July 30, 2009
How it all got started
I've revised Tokyo South, my missionary memoir, and uploaded the ebook to Amazon and Smashwords.
The first chapter, "Lost in the Works," is the first real story I produced in my writing career. I'd signed up for a computer programming class at BYU after my mission and discovered that I enjoyed using the Pascal compiler as a crude word processor (this was back during the Apple II era) more than the programming.
Then "Number Games" won second place in the 1984 Vera Hinckley Mayhew Awards, my first solid bit of external validation. (I seriously wonder whether such a story would be so well-received today; I like to call the first half of the 1980s BYU's "glasnost" era.)
Over the last two decades, a series of reorganizations and consolidations and force reductions finally resulted in the consolidation of the Tokyo North and South missions in 2007. This Ted Lyon interview (also mentioned at the previous link) makes it clear that what I describe in Tokyo South is by no means unique.
If anything, time and nostalgia and the detached sense of sang-froid that comes with age and experience leads me to pull my punches a bit.
July 28, 2009
The birds, bees, and the trees
Along with Simoun, here are a few examples of "non-normative" sex roles and matrimony in anime series.
The Twelve Kingdoms
In the universe of the Twelve Kingdoms, parents who want to "have" a child tie a ribbon to a special tree and their offspring literally grow on the tree like fruit. Youko (the human--she thinks--heroine) learns about the birds and the bees and the trees here and here.
Gall Force: Eternal Story
The female race of the "Solnoids" and the reptilian (male) "Paranoids" have been engaged in centuries of ruinous warfare. Faced with the possibility of mutual annihilation, the powers that be conspire to invent (accidentally on purpose) heterosexual mammalian reproduction.
My Hime/My Otome Hime
What's out of the normal here are some rather unusual "unintended consequences" of heterosexuality. Because exposure to prostate specific antigen zaps the superpowers of the Hime, they can't get married and also have a career. (Yes, I can think of work-arounds too.)
Alice stumbles down the rabbit hole (she falls off the roof of her school) into a world where the witches (female) have segregated themselves and the girls (except for the incompetents) from the warlocks (male). This turns out to be at the root of all their problems.
This comic space opera (profundity takes a back seat) also posits a future where men and women have separated into separate societies, though they've apparently figured out to reproduce without each other. The fighting mecha literally fuse together in a clever metaphor for sex.
July 25, 2009
Conan O'Brian and Andy Richter spent an afternoon at Bang Zoom! studios dubbing the remastered version of Ghost in the Shell (titled "2.0"). To tell the truth, the original English dub was so awful Conan's version would be an improvement.
July 21, 2009
Another compelling entry in the "non-traditional sex/marriage models in fiction" category: the anime series Simoun. In the world of Simoun, everyone is born female. One's permanent sex is chosen at the age of seventeen in a religious ritual that looks a lot like baptism.
This puts a whole new spin on the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
What makes this metaphor work better than the similar (but heavy-handed) Star Trek: TNG episode is that the "agency" issue is not the point of the show, but an aspect of the society. And the emphasis is on the weight of having to make a choice rather than the choice itself.
We are told that some of the "less advanced" societies on the planet do insist on the equivalent of a "prearranged marriage." However, the "freedom to choose"--or the choice to leave things to chance--can be just as overwhelming to the psyche. Freedom is good, but it's not easy.
The religious aspects of the story are similarly compelling. The "Simoun" are fighter aircraft piloted (in squadrons of twelve) by the "Simoun Sibylla," young women who haven't been "baptized." Although they know how to fly and maintain the Simoun, nobody knows what makes them "go."
Anthropologically speaking, a complex cargo cult has arisen to explain the existence of the Simoun and why only a select number of young women can fly them. The "Simoun Sibylla" are ordained as priestesses and the Simoun are treated as instruments of the divine.
The result is a theocracy with super-advanced military technology it doesn't understand at its fingertips, surrounded by and increasingly threatened by secular regimes armed with the steampunk equivalents (that they do understand), and getting stronger and more belligerent by the day.
When war breaks out, the priestesses must turn their "divine instruments" into killing machines. Some suspect that the Simoun are comprehensible mechanical devices, but this is heresy. Unable to exploit this technology, they risk being overrun and conquered, if only by sheer numbers.
Perhaps most interestingly, Simoun is ultimately a story of failure and the inability of a religious culture to adapt in the face of radical change.
The birds, bees, and the trees
Gall Force: Eternal Story
July 18, 2009
Yes, there will be a home-grown Twilight manga (or manhwa, since it will be drawn by a Korean artist).
