April 30, 2015

Pop culture Buddhism


Buddhism arrived in Japan as early as the third century. Then and for the next thousand years, China would be the mirror in which Japan saw its own reflection (thereafter replaced by Europe and the especially the United States). Like Constantine and Christianity, Buddhism found friends in high places who assured its rapid adoption.

Via this conduit, the accompanying organization structures and the written language were absorbed both into the body politic and the society at large. So even if you managed to extract the theology, the cultural framework of Buddhism is bolted into the bedrock of Japan.

Imagine that popular pagan practices--such as the spring solstice and winter equinox--hadn't be "Christianized," but had lived and let live. That's essentially what happened with Buddhism and the native-born Shinto sects in Japan. Two completely different but (mostly) non-antagonistic, non-exclusive religions progressing on parallel tracks.

This balance was upset during the Edo period (1603-1868). Buddhist temples were anointed the primary keepers of the census, to which even Shinto priests were subordinated. As a result, not unusual is the situation in episode 7 of Gingitsune, where a large Buddhist temple sits on the grounds of a small Shinto shrine.

The religious roles were reversed with the restoration of Imperial rule in 1868. But Buddhism quickly rose to become the defining ideology of the military class.

This association lives on in the martial arts and the (much more complex than Christian) end-of-life rituals. Just as importantly, Buddhist and closely-associated Confucian concepts underpin the equivalents of "Judeo-Christian values" and the "Protestant work ethic."

Because Zen and the martial arts are so tightly linked, Buddhism is the go-to source for cranky old warrior priests with paranormal powers and kung fu fighters (with the exception of home-grown sumo wrestling, which is closely aligned with Shinto).

The Soka Gakkai sect created the Komeito or "Clean Government" party in 1964. "New Komeito" incorporated as an independent party in 1998 (cutting official ties to the sect) but adheres to a socially conservative platform and consistently partners with the center-right LDP, helping it form ruling majorities for most of the past fifty years.

The Komeito is a "serious" political party and Buddhism is the "serious" religion, so your "Father Brown" types are going to be Buddhist.

After all, death, judgement (karma) and reincarnation are their jurisdiction. The equivalent expression of "He's gone to meet his maker" is "He became a Buddha." A dead body is often colloquially referred to as a hotoke, meaning a Buddha (仏).

This is most evident in the police procedural. Upon encountering a dead body for the first time, a police officer will pause, bow his head, and press his hands together (gasshou). It's the rough equivalent of crossing yourself, but is a far more ubiquitous gesture on Japanese cop and coroner shows than in their U.S. counterparts.


Because of those end-of-life connections, in the horror genres, Buddhism can be counted on to provides hell and hungry ghosts. Shinto spirits tend to be of the more mischievous kind (as in the aforementioned episode of Gingitsune), though their anarchic natures can wreak no end of trouble along with plenty of inexplicable weirdness.


But Buddhism cultural references are not all Sturm und Drang.

The Chinese classic Journey to the West, based on a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk's travels to India, has inspired dozens of anime, such as Saiyuki and the mega-franchise Dragon Ball. The title of the low-brow harem anime Ah My Buddha is a play on the somewhat higher brow Ah My Goddess, whose characters also reside in a Buddhist temple.

Saint Young Men (already a classic) is a clever sit-com about Jesus and Buddha hanging out together in Tokyo. As both religions accept them as mortal human beings somewhere along the line, I see nothing undoctrinaire about depicting them as such.

Related posts

Pop culture Catholicism
Pop culture Shinto
Anime genre horror
Ghostbusting in Japan

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April 27, 2015

Big Hero 6


A cool concept, I argue in my review of Patema Inverted, is not the same thing as a plot, but can fake it for ninety minutes or so. The same thing goes for inventive settings and ingenious "MacGuffins." As Wikipedia explains:

A MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

Big Hero 6 is a comic book movie constructed out of a bunch of MacGuffins and hand-waves. And not much in the way of plot.

