April 19, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)

Family Gekijyo, the Japanese channel replacing TV Japan on Dish, didn't have a published program schedule when it launched on April 2 (the on-screen program guide works). After all, there was barely anything to schedule. But something is better than nothing, so let's discuss the something.

The first two weeks, Family Gekijyo (on Dish) ran episodes from a live action urban fantasy series and three "classic" anime series in a "creeping loop." Sunday saw coverage of a shogi tournament. Then back to the loop. Then a rerun of the shogi tournament Sunday afternoon.

Then back to the loop, now with reruns of the shogi tournament filling the late night slot. (By "creeping loop," I mean that every day, each series advances two episodes and loops again.)

The only website I can find is the one for the Japanese market. That program schedule makes me pine might be. Following the cable strategy of running a prime time slate for the East Coast and rerunning it four hours later for the West Coast, they could get by with two-thirds of that material.

Here's the content on Dish for the first two weeks and their original broadcast dates (except for the shogi tournament, all half-hour shows):

 • 21st Ginga Shogi Tournament
 • Zerotesters (1973-1974)
 • Reiden the Brave (1975-1976)
 • Beeton the Robot (1976-1977)
 • Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono (2013)

Zerotesters is clunky old space anime. Reiden the Brave is a clunky old mecha anime. Of the old shows, Beeton is by far the best, a family comedy that's sort of "the same only different enough to keep us from getting sued" version of Doraemon.

Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono (lit. "Wolf Fang: Those who Illuminate the Darkness") is the third installment in the wide-ranging franchise, with a new cast and an "alternate universe" setting.

Thanks to Moore's Law, the special effects have improved markedly over the show's Kamen Rider roots. The martial arts sequences are impressive. Its biggest fault is taking itself too seriously, like Buffy with no sense of humor. And landing in the loop at random times didn't make it easy to follow the story.

On the other hand, the episodes I caught three or four times did begin to make sense (given a compelling-enough show, that's actually a good way to study a foreign language).

It is definitely not a kid's show. The occasional winsome lass (it's not Game of Thrones either) appears in a Garo episode sans clothing. The "family" in Family Gekijyo is of the commercial variety—as any consumer of "young adult" manga and anime can attest—not the stodgy NHK version.

Even a kid's show like Beeton the Robot did a running gag in one episode that had a Betty Boop lookalike constantly falling out of her clothes (think Benny Hill). Highlighting that "advantage" without getting too crass about it could help differentiate Family Gekijyo from TV Japan.

As for shogi, I know practically nothing about it, so it falls into watching-paint-dry territory. That's true of international chess too. And go. Alas, cerebral spectator sports aren't nearly as interesting in real life as they are in manga and anime. But that's a subject for another post.

I can only hope the rest of Family Gekijyo's prime time slate is indeed "coming soon."

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April 12, 2018

Family Gekijyo

A dozen years with TV Japan were rudely interrupted by NHK Cosmomedia America abruptly jumping ship to DirecTV. TV Japan had been on Dish since its debut in 1991. Maybe it was enticed by the bigger pool of subscribers (twice that of Dish), but I think the switch has more to do with streaming technology.

TV Japan recently launched a library service (no live streaming) called dLibrary Japan. Streaming is the ideal delivery platform for these niche services. TV Japan only reached 80,000 households at Dish. I have to wonder if NHK Cosmomedia plans on incorporating dLibrary Japan into the DirecTV Now infrastructure.

If so, that'd make for an enticing offering.

But Dish did something intriguing too. It handed TV Japan's slot to Family Gekijyo ("family theater"). The kunrei-shiki romanization (ignoring the long final vowel, the more familiar Hepburn renders it gekijo) straightaway tells you it's a Japanese import. As the official press release states:

Tohokushinsha Film Corporation, the Tokyo-headquartered Japanese entertainment and media industry leader, has announced the launch of its popular Japanese channel FAMILY GEKIJYO exclusively on the USA's DISH Network, in collaboration with Superswiss. The launch took place April 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (MDT).

The press release also mentions Tohokushinsha's intention to delve into OTT services.

As best I can tell, Family Gekijyo (Japan) resembles ION Television: original programming backfilled by reruns. A handful of NHK series from a few years back are featured on its home page.

