June 27, 2019

The ear of the beholder

A cuss word is a cuss word because it violates a social norm. If you don't comprehend a cuss word it arouses no emotional response unless it is tied to a tone of voice or observable physical affect. Even a cuss word in a foreign language you do understand likely lacks same emotional impact as in your first language.

That's because the cuss word itself contains no relevant information outside the immediate sociolinguistic context. The popular fallacy that "there aren't any cuss words in Japanese" is due to a fundamental disconnect over what constitutes an offensive violation of social norms.

English speakers really are obsessed with "manners," meaning the visible and audible markers of public propriety. These words are "good"; those words are "bad." The words themselves are magically imbued with certain qualities that otherwise mean nothing until filtered through a specific sets of brains.

Stop to think about it and it is utterly strange that the FCC deems "crap" and "dung" acceptable but not "shit." One could argue as well that nobody really cusses in English either. We play games with semantics and pretend to take offense until the offense-taking becomes so imbued that it goes unquestioned.

One curious consequence is that most Shakespearean vulgarities do not offend modern ears because we haven't been to trained to take offense when we hear them. They're just funny-sounding words delivered with a British accent. You know, like Monty Python.

In Japanese, fewer words are "bad" in and of themselves. Rather, a "vulgarity" violates a social hierarchy or crosses the line from acceptable private usage to unacceptable public usage, or from a "high" to a "low" usage. So whether kuso means "crap" or "shit" depends entirely on the social context.

To be sure, some words are inherently offensive for the same reasons they are in English. The "c" word, for example. Then again, the equivalent medical term (for the most part) isn't.

And then there are words like teme, one of the myriad of second-person pronouns in Japanese. Teme is the "low brow" equivalent of kisama, the latter being preferred by a more gentile class of cusser. You would be right to conclude that using teme in a "high brow" context is even ruder.

Teme is a linguistic finger jabbed in your face. It's violation of social hierarchies. This flies over the head of English speakers because English (American English in particular) shed the T–V distinction a while back. The tables in this Wikipedia article apply equally well to Japanese.

In Japanese, T–V distinctions also permeate verb conjugations. As with the quite ordinary shinu ("to die"), the command form is a particularly harsh and a yakuza-ish thing to say. Because what makes a yakuza a yakuza is less the substance of what they say than how they say it.

To start with, they get in your face and invade your personal space. And they roll their Rs. I mean, really roll their Rs. A yakuza does so in an instantly recognizable manner, identifying his social class and lack of normal social constraints. The message: "I'm a scary person who could do anything."

This unpredictability and disrespect for social order is the eternal wellspring of "honest" vulgarity.

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June 20, 2019

To Heart

The sheer quantity and output of scripted television productions—to a much greater extent than movies—turn them into records of the current zeitgeist. And also renders them highly disposable. We tend to preserve those elements of popular culture we deem preservable after the fact, ignoring the trends that once ruled the day.

Which makes shows that otherwise would have disappeared down the memory hole all the more valuable. One such series is To Heart, a 1999 anime series produced by Oriental Light and Magic and directed by Naohito Takahashi, based on a 1997 manga and visual novel. It is teetering on the edge.

The classic cel animation, the theme songs, and character designs in To Heart all reflect the 1990s anime style. But somewhere along the line, the film prints got discarded, so the Right Stuf DVDs were digitized from the original SD masters. The resulting image quality approximates that of a very good—quite watchable—VHS. It's a 1990s experience all the way.

And also a good example of backing off on the noise reduction and leaving the film grain in during the analog-to-digital transfer. When remastering old video from non-HD sources, do not throw away information! As Justin Sevakis points out, "film grain doesn't just distort an image, it is the image" (see a detailed explanation here).

To Heart compares well in many respects to Clannad (which it predates). Both started out as visual novels with a harem structure. But like Clannad, the anime is a sweet, G-rated melodrama that is less about the romantic interests of the male lead than his platonic friendships with the various girls that cross his path.

Hiroyuki, the laid back male lead in To Heart, reminds me of Kyle in Last Man Standing, a genuinely nice—if occasionally clueless—guy who proves to be surprisingly adept at solving other people's problems almost despite himself. He fits well into the genre character category that Kate terms the "canny dope."

