September 26, 2019

Telling the how-to story

A common criticism of Hollywood is that it cares more about what sells in China than what sells in middle America. That Hollywood can sell its wares in China at all is a testament to the universality of storytelling and the structured approach to the craft that Hollywood has polished to a shine.

At the same time, what makes universality equally interesting are the exceptions that are not so universal. Here I'm thinking about a unique interplay between subject matter and genre, quite apart from cultural specificity, that has no real equivalent in Hollywood when it comes to narrative fiction.

Call this one the "how-to" genre.

In the non-fiction space, there is no lack of DIY and "how-to" programming in the North American market. PBS Create does nothing else 24/7. But while there is often an element of DIY in scripted television shows coming out of Hollywood, it's hard to think of an example where it is the single defining element.

The setting of any series will dictates a certain amount of expository material, as will the occupations of the characters. At the very least, in the name of verisimilitude, a show that, for example, takes place in a radio station (NewsRadio, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier) must necessary provide some insights into broadcasting.

In Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, Tim Allen comes close, epitomizing a "how-to" man working in "how-to" businesses.

On Japanese television, and specifically anime, "how to" is not only a defining element but often the entire point. The hugely popular "gourmet drama" pays the kind of attention to the nuts and bolts of cooking otherwise only found in reality shows and the occasional feature-length Hollywood production.

It is certainly a defining element in the ever-popular sports genre, appealing to its audience with a focus how to play the game better.

Thus the protagonist in a mainstream sports drama commonly starts off with a great deal of promise but an Achilles heel that must be overcome. Tsurune begins with our protagonist suffering from a bad case of the yips in the form of target panic. Big Windup features a pitcher with incredible control but no speed.

Especially in baseball series, multiple episodes can be devoted to a single game, with the granularity of the narrative resolving to a pitch-by-pitch analysis.

Then there is the "oddball sports" category, which features sports or games the audience may be familiar with but probably doesn't know a lot about. Again, an excuse to work a great deal of exposition into the narrative.

Examples include Chihayafuru (karuta), Saki (mahjong ), Hikaru no Go (go), Tsurune (archery), and March Comes in like a Lion (shogi). The latter gained particular resonance when real-life Sota Fujii turned professional at the age of 14 (youngest ever). These sports-related series do also generate a great deal of melodrama.

And finally we come to the "how-to" genre distilled down to its essence.

The Japanese fascination with "how-to" is fully on display in what I call the "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way" genre. The typical approach is to have the protagonist get interested in a somewhat obscure activity, discover that her friends are interested in it too (or recruits them), and plunges in.

The result are slice-of-life stories, often with little actual drama and only the rudimentary scaffolding of a plot, but with great attention given to the specific details of the activity. Recent examples include Encouragement of Climb (hiking), Laid-Back Camp (camping), and Long Riders (bicycle touring).

Even the shamelessly silly and purposely low-brow Bakuon!! explores the world of motorcycling in considerable technical detail.

The result is part how-to guide and part promotional video in a surprisingly entertaining format. And who knows? Maybe viewers here and there will be convinced to put down their phones and venture into the great outdoors. (Along with a great many DIY aficionados, I'll settle for watching the great outdoors on television.)

Related links

Bakuon!! (CR HD)
Big Windup (CR Fun)
Chihayafuru (CR HD)
Encouragement of Climb
Laid-Back Camp
Long Riders (CR HD)
March Comes in like a Lion
Tsurune (CR HD)

Food fiction
Cute girls doing interesting things

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September 19, 2019

Red hair and redheads

In her translation of Anne of Green Gables, Muraoka Hanako titled the novel Akage no Anne (「赤毛のアン」). The kanji ke (毛) can refer to fur, wool, down, as well as hair, while kami (髪) specifically means the hair of the head. So a strand of hair on your head is kami no ke (髪の毛).

Anime characters aside, actual human red hair (of the scarlet variety) is very rare in Japan. So while common hair colors like black (黒髪) and white (白髪) use kami, the ke (毛) in akage sets it apart from the norm.

The popularity of Akage no Anne after its publication in 1952 was such that subsequent translations have followed suit, and akage (赤毛) has come to mean "redhead" and all its related synonyms.

