December 29, 2014

Perfect on paper

Kate points out that part of the problem with "mainframe plots" (an amorphous, omniscient "big bad" as the main antagonist) is the "nothing ever glitches syndrome." The bad guy is so pure and untainted in his badness that his Machiavellian schemes unfold without a hitch.

This isn't just a problem faced by screenwriters. It's a problem that people living in the real world have difficulty coming to grips with.

One of the themes explored in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully) was the Imperial Navy's obsession with labyrinthian war plans, exacerbated by "victory disease," an unshakable belief in their predestined triumph through sheer will.

Byzantine intricacy was a trademark of prewar Japanese naval strategy. Fleet exercises often featured exquisitely coordinated maneuvers on the part of the Imperial Navy being met with conveniently inept countermoves by the oafish Americans, who never failed to go obediently to their choreographed slaughter.

In the chapter discussing Admiral Yamamoto's final operational plan for Midway, Parshall and Tully cheekily advise the reader to "pour a rather tall glass of spirits beforehand." I kept imagining Baldrick from Blackadder intoning, "I have a cunning plan."

The simultaneous attack on the Aleutian Islands, for example, has ever since been depicted as a "diversion" because that's the only thing that makes any freaking sense in retrospect. But it really was a full-fledged operation intended to secure a military base on U.S. territory in the North Pacific.

Horse trading to get his Central Pacific strategy approved, Yamamoto agreed (it wasn't his idea) to place two of his carriers well out of reach when, in fact, "the [Aleutian] archipelago was useless for staging any offensive action larger than an occasional narwhal hunt."

Ironically, Yamamoto's chief ally in pushing through his Central Pacific strategy was--the United States. Namely, the Doolittle Raid. It's fun to imagine Jimmy Doolittle doing it for that purpose, but no conspiracy ever works as well as happenstance. Yamamoto deserves every last bit of credit.

Especially after factoring in details of the pre-war political machinations provided by Eri Hotta in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, Admiral Yamamoto ends up looking more and more like the George McClellan of the Pacific War: the gift that kept on giving—to the other side.

Although [Civil War General] McClellan was meticulous in his planning and preparations, these characteristics may have hampered his ability to challenge aggressive opponents in a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of enemy units and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points.

While Yamamoto chronically underestimated the strength of the opposing forces, the results were the same: Midway being a classic case of the inability, when it counted, to apply principles of mass. Yamamoto ended up giving Nimitz the fairest fight he could have possibly hoped for.

During war games leading up to the Battle of Midway, whenever junior officers suggested that the Americans could show up on Admiral Nagumo's flank and start attacking everything in sight ("Hulk smash!"), Yamamoto insisted that such a possibility was inconceivable.

Of course, the U.S. Navy did exactly that. And while it was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Japanese carriers, a beleaguered Nagumo was desperately trying stick to Yamamoto's "cunning plan," when it should have been "summarily consigned to the ash can."

WWII popularized the acronym that perfectly describes what happened at Midway (to varying degrees on both sides): SNAFU. The first two letters get right to the heart of the matter. Stuff getting AFU is "situation normal."

Or as 19th century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke put it more politely, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy," a maxim that Parshall and Tully quip "probably never met with a less enthusiastic audience than the Imperial Navy."

Even on fictional battlefields, the entertainment comes from seeing how a battle plan survives (or doesn't, depending on the POV) contact with the enemy. Scripted storytelling leads us to expect that just when things are going right they're going to go drastically wrong (and vise versa), hence the suspense.

The difference in the real world is that sometimes things never go right to begin with. And when they start going wrong, they don't stop going wrong. That possibility didn't occur to Admiral Yamamoto until four of his fleet carriers were sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

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December 25, 2014

Santa-san's electric-powered sleighs

The first Shinkansen went into service 50 years ago this October. The Japan News has a breezy and informative slide show about the history of the Shinkansen. And a virtual trip from Tokyo to Osaka.

