August 31, 2017

Japan made in Hollywood

As I've noted previously, back in the day, Hollywood made (often very good) movies in and about Japan on a regular basis. The over-the-top camp of You Only Live Twice played well in Japan. Shogun showed up at the right time on American television, with the rights leads (Toshiro Mifune alongside Richard Chamberlain), and with sufficient verisimilitude.

More recently, The Last Samurai gave western audiences the same story from Dances with Wolves while Japanese audiences got an fantasy version of the Satsuma Rebellion. As with Rurouni Kenshin, fantasy versions of the Satsuma Rebellion abound in Japanese historical fiction (it's Japan's version of The Wild, Wild West).

The Last Samurai did reasonably well on both sides of the Pacific.

On the other hand, Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do anything that Japanese historical melodramas don't do on a weekly basis, and without any Japanese actresses in the leads. What was exotic to western audiences was ho hum in Japan.

Silence is an art house film that Martin Scorsese got to make because he's Martin Scorsese, so the box office is beside the point. But he filmed it in Taiwan for $46 million ("low budget" in Hollywood), did a good job recreating a recognizable Edo period Japan setting and finding good excuses for his Japanese actors to speak English.

Why 47 Ronin cost $175 million is beyond me. Its budget probably had a lot to do with the relative success of The Last Samurai. But at those nosebleed levels, it was never going to recoup its investment, Keanu Reeves notwithstanding.

It was too "Japanese" for western audiences, and audiences in Japan had no interest in a "Hollywood rendition of Chushingura bearing no resemblance to the historical epic." And barely any resemblance to Japan, period. Shooting anywhere but in Japan is fine until it it's obvious you're no longer in Japan.

The message wasn't going to resonate. It didn't resonate in 1941, when a version of Chushingura commissioned by the Japanese military and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi was also a commercial failure. It's been sourced for Japanese  television miniseries over twenty times, except it's Masterpiece Theatre material, not Marvel Comics.

Though 47 Ronin does prove that Ko Shibasaki, who has the lead in NHK's 2017 Taiga historical drama, can hold her own paired with a big Hollywood star. And with the right direction, Japanese actors can speak okay English. Although it (accidentally) also proves that speaking no Japanese doesn't guarantee anything either.

Mismatched cultural assumptions and a needlessly "adapted" adaptation sank 47 Ronin. Same for Ghost in the Shell. Paramount blamed social politics for the failure of the latter to rise to blockbuster status. I think it more accurate to say that these movies weren't nearly good enough to justify the amount of money spent on them.

At the end of the day, critics don't have much of a say in what audiences will like and pay money to see. And neither do the accountants.

The Marvel and DC universes are the current Comstock Lode of the entertainment business. Alas, the richest veins at the Comstock Lode played out in a decade or two. After that, it took more and more work to produce less and less, until the mines eventually closed.

Well, there's a whole lot of gold in them there manga and anime hills. All Hollywood has to do is figure out the mining technology that will refine that precious ore into movies that American audiences actually want to watch.

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August 27, 2017

Blue Orchid (preface)

The Rishi (里祠) is the sacred building in the center of every town and city where the riboku tree (里木) is enshrined. See chapter 53 of Shadow of the Moon.

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August 24, 2017

Hollywood made in Japan

Hollywood rose to world domination by finding the common dramatic denominator amongst most of the movie-going population on the planet, epitomized by the Disney animated feature and the action movie (whether shoot 'em ups or CGI-heavy fantasy epics and space operas).

Hollywood films once dominated the box office in Japan too. Lately, Japanese filmmakers have started paying less attention to high-brow film critics abroad and learned how to appeal to those common denominators too. In other words, they stopped trying to be the next Kurosawa and started trying to be the next J.J. Abrams.

As a result, the home-grown share of the Japanese movie market has grown from under 30 percent to over 60 percent in under two decades.

Combined with digital technology, cinematographers have proved themselves capable of producing the Hollywood action-flick "look" for a fraction of the cost. Over the span of a single decade, the technological improvements in the Appleseed films (3D animation using motion capture) have been nothing short of staggering.

A Harry Potter or Frozen will still zoom to the top of the charts, but made-in-Japan movies now hold most of the top-twenty spots. Except that, more often than not, they do so by fitting into Japanese culture in ways that Hollywood films can't, by exploiting culture, currents, and trends that are literally foreign outside Japan.

The evolutionary spiral that results has been termed "Galapagos syndrome," referring to products so customized to Japan's "island culture" that they are incompatible with the rest of the world.

