October 27, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (not yet)

Software rarely ships on time. Or it ships on time instead of being delayed six months to fix all the bugs. The same thing applies to the bits and bytes that make up a novel. Everything is software these days.

In other words, the next installment of the Twelve Kingdoms series was supposed to debut this summer. It didn't, and that's understandable.

Fuyumi Ono isn't quite in George R.R. Martin territory. This year has seen re-releases of her light novel Seventeen Springs and the Shiki manga series, plus a new volume in the Ghost Hunt manga series.

And the publisher is still indicating that a new Twelve Kingdoms novel is on the publishing schedule. Shinchosha's Twelve Kingdoms home page includes what clearly appears to be a place-keeper for a new entry.

Right-to-left, the list starts with The Demon Child and ends with "Epic new novel." Specifically, kaki-oroshi (書下ろし) means "a newly written, previously unpublished work."

Albeit with no delivery date. Ah, it takes a lot of patience to be patient.

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October 20, 2016

Thank you for not smoking (so much)

If you're a consumer of manga and anime, you will have noticed that Japanese smoke a lot, even in series aimed at kids (a big no-no in the U.S.) Why all the smokers? Because it accurately reflects real life in Japan. (There are cinematic reasons too.)

The highest per-capita smoking rates in the world are in Eastern Europe. The most enthusiastic smokers outside Eastern Europe are South Koreans, Kazakhs, and Japanese (with the U.S. in the middle of the pack). Japanese men, that is.

Everybody in Japan knows that smoking is bad for you. But it's practically a cultural institution. The situation has improved significantly since I first lived in Japan 35 years ago, when every public space was a scene straight out of a Hollywood classic.

Back when smoking was cool.

People actually pay attention to "No Smoking" signs now. Still, several factors have for a long time slowed the eradication of smoking as acceptable public behavior.

No longer just a "suggestion."

Until 1985 the tobacco industry in Japan was a government-run monopoly, putting the government in the self-defeating position of profiting from smoking at the same time it was supposed to be discouraging it (see also: state lotteries).

Strangely enough, for an equally long time the Japanese government has had less reason to worry about the public health implications: it's called the "Japanese smoking/lung cancer paradox."

Smokers in the U.S. have an increased lung cancer "odds ratio" of 40:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 30.4/100,000). In Japan it's only 6:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 17.4/100,000). That makes "smoking kills" a less compelling argument.

Many reasons have been hypothesized. As always, it comes down to environment (including diet) and genetics. The stomach cancer mortality rate in Japan is 13/100,000. In the U.S. it is 2/100,000. Different things kill different people differently.

Then again, within the firm social constraints of Japanese society thrives a broad streak of leave-me-alone libertarianism. The moral crusades that so stir our Victorian sensibilities rarely excite the same passions in Japan.

Certainly not to the extent of pretending in popular entertainment that people don't smoke as much as they really do.

But like I said, the situation is steadily improving. As in every post-industrial society, a graying population teaches the grave lesson that nobody lives forever. And so the mass media has become hugely focused on personal health issues.

Darwin wins in the end. This bad behavior will inevitably change the one sure way it always does: the smokers will all die out.

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October 13, 2016

Ghostbusting in Japan (2)

Following up on my previous post about ghostbusting Japan, here is an abbreviated list of some more recent anime releases that epitomize the genre. I'm limiting myself to titles that fit primarily into a Buddhist or Shinto framework.

There is considerable overlap in the magical girl genre. The "Divine Tree" in Yuki Yuna is a Hero has a Shinto vibe to it, though as with Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, the causes behind the effects are "scientific" (alien science up to no good) rather than theological.

An eclectic crossover is Ghost Hunt, written by Twelve Kingdoms author Fuyumi Ono. The ghostbusting team includes a Buddhist monk, a shrine maiden, a Catholic priest, a spirit medium, a paranormal researcher, and, of course, a couple of high school students. They've got all the bases covered.

Noragami does an excellent job with all of the core elements: the purification of fallen souls, a teenager with second sight, the (Shinto) God of Calamity, getting into a literal shootout (firearms are involved) with Bishamon, the (Buddhist) God of War, and the divine working for a living.

Noragami was one of last year's big hits, a nicely balanced mix of action, comedy, theology, and some pretty intense dramatic scenes stressing the wages of sin and the trials of atonement (as I pointed out before, by no means does monotheism have a monopoly on hellfire and damnation).