In the closest thing to printing money that we've heard about this year, Yen Press has the rights to graphic novels based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, according to Entertainment Weekly. Art will be by Korean artist Young Kim, with Meyer "deeply immersed in the project, reviewing every panel," according to the report.
July 16, 2009
The interminably hospitalized or ailing characters in Air, Clannad and Kanon (both of which have two) remind me of the dying heroines in operas like La Boheme, who manage to expire while everybody's singing up a storm. "Mimi! Mimi!"
The "dying kid" theme shows up a lot in Japanese melodrama. A large part of it is dramatic convenience, but there's actually a medical reason behind it. Despite having the world's longest lifespans and some of the most modern medical technology in the world, Japan does very few cadaverous organ transplants.
Most transplants are live-donor organs such as kidneys, and weighted for population, Japan does less than a tenth as many as the U.S. Only eleven heart transplants were performed in 2008. This has led to "organ transplant tourism," such as the three yakuza lieutenants and a yakuza oyabun who received liver transplants at UCLA.
EU countries have long complained about this, and only U.S. hospitals still place Japanese nationals on heart transplant lists. Cadaverous organ transplantation was formally legalized in 1997. A bill passed the Lower House in June 2009 intended to bring Japan's medical ethics laws into line with World Health Organization guidelines.
This doesn't really "solve" the problem, as the definitions of "brain death" and the legal concept of "consent" remain far from settled in the public mind. As the Mainichi Shimbun opined about the bill:
It doesn't appear that thorough deliberation of the various proposals has taken place, nor does it seem that Diet members and the public have reached a real understanding of the issues.
What makes this all the more interesting is that abortion is legal in Japan and is little debated. Japan is one of the few developed countries besides the U.S. that has a death penalty and regularly uses it. It is also little debated.
When it comes to surveys showing how "atheistic" Japanese are, it should be remembered that a belief in a Judeo-Christian deity says little about people's beliefs when it comes to life-and-death matters such as transplantation and cancer. Japanese doctors still regularly (as high as 70 percent) hide diagnoses of cancer from patients.
They do so even in the face of studies showing that the decision to conceal the "true diagnosis was not related to the presence of psychiatric disorders in Japanese cancer patients" (informed patients had a lower rate). Doctors are acting upon religious and cultural beliefs, not science.
I believe that at the heart of the matter is the firm hold Buddhism still maintains over all aspects of funerary culture in Japan, including Obon, the second most important holiday after New Year's. (On the other hand, faux Christian marriage ceremonies have become more popular than the traditional Shinto rites.)
In fact, after I wrote the above paragraph, the aforementioned bill passed the Upper House (13 July 2009). This is a "sea change," explains Mari Yamaguchi of the AP, "because of Buddhist beliefs [that] consider the body sacred and reject its desecration."
So the languishing patient remains a very believable possibility in Japanese melodrama. Another good example is My Hime, in which Mai's little brother languishes away for the entire series before going to the U.S. for a heart transplant in the happy ending.
July 14, 2009
Clannad is best examined in reference to Kanon (reviewed here). It's pretty much the same, only different. Which is to say it's very much worth watching. Good, not great, though there are many moments of greatness. The better the idea, the more it should be ripped off. The world hasn't run out of worthy homages to Pride and Prejudice.
As with Kanon and Air, the story and character design were created by software developer Key Visual Arts. The anime version was produced by Kyoto Animation, directed by Tatsuya Ishihara and written by Fumihiko Shimo. This team has a good thing going. I hope they keep at it.
Clannad, like Kanon, is on the surface a high school harem melodrama with a wise-guy male lead (Tomoya Okazaki, voiced by Yuichi Nakamura), surrounded by a bunch of eccentric, troubled girls. But while Kanon starts out with a story derived from traditional folklore, Clannad begins as a theater of the absurd.
Tomoya sets out help Nagisa join the drama club. The drama club was shut down for lack of interest. They can start it up again if they can attract a quorum of members. But they can't officially recruit because it's not a club. And nobody wants to join because nobody's interested in joining what's-not-a-club. That sort of thing.
The comic relief is broader. The repartee between Tomoya and Fuko is fall-down funny (though the patter can be tough to follow even with subtitles).
We also find out about everybody's "after school special" problems much earlier. This makes Clannad more by-the-numbers, less dramatically complex than Kanon. Rather than weaving several stories together, the narratives follow one after the other in an episodic fashion, almost independent of each other.