TV Japan is a compilation service crafted for Japanese living and traveling abroad. It does a good job of staying on top of the news and current with the top-rated commercial series in Japan. Family Gekijyo is produced in Japan for a home audience. Alas, it simply can't time-shift the raw feed and beam it across the Pacific.

According to Dish,

The international version of this popular Japanese channel is being created to offer general entertainment programming, including live action series, anime, documentaries and game shows. Plus, news programming to come!

Parent company Tohokushinsha Film Corporation does bring a sizeable media catalog to the table. Since 1989, "TFC's satellite operations have expanded to a total of 11 channels, and controls every aspect of [its] satellite business, including programming, sales, and transmission infrastructure."

Family Gekijyo certainly has hypothetical access to enough material to fill a 24/7 service. The problem is lining up all those broadcasting rights ducks in an orderly row. As noted above, the "international version" is "being created" as we speak. It was not launched as a finished product.

Far from it. More like "we'll start working on it real soon." Even without so much as a placeholder website for Dish subscribers, they must have pushed ahead with the roll-out because of the opening created by TV Japan's departure from Dish.

In any case, I'm not eager to leave Dish right now. DirecTV would cost at least ten dollars more a month, on top of new equipment and a fresh 24 month commitment. Besides, starting from zero like this, I'm curious to see how it shakes out—as long as something does shake out in a reasonable amount of time.

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April 05, 2018

Winning by losing

When I was in college in the 1980s, Japan was constantly in the news, and the news was mostly about economics and international relations. But aside from Godzilla movies and Kurosawa films, hardly anybody knew anything about Japanese culture.

Except it was inevitable that Japan would soon rule the world.

These days, Japan is only in the news because of natural or made-made disasters (like North Korea). Or the odd summit meeting. And yet foreign tourism to Japan has reached all time highs and Japanese culture has become ubiquitous outside Japan.

Sony recently purchased Funimation (the biggest anime distributor in North America). Netflix is pouring some of its billions into 30 original anime productions.

The 1964 Olympics focused on the modernization of the Japanese economy. The 2020 Olympics will focus on the internationalization of Japanese culture. Even as Japan gets eclipsed by China economically, it grows more powerful than ever culturally.

Eamonn Fingleton likes to argue that slipping into third place behind China was Japan's "briar patch" strategy to get the rest of the world to stop focusing on trade imbalances. As this Noah Smith Twitter thread shows, it has worked brilliantly.

Noah Smith tends to grossly overgeneralize when it comes to Japan (a bad habit among foreign correspondents in that part of the world). Though that is kind of the whole point. Japan can now count on the overgeneralizers overgeneralizing to its advantage.

Third place is proving not a bad place to be.

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March 29, 2018

Detective Bureau 2-3

In a society that progressed as rapidly as did Japan during the post-war period, films from the 1950s and early 1960s like those of Yasujiro Ozu preserve a point in time as it mostly was rather than how it is now remembered.

At the time, Hollywood produced some fine films in and about Japan too. Shot on location, a movie like House of Bamboo (with Robert Stack) captures the Tokyo cityscape before modernity swept that sepia-colored world away.

Equally deserving of attention are those entertainment vehicles that won little in the way of high-culture respect (and even less in terms of international attention), and yet created the tropes and types of popular culture that still resonate today.

Unlike the works of Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa (such as High and Low, his 1963 police procedural), these movies have little value as artistic or as historical documents that strove for verisimilitude.

But they have great value as records of how the general public perceived the world around them, the ways in which they were willing to suspend their disbelief in order to imagine that social change in entertaining ways (still true of manga and anime today).

A great example of this is the clumsily titled (in English) Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! released by Nikkatsu Studios in January 1963.

The bad boy of the post-war Japanese movie business, Nikkatsu Studio avoided historical dramas and concentrated on low-budget comedies, teen melodramas, and actioners. Losing ground to television in the 1970s, Nikkatsu became synonymous with the "pink" genre.

But in 1963, though chock-a-block with armies of gun-wielding yakuza and a sky-high body count, Detective Bureau 2-3 (the "2-3" refers to protagonist's office number) isn't any more violent or explicit than Hollywood westerns of the 1950s.

