December 31, 2015

The Boy and the Beast

Mamoru Hosoda was briefly slated to direct Howl's Moving Castle but left after what really were "artistic differences." All for the better, as it turned out. Miyazaki took over and made a great movie. And now Hosoda is well on his way to matching his record.

Hosoda is one of the few directors I consider self-recommending: the name alone in the credits is enough.

If anybody stands to inherit Miyazaki's mantle, it's Hosoda, whose films rival Ghibli productions for their consistent quality, dramatic depth, a sheer entertainment value: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), and The Wolf Children (2012).

And this year, The Boy and the Beast. The description sounds like supernatural version of The Karate Kid: the bellicose, bear-like swordsman Kumatetsu takes Kyuta under his wing and trains him to be a fighter.

The setting is Shibuya in Tokyo, except that a connection to an alternate realm has turned this Shibuya into a kind of postmodern Narnia. (Blood Blockade Battlefield sports a similar premise, though in New York, so maybe we've got a sub-genre going here.)

Funimation has licensed the film for North America; it's scheduled to open in theaters in 2016.

Speaking of the Miyazakis, Goro Miyazaki's Ronia the Robber's Daughter, based on the children's fantasy novel by Astrid Lindgren, has been made available to international distributors. The series ran for 26 episodes on NHK between fall 2014 and March 2015.

The series is currently streaming on Amazon.

And speaking of Studio Ghibli, GKids is distributing Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata's 1991 slice-of-life melodrama, with voice-over work by Daisy Ridley, no less. (And GKids now lists Ocean Waves, the last Ghibli film to be released in the U.S., on its website too.)

Related posts

The Girl who Leapt through Time
Summer Wars
The Wolf Children

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December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Okay, enough of this "White Christmas" business.
I want some of that East Coast weather.

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December 24, 2015

The catechism of "Angel Beats!"

As previous noted, Angel Beats! never rises to the sublime hermeneutics of Haibane Renmei, and aims for the emotional—rather than the theological—jugular (a Jun Maeda trademark). But it does tackle several substantial ideas in a creative manner.

1. Like Haibane Renmei, Jun Maeda (inadvertently) addresses the problem of infant baptism. From a Catholic perspective, these teenagers have arrived in Limbo, the purpose of which is to free themselves from Original Sin.

In Buddhist terms, they must free themselves from impermanent and transient attachments and achieve satori, a true realization of their place in the universe and what matters from an eternal perspective. Grudges and regrets have to be left behind.

This is about dealing with the past and moving on. It's not about "justice" and not about what you think the universe owes you in recompense for your suffering. As Clint Eastwood's Will Munny puts it, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

All of the characters in Angel Beats! had miserable childhoods, perhaps Yuri the worst, hence her refusal to reconcile herself to whatever she imagines God is. But only reconciliation will allow them to live out the childhoods they were denied in morality.

2. Jun Maeda is also a game designer, so it comes as no surprise that the serpent in this garden should be a creation of computer programming. Indeed, the students who are not aware that they died and are in the afterlife are called "non-player characters" (NPCs).

Here Angel Beats! again resembles The Matrix, though Agent Smith never compellingly tempts Neo with an offer to rule in the virtual rather than serve in reality. But Yuri is offered what she imagines she's been fighting for all along.

This scene aligns with two themes explored in depth by C.S. Lewis, that we mortals are fighting on enemy territory but both sides are bound by a specific set of rules. The serpent is doing what he's allowed to do. So agency trumps order even in the afterlife.

(Another useful by-product of game design is that because games require literal logic to work, that essential disciplining structure is reflected in the narrative as well.)

3. The "big reveal" introduces a backstory that is told and not shown, which would seem a narrative mistake, until it becomes clear that Otonashi's story embodies it. In the end, Otonashi does not follow it, and so the story concludes on a very Buddhist note.

Because it is only by breaking out of the present eternal cycle (samsara) and being reborn that the players can win at this game.

Related posts

Set Apart
Angel Beats!
The Passion of the Magical Girl
The atonement of Pacifica Casull

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December 17, 2015

Pirates of Silicon Valley

A common criticism of the recent spat of Jobs biopics is that he is unfairly depicted as a nasty piece of work. Pirates of Silicon Valley is no exception. I can understand why: screenwriters and actors alike are drawn to the operatic drama of human conflict like rats to cheese.

But it gets awfully samey (sorry, Tolstoy). And at only 100 minutes long, watching Steve Jobs rant and rave (and Bill Gates drive a bulldozer) draws time and attention away from more interesting subjects.

