively easy to build and maintain. The U.S. Navy converted old excursion steamers into freshwater aircraft carriers on the Great Lakes for training purposes.

The successor to the F4F, the F6F Hellcat, more than doubled the kill ration to 13:1. Zero pilots were amazed at how fast and rugged the F6F was. The Zero, by comparison, was a "cotton ball soaked in gasoline."

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

With its superior maneuverability, the Zero still had the edge in dogfights, so Hellcat pilots avoided dogfights and simply opened up the throttle. The more powerful F6F could out-dive and out-climb (at altitude) the Zero.

Unlike the Hellcat and the P-51 Mustang, the Zero's engine was never upgraded to counter new threats.

During the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, in what came to be called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the F6F racked up a staggering 40:1 kill ratio against all Japanese aircraft.

Japan was subsequently left with a carrier fleet that had no carrier aircraft and no pilots who could fly them in any case.

So the Zero was relegated to land-based kamikaze attacks. These inflicted the heaviest losses suffered by the U.S. Navy. However, the sinking of fewer than 50 ships in total had no material effect on the outcome of the war.

Except, ironically, to convince American military commanders, up to and including the president, that only the most extreme measures would convince the Japanese to surrender.

Interspersed throughout the NHK documentary was the dramatization of the life of a real Zero pilot. When he was KIA, the government had a memorial installed in front of his parents' house that paid tribute to his sacrifice.

No sooner had the war ended but the neighbors converged on the house, dug up the memorial, and unceremoniously threw it away.

Along with renowned Zero ace Saburo Sakai, the only question left on their minds was, "Who gave the orders for that stupid war?" The extraordinary fanaticism that fueled the conflict had surprisingly shallow roots.

Related posts

Kantai Kessen
When quality came to Japan
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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