Director Seijun Suzuki gives the film the look of a classic noir thriller. Joe Shishido (who appeared in six of Suzuki's films) is perfectly cast as a debonair detective who infiltrates the yakuza to expose a gun-running operation.

Featuring a sports car (that looks cool today), beautiful women, and heavies that could pass for Edward G. Robinson's cousins, plus the inventive use of what were then high-tech devices, Detective Bureau 2-3 had Miami Vice and Don Johnson beat by two decades.

Speaking of which, Miami Vice did an episode about the yakuza that wasn't half bad. But Don Johnson never wriggled out of tight situation with a song-and-dance routine that Fred Astaire could have choreographed.

Suzuki later got himself fired from Nikkatsu for making films that were so surreal and absurdist that they alienated Nikkatsu's core audience. When you're in the crowd-pleasing business, you do have to please the crowds.

In Detective Bureau 2-3 Suzuki and Shishido get the mix just right. Sporting a plot worthy of Chandler, it skirts the nihilism that came to typify the yakuza genre and supplies an upbeat ending. More upbeat than how the real world was dealing with the issue.

Robert Whiting recalls of the years leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the Japan Times (his fascinating five-part account starts here),

House theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night. Moreover, yakuza were everywhere, their numbers at an all-time high. There were also twice as many places to eat as New York and more bars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world.

The 1964 Olympics initiated a crackdown that was more of an accommodation. It essentially decriminalized the yakuza. Unlike American gangsters, the big yakuza organizations are legal corporations, and the police prefer to regulate them as such.

Sort of the same argument for decriminalizing drugs: stay away from the hard stuff and don't shoot civilians and we won't look too closely at where the hard cash is really coming from.

Capturing the yakuza sub-culture at its apex, Detective Bureau 2-3 makes hanging with the bad guys look cool. And the bad guys look cruel but cool. As with the glamour of the Miami Vice underworld, this comic book view of the yakuza persists to this day.

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March 22, 2018

Constancy amidst change

The character arc constitutes the core of drama designed to entertain, that hopes as well to enlighten the audience (this applies to comedy too, as "all great comedians are great dramatic actors"). The tale being told arises out of conflict, the fruits of which must manifest themselves in the denouement.

Ghost in the Shell (directed by Mamoru Oshii) epitomizes this basic story structure. Major Kusanagi's character arc parallels the narrative arc, to the extent that by the end of the movie she has literally become a different person. Meanwhile, her partner Batou remains a rock of constancy.

This tension between the constant and the variable focuses our attention on the metamorphosis taking place. Mathematically speaking, however, the distance between the two is the same regardless of the POV. In other words, the person doing the changing need not necessarily occupy the lead role.

In Children Who Chase Lost Voice (directed by Makoto Shinkai), the protagonist, Asuna, goes on a great adventure. But she undergoes no great transformation. She simply grows up. Shinkai includes a scene at the very end emphasizing that Asuna is no less an ordinary girl than she was before.

But Shun and Morisaki, who accompany her on her journey, are completed altered. Not only has Morisaki abandoned all the reasons for the journey he began with, he now bears indelible scars as punishment for his presumptions.

A steadfast protagonist that anchors the narrative holds especially true in television series. By contrast, the soap opera (and many a sit-com) is typified by the constant pursuit of shock and surprise, that inevitably inflicts more change than the suspension of disbelief can bear.

Which is not to suggests that stolid staples of genre storytelling like the detective drama lack character arcs. Quite the contrary. What makes them so enduring and endearing are the circles of fate that turn through each episode.

The antagonists are so often drawn the ranks of the rich and powerful because the decline and fall is so much greater. The man who had it all at the beginning of the episode loses everything in the end. We observe this decline and fall through the eyes of the detective, who serves as the Chorus.

A role epitomized by that of Watson, far more the observer of the human condition than Sherlock.

Staples of the television crime drama like CSI and Law & Order have less to say about actual crime and punishment than about the wages of sin and the costs of hubris. They are secular homilies for a modern age.

Like the preacher at the pulpit, in an anarchic world, the protagonist of a series must steer an outwardly steady course, evolving in a measured manner while remaining true to the constraints of the genre. By doing so, he casts the moral of the story into even bolder contrast.