Thirty years ago, I rode a 0 series Shinkansen (second from left) from Tokyo to Odawara. It was like flying on a 737 at ground level. The 0 series was in service from 1964-2008 (click to enlarge).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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December 22, 2014

Two chirps for cricket

I get One World Sports in my international satellite package. Its unofficial motto: "Covering all the sports too boring and obscure even for ESPN2." Like soccer, which I discuss at length here.

Some of the "obscure" sports are popular American sports played elsewhere (Japanese baseball, Chinese basketball). But most are obscure for good reason, such as snooker (nine-ball with a bunch of needlessly confusing complications).

Darts, though, is fairly interesting simply because of the math involved.

Then there's table tennis, which looks terrible on television. They should use an orange ball or try that puck-tracking technology once employed in a futile attempt to make hockey interesting to the American sports fan.

Badminton is better. The shuttlecock slows itself down by design. It still suffers from being a "volley" sport: an object gets smacked back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth) until somebody misses.

Volleyball is the best "volley" sport. The ball is big, easy to follow, and each team can do something interesting with the ball before hitting it back. Thus the athletic skills on display rise above the purely reflexive.

But no matter how impressive the skills, in the end it's the same thing over and over. Volley sports are definitely more fun to play than they are to watch (beach volleyball having found the obvious solution to that problem).

But there is one not-made-in-America sport worth watching. Cricket! Well, cricket matches with all the boring stuff taken out (true of sumo too: a day's worth of boring live sumo coverage can be wrapped up in thirty exciting minutes).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of baseball are obvious in the sport. Baseball "fixed" cricket the same way American football fixed rugby: by making it, to quote George Will,  "a game of discrete episodes" that provides for numerous "contemplative" moments.

Such moments of collective contemplation lead to offensive and defensive strategies that require the players to act together in a coordinated way over time, producing, for example, the always entertaining double play.

Because there are only two bases in cricket, there's no way to plan for or execute a base-running offensive strategy during play. Once the batting order is decided, its all up to the batsman to hit the ball as often as possible.

And some of them can really hit that ball! Cricket essentially turns batting practice into a sport. Now, as batting practice goes, it's pretty interesting.

The equipment makes it fairly easy to hit the ball. The ball is heavier and harder than a baseball, and it's bounced to boot, so it's difficult to hit well. Only the catcher wears gloves, so it's harder to catch too.

The batsman stands right in the strike zone. Hitting him is fair. That's why cricket batsmen are padded up like hockey goalies.

Runs are scored by running back between the two bases. One "strike" and the batsman is out. He can also get thrown out and caught out (like baseball). Hit a part of his body in the strike zone and he's out.

On the other hand, there's no foul territory. It's impossible for the defense to cover the outfield, and a good batsman can hit the ball where the fielders aren't. Though that does make defensive plays all the more remarkable.

The equivalent of a ground-rule double in baseball scores 4 points in cricket. An actual home run is worth 6 points. You can see why cricket produces scores in the hundreds.

Cricket also has the coolest, so-very-British terms for stuff in sports, like wicket, maiden, overs (always plural), beamer and yorker. A batsman isn't "out." He's "dismissed." How polite.

Cricket consistently creates highlight reel moments. The bowling (pitching) is wild and crazy. One batsman can score a hundred runs and the next zero. Catching "foul tips" and pop flies without gloves is pretty impressive.

But again, cricket's one major failing is the inability of the offense to mount any kind of strategy beyond the batter order. Cricket needs another base, and should switch sides every out or every set number of overs.

As far as that goes, it'd be interesting to score baseball the same as cricket: each base reached equals a run. A home run would score 4 and a base hit would score 1. It'd definitely revitalize the Ichiro Suzuki style of "small ball."

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December 18, 2014

The future past of fashion

Musing about the "look and feel" of Stargate SG-1, Kate observes: "Here's the truth about fantasy & sci-fi and clothes: the older they look, the cooler they are."

Or to put it another way: you're not likely to invent fashions (or architecture) better than what's already been dreamed up and put to the test of time. The best way to predict the future is to wait until it's in the past and then take a close look at it.

