December 31, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (still not yet)

On December 28, Shinchosha published an update on its Twelve Kingdoms website (and also to Fuyumi Ono's Twitter feed). Last year, Shinchosha announced that Fuyumi Ono was working on the next installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series, due out the summer of 2016.

That deadline came and went. Now at the end of 2016, Shinchosha has apologized that they had "nothing new to announce this year." But don't worry. A Twelve Kingdoms novel is still in works. However, "Ono Sensei's spell of ill health has dragged on a bit longer" than expected.

Shinchosha regrets not providing any concrete details and implores Ono Sensei's readers to bear with them a little while longer. They will continue to press forward, grateful for everyone's continuing support in the New Year.

Here is my translation of the recent update.

There are only four days left in 2016. Alas, having not made any new announcements this year, we have caused you a good deal of anxiety.

Ono Sensei is hard at work on her new novel. However, her spell of ill health has lingered a little while longer. In the face of your high expectations, we apologize for not being able to provide a firm publication date.

We are most grateful for your understanding and ask you to grant us a bit more time.

The film adaptation of Zan'e (『残穢』) was released in 2016. We hope to provide fresh details about The Twelve Kingdoms in 2017. Once we have a better grasp of the situation, we will first let you know on this website.

The staff of Shinchosha is pressing forward as one in order to make 2017 as wonderful as possible. We humbly request and appreciate your continuing support, and wish you all the best in the coming New Year.

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December 29, 2016

Any good excuse for a holiday

Think you deserve a little more time off? Feast Days were a big thing back in medieval times, basically holidays for your favorite saints and noted Biblical events. And there were a lot of them. Alas, only a few, like Easter and St. Patrick's day, are remembered and celebrated today.

The feast of Saint Crispian was memorialized by Shakespeare in Henry V. The battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415, which coincided with the feast of the Crispin and Crispinian, the patron saints of "cobblers, curriers, tanners, and leather workers."

Rallying the troops, Shakespeare has King Henry pay homage to what had turned out to be very much a "working holiday."

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

Secular governments do the same thing today in a different guise. Hence "World Plumbing Day" (that was March 11, 2012, so you missed your chance to celebrate). In fact, the resolutions identifying these modern feast days for our modern saints and their causes are no less ubiquitous.

The record so far is held by the The 99th Congress (1985-86), that cranked out 275 (!) of these day/week/month/year resolutions, accounting for almost 40 percent (!!) of the "lawmaking" performed. Why? Well, opines Senate Historian Donald Ritchie,

There's also some political benefit to the members. [The resolutions] show that they have been paying attention to good causes in their districts that their constituents are concerned about.

A big waste of time, countered some killjoys, and 104th Congress (1995-96) officially stepped on the brakes, trimming the resolution-making business a good 90 percent. By the 112th Congress, though, they were back in business, with 156 passed.

That's just Congress. Though somewhat more measured in their application, presidential proclamations have typically had more staying power. Though why not make them all paid holidays? Toss in the special "week" and "month" commemorations and we'd never have to work again!

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December 22, 2016

Feeling what you hear

As I discussed last week, Popular Mechanics recently explained "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." My first reaction to the implicit challenge in that question was that I can sure remember what Chihayafuru sounds like.

I'm not just referring to an anime's opening (OP) and ending (ED) themes, though they are integral to the anime soundscape. The job of the OP and ED isn't just to keep your attention during the credit roll. They are key elements in marketing and promoting both the artist and the anime.

And perhaps most importantly, the OP establishes a mood and ambience that can fine-tune the genre before the story even starts. Think of how the Law & Order theme, together with the famous "doink-doink/thunk-thunk" sound effect, ties the whole franchise together.

In the Non Non Biyori OP, "Nanairo Biyori," Nano Ripe sounds just like Kotori Koiwai, the voice actor who plays Renge. Renge is a kind of Calvin & Hobbes character whose off-the-wall approach to life establishes the goofy yet endearing tone of the series.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Kalafina's dark and gothic "Magia" for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The message is clear: this is not going to be just another cute magical girl anime.