In the Japan Times, Stephen Stapczynski and Shoko Oda point out that two of Japan's biggest grossing films of 2016, Your Name and Shin Godzilla, couldn't be less alike, and yet "the two movies share one thing in common—they're relentlessly, unapologetically Japanese."

Your Name is at times a love letter to Tokyo's cityscapes, with key plot points revolving around regional Japanese traditions. Shin Godzilla has more fast-talking scenes riffing on Japan's post-Fukushima politics than it does building-stomping monsters.

Another good example is the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. It follow the Hollywood action movie playbook, with slick production values and lots of action paired with a dumbed-down script stocked with cardboard characters (played by actors better than their parts).

Part 1 is worth watching for the dazzling swordplay. Part 3 is worth watching because Masaharu Fukuyama dominates the first third doing a combination of Yoda and Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. Plus Yosuke Eguchi shines as Saito Hajime, a cynical ex-Shinsengumi lieutenant who switched sides.

The seeming simplicity of the story aside, the Rurouni Kenshin series assumes a cursory understanding of the Bakumatsu era (during which the various sides negotiated by day and assassinated each other by night), the Boshin War, and the early Meiji period leading up to the Satsuma Rebellion.

Even a Japanese kid who slept through every history class in school will have absorbed the rough details along the way. Western audiences will have a much harder time figuring out what the heck is going on.

This is one of the many reasons made-in-Japan family films and copies of the Hollywood action flick formula can't compete with the Hollywood behemoths outside the Asian market, such that most never even get a DVD release in the U.S. (Getting American audiences to read subtitles is another reason.)

The live-action version of Chihayafuru is a fine adaptation and a great teen movie with a compelling female lead. But I can understand why U.S. distributors would pass on a story that centers around a competition involving medieval Japanese poetry. And only the hint of a romantic sub-plot.

Despite winning a "best picture" award in Japan, the live action film of The Great Passage (about a team of etymologists compiling a Japanese dictionary) also remains unlicensed, while the anime version was picked up by Amazon. The Chihayafuru anime series is available on Crunchyroll

So while the Fast and the Furious franchise has raked in $1.5 billion worldwide by stripping away the cultural baggage and concentrating on a handful of universal story elements, anime and manga have thrived by being not-Disney, by creating a unique media niche not easily duplicated. Which, ironically, makes it all the more niche.

Your Name set records around Asia for a Japanese-produced film. But it's still a niche product that, like all those highly praised Studio Ghibli movies, barely made a dent at the U.S. box office.

Thankfully, audiences are growing large enough to make "borderless" media worth the bother. Increasingly, studios in Japan (same Blu-ray region as the Americas) distribute discs with English subtitles. Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, any movie made anywhere will be available everywhere at a reasonable price.

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August 20, 2017

Blue Orchid

"Blue Orchid" (Seijou no Ran) takes place before the enthronement of Shouryuu as Emperor of En (which chronologically makes it the earliest in the series). As documented at the beginning of Poseidon of the East, the previous emperor had strayed far from the Way and then the Taiho died without choosing a new emperor, "a great catastrophe that had only occurred eight times since the dawn of history."

And so the story will open upon an apocalyptic landscape.

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August 17, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

To start with, the casting of Scarlett Johansson (naming her "Killian" instead of "Kusanagi") wasn't an issue for Japanese audiences. Or for me, though I would have preferred an "unknown" (to western audiences) actor like Ko Shibasaki in a much "smaller" (budget-wise) production. The Deadpool approach.

Both 47 Ronin and Ghost in the Shell (2017) were ruined by absurdly generous budgets. Some tightening of the purse strings, some discipline in the art direction, might have reined in the compulsion to plaster every square inch of the screen with CG effects that make no sense in the context provided.

Hollywood needs a new movie-making rule: if you want that Blade Runner "look," pretend you have to do it the old-fashioned way, on a sound stage using in-camera effects. Otherwise, don't do it.

Not only is it wasteful, but the obsession with "big" CG overlooks better "small" CG possibilities. As Aramaki, Beat Takeshi speaks only Japanese. What about other languages? Definitely Mandarin and Cantonese. Simulating simultaneous machine translation capability would open the door to a lot of linguistic fun.

Cinematographic excesses aside, the biggest problem with the latest incarnation of Ghost in the Shell (and with most adaptations of this ilk) is a needlessly muddled and hackneyed script. It didn't stick closely enough to the source material (same problem with 47 Ronin).

Though I'm afraid that still wouldn't have turned it into a blockbuster worth its $110 million budget.

The original film had no problem making back its six (that's six) million dollar budget. But like Blade Runner (1982), which failed to break even during its theatrical run, Ghost in the Shell (1995) has since garnered a reputation that outstripped its initial box office appeal abroad.

