July 29, 2015

Just don't stand there

I recall an actor extolling the benefits of smoking. On screen, that is. He'd grown up in the old studio system, back when people smoked without apology. It all came down to keeping one's hands busy, giving the actor something to do when he wasn't actually doing anything:

Take out a pack, extract a cigarette, give it a couple of taps to pack the tobacco, search the pockets for a book of matches, find it, get one out, strike it, light the cigarette, wave out the match, take a puff, exhale smoke. And on it goes.

The thing is, even when people are "doing nothing," they're actually doing a lot. And neither do they stand around declaiming in soliloquies. And when they do, listeners aren't suddenly struck by blinding realizations and run off realizing the error of their ways.

(In other words, real political life is not like The West Wing.)

And yet the engine of a story has to idle occasionally. The protagonists can't be in pursuit of the plot 24/7. So what are they doing when they're not?

In real life, people are pretty boring. Middle class, suburban teenagers in particular are really boring. But you can't bore the viewer in the name of "realism." Hence that most reliable of genre fantasy plots: boring kid discovers he's not.

Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, to name a few.

The job of the teenage superhero is Saving the World, except Saving the World gets boring week after week too. It really does. Besides, what do they do when the world doesn't need saving? As Kate suggests, it's a problem solved "by simply giving the main characters jobs."

I'd argue that the appeal of action heroes like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent is due in large part to the fact that they all work for a living. At least when we first meet them. And the less real work they do, the less interesting they are.

I'd prefer to see more of Peter Parker using his superpowers to creatively enhance his job as a photojournalist instead of battling the latest comically absurd supervillain. In other words, less time spent saving humanity (sorry, humanity), more time making a living.

For the Y/A protagonist, being a student can qualify as a job. One of the best examples of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy's two jobs (student/Slayer) means that the mundane is constantly bumping up against the supernatural. This is great for story possibilities.

Manga and anime execute this formula to great effect.

In The Devil is a Part-Timer, our villain with a good heart has gotten stranded on Earth and has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet. Even funnier, being the competitive guy that he is, he works hard and cares about being successful at what he does.

So in-between destroying/saving the world, he's got to staff the late shift and keep the customers coming when a Kentucky Fried Chicken opens across the street. It's a much better way to humanize the protagonist than being nice to children and rescuing wayward pets.

(Though just to be sure, he does that too.)

When it comes to non-paranormal melodramas, the budding manga artist is a popular job for a teen protagonist. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana works at her grandmother's inn while attending school. In Kodocha, eleven-year-old Sana is a hard-working child actress.

Serious hobbies also qualify. The sports manga/anime is its own huge genre, but there the sole (even relentless) focus of the story is often the sport. There are exceptions: I'm thinking specifically of stories where the story is about something other than the "job."

I think Yawara falls into that category. Yawara Inokuma's grandfather has trained her since infancy to be a judo champion. But now a teenager, she's rebelling. There's plenty of judo, but the story is more about her relationship with her grandfather and classmates.

In K-On, five students at an all-girls high school form a band that turns out to be pretty darn good (almost despite themselves). The running joke is that they're always so busy doing other things that they only get around to practicing the night before a gig.

In Garden of Words, Takao wanting to become a shoemaker works because it keeps him from moping all the time and gives him a goal in life. And it being an odd thing for a teenager to be interested in makes him all the more interesting.

Genre fiction gets boring when it tries too hard not to be. The result is a storm of action and emotions, except that constant action is exhausting and emotions are effervescent. Forcing characters into regular contact with the ordinary world is what brings them to life.

Related links

The Devil is a Part-Timer (H)
Hanasaku Iroha (H CR)
Kodocha (Netflix)
K-On (H)
Yawara (Netflix)

Labels: , , , , ,

July 22, 2015

The book detectives

Shioriko Shinokawa (Ayame Gouriki) runs the "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia" in the old historic town of Kamakura. She's quiet as a mouse, pretty as a picture, and brilliant as Sherlock Holmes.

The series begins with Daisuke Goura (Akira) coming to sell a collection of Natsume Soseki books that once belonged to his grandmother. In particular, one prized volume that appears to bear the famous author's signature, along with a mysterious dedication.

Shioriko concludes that the signature is a forgery, and that Daisuke's grandmother was the likely forger. That she would do so in a book she had always kept to herself only points to another mystery, one that reveals a curious truth about Daisuke's own past.