Unlike Patema Inverted, it actually does have a plot. But it's so by-the-numbers that the writers can't resist commenting on the fact, as if to stave off criticism that they didn't know they were doing "the same only--" Well, mostly the same.

So a few bars of "Eye of the Tiger" launches the de rigueur montage sequence. "Fred" (the designated comic book guy who's also the comic relief) shouts at one point: "Hey, it's an origins story!" Stan Lee makes a cameo after the credit roll.

The hero is Hiro, an orphaned teen genius living in "San Fransokyo" with his aunt and older brother, Tadashi. Unlike his older brother, Hiro wastes his prodigious talents betting on underground robot fights (and winning big).

In an effort to set his sights higher, Tadashi introduces Hiro to his fellow grad students at the university robotics lab. Tadashi's senior project is "Baymax," a cuddly medical diagnostic robot that resembles the Michelin Man.

At this university, you can apparently bypass the whole matriculation process and invent yourself right into school. The challenge posed, Hiro comes up with the "microbot," actuated joints that swarm together and self-assemble like Lego blocks.

But then a mysterious explosion kills his brother and supposedly destroys the microbots. (Note that Hiro loses his entire nuclear family in the first twenty minutes, but it's so in tune with the superhero monomyth it jars less than it should.)

In order to track down the villain, Hiro teams up with a retooled Baymax and the rest of the Tadashi's eccentric roboticist friends. We're in ensemble Iron Man territory. Their superhero suits allow them to leap over gigantic plot holes in a single bound.

You really do not want to stop and think about all the disbelief you're being asked to suspend. I did appreciate that only an office building gets destroyed in the climax and the "evil capitalist" turns out to be mostly a red herring.

As a Marvel comic book movie, it'd be one of their better efforts. As a Marvel + Disney collaboration (Disney owns Marvel), well, it's not The Incredibles. Or Frozen. Or Tangled. It's a pretty good cartoon! Just not as good as it could be.

Rather like our protagonist at the beginning of the story, Big Hero 6 is overshadowed by its own unexploited potential. The problem is, the most interesting parts of the movie are the MacGuffins, and they are rendered almost invisible.

The microbots, to start with. And everything else our superheroes invent practically on the spur of the moment. Tony Stark really had to work at that "99 percent perspiration" stuff. And it still took a couple of iterations to get the Iron Man suit right.

And unlike Big Hero 6, the world (and especially the world's militaries) immediately took notice of Tony Stark. A world so blasé about breakthroughs in applied science can't help but bore me (which is which so many superhero flicks end up boring me).

Doubly so for a world so blasé about a place like "San Fransokyo." The backstory is easy to imagine: the "big one" hits Tokyo and millions immigrate to the West Coast of the United States.

Imagine the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, only with better weather and zoning laws. San Fransokyo is one big Little Tokyo. Kanji signage dot the streets. The towers of the Golden Gate Bridge resemble torii gates.


Alas, we barely get to savor any of this. It blurs past. Besides a couple of Asian characters and some cool backgrounds, it has no obvious impact on the story at all (police cars do sport Japanese-style light bars).

Second, Alistair Krei, the "evil" capitalist and supposed antagonist, has built himself a freaking Stargate. No, really, it's the Stargate! Works the same too. That's the kind of thing you could do a whole movie about (plus three television series).


I mean, a wormhole transporter that passes through a different dimension! And yet, again, this total upending of science goes utterly unremarked upon. It's nothing more than another disposable MacGuffin.

Now, like Hiro's self-assembling robots, Big Hero 6 has all the hallmarks of a sequel-making machine. So maybe we'll still get to explore the heart of San Fransokyo. Maybe Krei will fix up those Stargates and do some off-world exploring.

We've got some first-rate world creation going on here, a world that only needs a cast of characters to actually live in it.

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April 23, 2015

Japan's (ir)religious wars


Japan's wars over religion have never been all that religious. To be sure, rabble-rousers like Nichiren sowed doctrinal strife no less than did Martin Luther. But the Thirty Years' War didn't follow, in large part because the church in Japan has only rarely not been subservient to the state.