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March 15, 2018


The genus of science fiction has difficulty defining its various species. Actual science fiction is the rarest of the breeds, dominated of late by space opera and unimaginative cyberpunk. Space opera is a chameleon genre, masquerading as science fiction when it contains hardly a spec of science.

Fantasy, by contrast, rarely pretends to be anything but imaginary.

Space opera wears the label of "science" the same way the female scientist in the James Bond movie wears a pair of glasses to convince us she's smart. On the other hand, maybe she really is gorgeous, brilliant, and nearsighted. Space opera, too, can be dumb about science and smart about Life, the Universe, and Everything, about how the human mind works.

My name for this particular creature is "psy-phi." The term occurred to me watching Guardians of the Galaxy II, a silly movie in which worthy explorations of psychology and philosophy can be found lurking between the gaudy comic book covers.

Star Wars stumbled into this psychodramatic niche with the first two installments. Alas, the franchise has been drained of all substance since, prompting the need to add another entry to the taxonomy: "space soap opera." Not only scientifically illiterate but equally empty-headed as well. Nothing kills "psy-phi" faster than the pretentiousness of pretend profundity.

Well, except for conflict created solely to generate drama. Any given Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon can entertain in the short term. But only the short term. No matter how much tragedy and pathos is slathered on top, it'll never add up to "drama."

The endless cycles of such melodramatic contrivances echo the traditional (gloomy) definition of samsara, a "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end." However "realistic" pessimism may be, without learning, growth, and resolution, there is no point to art.

Han Solo was a better person at the end of the first Star Wars movie than he was at the beginning. Luke Skywalker was certainly a wiser person at the end of the second Star Wars movie. But as far as I could tell, everybody still alive at the end of The Force Awakens is the same as they were going in.

Rey, Finn, and Kyo Ren start off as end products, the meaningful transformations having taken place in unseen prequels. Which may explain how forgettable the whole thing is.

So, sure. Space opera can be dumb as a rock about space. But if I can grab onto a rewarding character arc that goes somewhere with some hope of positive change, I'll keep watching.

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March 08, 2018


Peaks Island Press proudly announces the first volume of the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

It's 1995 and Donna Howard is living an ordinary life in Portland, Maine. She works as a hairdresser, has a boring boyfriend, two opinionated brothers, and two exhaustively energetic parents. As far as she's concerned, she's an ordinary person and is proud of it.

Except she can see the past. Walk down any street in the old part of the city and four centuries of its inhabitants walk right along with her. She can observe them, hear them, smell them. And she'd rather not. She'd prefer to leave the past in the past.

Until a customer "accidentally" leaves an ancient Roman coin at the hair salon. A coin worth an awful lot of money. Then the woman appraising the coin for the Portland Museum of Art "accidentally" ends up dead. And now the past won't leave her alone.

Not even the man who's visage was molded into the metal 2000 years ago, a man who wreaked mayhem then and may have witnessed murder now. Quite unwittingly, Donna uncovers family secrets, confronts historical controversies, and closes in on a very contemporary crime.

Google Play

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March 01, 2018

The life of a salesman

The most beloved stereotype of the Japanese salesman is that of a mild-mannered carnival barker as portrayed in the long-running "Tora-san" movies (Netflix has several). Persistent and endearingly ingratiating (almost to the point of being annoying). Not hard-sell.

The business of business-to-business—a popular subject of Japanese television melodramas—combines persistence and supplication in the face of rejection. The objective, it seems, is to be inoffensively irritating to the point that the other side caves to get rid of you.

Sort of like stalking. In a good way! Ganbaru—to patiently persist, endure, never give up—is intrinsic to the character of the ideal Japanese striver. A good salesman is NOT Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. That's how yakuza behave. That's why yakuza terrify the average Japanese.

In Japan, one such feared "hard sell" technique is known as "catch sales." It uses an aggressive approach (invading a person's space and getting in his face) to physically move the conversation to a "home ground" where the salesman controls every aspect of the interaction.

You know, like a church.

As I recount in Tokyo South, back during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mormon missionaries deployed catch sales techniques with enormous success. In the short term. In the long term—well, by design, Mormon missionaries aren't around for the long term.

So the whole thing fell apart in a few short years. The catch sales approach treats people as disposable. The bird in the hand is never worth as much as two in the bush, and for good reason. It's a lot easier to sell the idea of joining a community than to create one.

