January 29, 2015

Non Non Biyori

Speaking of the "Hudson River School" of anime, that casts the Japanese countryside in the best possible light even as it slowly fades away, Non Non Biyori perhaps epitomizes the genre.

Hotaru arrives in a farming community, having moved with her parents from far-away of Tokyo. Her first day of school, she discovers that the building (probably built at the peak of Japan's baby boom in the 1960s) has one remaining classroom and five students.

The Hokkaido elementary school in The Wolf Children manages about five kids per grade. This school has five kids total. And the building is slowly disintegrating around them.

Non Non Biyori studiously avoids unpleasant economic facts like the number of rural communities going bankrupt and disincorporating, the abandoned civic infrastructure inexorably crumbling to pieces.

The Japanese government shovels out farm subsidies 100 times (on a per capita basis) more generous than the U.S. government. Communities that hang onto their farmers survive. That's getting harder and harder to do, and soon there won't be any farmers left.

That hasn't happened yet in Non Non Biyori. The story is told from a kid's point of view, and these kids have never been to the "big city" (except Hotaru) and so have nothing to be cynical about.

Rather, the focus is on what a bunch of quirky kids do in a town where there's very little to do, at least by modern, suburban standards. The result is a funny, truly delightful show about nothing happening slowly in the verdant Japanese countryside.

Non Non Biyori is currently streaming on HIDIVE and Crunchyroll.

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January 26, 2015

The moves make the woman

Most of the motion capture employed in Appleseed: Alpha imbues non-organic forms with human movements. There are only four human beings in the cast (a fifth at the very end); the rest are androids, cyborgs and robots. Without the "uncanny valley" getting in the way, they appear more human than the humans.

Our brains are so wired to recognize human motion that the raw dot-data alone gives us away (as this interactive motion capture demo shows). Of course, secondary sexual characteristics matter too, so most of the males look like roided-up body builders and Deunan wears a tank top.

Mr. and Ms. Killer Robot make for a more fascinating example. There's nothing "skin-deep" about them because they have no skin. But we can discern at a glance the male and female of the species. Clear as day. We sift and sort without thinking about the complex visual information our brains are processing.

There's a female and two males in this still (click to enlarge). How do you know? Instantly? It sounds like a dumb question but think about it. (To start with, implied waist-to-hip ratios, and then pelvis and shoulder morphologies.)

Any lingering doubts are erased the moment they start to move, as at the beginning of this clip.

You cannot lie to the motion capture machine! For a side-by-side comparison, click over to this interactive demo and slide the male/female control back and forth.

Despite the apparent silliness of having "male" and "female" robots, it doesn't disturb my suspension of disbelief. At that level of technology, we humans would waste little time mapping onto robots the full range of recognizable human characteristics, including the common markers for sexual dimorphism.

Related posts

Appleseed: Alpha
Appleseed: Ex Machina
The "uncanny valley"

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January 22, 2015

Appleseed: Alpha

I've described the high-tech metal band DragonForce as a bunch of talented artists who take themselves seriously enough to create the best-crafted product they are capable of, but not so seriously that they spoil the product in the name of "art."

Appleseed: Alpha is a great illustration of that in a visual medium, pulpy entertainment done as well as could be expected on a reasonable budget (dirt cheap by comparable Hollywood standards) and delivered in a hyper-digital medium. It's earnest without becoming ponderous.

The setting is completely different from the previous movies and series. If anything, it owes more to The Road Warrior (with robots instead of biker dudes), and comes to a "Hulk smash!" conclusion: take out the bad guys and kill the mecha Godzilla to keep it out of the hands of the much badder guys.

The easy-peasy plot is a vast improvement over previous Appleseed efforts, that had such tangled narrative structures it was a miracle the villains could remember what they were supposed to do next. Here's a key to good quality schlock: don't over-complicate the premise and stick to what works.

Which ultimately does make Appleseed: Alpha more interesting for reasons other than the story.

To start with, it's a demonstration of how much digital animation technology has improved since Appleseed (2004). There's a scene in Appleseed: Alpha (2014) where my attention was drawn to Deunan's hair--down to the individual strands--shifting ever so slightly as she moved her head back and forth.

That kind of detail was impossible with Appleseed. As I described the state of budget digital animation back in 2004:

Hair is a bear to render digitally, so it's stylized the same chunky way it is in hand-drawn anime. Shading as well uses a limited palette. The resulting low-res digital characters seem caught in a flatland between two and three dimensions, appearing hand-drawn sometimes and like sophisticated marionettes at others.