Director Mamoru Oshii sifted through Masamune Shirow's manga and extracted the two classic questions at the nexus of philosophy and computer science: 1) At what point does an complex machine gain sentience? 2) How much of a human brain can be replaced with inorganic components before sentience is lost?

Here was cyberpunk done right, that took itself (a bit too) seriously. But it was prescient. The Netscape browser (version 0.9) had only been out a year. The Matrix came along four years later, drastically dumbed down the subject matter, tossed in a big bad mainframe antagonist and tons of gun fu, and made beaucoup bucks.

Hollywood learned exactly the wrong lesson.

Okay, so it was asking too much to expect American audiences to sit through a hundred-minute treatise on cyborg existentialism. But at least director Rupert Sanders could have made a movie that didn't immediately decompose into a mess of cliches, like spending the first five minutes serving up a bucket of unnecessary backstory.

Just start with the classic rooftop opener!

Oh, and about that opener. What Mamoru Oshii gave us in 1995 was not the Major going all cowboy in a shootout at the O.K. Corral (Sanders forgot he wasn't remaking John Wick), but the carefully executed assassination of a foreign diplomat engaged in industrial espionage.

I can well imagine that the Chinese financiers of the 2017 remake weren't too keen on a story that revolved around government-sponsored hacking of foreign entities and internecine battles between competing ministries. Too relevant! Just make the bad guy a Japanese corporation. Yeah, that'll do it.

So what we got instead was Robocop. Seriously. It's Robocop meets a self-involved Bourne in Hong Kong. The use-by date on the "big evil corporation run by Dr. Evil" trope expired a couple of decades ago. Have none of these malevolent CEOs heard of fiduciary duty? Somebody fire them before they wreck another company.

(Also see Kate's comments about the uninspired practice of hiding critical information from the protagonist and the audience in order to maintain suspense.)

Major Kusanagi's past isn't an issue. Her hardware isn't unique. Ghost-less androids are commonplace (Aramaki's assistants, for example). The existential angst doesn't kick in until the cat and mouse game with the "Puppet Master" is well underway, when the possibility arises that sentience can exist in an AI without a ghost.

And that cat and mouse game is smart (though a bit talky at the halfway point). The story hangs together well after twenty years, despite the enormous technological changes. The narrative isn't pushed forward by the characters crashing through doors and shooting everything in sight and taking unnecessary risks.

Major Kusanagi is a tough, competent, by-the-book team leader. She only steps out of line at the very end, when her inner existential crisis threatens her actual existence. And once she steps out of line, all is not forgiven and she's not coming back.

It's no surprise that the best scenes in the remake are exact copies of the original. Ghost in the Shell didn't need to be redone. It's just fine as the penultimate film in the franchise. Major Kusanagi doesn't even make a corporeal appearance in Innocence, the sequel to Ghost in the Shell.

Rather, the prequels provide more suitable material as entry points for American audiences. In particular, I consider the Stand-Alone Complex television series to be better than the manga or the latter two movies (though they are different enough to defy direct comparisons).

Along with the season-long arcs, there's plenty of material in the standalone episodes, plus the feature-length Solid State Society, to fuel a franchise of remakes. Forget about evil mainframes taking over the world. This isn't Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov, but a bunch of Deep Blues and Garry Kasparovs all playing each other.

Person of Interest was headed in the right direction before it fell into the evil mainframe trap and contended that "there can be only one" (credit for that goes to Highlander). No, in the world of Stand-Alone Complex there can be millions, if not one for every person on the planet.

Sure, a supercomputer can beat a grand master at chess or go. But a pretty good computer teaming up with a pretty good human player is better than both. This is the fundamental concept The Matrix movies failed to grasp. Self-aware machines will need us as much as we need them. (An on-off switch is a powerful thing.)

Plus, the Tachikoma robots—some the most original characters in all of science fiction—would make for a marketing tie-in bonanza.

All the necessary ingredients are there. The next time Hollywood gets a hankering to serve up the latest cool Asian fusion cuisine, well, first hire a chef who bothered to read the cookbook.

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August 13, 2017

Prison of Dusk (8)

Recently in the New York Times, Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo Veiras argued for the consistent and predictable application of the rule of law as the primary instrument in reducing the murder rate.

[In Mexico,] people kill because they can get away with it. Punishment is rare . . . . It is impossible to attempt to reduce crime without the rule of law firmly in place. When the justice system doesn’t work, when investigations are not pursued, when crimes go unpunished, more murders will be committed.

Socrates famously uttered at his trial, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The U.S. Marshals assist with court security and prisoner transport. They serve arrest warrants and track down fugitives (as does Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive).