Kamichu! takes a purely Shinto approach. One day, Yurie, an ordinary schoolgirl, becomes a Shinto god and gets put in charge of the gods and youkai in her neck of the woods. The aesthetics of the Shinto cosmology in Kamichu! is similar to that in Spirited Away.

Makoto in Gingitsune is a shrine maiden (not a kami) but she can communicate with the shrine's kami. The final episodes nicely depict a community purification ceremony. There is a whole shrine maiden genre, perhaps the most popular series being Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha.

Beyond the Boundary, Myriad Colors Phantom World, and Kekkaishi stick to the teen supernatural superhero formula and hue closely to Shinto eschatology.

Beyond the Boundary features freelancers that cooperate—and sometimes compete—with the powerful clan that runs the local cartel on youma hunting.

Your mileage may vary, but the comic relief works for me (the entirety of episode six is a standalone comedy), and as a teen romance it is certainly unique. Mirai Kuriyama kills Akihito Kanbara the first time they meet, and then a dozen times after that. Otherwise, they get along fine.

But Akihito is an immortal half-youma so getting killed isn't a big inconvenience (at first). Despite the occasionally goofy material, it is an intense and compelling drama with several great character arcs (be sure to watch the credits in the very last episode all the way to the end).

Ghostbusting is a school club activity in the parallel universe of Myriad Colors Phantom World. It's an episodic series with a conventional harem setup. Thankfully isn't a harem show. The artwork is nice and it succeeds at being fun and informative.

Episodes are introduced with little tutorials about theology and applied psychology that take the subjects seriously as they relates to the ghostbusting business. Episode four, for example, revolves around omagatoki, which also figures into Serpent of Time.

Kekkaishi is the lower-budget version of Myriad Colors. The -shi in Kekkaishi and Mushi-shi means "master of." A "Kekkaishi" is a master of a spiritual barrier, a common tool in the genre. They're also used in Beyond the Boundary.

Being a Kekkaishi is the "family business," and two families in town compete with each other, generally to comedic ends. There are some shared similaries with Noragami about how youma go bad.

The live-action film of Mushi-shi was released in the U.S. as Bugmaster, which makes it sound like a 1950s B-movie. Mushi-shi is infinitely more subtle than that. It's about a roving demon-fighter who deals with problems caused by insect youkai.

Think Twilight Zone or a solo Supernatural with a period setting.

These last three titles are closer to the conventional horror category, with creepier characters (both antagonists and protagonists) and plenty of blood & guts action and gore.

Ghost Talker's Daydream is basically Ghost Whisperer, except that the heroine works in an BDSM club (because ghosts don't hang out in BDSM clubs) and dead people mightily annoy her. She really doesn't care what happens to the dearly departed as long as they leave.

In Corpse Princess, Makina is the shinigami ("god of death") of a murdered girl. She now works for a Buddhist order as a ruthless assassin of malevolent shinigami who've gone bad.

Tokyo Majin leans more more toward the wuxia genre. The teen demon fighters are martial artists and possess Buddhist superpowers. One of the MacGuffins is something called the "Bodhisattva Eye." But they spent most of their time battling fairly conventional zombies.

Related links

Ghostbusting in Japan (1)
Japanese genre horror

Beyond the Boundary
Corpse Princess
Ghost Talker's Daydream (Amazon). Only a few anime episodes were made and I recommend avoiding them. The manga is better (explicit material).
Gingitsune. Gingitsune and Kamichu! can also be classified as "family-friendly" slice-of-life series.
Myriad Colors Phantom World

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October 06, 2016

Ghostbusting in Japan (1)

According to Buddhism, suffering arises from attachments to transient emotional states and the impermanent material nature of this corruptible, world. In other words, believing you can take it with you. Undisciplined, our insatiable desires doom us to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

Enlightenment can only be achieved by breaking the chains of these cravings.

The Japanese being enthusiastic syncretists, home-grown Shinto evolved similar doctrines with a difference. The Buddhist concept of the "hungry ghost"—corrupt souls possessed by earthly failings such as greed, anger and ignorance—merged with the Shinto concept of impurities accumulated through sin or pollution.

Japan's outcast social class (burakumin) is said to have arisen from Buddhism strictures attached to death-related occupations such as executioners, undertakers, butchers and tanners. Such trades have long since been religiously accommodated, though the hereditary burakumin class persists.