This first episode gets our two protagonists together so they can solve more mysteries of a literary nature. Each episode involves a specific classical work or famous author and Shioriko's exhaustive knowledge of world literature and the book collecting business.

Many of the episodes don't even involve a crime per se. The A Clockwork Orange episode starts as a shoplifting case and revolves around the missing last chapter in the first edition. An actual felony occurs at the end of that episode.

But nobody gets murdered, so this Kamakura isn't like those sleepy English villages where people are dropping dead right and left.

Ayame Gouriki pulls off the tricky task of being preternaturally pretty but more that bookish enough for the part. Despite the physical mismatch (he's eight inches taller), Akira (née, Ryohei Kurosawa of the band Exile) nerds it up and makes a good Watson.

Akira shares the Watson duties with veteran character actor Katsumi Takahashi, who also doubles as the Mrs. Hudson.

Thirty miles south of Tokyo, the ancient city of Kamakura is an ideal setting for a musty old bookshop. Minamoto no Yoritomo established Japan's first shogunate there in 1192, though it's better known today as home to the enormous outdoor statue of the Great Buddha.

Much of old Kamakura has been preserved as a veritable walk-through museum, a cozy place for cozy mysteries about books.

Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files is based on the best-selling novels and manga by En Mikami (tragically, no English translations yet). The live-action 2013 Fuji Television series can be viewed on Crunchyroll (subtitled).

(The "free" version of Crunchyroll requires putting up with their obnoxious ad engine, whose primary purpose is to annoy you into buying a subscription. The free-market capitalist in me shrinks from pointing this out, but Adblock Plus works on this site.)

Labels: , , , ,

July 15, 2015

MacGuffin man

The couple in question.
As I mentioned in my previous post about Kimi ni Todoke, two supporting characters, Chizuru and Ryu, are substantively more interesting than the main characters, Sawako and Shota. As for the latter two, ultimately there's not a whole lot of "there" there.

That's not an insurmountable problem in story like this (with so much else going on). But as Kate asks, "What on earth will they talk about for the rest of their lives if they can no longer talk about their growing romance?"

Pushing aside everything you know about the characters from the anime, the live-action movie makes this hard to ignore. On the plus side, it hits all the major plot points from the first season of the anime. The two-hour time constraint means much less angst to wade through.

But the deeper side-story about Ryu and Chizuru is reduced to about five minutes. Racing from conflict to conflict, the relationship among Sawako, Ayane and Chizuru--the true substance of the series--becomes a fait accompli rather than a nurtured and growing thing.

In the process, Shota ends up a conventional teen lead, little more than a "MacGuffin." That's Hollywood slang for "a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation."

What separates formula romance from, say, Jane Austen, is giving the heroine a reason to want the hero aside from him being the closest available white knight. Aside from being a nice guy, nothing about Shota convinces us that he is desired for anything more than being desirable.

Even in the movie, we learn far more about Ryu than we ever do about Shota. (The movie actually adds more backstory about Sawako than is in the anime.)

As Sawako, Mikako Tabe, in turn, has to lean more heavily on affect than acting. Trying too hard to match the look of the anime forces her to compete with her hair in the early scenes. Her performance improves considerably when she can finally wear her hair up or back.

Even then, she has barely any material to work with, other than her character's odd personality. The movie unintentionally makes it obvious that here are two kids who really need to get themselves a life, something more substantive than pining for each other.

Sawako at least has her flower garden. I would have liked to see this used much more as an outer expression of her inner self. Make her a budding botanist.

Kimi ni Todoke is a good example of how animation can be the superior visual medium when so much of the subject matter is internal or subjective. Manga artist Karuho Shiina can draw what she wants us to see (hair, to start with), especially if she wants us to see a state of mind.

Sawako and Chizuru in super-deformed mode.

Manga and anime have rich repertoires of abstract effects and visual metaphors, such as the "super-deformed" style.(1) These effects don't interrupt the narrative and announce themselves precisely because they are drawn. We've already disassociated story from "reality."

Pixar has further proven the point with Inside Out.

I think a movie adaptation like Kimi ni Todoke would work better by addressing a far smaller slice of the original. A straightforward summation of events, however accurate, simply can't generate the same emotional Sturm und Drang.

They look and can play the parts.