And as far as ending themes go, Katsu Hoshi's arrangement of "The Rose" that closes out Only Yesterday revisits Bette Midler's Grammy-winning song (performed by Harumi Miyako) with a heartfelt interpretation quite apart from its original use in the 1979 Hollywood movie.

It's a perfect ending with the perfect musical accompaniment.

Chihayafuru does have a memorable OP ("Youthful" by 99RadioService), and an OP you like listening to is a nice reward when you're binge-watching a series. But when I say I remember what Chihayafuru sounds like, I mean the actual soundtrack.

First of all, though I'm sure the whole thing is rendered digitally, composer Kousuke Yamashita goes for a traditional classical orchestral sound (it's getting hard to tell the difference). Second, he develops a simple theme that comes to represent the entire emotional spectrum of the series.

Now, themes can go wrong. "The same only different" is the goal, not endless repetition.

Hikaru no Go suffers a bit from this. The "competition" theme is played on an electric guitar fed through a harmonizer with some backing percussion. That's not the problem. The problem is that the exact same riff is simply repeated in every big scene with no variation.

I suspect this was a budget thing, as it's a fairly low budget production (still a great story!). But it gets samey after a while, not evocative. (The matches of veteran players get more classical-sounding tracks, which are more effective.)

However, when done right, that "same only different" can really bury itself inside your brain. In a good way! The classic James Bond theme is a good example of a musical theme fully integrated into the cinematic narrative and all the more effective because of its familiarity.

Consider the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Or the five notes from Close Encounters that John Williams builds into the soundtrack. For Chihayafuru, Yamashita starts with five notes too. By the time he was done, I was feeling like one of Pavlov's rats.

In a good way!

These five notes, revisited in hints, whispers, and variations, with different arrangements and instrumentation, trigger our brains to automatically recall the emotional cues we've already associated with them and prepare the brain for more of the same.

The soundtrack is available from Yes Asia.

Yes, this is "cheating," as Patrick Doyle's score to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was described by one critic.

Except movies are all about manipulating the senses. The question is whether we enjoy being fooled or end up feeling conned. Every time we hit the play button, we are giving the director the same challenge Penn & Teller make every week to their magical contestants: Fool Us!

A good movie soundtrack is a magic wand that makes the fooling all the more enjoyable.

Related posts

Hearing what you see
Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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December 15, 2016

Hearing what you see

Over at Popular Mechanics, Avery Thompson explains "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." Or rather, he presents the following arguments from the "Every Frame a Painting" blog and Dan Golding.

The former begins with man-on-the-street interviews, asking if anybody can hum a few bars from Star Wars. Everybody can. But what about the theme from any blockbuster Marvel movie made in the last decade?

Nobody can.

The culprit in this case is the "temp track." While a movie is being edited and the music is still being composed, the director uses excerpts from
existing compositions, often movie soundtracks, as stand-ins for what he expects the final product to sound like. Then he tells the composer: "I want it to sound like this only different."

When The Simpsons sets out to parody a musical but doesn't want to pay the royalties, the composer (usually Alf Clausen) will arrange melodies that are different enough legally while still being completely recognizable.

Similarly, many temp tracks end up sounding like the finished version. And some careless directors even forget about the "different" part and end up using the original temp track "by mistake." Either way, the result is an utter lack of originality.

Then again, counters Dan Golding, maybe not. Artists borrow from each other all the time. Or as Picasso (and Steve Jobs) put it, "Great artists steal." For Star Wars, John Williams borrowed from classical composers like Holst and the scores from old Hollywood westerns. Golding instead points to non-linear editing as the root cause.

Instead of a composition composed for an entire cinematic work, soundtracks can be created and performed digitally, and inserted in discrete units: five seconds here, ten seconds there. The soundtrack thus becomes another sound effect, creating mood and ambience with orchestrated sound, not telling a story through melody.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Then again, memorable movie soundtracks that spring to my mind do often predate the fully digitized non-linear era that came of age in the mid-1990s. Along with Star Wars (1977) by John Williams, Patrick Doyle's Henry V (1989) and Last of the Mohicans (1992) by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones.

Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) by Vangelis were unique in being mostly digital scores that mostly predated non-linear editing.

On the other hand, the music in the original Star Trek television series is, well, "noisy." And it was orchestrated the old-fashioned way. Yes, the opening theme is timeless, but the stuff in the middle is often too loud and intrusive, manipulative and simply redundant.

Given the choice, I'll take the minimalist mood-shaping approach, music that creates ambience without encouraging you to pick up a baton or choreograph a marching band, even it means composers aren't using all the emotional arrows in their musical quivers.

Producers have concluded that if they're not making a musical or doing the American Graffiti thing, where the movie accompanies the soundtrack, less is more. And most of the time, they're right.

But that sorely lessens the chance of a composer and director coming up with the perfect combination that hits you right in the emotional solar plexus. As with Patrick Doyle's score, slowly building beneath Kenneth Branagh's Saint Crispian's Day speech, the right movie music has the power to raise a scene to a state of transcendence.

And speaking of borrowing from the classics, here is Bill Pullman's "Saint Crispian on the Fourth of July" speech from Independence Day. You won't remember the music but it heightens the impact of the words without overpowering them.

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December 08, 2016

Interview with a translator

My sister Kate interviewed me for her Romance & Manga blog. As I explain in the interview, I was a "professional" translator for only about seven years, and was pretty much in perpetual starving artist mode.

I'm the PGA golfer who realizes he's never going to rank above 70 and figures he might as well save it up for the senior tour. And get a "real" job. Number 70 on the PGA tour makes around $12,000 a year. It's a move up or move out kind of thing.

For now, translation is "one of those hobbies that takes over your life." But being an otaku, that's the whole point. In any case, this is the kind of give and take forces you articulate stuff you often just think about.

Like blogging, it's thinking out loud, pontificating on a digital street corner, and it was a lot of fun.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Or start with Part IV and scroll down.

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December 01, 2016

Earthquakes and the JMA

The Japan Meteorological Agency classifies earthquakes in absolute (Richter scale) and relative terms. This provides the public with practical information, especially when the epicenter often isn't directly below the locations most affected (click image for full size).

So the 7.4 magnitude (later revised .1 upward) earthquake the Monday before last rated at worst a "5-" in actual effect ("seismic intensity") on land.

The earthquake struck at 5:59 AM (Japan time). That meant the 6:00 AM news (2:00 PM MST) was immediately interrupted by "earthquake coverage," which follows a pretty standard format.

No talking heads (at first), no reporters babbling into the camera with no idea  what is going on. The screen switched to a live feed from Onohama harbor in Iwaki, Fukushima, closest to the epicenter. Pertinent information is relayed via on-screen text or audio.

At 6:02 came a tsunami warning, worst-case at three meters. Not disastrous, but enough to be concerned about.

The audio at this point turned, well, excitable. I imagine the poor guy had just gotten to work and hastily swallowed a liter of coffee. Pretty much: "Flee for your lives!" The red-highlighted text on the screen said the same thing. With explanation points.

Recalling that 16,000 people died from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, this concern is understandable. (The 7.4 magnitude mainshock this time has since been categorized as an aftershock to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.)

The fishermen certainly weren't taking any chances. As I said, the live feed was from Onohama harbor. It was fascinating to watch all the fishing boats rev up and head out to sea. In twenty minutes, the harbor was empty. Very impressive.

I do wonder about the "crying wolf" problem.

As it turned out, the deepest tsunami was five feet in one location and was more of a tidal surge. Most everywhere else along the coast, it was a foot to eighteen inches. One small boat capsized and nets drying on the docks got washed into the harbor.

But nobody is questioning the "better safe than sorry" policy, and certainly not in Tohoku.

Along with its early warning system, the JMA provides public data on earthquakes. Whenever NHK flashes a warning, I go to the JMA Earthquake Information site (Japanese/English). As you will see, earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan. (Click on a date in the left-hand column for details.)

As illustrated above, the colored round dots indicate the relative magnitude. Clicking on the map (such as here) lets you zoom in.

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