Then there was that whole Aum Shinri Kyo business, but I'll leave the fringe element out of the discussion and focus on the Napoleons. Though there's not much in the way of open theological debate to be found, wars involving religion could get pretty nasty.

In 1571, Oda Nobunaga razed the Buddhist temples on Mt. Hiei, killing upwards of 20,000. At issue was the power of Tendai Buddhist "warrior monks" at Enryaku-ji monastery. They'd aligned themselves with rival warlords and exerted undue influence (Nobunaga believed) over Kyoto politics.

Though home to Tendai Buddhism since 788,
no building on Mt. Hiei dates to before 1571.

The Portuguese first arrived in Japan in 1543, bringing with them guns and Jesuits. Although he openly declared himself an atheist, Nobunaga was fascinated by western culture, quickly learned how to use the musket in large-scale offensives, and gave the Jesuits wide latitude to proselytize.

That latitude ended with his assassination in 1582. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was already suspicious of Christian influence in the fractious western half of the country. The Jesuit Gaspar Coelho made things worse by promising Hideyoshi arms and warships that would never be forthcoming.

When the Hideyoshi realized he was being conned, Coelho threatened a coup. But Hideyoshi at the time commanded one of the largest armies in the world. Although Coelho's petitions for military support were summarily rejected by his superiors, Hideyoshi was convinced he had traitors in his midst.

The Tokugawa shogunate doubled down on Hideyoshi's policies to expunge Catholic influence from the country. As far as the shogunate was concerned, if the Catholics weren't all in with them, they were against them, so against them they were deemed.

In 1637, the Shimabara Rebellion culminated in the siege of Hara Castle. When the castle fell in early 1638, some 37,000 Christian peasants and masterless samurai died or were executed.

After Shimabara, only a small contingent of Protestant Dutch traders was allowed to occupy a tiny island near Nagasaki. Again, though as merciless as the Inquisition in forcing adherents to abandon their beliefs, at issue was the consolidation of power and an isolationist foreign policy, not theology.

These fears of foreign influence were not unfounded. Two centuries later, the Satsuma domain (just south of Nagasaki) armed itself with British weapons and warships and led the revolt that overthrew the shogunate.

Shimabara was also largely a problem of local governance. The governor of Shimabara was subsequently executed for cruelty and incompetence. The message: if the peasants revolt, they'll be executed; if you gave the peasants good reasons to revolt, you'll be executed too.

In the mid-19th century, a final religious conflict arose when the Meiji government switched the state religion from Buddhism to Shinto. For 250 years, the Buddhist temples had grown fat and corrupt under the patronage of the shoguns, who used the temples as tools of control via the census.

Over a period of four years, popular uprisings following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 destroyed tens of thousands of Buddhist temples and works of art (though resulted in few deaths). The haibutsu kishaku was basically a super-condensed, hyper-kinetic version of the English Reformation.

Like Catholicism in 16th-century England, Buddhism was down but not out. During the 1930s and 1940s, Zen Buddhism saw a resurgence (side-by-side with the state-sponsored Shinto-based emperor cult) as the "spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."

But in the late 19th century and ever since 1945, deprived of its power to tax and compel affiliation, Buddhist temples have had to attract parishioners the old-fashioned way: with goods and services. Buddhism now dominates the lucrative funerary business in Japan.

As if by a cosmic gentleman's agreement, Shinto gets the first half of life, including coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and the blessing of inanimate objects like dolls, needles, and buildings; Buddhism get the second half. Though both Shinto and Buddhist temples hold doll funerals.

After which they'll be cremated (the dolls, that is).

And, of course, a Christian wedding is fine too (if the Shinto rite doesn't suit your tastes or wallet: renting wedding kimonos for the bride and groom alone can cost several thousand dollars).

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April 20, 2015

I'm old enough


Megan McArdle wonders why parents have become so paranoid of late, freaking out at the sight "children walking down the street alone." Alarmed enough to trigger the equivalent of SWAT deployments to "rescue" kids from . . . nothing, actually.