The movie does get a few things exactly right: Haru Aoyama and Misako Renbutsu are perfectly cast as Ryu and Chizuru. There's the better movie to make: flip the point-of-view around and tell the story from their perspective. All the necessary material is already available.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (anime manga)

Here is a useful guide to the dating scene in Japan.

Japan's “Love Confessing” Culture
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Girl
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Guy

1. Although "super-deformed" is generally considered analogous to "chibi," I think it's more semantically useful to define "super-deformed" literally and "chibi" as a sub-category.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

July 08, 2015

Democratic impositions

I'm amused when neo-conservatives are criticized for running around the world imposing "American-style democracy" on foreign peoples. It's a policy memorably articulated by Rudyard Kipling about the long-forgotten Philippine-American War.

Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

In September 1898, anticipating Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" by a century, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt:

America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears.

I agree with most critiques of neo-conservative adventurism, and hew to the Prime Directive in this regard (though preferring Captain Kirk's interpretation to Captain Picard's: sometimes you do have to send the Marines to the Shores of Tripoli).

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

The problem with the "American-style democracy" jibe is that no neo-conservative has ever imposed "American-style democracy" on anybody. The American political system is uniquely a product of our own history, geography, and demographics.

Bottom line: the Rube Goldberg machine called the United States is too weird to impose on anybody anywhere else. Rather, what neo-conservatives have been doing is running around the world imposing European-style parliamentary democracies.

All the more troubling, these parliamentary democracies tend to be modeled on unitary states with hyper-strong central governments and little shared sovereignty or "local rule." Japan, France, and Great Britain are three notable examples.

If any political system was going to be imposed on anybody, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better off with an "Articles of Confederation" framework that made the provinces fairly independent and got them on board first.

Functioning provinces first, nation-building second. After all, learning from our mistakes with the Articles of Confederation gave us version 2.0, the current U.S. Constitution.

Even then, the anti-federalists didn't lose the ideological battle until after the Civil War. Then over the next century, the political pendulum swung too far in the other direction. As it did in Japan.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 upset 250 years of fairly strong local rule, abruptly centralizing power without the necessary checks and balances. The temptation is understandable: to rule by decree and to right wrongs "because we know best."

Because, you know, those provincials in the provinces are just too provincial to get with the times (exactly the same attitude that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate).

Alas, without the (implicit or explicit) consent of the governed, governing ends up a game of Whac-A-Mole. The people forever out of power may decide to shoot the people in power. Except that the people with the most guns are usually the military.

That was Japan during the 1930s. Creating "facts on the ground" that couldn't be undone by feckless politicians, middle-ranked army officers in Japan and China launched coups and started their own wars. In most cases, the government caved.

Wrote Robert Heinlein, "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."

In the end, it's not an election or a constitution that makes the difference. It's the widely-understood rules of the game and everybody's willingness to play by them. Common law becomes the rule of law by first being common.

The United States started with Jeffersonian republicanism before moving to Hamiltonian federalism. The rule of law predated the U.S. Constitution. Key elements of the Bill of Rights had already been written into state constitutions.

Before relying on--and yielding sovereignty to--the big, people must build trust in the small. They have to "trust, but verify." Otherwise, even the most perfect democratic system will never work, no matter how, by, or on whom it is imposed.

Labels: , , , , , ,

July 02, 2015

Kimi ni Todoke

Japan can best be understood (sociologically and anthropologically) as a country of 128 million introverts living in a country the size of California. Actually, that's 127 million introverts and one million extroverts who fill all the jobs for talk show hosts and politicians.

As a result, even reaching the borderlines of the personality disorder spectrum in Japan—the poster child here being hikikomori—requires diving deep into Asperger syndrome territory, well past the point at which an American helicopter parent would have carted the kid off to a shrink.

To the average introvert, though, Japanese society is pretty much organized the way society ought to be, hence the nerd appeal: it's not some wayward planet Captain Kirk needs to save from itself.

(Though NHK did feel the need to create an online course for elementary school students that explains how to carry on a constructive conversation and communicate with your teacher. It's a pretty good series, frankly.)

Surveys of Japanese high school and college students reveal little interest in abandoning the traditional hierarchical social structure. Despite all the attendant dysfunctions, it's too convenient a way to relate to people without getting too forward or personal all at once (if ever).

A new word had to be invented to describe speaking colloquially with one's peers as equals: tamego (タメ語). Versus using the traditional honorifics: keigo (敬語). Nevertheless, keigo remains the universal default, even among the "younger set."