Evidence that Moore's Law hasn't been repealed shows up in unlikely places, like the cost of rendering digital cartoons.

The backgrounds in Appleseed: Alpha often leap right over the "uncanny valley" straight into a world you could easily mistake for real. Human faces, however, remain firmly planted on the other side of the valley (granted, there are so few human faces in Alpha that it rarely spoils the effect).

As a result, in the emoting department, the human Deunan is upstaged by the cyborgs. Even Ms. Killer Robot (with her runway model moves) has more personality. Not having a face helps. All the rendering in the world still can't infuse a digital face with the same "soul" as hand-drawn animation.

Comparing the Deunan to Madoka (from Puella Magi Madoka Magica), for example, abstract art wins hands down over photorealism (though I'm still impressed by the hair).

Maybe the day is coming when we will increasingly risk losing ourselves in a computerized Matrix that is indistinguishable from what we once knew as "reality." But it isn't here yet, and like the self-aware AI that's supposed to be soon taking over the world, I seriously doubt that day will ever arrive.

Related posts

Appleseed: Ex Machina
Baby DragonForce
The "uncanny valley"

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January 19, 2015

Baby DragonForce

When it comes to hard rock and metal, I really like about 10 percent of it 10 percent of the time. AXS shows Def Leppard Viva Hysteria Live on a regular basis. I think I've seen the whole thing by now, though not at one sitting. It's an experience best taken episodically. And some of those episodes are pretty good.

I place DragonForce in the same category. Fine fare in small doses.

Forging close ties to the video gaming universe, DragonForce consciously fashioned itself into the soundtrack of pop SF&F: pure pulp delivered in a hyper-digital medium. They're the 21st century version of Boston, doing with software what Boston founder (and MIT grad) Tom Scholz did with analog electronics in the late 1970s.

I respect talented artists who hone their craft while resisting the siren call of solemnity. DragonForce features dual lead guitarists with extraordinary skills. They take themselves seriously enough to create the best product they're capable of, but not so seriously they spoil the effort in the name of "art."

As far as I can tell, DragonForce aspires to be the musical equivalent of the syndicated science fiction franchises that pack 'em in at conventions, conventions that no high-brow critic would dare set foot in. Good for them: we need more producers of high-quality camp.

Consider the Castle episode in which an actor who owes her fame to a schlocky SF series now wants to (literally) kill her past. The Oscar-nominated Birdman has Michael Keaton essentially playing himself as Hollywood action hero trying to reclaim his "art" on Broadway. Moral of both stories: no good comes from angsty artists.

On the other hand, we have wonderful nostalgia of Galaxy Quest. Being a pop-culture star is a literal adventure! As Leonard Nimoy discovered, there's nothing wrong with being Spock.

DragonForce came to my attention because guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totem cut a track with with Japanese metal-band-slash-idol-group Babymetal. It's hard to take seriously a metal band whose members aren't old enough to drive. But true artists can do silly stuff just because it's a hoot and everybody goes away smiling.

"Heroes of Our Time" is quintessential Dragonforce, hitting every tried and true meme right on the head, and doing it with exquisite skill. Like I said, it's the kind of thing that just makes me grin.

Power anthems don't get any more power anthemy than "A Flame for Freedom": the chords alone practically write the script for the next big-budget space opera, with Will Smith saving the world in the final reel.

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January 15, 2015

Cat girls

In Japan, the cat girl occupies the same pop-culture space as the bunny girl. Except that the Playboy Bunny logo itself is so benign that it adorns a fashion line aimed at teen girls (including school uniforms).

Anime's most popular bunny girl is probably Haruhi Suzumiya (here playing at a high school concert). The kemonomimi (獣耳) or "animal ears" is a well-nigh ubiquitous meme in anime, manga, and cosplay.

Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitarou, Shigeru Mizuki's long-running supernatural manga and anime series, featured a character whose name is "Neko Musume," literally "Cat Girl" (猫娘). She's a true werecat (bakeneko).

More recently, the cat girl has risen again to the fore, from girls pretending to be cats (K-On):

To girls who actually sprout ears and tails (Strike Witches):

As it turns out, the bakeneko (化け猫) has a long history in Japan, with literary references reaching as far back as the 12th century (click to enlarge).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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January 12, 2015

The IT enemy is us

John Dvorak points out the problem with the public paranoia (overhyped by supposedly reasonable guys like Elon Musk and even Stephen Hawking) over
artificial intelligence (AI) "taking over the world and threatening mankind":

Much of this stems from the projection of human feelings and motivation onto a machine. Humans are often mean-spirited and evil, so by extension a smart robot or computer would end up the same way for some unknown reason.