Or as Groucho Marx famously said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." If it's that easy to join, why join? Besides, all Japanese already belong to a club. It's the Japanese club, and being a member is a full time job.

If you can sell that, then you are sure to "always be closing."

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February 22, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy II

Guardians of the Galaxy is pure space operetta, though with some substance lurking beneath the razzle-dazzle veneer. And it does bother to get one bit of science right. As Kyle Hill explains on Because Science, exposed to the vacuum of space, you would simultaneously asphyxiate and freeze to death. Messy by undramatic. No exploding heads.

That's pretty much the end of the science. The laws of thermodynamics? Orbital mechanics? Fuhgeddaboudit. But we are served up some tried and true science fiction memes. And while I'm all for the-same-only-different, the conflict at the core of Guardians of the Galaxy II struck me as entirely recycled, too much the same and not at all different.

The good stuff (and there is some good stuff) gets short shrift, though it is worth sticking around for.

But first, let's venture back in time to 1965 and the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a dang good piece of cinematic science fiction for the era (notable for its lack of both monsters and miniskirts).

Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is the same sort of supercharged human "god" as Kurt Russell's "Ego" (though Gary gets there much quicker). His rule-the-universe end game is the same too. Star Trek returned to this plot device over and again. You'd think that in the process of amassing all the knowledge of creation, these "gods" would learn a thing or two.

Or get more interesting hobbies. A subject of the current season of Lucifer is how immortals entertain themselves for eternity. And the one refreshing idea is that the main character has no desire to rule or reign over anything.

Lucifer is about a dysfunctional (very Greco-Roman) family that functions, also true of Guardians of the Galaxy II. Despite being such a weird bunch, the way they connect to each other says a lot about the human condition.

But I don't include Ego in that group, despite the familial connection. He adds nothing to the mix, and finally turns into a by-the-numbers supervillain.

In the end, Captain Kirk buries Gary Mitchell's divine ambitions under a big rock. Ego meets a similar fate. The screwed up sibling rivalry between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) pays off better than the screwed up father-son relationship between Ego and Chris Pratt's Peter Quill.

Indeed, Nebula's relentless pursuit of Gamora is a sideshow that could have been the main attraction.

The movie begins with an act of pure MacGuffinry, Rocket stealing some "batteries" from a bunch of hilariously condescending and (literally) gilded aliens (who apparently all descended from Niles Crane) with no concept of the sunk cost fallacy.

As the leader of this race of Inspector Javerts, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is prepared to pursue Rocket to the ends of the galaxy over a couple of Duracells, draining the coffers of the planet in the process. (As in Star Wars, the economics of building—and destroying—these enormous space fleets is never questioned.)

It would have been nice to tie these pair of obsessive quests together into a deeper message. Instead, Ayesha is reduced to playing the relentless paperboy from Better Off Dead, hounding John Cusack with cries of "I want my two dollars!"

The even better story lurking in wings of this movie focuses on the father-son relationship between Peter and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who "kidnapped" him and then thought better of turning him over to his real father (Ego).

But like every other laudable element of the movie, it is swamped by volume of digitized material hitting the screen in every frame.

In the end, what's good about Guardians of the Galaxy II manages to surmount the overly busy script and the tidal waves of CGI. Please, Hollywood, just because you can fill every square inch of the screen with 3D SFX doesn't mean you should. Give the audience some moments of calm, a respite now and then to let the story to sink in

But now with all the big backstories dealt with, I can only hope that the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise turns into a goofier version of Firefly. Joss Whedon should be available.

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February 15, 2018

Right to left to right

The Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a good enough excuse to discuss how the written word works in that part of the world. (My knowledge of Korean is mostly informed by Wikipedia, so feel free to correct the record.)

Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic belong to the Altaic language group. Unlike Chinese, they are not tonal languages. If you can pronounce Spanish, you can pronounce Japanese. What trips up Westerners is speaking Japanese with the iambic metre (da-DUM) common to English.

The proximity of Japan and Korea to China accounts for both adapting Chinese characters into their orthography. Japan and Korea subsequently invented their own "alphabets": kana and hangul. But the two are independent and quite dissimilar creations.