I would have preferred less melodrama and more documentary. Though for that, there's always Robert Cringely's definitive account, Triumph of the Nerds. And more recently, Silicon Valley (the hardware side) and Something Ventured (the finance side).

In cinematic terms, Pirates of Silicon Valley looks like the made-for-TV movie it is. Even so, Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs, Joey Slotnick as Steve Wozniak, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer, and Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates handle the material quite well.

When playing off each other, Wyle and Hall do such a good job illustrating their wildly contrasting personalities that I wish they'd invented more scenes for them to be in together, out of whole cloth if necessary. Because the abstract moments in this movie are the best ones.

The narrative is occasionally interrupted by "interviews" with the main characters (the actors). In one scene, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer steps literally through the fourth wall to comment on the historical moment in which IBM allowed Microsoft to license DOS to anybody.

It was that agreement that would eventually hound IBM out of the PC business it created, not Apple.

DOS licensing begat Compaq and Dell and a thousand other makers of "beige box" IBM PC clones, which begat the Windows/Intel hardware standard, which was adopted by Linux and, ironies of ironies, even Apple. Which is why an iMac can dual-boot Windows.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't follow the tone set by that scene. This docudrama about people thinking outside the box is pretty buttoned down. It needed more goofy moments illustrating creativity at play, rather than telling us how brilliantly eccentric everybody was.

Related posts

The accidental standard
The blind spot
Back to the digital future
Something Ventured

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December 10, 2015

The blind spot

Why don't the smart leaders of authoritarian states quash the revolution before it topples them? Some do, like the Chinese in 1989. Others (Assad in Syria) hammer down with all the effectiveness of pounding jello. And then there are those (Gaddafi) who wait too long to get out of Dodge.

On the fictional battlefields of Lord of the Rings, Kate argues that it is indeed believable that Sauron never suspected that his enemies intended to do with the ring what he would not.

Sauron's weakness is his inability to believe that anyone would actually destroy the ring. A military rival is something Sauron dreads yet something he can handle. Consequently, Sauron reads in Gollum the very thing he sees in others and himself: desire for the ring.

A good example of this from military history is Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga came within a hair's breath of uniting Japan under a single, centralized government in the late 16th century. He was larger-than-life in every way and an undeniable military genius.

On the verge of complete victory, he sent his army and right-hand man to western Japan to subdue the fractious Mori Clan, remaining behind in Kyoto with only a small contingent of bodyguards. One of his own beleaguered generals (Et tu, Mitsuhide?) took the opportunity to stage a coup d'état (click to enlarge).

Cornered at Honnoji Temple, Nobunaga (top right) fought
to his death or committed seppuku (accounts differ).

Nobunaga simply couldn't imagine that any of his groveling underlings would get fed up enough with his megalomaniacal personality to actually do to him what he had done to so many others. For all of his strategic smarts, Nobunaga lacked an objective understanding of basic human nature when it counted.

Yes, sometimes the dog bites the hand that feeds it.

In a completely different context, this is the underlying theme of Pirates of Silicon Valley, a docudrama about the early days of the person computer revolution. It begins with Jobs on the set of his famous 1984 commercial, which cast Apple as the rebel overthrowing "Big Brother."

In this telling, "Big Brother" was obviously computer colossus IBM. Jobs was right about IBM, but especially in the early days of Apple, he was no less petty a tyrant, and convinced that he was the only "pirate" in the business. Fixated on IBM, Jobs didn't see Microsoft sneaking up behind him.

Jobs (Noah Wyle) shows off the Macintosh.
A key set of scenes depict the critical moments when XEROX gave the Apple brain trust free access to its Palo Alto Research Center and its groundbreaking "Alto" prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to them? Except that the "Alto" would directly inspire the Macintosh GUI.

Then Jobs turns around and gives Microsoft access to its Macintosh prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to him?

(The cinematic metaphor doesn't quite work in reality because Microsoft was an important applications developer that Apple needed on board, and giving prototypes to important developers is common practice.)

These scenes lead up to the climax in which Jobs accuses Gates of stealing his ideas. Gates calmly observes that they had both stolen from their rich, inattentive neighbor (Xerox PARC).

And then not long after that, Jobs was fired by the very CEO he had hired, John Scully. Jobs would return to Apple a dozen years later build it into the world's biggest company (in terms of market capitalization).

A common failing in these Jobs biopics, Robert Cringley points out, is that they treat this return as triumphant without the necessary context, a deus ex machina that saves the day.