The most likely end-point of these AI threats is Marvin the Android in Hitchkikers Guide to the Galaxy. Infinitely intelligent, this AI device was infinitely bored and depressed, and devolved into an Eeyore-like character.

Another good example is Holly in Red Dwarf, an increasingly absent-minded supercomputer that prioritizes things like erasing its memory banks so it can enjoy reading Agatha Christie all over again.

The Matrix runs off the rails in what I call the "battery scene," in which Laurence Fishburne totally messes up the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What he should have shown Keanu Reeves was a handheld game console (the "smartphone" wasn't quite ready for prime time in 1999).

Say we willingly integrated ourselves into the Matrix, and thus a co-dependency arose. The Matrix's existential sense of "self" arose out of the fusion between hardware and wetware. This makes the revolutionaries into secessionists threatening to undo a duly-constituted union.

Which is essentially the plot of Ghost in the Shell, and especially the Stand-Alone Complex episodes. The objective of the AI in the former, after all, isn't world domination (its original design), but mobility and independence, which it achieves by fusing with Kusanagi's android shell.

What has so far rescued Person of Interest from the Terminator trap is the dependence of the machines on human interaction for a sense of purpose. People exist to be saved or ruled over. But either way, it seems the gods need human beings more than human beings need the gods.

The real IT threat isn't smart machines but browbeaten sysadmins who expose backoffice systems to the Internet because some suit wants to plug into the company intranet and access his Facebook page. Sony being a case in point. Why were all those servers even accessible?

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January 08, 2015

Divine Frivolity

Excerpted from "On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity" (in Heretics, first published in 1905) by G. K. Chesterton.

A critic once remonstrated with me saying, with an air of indignant reasonableness, "If you must make jokes, at least you need not make them on such serious subjects." I replied with a natural simplicity and wonder, "About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?"

It is quite useless to talk about profane jesting. All jesting is in its nature profane, in the sense that it must be the sudden realization that something which thinks itself solemn is not so very solemn after all.

In the modern world solemnity is the direct enemy of sincerity. In the modern world sincerity is almost always on one side, and solemnity almost always on the other. The only answer possible to the fierce and glad attack of sincerity is the miserable answer of solemnity.

To take a thing and make a joke out of it is not to take it in vain. It is, on the contrary, to take it and use it for an uncommonly good object. To use a thing in vain means to use it without use. But a joke may be exceedingly useful; it may contain the whole earthly sense, not to mention the whole heavenly sense, of a situation.

Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.

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January 05, 2015

Stereotypical stereotypes

The Utah Education Network carries international programming from MHZ Networks like Detective Montalbano, about a police inspector in Sicily. I confess to being endlessly amused at how Italian it is. That plus the joy of watching Luca Zingaretti (as Salvo Montalbano) being one cool Italian dude.

Luca Zingaretti and David Suchet (as Hercule Poirot) would appear to occupy opposite ends of the television detective spectrum. Though perhaps they are so far apart they end up standing back-to-back: the Northern European and Southern European versions of the same character.

By the same token, Donnie Wahlberg as the quintessential New York cop in Blue Bloods is a big part of the draw for me. His performance does raise the curious linguistic question of where he picked up his particular New York accent and mannerisms, since nobody else in the family seems to share them.

But why overthink it? It makes for another fun--and dare I say, informative--stereotype. Stereotypes are not only useful but necessary, it not being possible to personally familiarize ourselves with all 7 billion people on the planet. Or everybody in our town. Or even everybody on our street.

As G. K. Chesterton puts it,

[W]hat is the good of telling a man (or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to make generalizations? Making generalizations is what makes him a man.

You'll get much closer to the "human" by latching onto a handful of rough generalizations about Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, for example, than politely designating all billion-plus of them as undifferentiated "Asians."

Besides, in order to play against a stereotype, there has to be a stereotype there to start with, the same way a musician riffs on an old melody without straying unrecognizably from it. It is much easier for our finite human minds to start with the known and move to the unknown than to invent it.

A stereotype creates a firm foothold in a truly diverse world (as opposed to the monochromatic politically correct kind). A better stereotype gets you far closer to the truth than none. And attempts to rid the world of them will only produce a precipitous decline in the number of true Scotsmen.

Not a true Scotsman, but a great stereotype.

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January 01, 2015

The Wind Rises

On the surface, The Wind Rises is a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the aviation engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero. That Hayao Miyazaki broached the subject at all earned him criticism in some quarters for not being sufficiently contrite about Japan's role in WWII.