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August 10, 2017

The drama of the PCB

The current NHK Asadora takes place during the 1960s. Mineko, a country girl, ventures from her rural farming village in northern Ibaraki prefecture (the "sticks" at the time, now a one-hour commute by Shinkansen) to Tokyo to help support her family.

During Japan's boom years in the 1960s, recruiters often turned to these outlying areas to supply factories with assembly line workers. The factories provided room and board (and many still do today).

Mineko's first job is "stuffing" or "populating" printed circuit boards (PCBs) for the brand new transistor radios. Women were deemed better suited for the job because of their slender fingers.

The 1964 Olympics was a big, big deal in Japan (even Hollywood got into the act). So much so that it produced an economic bubble, thanks to the accelerated work on the first showcase Shinkansen line and all the people buying the very latest radios and TVs.

The bubble popped when the Olympics ended, producing a short recession before the economic juggernaut got back up to speed again.

During this economic downturn, the company Mineko is working for goes bankrupt. Unsurprisingly. It was basically an overgrown mom & pop operation with factory floor the size of a basketball court and no room to expand.

Not much in the way of productivity gains could be made by hiring more girls to insert electronic components into circuit boards. This labor-intensive production model gave way to larger economies of scale and automation techniques such as wave soldering (patented in 1956).

In the drama, Mineko ends up working at a restaurant. Alas, the Asadora audience isn't as interested in electronics manufacturing as I am.

Populating PCBs is one of those invisible manufacturing processes our lives have grown dependent upon. Over the past half-century, the technology has become astoundingly efficient, not even counting the productivity gains made by replacing most of the components with integrated circuits.

The old way (what Mineko did on her assembly line) is "PCB Assembly Through Hole." The leads of the electronic components are literally fed through holes in the PCB and soldered.

Since the 1980s, "Surface Mount" PCBs have overtaken "Through Hole." With Surface Mount, there's no "threading the needle." The parts are glued onto the surface of the PCB and and then soldered using, for example, pre-soldered contacts and precision hot air guns.

But "Through Hole" remains alive and kicking wherever ruggedness and power transmission are primary concerns. Yeah, AI and humanoid robots are plenty cool, but the machines that populate PCBs never fail to impress me.

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August 06, 2017

Prison of Dusk (7)

Jokyuu's soliloquy at the end of page 155 reminded me of the poem by John Donne.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Back when Utah carried out executions by firing squad, the firing squad was made up of five volunteers, and one of the rifles was loaded with blanks.

The Daishikou (大司寇) heads the Ministry of Fall. The Shoushikou (小司寇) is his deputy.

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August 03, 2017

TV Wars

A long time ago
In a neighborhood far, far away . . . .

When television viewing leads to strife in the average American home (think way back when the typical American home had only one television), the battle typically concerns what somebody wants to watch, doesn't want to watch, or what somebody does or doesn't want somebody else to watch.

Not so during my childhood. My parents have never owned a television and probably never will.

Only once (well, twice) did they (officially) agree to allow a television in our house for an extended period of time. The summer I turned eleven, some friends of ours went on a long vacation to Canada. Before they left, they suggested that we tend their television while they were away. As it was a temporary arrangement, my father agreed.

My brothers and sisters and I were delighted! The veil of darkness was lifted from our lives! No longer would we miss all the great programs everybody else got to see; no longer would we have to put up with the strange looks people gave us when we told them that we didn't have a television.

The celebrations lasted exactly five days.

All it took was one more "somebody" up past his bed time, one more "somebody" late for dinner, one more argument about who was going to watch what. Up to the attic the television went, despite wailing and gnashing of teeth. Our dad knew what he didn't want in his house, and had garnered all the evidence he needed to put television back at the top of the list.

About that time, however, he inadvertently opened a backdoor in his defenses. An alumnus of the California Institute of Technology with a doctorate in physics, he had been teaching me something of his trade. I was soon building radios, making lightning with Van de Graaff machines and Tesla coils, and creating impressive explosions with my chemistry set.

I gained a reputation in the neighborhood as a junior mad scientist.

People began asking me to repair their frayed power cords and loose antenna wires. As payment they gave me old appliances they didn't want anymore or that couldn't be cheaply repaired. One day I was offered a broken portable television.

The first thing I did when I got it home was to plug it in. It didn't work, so I did the next best thing. I ripped it apart. Seeing the guts of that television spilled out over the basement floor made me think constructively. Sure, it was a complicated mess, but it was the same stuff radios were made out of. Perhaps I could fix it. What a thought!

