November 28, 2013

Pacific Rim

I'm fine with the same only different. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an early 19th century playwright, poet, and Whig Member of the British House of Commons, archly said of a fellow politician,

The gentleman has said much that is good, and much that is original; but that which was original was not good, and that which was good was not original.

In other words, I quite enjoyed Pacific Rim, a fun, blow-em-up, alien invader film, even though it is a carbon copy of Independence Day. Except underwater. And with monsters and mechas instead of fighter planes and spacecraft.

Mecha is a well-established science fiction/fantasy genre in Japan, featuring futuristic mechanical devices, especially gigantic human-piloted robots (as distinct from Iron Man type exoskeletons).

I generally avoid mecha series because mecha don't make sense tactically, ergonomically, or thermodynamically. As Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington pointed out:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Shorter version: the ain't no such thing as a free energy lunch. Adhering—if only in spirit—to the Second Law of Thermodynamics would greatly improve science fiction across the board.

The appallingly bad science in most Hollywood science fiction notwithstanding, compelling characters and a well-told story can make up for a lot in the stupid department (the scientifically stupid Independence Day being a case in point).

Pacific Rim is certainly the best live-action mecha movie ever made. It's exceptionally faithful to its Japanese roots, not only in the robot designs but in the mind-melding between the pilots, key to mecha series like Simoun and Eureka Seven.

They even got an actual Japanese actress (Rinko Kikuchi) to play an actual Japanese character!

Still, there's nothing wrong with being good and original. It's high time Hollywood got past the Independence Day premise: aliens trash the Earth to exploit its natural resources. Thankfully, the invading aliens are invariable really dumb.

Pacific Rim logically falls apart when it's revealed the monster are being directed by sentient beings. At least the aliens in Independence Day attacked en masse. If conquering the Earth is the objective, doing it piecemeal makes no sense.

Except to give the beleaguered humans a sporting chance. Though this revelation comes late enough in the movie that it can simply be shrugged off.

A few delightful characters help the medicine go down: a pair of mad scientists reminiscent of Leonard and Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, and Ron Perlman as a dealer in dead monster parts (watch the final credits to learn his ultimate fate).

Mecha anime series closer to fantasy than science fiction make the bad science easier to intellectually digest. But there is one series that succeeds as hard science fiction: Patlabor. (Sorry, but Neon Genesis Evangelion does nothing for me.)

Patlabor starts out by establishing a realistic premise: "Patrol Labors" evolved out of heavy construction equipment. A drunk at the controls of a semi-sentient earth mover could cause a lot of problems, necessitating equally equipped cops.

True to the spirit of the Second Law, they're hauled around on huge flatbed trucks and their batteries constantly have to be recharged.

The Patlabor franchise is also responsible for an outstanding entry in the albeit tiny category of monster vs. mech movies, a well-crafted and deeply moving drama in any genre: the feature-length Patlabor WXIII.

Unlike the mecha-centric television series, WXIII is a traditional police procedural, with the mechas playing a supporting role. The monster is man-made, the product of maternal love and human tragedy. No aliens invade and no apocalypse looms.

As I've argues elsewhere, small and mundane human problems often make for far more compelling drama than the ending of the world.

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November 25, 2013

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

The original Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow and the film by Mamoru Oshii proved to be as iconic as Blade Runner, and truly defined the cyberpunk genre in the anime world. Even so, the later Stand-Alone Complex television series far outdid the originals in getting cyberpunk right.

Not only by avoiding the stale "robots are taking over!" meme that Hollywood writers can't get past. But in imagining a technological society just short of the "Singularity" (one of those evolutionary steps that will always be just over the horizon), and yet no more or less dystopian than this one.

The human species keeps muddling through, as it always has and always will.

The series is being rebooted in a four-film series featuring a new cast, designs, director and writer (though still produced by Production I.G.). It's a prequel even to Stand-Alone Complex, taking Kusanagi back to the beginning of her career with Section 9. This is a series I definitely want to see.

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November 21, 2013

Damme good

Some action movie stars age better than others, and Jean-Claude Van Damme looks great. His amazing performance makes you forget the trucks are going backwards. Driving a big rig with that kind of precision is an impressive technological feat.

As Russ Roberts puts it on the Cafe Hayek blog:

This stunt with Van Damme advertising Volvo trucks makes me want to buy a Volvo truck and to listen to Enya. I am fighting off the former urge but will indulge the latter.

Van Damme is one of those actors I instantly recognize, but none of his movies spring to mind. Steven Seagal, by comparison, made one memorable movie, Under Siege, which belongs in the action flick pantheon along with Die Hard and Terminator II.

One of Seagal's forgotten films, Into the Sun (2005), was also much better than Ridley Scott's similar but dreadful Black Rain (1989), despite the big Hollywood budget and Michael Douglas and the sadly wasted Ken Takakura sharing the leads.

Unlike Van Damme, Seagal has put on a lot of padding of late. Though I do admire the fact that both of these aging action movie stars (who are actual martial artists in real life) are constantly working, even if everything they do goes straight to cable.

Okay, maybe they're simply trying to maintain the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed. But for whatever reason, a work ethic is a work ethic. Good for them!

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November 18, 2013

Kiki's Delivery Service

This is one live-action film I never saw a need for. It doesn't debut in Japan until next March and who knows when it will get here. But I'll lower my expectations and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

If you haven't seen the Studio Ghibli/Disney version, you're missing a great animated film (with a top-notch English language cast too), especially if you're looking for strong female role models.

