October 29, 2012

Elementary


This latest modernized Sherlock Holmes is getting better, and it could get a lot better (or ruin itself by trying too hard).

The Jonny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu pairing so far is like a sports car driven by somebody learning how to shift. With Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman, and Jeremy Brett/David Burke, not to mention Hugh Laurie/Robert Sean Leonard fresh in our minds, the bar is high.

Miller and Liu are watchable by TV standards, and I'm hoping that they'll hit their stride in a few more episodes. At least they've stuck so far to the "cozy" murder mystery style (straying from which ruins the genre in short order).

Cumberbatch/Freeman is great contemporary casting, but I loath the scripts, that seem to be written by X-Files castoffs. Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes is too much muscle and mugging for the camera. Highly entertaining but closer to a steam punk James Bond than classic Sherlock Holmes.

It's all about digging up the relevant clues, applying brainpower, and solving the problem. Hugh Laurie remains the best modern Holmes since Jeremy Brett. Nobody has yet come close.

I do have one big beef with the Liu's Joan Watson. Despite my dislike of the BBC Sherlock, they not only cleverly kept Freeman's Watson within the literary canon (talk about history repeating itself!), but showed convincingly why he would want to hang around with such an eccentric character.

We see this in Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson as well. Liu's Watson, on the other hand, gets the standard "tragic" backstory that essentially denies her the opportunity to make an up-front decision. Granted, Wilson and Watson do end up being mother figures, but Liu's is a bit too literal.

I see no problem stealing from Sherlock and making Liu's Watson an American doctor recently returned from Afghanistan (make her an ROTC grad). Again, it could hardly be called copying because it's canon! Not to mention that there'd be a ton of potential story material in a biography like that.

However, I've noticed that Joan Watson's backstory has evaporated. And good riddance. But it still leaves Liu with a what-am-I-doing-here problem that will have to be resolved if the series lasts more than a season or two. I don't mind the drug counselor premise, but it's got a definite half-life.

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October 25, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa (prologue)


The political geography of the Twelve Kingdoms goes as follows (from smallest to largest): hermitages/hamlets > villages/towns > townships > counties > prefectures > districts > provinces > kingdom.
The you (妖) in youma (妖魔) refers to the magical properties of things. The ma (魔) refers to evil or demonic things. The juu in youjuu (妖獣) simply means an animal or beast. The ki (騎) in kijuu (騎獣) refers to equestrian activities.

Kyouki (供麒) is the kirin of Kyou. The Royal En explains how the kirin chooses a new emperor or empress in chapter 59 of Shadow of the Moon.

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October 22, 2012

"Victory in Defeat"


The title of a five-part biopic about Shigeru Yoshida, Japan's prime minister during the American Occupation. An ambassador to Italy and the United Kingdom during the 1930s, he was a product of the Meiji era and an old-school imperialist, and came to see the war as inimical to his "Japan-first" philosophy.

That got him thrown in jail, a fate that confirmed his anti-military bona fides which, combined with his fluency in English, made him an ideal counterpart to MacArthur. He would push back hard against MacArthur's sweeping reformist agenda and see his views vindicated during the infamous "Reverse Course" years.

The middle ground carved out between the two formed the political foundations of modern Japan.

NHK labels the series "historical fiction," and it starts on a firm footing. The following scene occurs in the first episode almost exactly as it's described here on The American Experience:

Yoshida later revealed to his daughter that the American paced theatrically back and forth while delivering one of his sekkyo, or sermons, prompting Yoshida to laugh, as he imagined being caged with a pacing lion. MacArthur asked what was so funny, Yoshida told him, and MacArthur glared for a moment before laughing along with his guest. The ice broken, the two established a good working relationship, and met many times in the coming years.

Unfortunately, the taut political drama is too often interrupted by attempts at more "Micheneresque" scenes of invented melodrama that range from the maudlin to the vaudevillian. Soap opera history is bad enough. Histrionic soap opera history is excruciating.

These types of productions too often feature "Americans" who are Caucasians first--sometimes not even speaking English as their first language--and actors second (or third or forth). The Japanese actors, likewise, are rarely as fluent in English as their characters are supposed to be.

This time around, that criticism doesn't apply to the leads. Ken Watanabe is Yoshida, down to the permanent grimace and the pince-nez. And having cast one heavyweight, NHK went the extra mile and got David Morse to play Douglas MacArthur.


But another problem is the English lines being translated by somebody with no ear for dialogue, and then spoken by "foreign" actors who are simply reciting what's written on the page. Sure, there's the occasional clunker here and there, but Morse and Watanabe have the acting chops to make their scenes come alive.

It also helps that Morse is six-foot-four, so he does physically tower over everybody as MacArthur would have.

But when Morse is on his own without Watanabe to play against, as in scenes that try to create a character arc revolving around MacArthur's presidential aspirations, the dialogue falls too flat for him to rescue. And conspiratorial subplots involving his staff come across as rejected West Wing scripts.