Thus Stanley Kubrick got it right in 2001 by giving his astronauts a conservative military look instead of taking his cues from the hipster 1960s. This 1947 photograph of Chuck Yeager sitting in the Bell X-1 cockpit is pretty much timeless.

Seriously, that could be Han Solo. George Lucas popularized what might be called the "space cowboy aesthetic": the kind of well-worn, practical work clothes that have barely changed since the mid-1800s.

For Darth Vader, Lucas reached further back, giving him a helmet (kabuto) straight out of Japan's Warring States period.

Japanese clothing has held up well over the past four centuries. As a general rule, if what was fashionable 150 years ago is fashionable today, it'll probably be fashionable a century from now. Which is why James Bond still wears a tuxedo.

Projecting the past into the future, consider the battle dress of the 16th century military strategist Kuroda Kanbei (played by Jun'ichi Okada). Want to dress your invading aliens-from-outer-space in something cool? This outfit will do nicely.

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December 11, 2014


NHK's current morning melodrama (Asadora) is doing something it's never done before: cast a non-Japanese actor in the title role.

Newcomer Charlotte Kate Fox (Northern Illinois University, MFA Acting) plays Scotswoman Ellie Kameyama, wife of Masaharu Kameyama (Tetsuji Tamayama), the scion of a sake-brewing family who brought whiskey to Japan.

Like Hanako and Anne, this is a fictionalized account of real people: Jessie "Rita" Cowan (1896-1961) and Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the "father" of Japan's distilled spirits industry. "Massan" was Cowen's nickname for her husband.

They met in Scotland while Masataka was researching whiskey making. His research paid off well: this year, "Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013" was named the world's finest. Masataka Taketsuru was one of the founders of the Yamazaki distillery.

Yamazaki was subsequently acquired by Suntory. Masataka and Rita moved to Hokkaido to establish Nikka (now owned by brewing giant Asahi).

Fox isn't Scottish and doesn't have to be: 95 percent of her dialogue is in Japanese. Besides her acting skills and onscreen presence, she was probably hired for her ability to speak Japanese. Or recite Japanese, since she hadn't studied Japanese before.

This isn't unheard of for Hollywood actors, though some do better than others. Marlon Brando speaks pretty good Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon. Richard Chamberlain tries hard in Shogun (but not hard enough). Tom Cruise does surprisingly well in The Last Samurai.

But Fox is tackling a huge amount of material: six 15-minute episodes a week for half a year. When all is said and done, she will have memorized—spoken or reacted to—about 40 solid hours of Japanese dialogue, most of it fairly practical, everyday material.

Boy, is there a dissertation in this. Her pronunciation already qualifies as above average, thanks in large part to her tutor, who preps her scripts using heavily modified romaji. It'd be fascinating to regularly test her language abilities along the way.

She has a fine singing voice and probably a good ear for accents. Though the one thing she readily admits she can't do is speak Japanese with a Scottish accent (her Scottish English accent sounds okay to me).

In any case, considering the challenges of performing in a just-learned language, Fox is doing quite well. She has nice chemistry with Tetsuji Tamayama. Together they reveal Massan to really be a modern family sit-com with a historical setting.

As Peter Payne likes to point out, Japanese women often voice the same complaint as Emma Watson (and idealize American men no less):

The Harry Potter star said that even though men from the UK dress well and have good manners they take two months just to ask her out. Instead an American will come up to her straight away and suggest a date, a boldness she finds attractive.

In that light, by using Fox's Ellie as the extroverted "interloper" in a traditional Japanese family and business, Massan becomes a clever way to talk about marital relationships, and analogize that to Japan's relationships with the outside world.

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December 08, 2014

The beginning of the end

Alan D. Zimm argues on History Net (an essay excerpted from his book) that the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor added up to a lot of shock and awe but was much less substantial in terms of accomplishing any of Japan's actual military objectives.

Far from being "brilliantly conceived and executed," the attack was so "plagued by inflexibility, a lack of coordination, and misallocated resources," that even after "ten months of arduous planning, rehearsal, and intelligence gathering," the details were still being worked out on the way to Hawaii.