A lesser-known anime classic in this vein is Magic User's Club. The humor is on the juvenile side at times, but it takes a clever approach to the old alien invasion storyline.

And in the process we learn that sitting on a broom (sans a pillow) hurts your butt, and the best way to deal with a malevolent (well, very nosy) alien spacecraft is to turn it into a giant cherry tree.

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November 14, 2013

Internet Explorer Nanoha

Here's nice overview of Microsoft's OS anime mascots, or "OS-tan" (tan is a slang form of the diminutive suffix chan).

Windows 8 would be a lot more popular if it looked like this!

Though it's hardly a Microsoft "fetish." OS-tan have been around for quite a while in Japan. In fact, Microsoft is showing remarkably quick-witted marketing chops for what is widely considered a stodgy tech company.

Especially in this "Internet Explorer Nanoha" IE-tan ad.

Incidentally, her "transformation" (no telephone booth required) is a staple of the "magical girl" anime genre, especially Sailor Moon, though I prefer the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha franchise.

Related posts

Nanami Madobe
Cloud Girl

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November 11, 2013

Zoned out

Allison Schrager is certainly right about getting rid of DST:

It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether. The actual energy savings are minimal, if they exist at all. Frequent and uncoordinated time changes cause confusion, undermining economic efficiency. There's evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles . . . lowers productivity and increases heart attacks.

But she isn't content to stop there:

Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again--no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States.

An intriguing idea, to be sure, and there is something to be said for getting everybody on the same page. Or on the same two pages. Nothing's more confusing than flying through Phoenix in the summer.

But the world is round and there are 24 hours in the day. That means time zones.

Besides, the real reason Brigham Young moved the Mormons to Utah was so we'd end up in the Goldilocks time zone. Prime time television starts at 7:00 PM and ends at 10:00 PM. Weekday sporting events are over by 9:30 PM.

And all those annoying political interruptions radiating from Washington start at 7:00 PM or earlier, making them that much easier to tune out.

That won't work if the East Coast is only one hour ahead of us.

On the other hand, prime time television would still start at 7:00 PM in Utah. Weekday sporting events (and presidential addresses) could start two hours earlier on the East Coast because California would now only be an hour behind.

So maybe Schrager's onto something here.

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November 07, 2013

Heaven-blessed NTT

A recent Peter Payne post ties into my previous comments about phone cards and  Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

The phrase "天下の" (tenka no) literally means "under heaven." In a historical context, it referred to a warlord receiving the blessing of Heaven and the emperor (having killed or subjugated everybody else competing for the job):

During the Warring States period, that's what the various warlords were trying to do: win enough power that they could go to the emperor in Kyoto and receive his blessing to become the designated military ruler of the country (shogun).

Yet even after bribing everybody in sight, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) only won the title of regent. He was a commoner by birth and class is a far more precious commodity than wealth. So he invaded Korea instead.

After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) wisely exited Korea, wiped out Hideyoshi's allies at Sekigahara in 1600, and did get it (he doctored his family tree to make sure).

These days, a more cynical Japanese public attaches the phrase "tenka no" to pedestrian institutions like NTT. "Tenka no NTT" thus means "the company anointed by heaven to provide telephone service to the Japanese people."

Like the court officials frustrating Toyotomi Hideyoshi's dreams of aristocratic respectability, NTT demands a healthy gratuity to do its job. Along with doctors and landlords.

In rental housing, it's called reikin (礼金) or "key money." It dates back to when the housing market was very tight. Now it's not and reikin is fading. But in a country where tipping is practically unknown, tipping doctors isn't.

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November 04, 2013

Daylight Saving (waste of) Time

Daylight Saving Time (no plural in the official name) in the U.S. now lasts from March to November. Seriously, why not just slap on the remaining four months and be done with it?

DST very much resembles a tax refund from the IRS. Enough people treat tax refunds like "found money" and Daylight Saving Time like "found time" that politicians have, for a half-dozen times since 1918, been able to pretend that something is actually being "saved."

Incidentally, a tax refund is just the principal returned on an interest-free loan to the government.

The 2007 DST revision screwed up my VCR clock, its programming based on the 1986 law. The VCR has since died and gone to appliance heaven, but I have enough manual clocks around to make it a big pain. Not to mention the havoc it plays on my circadian rhythms.

In Japan, DST is called "Summer Time." It was another one of those policies imposed on the population by General MacArthur and abandoned in 1951 when the American Occupation ended (along with giving typhoons names; meteorologists in Japan use numbers).

Japan covers 20 degrees of longitude in one time zone. With Tokyo (which means "eastern capital") situated at 140 degrees east and the outlying islands of Okinawa fifteen degrees to the west, for most Japanese the sun rises early in the morning year round.

You can always go on vacation to Okinawa and enjoy the long, warm evenings. Since proposals to institute "Summer Time" in Japan have so far gotten shot down in short order, the Japanese must prefer it that way.

So do I, although I'd settle for going off DST or staying on it. One way or the other. Permanently.

China, on the other hand, covers over 60 degrees of longitude and has one time zone and no DST. That's taking ruthless bureaucratic efficiency deep into the realms of the irrational, a practice China's oligarchs have been perfecting for a few thousand years.

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