"Why," McArdle asks, "has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children?"

Because the 24-hour news cycle fools us into treating national totals of rare events as the numerator in calculations of risk. Human beings are really bad at statistics, and when the denominator is a third of a billion, we discard it and substitute in Dunbar's number.

Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

In other words, the maximum number of people we're honestly capable of giving a damn about, between 100 and 250. Populations larger than that become abstractions. So a single commercial plane crash is a national tragedy while 32,719 (in 2013) auto fatalities earns a shrug.

Stalin summed up the paradox when he observed that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."

Plus a much greater investment in fewer children that boosts their marginal value to infinity. Hence the impulse to lock them away in padded rooms until age thirty or so.

But not necessarily. Although even fewer kids are being born in Japan, they start walking to school by themselves in elementary school. If the school is too far away to walk, they'll have bus and train passes. This is reflected in popular culture, like Non Non Biyori.


It's true that the crime rate is lower in Japan, but the American parents who worry the most live in middle-class suburban communities that have about the same crime rate as Japan.

Crime isn't the real risk anyway. Japanese kids are more likely to get killed in freak traffic accidents (streets outside city centers in Japan often have no sidewalks or shoulders). But with a denominator of 130 million, they're as rare as school shootings in the U.S.

And they trigger calls for better traffic enforcement. And sidewalks. Maybe Japanese are better at math. They don't panic at the sight of small children walking someplace by themselves.

The best (though hardly "empirical") proof of this comes from an NTV reality show, I'm Old Enough (「はじめてのおつかい!」).

In the show, children aged six (and younger) are given a task to accomplish (usually by their mother) and set out on their own. To be sure, there's a camera crew and a producer no more than a couple of feet away, and we don't see the kids who get lost along the way.

I'm sure there's helpful hinting and herding and location scouting going on too. But it's pretty impressive that they're allowed to tackle these tasks at all.

We're talking about walking to the store, picking the right item off the shelf, standing in line, and paying for it. Or taking a train to another stop and walking several blocks to find daddy's office. And then making it back home. By themselves.

The real payoff is the reaction of some of these kids when they realize what they've done. One little girl, upon finding the right item on a supermarket shelf, jumped up and screamed, "Yatta!" We did it! Like she'd just won the gold medal at the Olympics.

That's the pure delight that comes from accomplishing something concrete on your own.

George W. Bush was onto something with that "the soft bigotry of low expectations" line. I don't mean the "tiger mom" stuff, but getting to try (and fail) at the simple things, the increasingly rare privilege of not being treated like a Fabergé egg in everyday life.

Here's an episode from I'm Old Enough. It's pretty self-explanatory (and usually the camera crew does a better job staying out of sight; in recent episodes the cameras are all but invisible).



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Land of the paranoid
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Free-range kids (1940's edition)
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April 16, 2015

The three families


In order to avoid the Henry VIII problem--the ruling family running out of male successors--at the birth of the Edo period in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu created the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, three related families (the Owari House, the Kii House, and the Mito House) could supply the shogun.

The Tokugawa (and founder Matsudaira) clans are still respected as a kind of unofficial royalty in Japan (in Fox & Wolf, Yuki's father is a Matsudaira, which makes him the equivalent of a blue blood).

But not even this much redundancy can survive a fertility rate of 1.4. The Owari House and Mito House are still going concerns, but the Kii House is headed by an unmarried woman who has no children. The Kii House has divested itself of its non-commercial holdings and will fade away in a few decades.

The Mito House remains well-known for both fictional and historical reasons. First, the crime-fighting adventures (based loosely on the actual person) of its second clan head, Mitsukuni, were turned into the long-running Mito Komon television series.

Mitsukuni (not Colonel Sanders in disguise) holding his "badge" of office:
ne'er-do-wells cower before the insignia of the Tokugawa clan.