As a consequence,

though armed with enough firepower to destroy up to 14 battleships and aircraft carriers, the Japanese landed killing hits on only three battleships; luck, combined with American damage control mistakes, added two more battleships to their tally. Not only was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor far from brilliant, it narrowly avoided disaster.

It is easier on the ego to attribute brilliance to the enemy that catches you flat-footed, though U.S. sailors did put up enough of a defense to dissuade Vice Admiral Nagumo from launching a third wave.

Zimm's description of the confused execution of the Pearl Harbor attack mirrors Eri Hotta's exhaustively detailed account in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy of the absurd political machinations that led up to it.

Hotta comes to the same conclusion as Zimm. Noting that Pearl Harbor is typically described as "a brilliant tactical triumph but an awful strategic blunder," she doubts it was even a "tactical triumph."

[O]il tanks, machine shops, and other U.S. facilities were mostly left untouched. Japan was also unable to inflict damage on any of the U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, which were not present in the harbor at the time. This, along with the fact that the harbor's shallow waters made the repair of damaged crafts easier, enabled a speedy recovery of U.S. naval might in the Pacific.

The attack on Pearl Harbor can best be understood as a desire to duplicate Japan's surprise attack on Port Arthur in 1904, inaugurating the Russo-Japanese War. A little over a year later, Admiral Togo's "Combined Fleet" wiped out the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.

History would not be repeating itself. Though in a purely military context, Yamamoto's fixation on Pearl Harbor was downright rational compared to the tangled web of politics that sanctioned it.

Hideki Tojo only became prime minister in October 1941 (and resigned in July 1944; he was not a "dictator"). By 1941, Japan had dug itself into a deep political hole, the self-inflicted wound of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy being a case in point. And finding itself there, only dug faster.

Nobody knew what they were doing or why. Those in the government who understood the U.S. political landscape the best were too busy promoting their own agendas to apply that knowledge to the looming disaster before them. Tojo himself dithered back and forth.

But Tojo was a veritable Rock of Gibraltar compared to his predecessor, the hapless Fumimaro Konoe, who was against war with U.S. or for it depending on the day of the week.

Meanwhile, the Japanese army and navy fought each other over dwindling resources and for ideological justification. They couldn't agree amongst themselves what a war with the U.S. would accomplish or what the war in China had accomplished so far. Only that they had to do something.

Consequently, for the chiefs and vice chiefs of the general staffs, Hotta concludes,

it proved much easier to go along with the call for war preparedness initiated by the [war] planners than to try to restrain them. Talking tough gave these leaders an illusory sense of power and bravery when the rest of the leaders openly dithered and vacillated between war and peace, unable to articulate an emphatic no.

In the end, Japan's decision to go to war with the U.S. can be summed up as follows:

Japanese Cabinet: We have to do something!
Admiral Yamamoto: This is something.
Japanese Cabinet: Okay. We'll do that!

After a decade of waging an unwinnable land war in Asia, given the chance to do something, Yamamoto couldn't resist the challenge. And yet he was also aware that everything was riding on the Kantai Kessen theory of naval battle: that a single, decisive confrontation would settle things.

As a coolheaded political analyst, Yamamoto warned the naval general staff in Tokyo in late September 1941 that "a war with so little chance of success should not be fought." But at the same time, as an operational planner, Yamamoto, Japan's most informed commander and its biggest gambler, could adamantly insist on the adoption of his Pearl Harbor strategy even though he knew the United States would not give up the fight easily.

Ultimately, how well or poorly the attack on Pearl Harbor was executed made no difference. What William Tecumseh Sherman predicted about the South in 1860 was no less true of Japan in 1941: the U.S. only had to survive to fight another day. In time it would bury the enemy with sheer industrial output.

On both sides of the Pacific, the die was cast long before the shooting started. As Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully argue in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway,

The seeds of Japan's defeat were not planted in the six months of easy Japanese victories that led up to the battle [of Midway], but had instead been sown in the very earliest days of the Imperial Navy's development.