The story arcs thus tend to hang separately than together, and never quite surmount the first featuring Fuko (or address the implicit magical realism). The writer seems to have realized this and has Fuko popping up randomly throughout the series doing a "magical girl" parody that though funny, only serves to remind how much she is missed.
Anybody who's seen Cipher in the Snow will recognize the same theme in the Fuko arc. Both Clannad and Kanon deal seriously with the weight of memory and loss and the burden of guilt--and about disparate people uniting in a common cause largely despite themselves.
The concluding arc featuring Nagisa tries to tie up the lose ends, but raises more questions than it settles--about Nagisa's parents, about the relationship between Tomoya and his father, about the metaphorical significance of the poignant "lonely robot" vignettes--and doesn't quite deliver on the original promise.
If anything, Clannad is cursed by an abundance of good ideas and the inability to choose the right ones to follow through on.
Which is perhaps why, far and away, the best-written episode is a stand-alone short story tagged onto the very end (it expands upon a secondary character and conflict raised during the series). Rather than focusing on group dynamics, it's about two individuals coming to terms with each other and their place in the world.
Essentially, a high school senior slacking his way through life realizes he's not half the man his girlfriend thinks he is and finally grows the heck up. In only twenty minutes, the story comes to a well-crafted conclusion and a satisfying moral point but without a hint of moralizing. It is a superbly directed and edited short animated film.
Although Clannad takes a more meandering and uneven path than Kanon, and the whole doesn't always exceed the sum of the parts, it does begin and end on two very high notes.
Dying for art
Clannad: After Story
July 10, 2009
My father only listens to all-classical radio (my parents have never owned a TV). He once told me that the brief news summary at the top of the hour told him everything he really needed to know about the "news" (solid-state physicists do tend to be eccentric like that).
The local Fox affiliate runs its late-night news an hour earlier than the competition, and does a recap at the top of the hour to keep viewers from switching to the other stations. As I've grown older, I've found that on most days that recap tell me everything I need to know.
Hand-wringing aside, much "professional" news content is being devalued because it's useless. The Internet makes that obvious. For example, Daniel Gross (a fine person, I'm sure) traveled to Japan and in 750 words manages to say nothing. As one commenter noted:
Wow, Mr. Gross flew all the way to Japan, went straight to the Roppongi district in Tokyo, and saw a lot of American chain restaurants there. Ergo, the Japanese love American fast food.
It's rather like analyzing "America" by hanging out in Times Square and eating at the Hard Rock Cafe. As travel writer Rolf Potts observes (read his far more insightful analysis of the international McDonald's experience here),
I'd wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald's has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of "otherness" that are an inherent part of travel.
As a result, Gross completely missed the bigger story, namely that
McDonald's and other fast food establishments, rather than providing a symbol of the exotic foreign or non-Japanese other, have become ubiquitous establishments that serve important needs and tastes of the Japanese within their own culture.
Even more surprising, "many Japanese, and especially younger Japanese, are unaware that McDonald's is not a Japanese company."
In any case, Mr. Potts notes that "McDonald's (and other fast food) is easy to avoid." Anyway, it's hard imagining a Japan-based blogger being this boring on purpose. Basically, Mr. Gross was being glib and lazy and his editors let it slide. Those tough journalistic standards at work.
Read, for contrast, Japan newbie Orson Scott Card describing (among other things) dining in Tokyo. He gets off the beaten track. He tries different stuff. He observes. Card is a professional writer, but his blog is exactly the kind of "free" that Chris Anderson is talking about.
The Wall Street Journal can charge for content because it provides valuable information (that is at least perceived as such) that can't be found elsewhere. And like Fox News, its conservative perspective makes it "unique" compared to the rest of the MSM.
As Mark Cuban puts its succinctly, "When you succeed with Free, you are going to die by Free." There's no "more for less" when you start at zero, and you can't charge more--in money or attention--for more of the same when the "same" wasn't worth anything to start with.
July 07, 2009
Malcolm Gladwell begins his review of Chris Anderson's Free with a misconstrued anecdote and buries the lead to boot. Apparently James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, is peeved about the royalties offered by Amazon to post the paper's content on the Kindle.
Newspapers, Gladwell incredulously reports Anderson concluding, "need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business."
I wasn't aware that this conclusion was being debated by anybody. In any case, I'm not interested Gladwell's opinion of Anderson's book, except to say that I think Anderson is making an obvious point (and, yes, perhaps too glibly), and Gladwell is doing his level best to miss it.