The written Korean language (hangul) is more similar in structure to the English alphabet than to Japanese kana, which is technically a syllabary. Hiragana is an elegant syllabary, but one so tightly bound to Japanese that it can be repurposed for other tasks only with great difficulty.

Like English and unlike kana, hangul separates vowels and consonants. But imagine that in English you could form ligatures with almost any letter combination and do it vertically as well as horizontally.

The squashed-together characters may look like kanji, but they're "letters." To quote Wikipedia: "Each syllabic block consists of two to six letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom."

Like that "Love" sculpture.

Kanji (Chinese characters) aren't used at all in North Korea, and have fallen out of use in South Korea. All kanji in a defined font take up the same box of space (including punctuation), so they can easily be stacked vertically.

Although Korean was traditionally read vertically and right to left (as was Japanese), the disappearance of kanji and the influence of European languages (including punctuation and spaces separating words) has made horizontal orthography more practical and now universal.

The persistence of kanji in Japanese is why I think vertical orthography (read right to left) continues to predominate. When written horizontally, until fairly recently, Japanese and Chinese and Korean were read right-to-left too but have since switched from left-to-right.

In Japan, the change came abruptly in 1946. Although hangul was developed several centuries after kana, the horizontal left-to-right standard was promoted by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in the late 19th century, which may also account for its wider adoption in Korea.

As a result, manga that preserve the original formatting are read right-to-left while manhwa are read left-to-right.

Chinese can still be written vertically, though horizontally and left-to-right is quickly becoming the standard. In Taiwan, the government now requires that official documents be written horizontally and left-to-right.

Japanese may soon stand alone (vertically written, that is).

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February 08, 2018

"Let it Go" (metal version)

As I observe in my review of Frozen,

"Let it go" sounds like an anthem for the self-esteem movement. Except that, by the end, it's clear that Elsa "being herself" will kill her sister and destroy her kingdom. Elsa doesn't need to "let it go." She badly needs to get over herself.

Actually, it's worse than that. Strip away the family-friendly Disney animation and the lyrics read more like an anarchic scream.

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

Hey, there's a nurturing moral code for all you youngsters out there! Nothing against Idina Menzel, but this cover by the goofy and talented Leo Moracchioli better fits the substance of what is actually being said.

What kid doesn't want to believe that the rules apply to everybody but himself? Except these days too many adults are singing that song as well. Yeah, we all do it. But let's not pretend it's a good thing.

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February 01, 2018

Taking natural gas for granted

I can't take natural gas for granted because my apartment is all-electric. Unfortunately, when it comes to generating BTUs, electric resistance heating is the most expensive way to make stuff hot.

If natural gas were part of my personal energy mix, Dominion Energy would be my provider, having merged with Questar. They subsequently ran public service spots reminding everybody that "Questar Gas is now Dominion Energy!"

I've even see Dominion Energy utility trucks driving around.

The name can't help but make me grin, because what immediately springs to my mind isn't an energy company but Dominion Tank Police. One of Masamune Shirow's lesser known works, it's a mostly silly series that can be quite clever and even poignant at times.

Emphasis on the "silly," as in the "Hey, Boy" strip tease scene from the first series (it looks more NSFW than it actually is).

Imagine Blade Runner as a slapstick comedy. With tanks. It deserves a revival. And might even survive a Hollywood adaptation, what with sci-fi comedies being all the rage these days (Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy). Plus a female protagonist!

The second series, New Dominion Tank Police, is available on DVD.

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January 25, 2018

Makoto Shinkai commercials

An artist has to earn a living, and the world is a better place because of it. When Makoto Shinkai and CoMix Wave aren't creating some of the most stunning animated films ever, they do ads, like for Destination Canada (formerly the Canadian Tourism Commission).

As impressive as the Destination Canada ad is, this ad for Z-kai Group is even more exquisite. As Red Veron puts it, "Makoto Shinkai and his studio can make something as monotonous as schoolwork into something great with ridiculously pretty animation and music."

The Z-kai Group "offers a wide range of educational services to develop genuine academic abilities that will be of use in the future." Though rather like Geico, it's probably more famous in Japan because of its unique and occasionally bizarre commercials.

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January 18, 2018

Your Name

Ever since the March 2011 Tôhoku earthquake, NHK has run an ongoing series of short documentaries featuring survivors of the disaster. With surprising objectivity, they deliver first-person accounts of the moment, recounting the tragedy then and the small triumphs since.