I'd like to see the series cut down to around four hours (from almost eight), eliminating most of the scenes that don't have Watanabe in them, and filling in the gaps with stylistic flourishes, such as montages of newspaper headlines with radio news voice-overs. Or interviews with historians, Ken Burns style.

The American Occupation is a one of the most fascinating episodes in modern history, a successful projection of American power that engaged everything from constitutional to agricultural reform.

And from which the entirely wrong lessons were learned. Just as the onset of WWII did not prove that "Keynesianism works" (sans a massive world war, at least), the occupations of Japan and Germany did not prove that "American democracy" can be spread by force of arms (sans a massive world war, at least).

For that reason alone, it deserves a lot more attention in the west. A good place to begin is John Dower's Embracing Defeat.

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October 18, 2012

Tonan no Tsubasa


Tonan (図南) refers to the southern flight of the phoenix (鵬), with the same nuance as "Go west, young man." Hence, the expression "The wings (tsubasa) of the phoenix" came to mean setting off with big plans in mind, or "great expectations." But that title's already taken. A literal translation yields something like "Aspired Wings," but that's a bit clunky, so I settled on "The Wings of Dreams."
Page numbers are based on the 1996 Kodansha X White Heart edition (ISBN: 978-4062552295).

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October 15, 2012

Little big gulp


NHK recently did a bit on Good Morning, Japan about Bloomberg's campaign to limit the size of soft drinks. They started by comparing the small/medium/large drink sizes available at McDonalds in the U.S. to those in Japan.

A "small" size in the U.S. is the same as a "large" size in Japan. On a per-capita basis, Americans consume three times as much sugar per year as the average Japanese.

While the libertarian in me is appalled at Bloomberg's inexhaustible enthusiasm for nanny state government interference, at least he's focused on the right target this time. The problem with the American diet isn't fat, but sugar.

An entertaining examination of the many reasons why can be found in Fat Head, Tom Naughton's witty and self-deprecating response to Super Size Me.

Chowing down nothing but on fatty fast food for a month while strictly limiting carbohydrate consumption, Naughton lost weight, his total cholesterol went down, and his HDL went up.

These results impressed him (and his skeptical family physician) so much that the next month he consumed no carbohydrates (i.e., the full Adkins) and got the same results.

As Tom Naughton points out (and Gary Taubes explores at great length), the modern "food pyramid," emphasizing the consumption of grains and processed carbohydrates, was largely the product of a farm state senator, George McGovern.

That's the problem with the nanny state. It can be massively wrong, steer the ship of state into an iceberg, and not only never admit it but double down on the proposition. It's the government. It makes the rules. The gambler owns the casino.

Or as King Henry sums up the Bloombergean philosophy of benevolent dictatorship:

You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion [or constitution]: we are the makers of manners.

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October 11, 2012

Vegas


This new CBS drama is a pleasant surprise, basically CSI: Las Vegas from fifty years ago. Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis are perfectly cast as the gravelly-voiced cowboy sheriff (based on the life of the real Sheriff Ralph Lamb) and the gangster (who really wants to be Donald Trump).

From what I've seen so far, it's less a gangster series than a classic whodunit, with the series arc (the how-to-run-a-casino part being far more interesting than the gangster part) developing in background. There's nothing wrong with formula television when the formula works so well.

Yeah, there are the plywood sets and the anachronisms (funny how hardly anybody smokes in this alternate-universe Las Vegas). But if they keep it a straightforward police procedural, one crime tackled per week, and steer clear of Emmy-bait melodramatic turns, I'll keep watching.

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October 08, 2012

18 going on 19


The first thing that struck me about the church's lowering of missionary eligibility to 18 for men and 19 for woman (from 19 and 21) is that it's an exact reversal of the "quality not quantity" push from a decade ago (to say nothing of the even earlier 18 month scheme).

This move is expected to kick up the quantities big time. Purely in marketing terms, a "flood the zone approach" is probably the most effective, though I have to wonder where more missionaries would make that big of a difference. What zones need to be flooded?

In places like Japan, the missionary presence has collapsed over the past two decades. Back during the Tokyo South heyday, "flooding the zone" raked in big returns until whole thing burst like Japan's real estate bubble, and long-term activity flattened to single digits.

It could well be that the church is finally getting into China and needs to be able to crank up the numbers quick. Though the church has been on the verge of getting into China for the last forty years.

More likely that Romney's coattails are proving long and wide indeed, and the church plans on riding them well past the election. Though the Hawthorne effect suggests that recruitment (on both sides of the equation) will regress to the mean once the novelty wears off.

A pragmatic and publicly-stated explanation, especially for men, is that it's an effort to rationalize the U.S. missionary system with existing exemptions for non-U.S. institutions that don't accommodate a two-year sabbatical in the middle of college or military service.

For the sake of simplicity, why not just rationalize it for women as well? Perhaps that's a tiny attempt to keep missions from turning into massive gôkon (group dating) outings.