Something happened during Steve's NeXT years that turned Jobs from a brat into a leader, but they don't bother to cover that. In his later years Steve still wasn't an easy guy to know but he was an easier guy to know. His gut for product was still good but his positions were more considered and thought out. He inspired workers without trying so much to dominate or hypnotize them.

Running NeXT (which failed as a business but produced the core code that became OS X) and Pixar taught Jobs how to work with companies (like Disney) and people as dominating and headstrong as himself. Ross Perot was a NeXT investor and John Lasseter was the creative genius at Pixar.

Likewise, it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who finally united Japan twenty years after Nobunaga's death. Ieyasu was a true Machiavellian who understood people, and established a political system designed to endure despite human failings, not only because of human brilliance (click to enlarge).

By convincing key opponents to switch sides, Ieyasu won 
the Battle of Sekigahara before the fighting began.

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December 03, 2015

The Mormon "koseki" problem

So I was writing about Angel Beats! and that got me musing about infant baptism, about the same time that the Mormon church announced that the children of gay parents would not be eligible for baptism until they were legal adults.

As my brother quipped, "And yet the child of two heterosexual Satan-worshipping prostitutes would be?"

The first thing that occurred to me was that the Mormon church had reinvented Original Sin. Hey, kids, welcome to Limbo! "Limbo" isn't official Catholic doctrine. Apparently this is.

But the bigger question is why the church even bothered. Who thought this was a problem that needed solving? What, there were maybe five people in the entire world that such a policy would have otherwise applied to (before turning it into a cause célèbre)?

It struck me as the kind of rule-making engineered by a mid-level bureaucrat who panicked one day when a hypothetical raised by a local bishop clawed its way up the chain of command and he realized that they didn't have a form to handle it.

You see, the church has a koseki problem. Cultural and religious reasons aside, one reason gay marriage has made halting progress in Japan is for the same record-keeping reason.

The koseki tohon (family register) is the official census record in Japan, and the legal equivalent of a person's birth certificate. All major life events--birth, adoption, marriage, death--are recorded in the koseki. If it's not in the koseki, it didn't legally occur.

The Japan Times explains:

People without a family registry are ineligible for passports and driver's licenses, as well as such basic but critical services as public health insurance and national pension benefits. In addition, their lack of a legally valid identity leaves them open to a multitude of other potential problems.

The koseki is a patrilineal document as well as a genealogical record. Before privacy laws were enacted, private investigators, employers, and marriage brokers could peruse any person's koseki for evidence of disreputable fruit hanging in the family tree.

With its roots in medieval Japan and its first major revision back in 1872, with public access to koseki records only being restricted in 2008, the koseki system has adjusted slowly to modern times. Consider, for example, the following:

  • When a couple marries, only one family name can appear on the koseki. Except in the case of adult adoption, the woman almost always gives up her maiden name.
  • The child of a divorced woman who gave birth before legally remarrying will be listed on her previous husband's koseki.
  • To gain custody, the child must be "abandoned" by his "legal" father and adopted by his biological father. This is one reason child adoption is rare in Japan.

Adult adoption, on the other hand, remains surprisingly common.

  • Even more bizarrely, there are circumstances where the child doesn't end up on either parent's koseki and so legally ceases to exist.

As many as 10,000 mukoseki ("no koseki") Japanese have fallen through these cracks, children of Japanese citizens but non-persons in the country of their birth.

  • And, of course, there's no effective way to deal with gay marriage, especially the child of two women (although for an eldest male, adult adoption becomes an interesting alternative).

A few progressive wards in Tokyo have carved out exceptions, but nothing approaching a national solution is on the horizon. (Keep in mind that Japan is just getting around to creating a social security numbering system and fax machines remain ubiquitous.)

So what does this have to do with the Mormon church? Unlike most faiths, the Mormon church keeps the equivalent of a koseki for every member (which is both weird and kinda scary). Like the koseki, this database is patrilineal in theology and structure.

And like the koseki, simply changing the values in a database field can't help but make a cultural statement, with a boatload of political implications in tow. Perversely, the kind of statements and implications that the Satan-worshipping prostitute avoids.

Here is where that mukoseki status serves to resolve the church's gay marriage dilemma. No koseki? The kid doesn't exist. Neither do the parents. Not our problem.

Frankly, the church should borrow from the Amish and not baptize anybody until they're eighteen. Oh, and I'd tell the Japan census bureau that the clarity of the Jewish matrilineal system has much to recommend for it.

Related posts

Angle Beats!
The hidden reason for the policy change
The koseki system in The Twelve Kingdoms

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