To start with (as Anderson himself can't help quipping), Gladwell's review is free too.
But a long paragraph later, Gladwell marries that first anecdote with his thesis by concocting a straw man. Moroney was originally protesting Amazon's 70 percent cut on Kindle subscriptions. Then Gladwell tells us that "Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free."
As Clint Eastwood's Will Munny would put it, "Want's got nothing to do with it." I want to get paid the same rates that Gladwell gets paid, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.
The more important question Gladwell completely misses--despite it staring him and James Moroney in the face--is why Amazon can charge those usurious rates. The answer is easy: because Amazon has a monopoly (or when it comes to buying Kindle content, a monopsony).
And why does Amazon have a de facto Kindle monopsony? Because what we learn from history is that nobody learns from history. Especially, these days, publishers.
The RIAA spent the better part of the past twenty years insisting that CDs are king! And if they aren't, then any content produced by RIAA members is worth a gazillion dollars! And so must be locked up and DRM'ed like Fort Knox lest it fall into too many prole hands.
Of course, the cruel fact is that most musicians and writers make minimum wage at best. The RIAA exists to protect an aristocracy. Yet I believe in copyright protection (though reasonably limited to the life of the artist) and believe that ISPs can and should block file sharing ports.
But most content is not worth what the content producers wish it was. It sure isn't worth what I wish it was. And the actions of publishers to defend that fantasy are only making the situation worse.
It was Steven Jobs--not the RIAA--who married the MP3 player to a storefront and started making lots of money. Jeff Bezos added a twist: Amazon would do the same thing but use a non-proprietary format. So now it's the retailers--not the RIAA--running the show.
With the Kindle, I wouldn't be surprised if Bezos got the idea from Jobs: mash up a storefront and proprietary hardware and make the content creators come to him. Ironically enough, he can count on the Luddite publishing industry to enforce his marketing monopoly.
He dangles DRM before their eyes and they bite down hard. Hook, rod and reel. But at the end of the day, Bezos is the one holding onto the end of the pole.
If James Moroney doesn't like Amazon's terms, why haven't he and his fellow publishers deployed their own push technology? There are plenty of e-readers out there and a non-proprietary standard (ePub). I believe it again comes down to delusions about content value.
As a running-dog capitalist, I'm mostly fine with charging what the market will bear. The flipside of that equation, though, is that when the market can't bear so much, the price must go down. As with a housing bubble, that painful realization takes time to sink in.
By the time it does, though, book and newspaper publishers may find themselves again in the unenviable position of having the more technologically adventurous distributors and retailers dictate the terms to them.
July 01, 2009
In chapter 17 of Angel Falling Softly, Milada and Kamilla walk into a bar. It is kind of a joke.
They had to buy a four-dollar membership to get in the door--the product of some strange nexus between state liquor laws and the teetotaling Mormon population.
This remnant of 19th century "blue laws" has long irked the tourism industry here in Utah, so much so that the Mormon governor (Huntsman, who recently resigned to become ambassador to China) pushed hard for repeal. On 1 July 2009, it was finally put out of its misery.
Also gone is an actual physical barrier. A provision in the old law forbade bartenders from directly serving customers, and running down the middle of the bar in every bar was a partition fondly known as the "Zion Curtain." In the novel I pretended it wasn't there because even in a story about vampires, reality can be stranger than fiction.
The distinctions between a "social club" (a bar), a "dining club" (50 percent of receipts from food) and a restaurant (70 percent of receipts from food) remain, along with restrictions on when alcohol can be served, (10:00 AM or noon to midnight or 1:00 AM) and whether minors can be admitted unaccompanied by an adult.
But the more things change, the more other things remain the same. In chapter 22 of Angel Falling Softly, Milada "savored a respectable 1993 Merlot and watched the quiet neighborhood dramas play out in the driveways and front lawns," and muses to herself that "obtaining the Merlot had approximated a visit to a twenties-era speakeasy."
In fact, "packaged liquor, wine, and heavy beer [over 3.2 percent]" will continue to be sold only in duly licensed state liquor stores. Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control boasts that Salt Lake City "offers a world class wine selection at four specialty wine stores."
Count 'em, four! (There are 37 "full service" liquor stores state-wide.) But the legislature did agree that wine bottles no longer needed to carry the official Utah tax stamp (which had to be tediously pasted on every single bottle sold), as the smuggling of bottled wine into Utah was pretty much determined to be a nonexistent crime.