Similarly, people who die harboring unresolved grudges and possessive attachments can turn into evil kami and ghosts and haunt the world they departed from until they are exorcised.

The epitome of this downward spiral is perhaps best illustrated in Madoka Magica, in which the very process of fighting evil inevitably corrupts the good magical girls. It's gone on for so long that now all the magical girls do is battle other magical girls who've gone bad.

In Noragami and Kekkaishi, participating in the brutal battles of the medieval Warring States period tainted even the souls of the gods. And at times turned ordinary animals into evil kami.

Kami loosely translates as "god," though more in the Greco-Roman sense than the Judaeo-Christian. "Kami" can span the behavioral spectrum, from the benign and even playful youkai (which includes the the various species of shikigami) to expressly evil youma and  shinigami ("god of death").

In Shinto, every imaginable aspect of the natural world has a parallel spiritual dimension, with new kami evolving all the time. Toss in all the Buddhist crossovers and this raises the ghostly population an order of magnitude. Justin Sevakis details a small slice of Japan's transcendental taxonomy:

Onryo are vengeful ghosts, ubume are the spirits of mothers who died either in childbirth or with young children who return to look after their kids. Goryo are vengeful aristocratic ghosts, funayurei are ghosts who died at sea, zashiki-warashi are playful child ghosts, and ibakurei are ghosts that haunt a certain location.

Out of this theological amalgam developed a popular fantasy genre about the spirit world warriors charged with combating the evil fruit of both human and divine depravity.

The first pop-culture spirit world warrior was the real-life Heian court diviner Abe no Seimei. He literally became a legend in his own lifetime (played here in the 2001 film Onmyoji by Mansai Nomura).

Spirit world warriors can be recruited from the Shinto pantheon, which includes deities imported from Buddhism and Taoism.

More commonly they are human (or teamed up with humans), maybe with some supernatural powers (but not super-duper). Their job is to corral out-of-control youma and youkai and put them through the purification rites. Or send them onto the next world. Or blast them to kingdom come.

The job will always be there. Anybody can go bad: gods, people, and things go bad all the time, without moral dualism necessarily being at play.

Because "badness" can be disassociated from "evil," the same way polluted water can be filtered and distilled, there's no way to separate the sides by simply counting the black and white hats.

Almost nobody and almost nothing is condemned to a particular place in heaven or hell for eternity. But don't count on deathbed repentance scooting you to the head of the line in a post-mortal Disney World. The severity of the Buddhist hell would give Dante pause.

Considering the stakes, Pascal's Wager is one worth making. Despite most Japanese not being devout or theists in the common Christian sense, most Japanese make it.

So when visiting a Shinto shrine, if there is one, be sure to step through the purification ring. The one at Omi Jingu is depicted in Chihayafuru; the ritual is explained at length in Ginkitsune. And while there, perform the temizu hand-washing ritual.

Harae (cleansing) ceremonies springing from Shinto that have been a practical part of everyday hygienic practices in Japan for centuries.

Sumo wrestlers cast salt before a bout. They don't flick a pinch over their shoulders, but throw it high into the air; if you've got a ringside seat, it'll be raining salt.

Courtesy Princeton Wong.

In police procedurals, cops do the Buddhist equivalent of crossing themselves when they encounter a dead body. Omamori charms can be bought at any Shinto shrine. And somebody dying in an apartment is considered a curse that will drive down the rent.

Even if your house isn't cursed, a priest will stop by on Setsubun and drive out the bad spirits, just to be sure. What with all this supply and demand going on between the material and spiritual realms, there are plenty of business opportunities.

In Beyond the Boundary, exorcized youma can be turned in for bounties. In Noragami, the god Yato hires himself out as handyman to save up for his own shrine. And in In Ghost Talker's Daydream, Saiki is a professional exorcist who cleans up apartments where suicides and gristly crimes took place.

In a slightly different genre, the devil in The Devil is a Part-Timer has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet.

Thus in keeping with the original Ghostbusters, ghostbusting in Japan is often a business, or at least an avocation, both in real life and in fiction. Well, that's the modern world for you. Even the gods have to work for a living. Eastern spiritualism meets Adam Smith.

Related posts

Ghostbusting in Japan (2)
Pop culture Buddhism
Pop culture Shinto
Pop culture Catholicism
Angel Beats!
The Passion of the Magical Girl

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