The great turning point in every Japanese romance is when the main characters start using tamego with each other.

Because of the reversed ratios on this side of the Pacific, the American extrovert's primary (if only) exposure to introverts is television. Principally Aspergery characters like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, who aren't only introverted but socially maladaptive in a variety of humorous ways.

Granted, it is easier to "show, don't tell" when you're dealing with showy material. By the same token, the extroverted protagonist is easier to write for than somebody comfortable living inside his own head (without relying on copious voice-overs).

Extroverts aren't hard to find on Japanese television for the same reason. They're especially useful for jump-starting conflicts and propelling plots forward (see: tsundere), especially when obvious conflicts go unresolved because of the lack of definitive action or clear communication.

And, yes, the lack of definitive action or clear communication can make Japanese romances way more annoying than American ones. But when the protagonists really are introverts, also more believable (which doesn't always mean more entertaining).

The quintessential showcase is Kimi ni Todoke ("From Me to You"), the hugely popular manga by Karuho Shiina. Serialized since 2006, it's been made in a light novel series, an anime series, and a live-action film (with Mikako Tabe). Here we are presented with a mirror held up to the national teen psyche.

The premise appears entirely predictable at first: Sawako, the quietest girl in class, falls for Shota, the most popular guy.

Except that Shota is not the typical BMOC extrovert (one of those shows up in the second season). If Sawako can be described as far more shy than introverted, Shota is perhaps more introverted but markedly less shy. Shyness and introversion are certainly not synonyms!

The most introverted person in the series is Ryu, Shota's best friend. He's also not shy but has a gregariousness rating of approximately zero. He is the strong, silent type. (In the first season, Chizuru and Ryu are also the more interesting couple, a problem I'll address in a future post.)

Sawako definitely is shy. Worse, she looks like "Sadako," the devilish main character in Koji Suzuki's famous horror trilogy. Everybody calls her "Sadako" and deems her bad luck to be around. Exacerbated by her extremely reserved personality, this pretty much shuts down her social life.

Important point: that isn't something she's wrung her hands over (until now). Introverts don't. They shrug and carry on.

Sawako was comfortably living in her own little world until, like Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief, she's befriended by a happy-go-lucky pair of extroverts (extroverted according to Japanese standards). Ayane and Chizuru, in turn, connect her to Shota, who, it turns out, already has a thing for her.

(While this reliable plot device is amusing enough in fiction, in real life it often arouses the kind of emotions that would frighten Hannibal Lecter.)

But since Shota is pretty introverted too (though of the more normal sort), he's not going to broach the subject with someone he knows isn't going to broach it either. As I mentioned, this can get annoying fast. And I'll warn you: it drives the plot of practically the entire second season.

This is the underlying flaw in the teen soap opera: you have to keep breaking up the couple so they can get back together. For a long-running series, I would prefer something akin to the timeline of Clannad, that follows the main characters out of their teenage years into their early twenties.

(These problems might also have been mitigated if, as Kate puts it, Sawako and Shota didn't have so much time to "sit and around and get angsty," and got themselves a part-time job or serious hobby.)

A troublesome extrovert.
Predictably, one of the catalysts in making things worse is a brassy ex-pat incapable of minding his own business. It does pay off nicely in the end, but you will suffer for it as much as the characters. (Thirty-eight episodes is suffering enough; the manga is closing on a tortuous one hundred.)

What ultimately saves the series (more in the first season than the second), is that romance is not the constant focus of attention. Rather, the story is about how extending her circle of friends to two or three more people not only expands her world but theirs as well.

Sawako isn't "troubled" or "damaged" or harboring deep psychological secrets. She is only less than fully functional in her inability to "read" people, but even that becomes a kind of superpower. Not reacting predictably to ulterior motives has the comical result of defanging the mean girls.

For an introvert to be an outlier in a Japanese melodrama, she has to be a true outlier. So Sawako is odd even by Japanese standards, but not so odd that millions of Japanese don't identify with her.

If you're looking for a Harlequin plot with extroverts confessing their undying love and making public displays of affection, you're not going to get it (prepare for the exact opposite). What you will get instead is a gentle, goodhearted tale about quiet people becoming better at who they already are.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (Hulu CR)
MacGuffin man
Useful Japanese stereotypes
Understanding Japanese women

Labels: , , , , , , ,