In short order, I scrounged up several more televisions. Vacuum tubes were on the way out, color was on the way in, and many people discarded the old black and white the moment it balked during the Saturday afternoon baseball game. Neighbors were glad to part with their burned-out television sets, and my father didn't seem to mind. It was hands-on experience after all.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Before long had I coaxed a 1956 cabinet model, troubled only by a blown fuse and aging phosphorus, into producing a foggy, wavering picture. But a picture nevertheless! I discovered a cache of factory repair manuals at the library, but because I was still not very good at reading circuit diagrams, my methodology was still pretty much hit and miss and I tended to miss a lot.

Television chassis began to stack up: under tables, on shelves, in closets, behind book cases.

My mom fired the first salvo across my bow. My television carcasses were taking over the basement. The chassis were a valuable source of spare parts, I argued in my defense. I lost the argument. After scavenging all of the parts I could, my father and I hauled them out to the landfill, including the '56. Better prospects were on the horizon. Time for a fresh start.

The better prospect was a 1970 nineteen-inch Zenith. It required one new vacuum tube and a bit of soldering to replace a shunt resistor. When the cathode-ray screen hummed to life with a crisp, bright image, I rejoiced cautiously. Here was a television worthy of being watched, and in my house, that was dangerous news.

I lay low for about a week, watching my television only while pretending to make further repairs. I wired my stereo for closed-circuit sound and installed a remote switch. Then one quiet afternoon I moved the television into my room, carefully rearranging the furniture in order to make the new addition as inconspicuous as possible.

As Baldrick (from Blackadder) would say, it was a cunning plan. Fact was, It just took my farther a little time to figure out what to do. After all, it was his fault I was able to fix the television in the first place. But he thought up a simple solution. One morning he stopped by my room before going to work and deftly plucked several radio tubes out of the chassis.

Fair enough, I thought. I collected up my schematics and spare parts and soon had the Zenith working again. As a precaution, I made sure to remove the several indispensable tubes and stash them away every night, thus lending to the appearance of disrepair. But I was not above suspicion, and my father performed other acts of sabotage on a weekly basis; still I always managed to stay one step ahead of him.

He finally got tired of the game. In fact, I don't think he was playing at all. One day, he simply took all the tubes out of the television, and my back-ups as well!

I protested! That was going too far! He answered pragmatically: it would be unfair for one member of the family to have a television if everyone couldn't. My mother had a more philosophical approach to the matter: television was a bad influence. "It's television that causes all these arguments." Q.E.D. End of discussion.

So while other teenagers fought with their parents about getting in on time from dates, using the family car, or failing geometry, I was engaged in a losing battle over the disposition of my televisions. My friends couldn't understand. How could they? I suffered in silence. Deprived, cold-turkey, of the soothing, metallic light of the phosphorus screen, I solemnly returned to radios, Bunsen burners, and books.

Six months later, a friend of my father who came to my rescue. His television was on the blink, he mentioned to me one day, would I look at it? Lo and behold, it was a 1970 nineteen-inch Zenith black and white. The transformer was burned out. I didn't know what I could come up with right away, I told him, but I did have a fine set in prime condition that I didn't happen to be using at the time . . . .

My father produced the tubes, and his friend went happily on his way.

It did not take me long to dig up a matching transformer for the Zenith. After a successful transplant, I was back in business again. I had learned my lesson, though. I installed a more convincing set of dummy components and never left a tube in the chassis overnight for which I did not have a backup available in a safe and secret place.

Somewhere in this timeline is the (officially sanctioned) television I "lent" to my brother when he broke his leg and was bedridden for a month in traction. That set had a remote based on high-frequency sound waves. We discovered that any loud clanging sound would change the channels too.

My television viewing went on uninterrupted for the rest of my high school years, and I grew quite proud of my skulduggery. Then one day my mother asked me about a controversial program she read had been on television the night before.

"What television?" I replied (Baldrick again).

"Oh, come now," she said. "You don't think we don't know, do you? Your father decided that it wasn't worth the bother any more. If you wanted a television so badly, you could keep it, but he wouldn't condone it."

After all the planning and conspiracy! After all the effort! Victory had been wrested from my grasp. I slunk back to my room, wounded to the core.

Parents never surrender, though. When they moved to Maine, they got rid of every cathode ray tube, chassis, and television in the house, including an ancient oscilloscope I started working on two decades before and never finished (the electronic equivalent of your neighbor's 1968 Mustang that's been up on cinderblocks since the Clinton presidency).

On the other hand, they now have several computers. Which, of course, can stream video. But that's not television. Because it isn't. And, quite honestly, I agree. If I ever get serious about streaming, I'm plugging a Roku into the television. Because you watch television. You work at a computer.

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