Japan's biggest miscalculation was believing it had to engage the U.S. militarily in order to accomplish its (albeit delusional) objectives. That mistake made, it was doomed. Japan's world war, that began in earnest with Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, effectively ended on 7 December 1941.

What followed in the next four years was the long and bloody denouement.

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December 04, 2014

Imamatsuribe no Yosofu

An old high school classmate contacted me on Facebook and wondered if could read what was written on this flag. The father of a family friend had brought it home at the end of WWII (click to enlarge).

The characters across the top are straightforward: 「武運長久」 "May the fortunes of war favor you forever." (The left-to-right switch for reading horizontally-written characters came right after the war.)

The characters radiating out from the "Rising Sun" (Hi-no-maru) in three concentric bands are the signed names of the soldiers in the company.

I couldn't make out what was written at the top right in old cursive script (read vertically top-to-bottom, right-to-left). So I asked a Japanese friend.

It's a poem credited to an 8th century frontier guardsman by the name of "Imamatsuribe no Yosofu," written while he was serving in a remote garrison on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan.

The poem is found in the Man'yoshu, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, dating to 759 AD. Thanks to Google Books, I found several reference translations, which I've edited a bit.


From this day onward
without any homeward thoughts
I set forth as a lowly shield
of his Imperial Majesty.

A terrifically poignant word of parting, especially considering that most of them would never come home again.

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December 01, 2014

Groundhog D-Day

Take Groundhog Day and Independence Day and mash them together and you've got Edge of Tomorrow.

Based on All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, a smarmy Army PR flack (Tom Cruise) ticks off the wrong people and gets shipped to the front a day before a big invasion of France. Europe's been overrun by marauding aliens that fell from the sky. Great Britain is next.

He promptly gets killed and immediately starts living his life over again from 24 hours earlier. After dying several times in succession, he hooks up with a veteran warrior who's experienced the same phenomenon. Together they set out to track down the Big Bad destroying life-as-we-know-it.

The G.I. Jane (Emily Blunt) is called the "Angel of Verdun" and the movie begins with a modern-day Normandy landing. There's a brief graphic of the alien takeover of Europe that looks an awful lot like German troop movements circa 1939.

These nods to WWI/II help turn Edge of Tomorrow more into a war caper movie like Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone, where the heroes infiltrate enemy territory and destroy the big gun or the secret command center or whatever.

(In any case, didn't you always wonder what was really hiding under that goofy glass pyramid at the Louvre? Art? Ha!)

None of this gets belabored because when you're being that obvious, there's no need to point out the obvious. Motivations don't much matter. That's the convenient thing about fighting Nazis (and other monsters): they're just bad, no complicated moralizing or rationalizations required.

I give director Doug Liman high marks for not explaining anything that doesn't need explaining. Comic book movies should stop trying to be anything but comic book movies and own the genre proudly. No need to pad on thirty more minutes scrambling about for "substance" when there isn't any.

I mean, in too many movies, this is what the actual entertainment boils down to.

So nobody takes themselves any more seriously than they need to, and the mostly bloodless techno-violence is leavened by a pervasive dry wit that is honestly funny at times and keeps any potential dreariness at bay.

Nevertheless, Edge of Tomorrow taps into so many well-worn S.F. memes that you could easily sum up the whole screenplay in a half-hour Twilight Zone episode (and Rod Serling could pack in a bunch more substance to boot).

But it does the same-only-different very well. Cruise has this kind of role down pat, and he and Blunt strike the right chords together. Granted, they're playing the same trick on the audience that Groundhog Day does, portraying a "developing" relationship that is entirely one-sided.

And come to think about it, the same trick as the ending of Oblivion, another Tom Cruise post-apocalyptic SF actioner (though done not nearly as well; for starters, it takes itself too seriously and doesn't adequately set up the happy-ending payoff).

Big deal. Why quibble about narrative consistency when the big climax and crowd-pleasing denouement tie everything up with a nice big bow? Edge of Tomorrow is a feel-good actioner whose only real message is that war in the future will also be hell but still a lot of fun to watch.

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