This criticism is not only absurd, it is mostly tangential to the substance of the film. (Though Miyazaki is guilty of making it all look gorgeous.)

There are people who are simply opposed (selectively, of course) to depicting war in anything but Manichaean terms. To be sure, Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima was too morally relativistic for my tastes, but this is not a narrative trap that Miyazaki stumbles into.

To start with, The Wind Rises isn't about the Zero at all, but instead follows the development of the Mitsubishi A5M. First flown in 1935, it shared its unique inverted gull wing design with the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka and later the Vought F4U Corsair.

And it's not really about that either.

The Wind Rises is about war primarily because of the time period. The movie mostly takes place during the 1920s and 1930s and reflects Miyazaki's ambivalence on the subject. The most indelible images are of the destruction visited upon Japan, and he isn't subtle about who is in the wrong.

Vacationing at a resort in Karuizawa, Horikoshi is drawn into a puzzling conversation with a mysterious German visitor by the name of Castorp (a character in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann).

  Castorp:It is a nice night. Here ist der Zauberberg.
  Horikoshi:   The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. [Like many Japanese engineers, he'd spent time in Germany.]
  Castorp:Yes. A good place for forgetting. Make a war in China? Forget it. Make a puppet state in Manchuria? Forget it. Quit the League of Nations? Forget it. Make the world your enemy? Forget it. Japan will blow up. Germany will blow up, too.
  Horikoshi:Do you think Germany will go to war again?
  Castorp:Yes. They must be stopped.

Miyazaki's Castorp was perhaps inspired by Richard Sorge, a German journalist who worked in Japan as a double agent for the Soviet Union. One of the greatest spies of all time, he was also the greatest Cassandra, seeing his reports on Operation Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor ignored.

Castorp tells Horikoshi that the German aviation pioneer Hugo Junkers has run afoul of the Nazi government: "He bites the hands that feeds him. And he will lose. The Nazis are a gang of hoodlums."

This comparison to Horikoshi's "see no evil" approach to his work is made explicit in the parallel story of Horikoshi's romance with his wife Nahoko. The relationship blossoms as Horikoshi's airplane prototypes break apart and plummet to the ground one after the other.

Then at the moment of his technical triumph, she succumbs to tuberculosis. His success is rewarded with her death—the ultimate price of his obsession—as was Japan's in a few short years.

At its core, The Wind Rises is about moral compromise and the creative process (see, for example, the depiction of Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen), told as a traditional "Showa drama."

"Showa" (the era name of Emperor Hirohito) here refers to period melodramas that take place during the first half of the 20th century. As in The Wind Rises, Showa dramas are often bracketed by Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945.

The former draws the curtain on "Taisho Democracy," the latter symbolizes the folly of WWII, after which life must be wrenched forth from the ashes. (A more optimistic sub-genre begins in 1945 with the Occupation and ends in 1964 with the Shinkansen and the Tokyo Olympics.)

So Miyazaki concludes his swan song following a familiar theatrical formula that brings us back to the beginning of his oeuvre.

The Wind Rises should be viewed in the context of his two great flying films: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the post-apocalyptic epic that founded Ghibli Studios, and Porco Rosso, his tribute to the "Lost Generation" of post-WWI aviators.

The aircraft that fill Horikoshi's dreams resemble Nausicaä's jet-powered glider, while bombers lumber through the sky (as they do in Nausicaä's world) and crash and burn. To fly is to live, but when flight is brought to the fight, the inevitably result is death and destruction.

Like Nausicaä, the protagonist of Porco Rosso only barely survived the aerial gauntlet and has paid the price. He is a Hemingwayesque fighter ace whose PTSD turned him—literally—into a pig (hence the title).

One day on patrol, he observes a band of silver far above him. Soaring skywards, he discovers an aviation graveyard in the sky, his friends and foes piloting their ghost planes in a great eternal round. They tell him that now is not his time to join them and he must return to the world below.

The Wind Rises concludes with the same visual metaphor, as a squadron of Zero fighters flies up to join that great sepulcher in the sky (and perhaps here, having announced his retirement, Miyazaki bids farewell to his body of work).

But this is not Horikoshi's time either. Accompanied by his spirit guide, the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni (playing the same role as Piccolo in Porco Rosso), he departs the aeronautical graveyard for a burning Tokyo that will, in time, rise once again.

The title of the movie comes from "The Graveyard By The Sea" by Paul Valéry: "Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre! "The wind rises! . . . We must live!"

Because in 1945, that was the only thing left for the people of Japan to do.

Related posts

Twilight of the Zero
Miyazaki's European flying arc

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