Making missions more amenable to matchmaking will do more for long-term church growth than proselyting, though it's bound to produce the inevitable moral fallout (randy missionaries not waiting to start hooking up). An acceptable operational cost, I suppose.

I definitely foresee a big demographic impact on the BYU matrimonial scene. Mormon sociologists should start collecting data now.

Though I wouldn't be surprised if the church did a study and discovered that 18 year old boys were slightly more pliable and less jerkish than 19 year olds. Because (and I speak from personal experience, not excluding myself) being jerks is one thing 19 year olds excel at.

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October 04, 2012

The Mob Doctor


Stepping in the House time slot, I was hoping The Mob Doctor would pick up where House left off. Maybe a nod to Black Jack, Osamu Tezuka's groundbreaking manga about a gifted surgeon who operates (literally and figuratively) outside the law.

Unfortunately, what we get instead is an annoying angst-fest.

Our Dr. Grace Devlin (the writers must have exhausted all their creativity coming up with that name) has the emotionally demanding job, the understanding boyfriend, the single mother of a mom, the looser screw-up of a little brother. She's even got student loans!

Give me a break.

At the end of the pilot episode, she's given a clear way out and turns it down for entirely sentimental reasons. She throws her life away because she doesn't want to move. House made his own bed and knew he had to lie in it. Devlin is a victim of circumstance. Poor baby.

Give me another break.

William Forsythe as the local godfather is great just to listen to, but the only interesting storyline I could detect is straight out of the Sopranos. And I thought the Sopranos was never much more than pretentious Emmy bait.

Compare Grace Devlin to Kumiko Yamaguchi in Gokusen, a teacher at an inner-city high school. The catch is that Kumiko is the scion of a yakuza family. She's going to run the "family business" and pound an education into the heads of her juvenile deliquents.

That produces plenty of moral quandaries, but she doesn't spend any time wringing her hands or whining about it. Hollywood can make mobsters and serial killers into male leads, but still can't let a girl be a bad boy without her feeling guilty about it.

Related posts

Gang rule
Girls kick butt
Frozen feminism

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October 01, 2012

Revolution from below


In a recent column, David Brooks quotes from The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, who argues that "like immigrants who have moved to a new country," women adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants "who have kept their minds in the old one."

If nothing else, here is more proof of Ann Althouse's maxim that any "research into the differences between men and women must portray women as superior."

Moreover, in his effort to be topical, Brooks misses a huge part of the equation, namely the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government interference in the free market, especially student loans and unemployment insurance.

Unemployment "insurance" incentivizes holding out for job opportunities that significantly exceed existing benefits. And pricey tuition has long been sold to gullible students as an "investment" guaranteed to return high returns in the form of wages.

Without a healthy income, a hundred grand in full-recourse student loans will become a Sisyphusian burden by the time the graduate hits middle age. The IRS owning his soul might have a lot to do with what employment choices a man tends to make.

However, Brooks thankfully gets to a more substantial point, that

this theory has more to do with social position. When there's big social change, the people who were on the top of the old order are bound to cling to the old ways. The people who were on the bottom are bound to experience a burst of energy. They're going to explore their new surroundings more enthusiastically.

As a case in point, the Meiji Restoration was a "revolution from below" led by lower-ranked samurai. Shut out of opportunities to climb the political or economic ladders past their assigned station in life, these samurai struck out in new directions.

As Seth Roberts puts it, they chose exploration over exploitation, many seizing the opportunity to travel abroad, even risking death (leaving Japan's territorial waters was considered treason) to secure passage, or stow away, on American warships.

In Satsuma province, rather than fighting the currents of change, the provincial governor reached down into the ranks of the lower-ranked samurai to fuel his own revolutionary aspirations.

In Tosa province, they fomented open insurrection. The most remarkable of them, Sakamoto Ryoma, forged an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that would bring down the regime, while creating Japan's first privately-held corporation.

The dissolution of the feudal class system occurred during enormous disruptions to the status quo, with the regime overwhelmed by western technology and unable to prevent the forcible opening of Japan.

Up until then, however, the shoguns had ruled without significant opposition for two centuries. The era is still remembered with great nostalgia. Human beings are, without a doubt, strongly attracted to the reassurances of state paternalism.

A government that can appease the populace by handing out "free" goodies will be embraced until, like the Tokugawa shogunate, it gets run into the ground by an "extractive elite" unwilling to risk their own sinecures with real solutions.

Or as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money."

During the Edo period, samurai didn't run around like the Three Musketeers. The vast majority of them were government bureaucrats who inherited their positions and formed a nation-wide system of permanent political patronage.

A brief and bloody counterrevolutionary challenge to the early Meiji government (historically mangled and distorted beyond all recognition in The Last Samurai) was fought by samurai disgruntled about the loss of their feudal status and stipends.

The government could no longer afford to pay them simply for being born samurai because it was flat stinking broke. This is one of those "learning from the past" things, though I don't think many politicians are getting the lesson.

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