The subjects of these vignettes are often shown standing on the concrete slab that remained of their home or business. Such scenes are becoming less common as the Japanese government pours billions into the recovery efforts, in some cases raising entire communities hundreds of feet above sea level.

Last year, the NHK documentary series 72 Hours (in which a film crew camps out in a particular place for three days straight and interviews anybody willing to appear on camera) visited Yonomori Park in Tomioka, Fukushima, renown for its wide boulevards of lush cherry trees.

Because of its proximity to Fukushima, only registered residents are allowed to visit the northeastern part of the town. The result is a kind of open-air Pompeii. Past the barricades, human civilization stopped in 2011, slowly being reclaimed by nature and repopulated by mildly radioactive boars.

Makoto Shinkai wrote Your Name with this context in mind. In the alternate reality of Your Name, a disaster visits Japan on a smaller scale and in non-linear time. A rural town in Gifu Prefecture instead of rural fishing villages north of Sendai. But the parallels are clear.

Still, Shinkai begins with a feint, a body-switching Freaky Friday physical comedy (though elevated to near transcendental levels by his gorgeous cinematography). Even there, his direction is laden with symbolism deeper and darker than the subject matter initially suggests.

The first time we see Mitsuha in school, the teacher is explaining the etymology of tasogare ("twilight"). It was originally pronounced tasokare, literally, "Who are you?" In a world without artificial lighting, identifying a person at twilight could be tricky.

A moment later, Mitsuha turns a page and that question stares back at her from her notebook, written by Taki the last time he switched bodies with her.

A word from classical poetry with Chinese roots, tasogare also suggests an otherworldly time when "gods and ghosts walk unnoticed upon the earth" (as I have Gendô explain in Serpent of Time). Only during the twilight can Mitsuha and Taki meet before their timelines realign.

Given this aura of magical realism, of course Mitsuha and her sister are Shinto shrine maidens. (As cinematic reference points, see Inuyasha, Ginkitsune, and Kamichu! just to start with.)

But the unifying metaphor that ties the film together is the red thread. Originating in ancient China, the red thread of fate "connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break."

Mitsuha ties up her hair with a red ribbon and Taki wraps a red strap around his wrist every morning. Thanks to a Heisenbergian trick of time and place, it is the same red thread.

More subtly, I believe that Shinkai is symbolically referencing his own work, namely Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011). This retelling of the myth of Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) takes a young girl to the Gate of Life and Death in the center of the Underworld.

To get to the Gate, where Asuna hopes to find her father, she descends into a giant crater. In Your Name, The town of Itomori surrounds an impact crater. When Mitsuha, her sister and grandmother visit the family shrine within a metaphorical underworld, the site is in the center of an impact crater.

In the wake of the 2011 disaster, hundreds of "tsunami stones" in the hills of coastal Japan attracted renewed attention. The stones marked the high-water mark of previous disasters. Geological data and historical records point to a "Sanriku earthquake" in the year 869 in the same Tôhoku region.

And thus in Your Name, Shinkai's "Itomori Crater" was formed 1200 years ago and the comet, like the earthquake, has returned again.

The past is prelude. Forgetting the past, Santayana warned, we are doomed to repeat it. There's no telling when Godzilla will come stomping in from the sea. Hence the curse of samsara, the "cyclicality of all life, matter, existence."

All things pass away. All things come around again. And once more pass away. The pathos of life.

Mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the Japanese aesthetic concept of the beauty that can be found in the transitory nature of things, "a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life."

And yet. Reinterpretations and extrapolations of Buddhist and Shinto metaphysics are part and parcel of Japanese fantasy. Reincarnation need not be a curse. While Children Who Chase Lost Voices is about accepting loss and moving on, Your Name circles around and rekindles hope anew.

As does Ocean Waves, giving its characters a second metaphorical chance at a life that still-could-be. Angel Beats offers them rebirth and a second life (and a similar ending). Your Name splits the difference, suggesting that we can step outside of time and not become prisoners of fate.

It is a message that Japan, particularly since 11 March 2011, very much wanted to hear.

Related posts

Makoto Shinkai
Your Name (not a review)
Hollywood made in Japan
Walk on water

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