Like Tomoya in Clannad, when we first meet him, Hiroyuki is cruising through high school with no great plans or aspirations, aside from eating, sleeping, and video games. His Scooby Gang consists of Akari, the childhood friend (hers is the main point of view); Shiho, the tsundere next door; and his bookish best guy friend, Masashi.

Again, as in Clannad (and especially Kanon), the slice-of-life melodrama includes touches of magical realism. Serika Kurusugawa, scion of the Kurusugawa conglomerate (she arrives at school in a limo), is a practicing witch. And then there's the android manufactured by Kurusugawa, who seems to be acquiring a soul.

I can't find it on any legit streaming sites. The DVDs are only available on the used market. Being locked into a 4:3 SD format may be one reason Right Stuf let it go out of print. This is a golden oldie that deserves more love. If not in the original DVD format, a re-release on a single SD Blu-ray would suffice.

To Heart 2 is in print, released in the U.S. by Maiden Japan (Sentai Filmworks). To Heart 2 was also produced by Oriental Light and Magic and written by Hiroshi Yamaguchi, but directed by Norihiko Sudo. It doesn't have anything in common with the original other than the school uniforms.

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June 13, 2019

The blah-blah-blah filter

Kate observed a while back that the dialogue in a drama communicates more than the raw semantics, such that technically incomprehensible dialogue need not impede comprehension (citing a scene from the classic police procedural Kojak).

To be sure, "dialogue can't be all connotation and jargon." But when

the dialogue carries weight with the characters, it carries weight with the audience. Meaning is determined as much by context, reaction, intonation, and individual word choice as by any insider knowledge.

I'm going to try approaching this idea from a slightly different angle.

As a general rule, while the audience doesn't have to understand everything a fictional character is saying, we do have to believe that the writer understands what he is making his characters say and why. We make a leap of faith and implicitly trust the source of the information we are getting.

Which is why the audience is so easily fooled by an unreliable narrator.

For example, few people outside the uniformed services comprehend all the intricacies of military rank and hierarchy ("captain" and "sergeant" are particularly problematic). But the screenwriter of a war movie had better know what he's talking about. Or else the actors had better sell it.

And once we are sold, as in any given episode of Star Trek, it is surprising how much meaningless technobabble a story can tolerate. As long as we grasp the key points of the story, our brains are adept at filtering out the blah-blah-blah from the elements driving the plot along.

In the anime series Hyouka, Hotaro even begins to wonder if his "powers of deduction" are due to his ability to spin the facts of a case into a compelling tale. In one episode, he has Eru present him with a randomly-chosen incident, from which he invents a convincing "proof."

The comical payoff is that he inadvertently solves an actual crime in the process.

But Hotaro has a point. The power of the human brain to filter the randomness out of random events also gives it the power to create cause and effect out of whole cloth. Hence conspiracy theories.

But when that blah-blah-blah filter doesn't work at all, we can be equally left in the dark. True fluency in a foreign language comes down to the blah-blah-blah filter.

I understand news and NOVA-type science shows in Japanese pretty well. But when watching Japanese medical dramas and police procedurals (without subtitles), I often have difficulty grasping what technobabble matters and what doesn't and in the process lose track of the plot.

Jargon and slang and mumbled lines and people talking over each other make things even murkier.

Of course, the former and the latter are working at cross-purposes. The point of a documentary is to explain technically complicated concepts to a lay audience, while the information presented to the viewer in a crime drama has the initial intent of obfuscating the existence of a simple explanation.

Practically every mystery drama ends likes a game of Clue. It's the narrative equivalent of Occam's Razor, a simple enough explanation that everybody in the audience will comprehend in the end. Clouding the waters is the whole point.

Observe how quickly a one-hour drama proceeds from climax to denouement. I recently happened across the last ten minutes of an episode of Elementary and had little difficulty figuring out what had happened in the previous fifty. But, of course, that is not why we watch.

Columbo was a highly influential series in Japan. Yutaka Mizutani's detective in the hugely popular Aibo series is a clever combination of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes and Peter Falk's Columbo. He's a lot of fun to watch even when I only understand about a quarter of what he's saying.

But after stumbling all the way through a crime drama in Japanese, I can often work backwards through the episode and figure out what was going on earlier. This suggests that the Japanese version of Columbo would be easier to follow. Aibo follows a more traditional mystery plot structure.

Telling the story backwards doesn't always work with medical dramas unless I can identify the particular issue at the core of the conflict. Though common plots like "cute kid waiting for a transplant" are easy enough.

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