By comparison, the manga and anime Snow White with the Red Hair (「赤髪の白雪姫」) uses akagami. The association of akage (赤毛) with Anne Shirley is so pervasive that Sorata Akizuki (or her publisher) likely wished to avoid any confusion between the two literary redheads.

Related posts

Hanako and Anne
Mary Sue to the rescue
Snow White with the Red Hair

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September 12, 2019

The orphan's saga

Anne of Green Gables has been a perennial bestseller in Japan ever since the publication of the first translation by Hanako Muraoka in 1952.

The character of the spunky orphan (or a girl who becomes a "social orphan" when she sets off alone for the big city) has long been beloved in Japan. NHK built an entire franchise around the concept, with the Asadora morning melodrama now entering its sixth decade.

When it comes to cheerful and resourceful optimism in the face of punishing circumstances, Tohru from Fruits Basket is every bit Anne's equal. She needs to be when she ends up the only "normal" person in a household whose members are the actual animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The orphaned Takashi in Natsume's Book of Names (a guy for a change) has the ability to see the spiritual beings that haunt the Japanese countryside. Like Anne, he was fortunate enough to finally end up with adoptive parents who truly care for him.

The far less fortunate Chise in The Ancient Magus Bride has the same abilities as Takashi (a common trope). She was orphaned when her mother committed suicide and blamed her in the process. Little wonder she's a borderline basketcase when we first meet her.

In a twist on Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty (Chise) is saved by the Beast (the monstrous Elias Ainsworth). Although Elias isn't exactly a rock of stability either. He's not even human, to start with.

Speaking of borderline basketcases, Rei in March Comes in Like a Lion is a shogi prodigy orphaned when the rest of his family is killed in an automobile accident. He turns pro in large part to get away from his screwed up adoptive family.

Rei is saved (psychologically) by an eccentric family of three orphaned sisters (mom died, father ran off) and their grandfather. And by the wealthy Harunobu, another shogi child prodigy who adopts Rei as his best friend. Harunobu is sort of an orphan himself, being raised mostly by his butler.

And then there's Motoko Kusangai from Ghost in the Shell, who can be counted on to be resourceful in the face of punishing circumstances, though not necessarily very cheerful about it. In any case, she can count on her "family" from Section 9 to watch her back.

Related links

Fruits Basket (CR Fun)
Natsume's Book of Friends
The Ancient Magus Bride
March Comes in like a Lion
Ghost in the Shell: Arise

Hanako and Anne
Anne illustrated
The drama of the PCB

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September 05, 2019

"Anne" illustrated

Mangaka Chica Umino, best known for Honey and Clover and March Comes in Like a Lion, created the cover art for Shueisha's new translations of the first three books in the Anne of Green Gables series.

"Red-Haired Anne" (Anne of Green Gables)

For her original translation published in 1952, Hanako Muraoka chose the title Akage no Anne (「赤毛のアン」). Due to the book's immense popularity, translations since have stuck with it.

"Anne's Adolescence" (Anne of Avonlea)

The kanji for "adolescence" is seishun (青春), literally "green spring." In this context, the word takes on an aura of classical romanticism tinged with sentimentality, the "blossom of youth."

"Anne in Love" (Anne of the Island)

Though now a century old, Anne of the Island reads very much like a contemporary shojo manga, right down to the emphasis on competitive academic performance.

Related links

Honey and Clover
March Comes in Like a Lion

The orphan's saga
Hanako and Anne

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September 02, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (covers)

Inaugurating the 40-day run-up to the October 12 launch of Shirogane no Oka, Kuro no Tsuki ("Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon"), Shinchosha published the covers for the first two volumes and went live with a redesign of the official Twelve Kingdoms website. Akihiro Yamada created the covers and illustrations.

The Twelve Kingdoms Twitter account is @12koku_shincho (in Japanese).

「白銀の墟玄の月」第一巻 ISBN 978-4101240626

「白銀の墟玄の月」第二巻 ISBN 978-4101240633

The books are available online at Amazon/JapanHonto, and Rakuten.

Related posts

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (title)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (more covers)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (publication date)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (it's official!)
Squared (lined) paper

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