Second, during the early 19th century, the "Mito School" of political philosophy (which also traces back to Mitsukuni) tacked far to the right. In reaction to the "Unequal Treaties" opening up Japan, it promulgated a nationalistic, imperialist ideology that was embraced by the Meiji revolutionaries.

Efforts to suppress the Mito School (culminating in the Ansei Purge) triggered a full-blown insurrection and the assassination of Ii Naosuke, who held the equivalent office of prime minister (the purge was his idea). In response, the shogunate adopted several of the reforms demanded by the Mito School.

The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was from the Mito House. Being the most sensible shogun in years, he abdicated after a year in office and passed the reins of government to the emperor. As a result, unlike many of his contemporaries, he went on to live a long, largely uneventful life.

Related posts

The culture of adoption
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April 13, 2015

The magic of the mundane


Blogger John Hansen came up with a great antidote to the demand for "realism" in young adult literature: story pitches that are "very realistic." They double as examples of "high-concept" plots (turned into haiku by Twitter's 140 character limit), although the irony renders these decidedly "low-concept."

You can browse the whole Twitter list at #VeryRealisticYA. It's perversely entertaining.

Girl can't decide between two boys. The boys realize the girl is shallow and become best buds.

Teenage girl meets 300 year old vampire. They have a hard time connecting because he's 285 years older than she is.

Teen doesn't sacrifice safety, family and normalcy to go to extremes against her government for some random scrub she just met.

Girl leaves home to save the planet. Parents file a missing persons report, police find her, bring her home. She's grounded.

Teens suspect crime has occurred. They inform parents and police and go back to being teens.

Girl thinks her life is over after her high school crush dumps her. She grows up. Can't remember his name ten years later.

High school doesn't have a strict popularity system, just various groups of friends that somewhat overlap.

Girl overhears CEO's sinister plot to rule the world. Turns out her startup's founder is just really full of himself.

The survival of the world depends on girl learning to control her powers. Girl can't. Everyone dies.

Actually, that last one has been written: Madoka Magica, which turns on the inability of teenage girls to understand or properly use the superpowers they've been given. It's the recognition of this mundane truth of human nature that elevates it above most in the "magical girl" genre.

Spoiler: everybody dies but Homura.

Which brings me to the importance of the ordinary in fantasy. Fantasy is fantastic only compared to ordinariness. Without it, fantasy gets lost in superlatives. That's why Batman is more intriguing than Superman. A too super superhero becomes his own Deus ex Machina.

It gets to the point where the only scary thing supervillains can do in Hollywood blockbusters is destroy large-scale infrastructure. Well, so can earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Natural disasters are not entertaining (except in PBS documentaries).

Man of Steel shares the same problem with Thor: The Dark World and every other superhero flick that ends with the piecemeal destruction of a major metropolitan area: they're boring. (Avengers succeeds thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and by being genuinely funny.)

Kate points out the necessity of characters like Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who are mostly content with their plebeian tastes and plebeian goals. They don't want to destroy the world or conquer the universe. They just want to get on with life and enjoy themselves.

Fantasy needs to be grounded in characters who live in the here and now, who avoid world-shaking existential crises. There is, in fact, a whole genre in Japanese fantasy about otherwise normal people with a single unique characteristic that hardly anybody notices.

In Kamichu! the heroine is a minor Shinto deity. Everything else about her life in a fishing village on the Inland Sea is (almost) completely normal. Rather than "Stop the presses! Inform the world!" she's treated more like "Local girl makes good."

Someday's Dreamers is about social workers who happen to be witches. They work in a government agency like any government agency that social workers work for. Except, you know, they're witches.

This is the low key approach I wish Angel would have taken: a noir detective series about a P.I. who happens to be a vampire. Instead, the whole vampire meme came to dominate everything, thereby exhausting most of the decent story possibilities.

Luke contemplating the Tatooine sunset and worlds beyond.

A little normalcy goes a long way, not only in slice-of-life stories but in the big heroic journeys too. A key to what made the first Star Wars movie so good are the mundane motivations at the heart of the story: Luke wants to get off that hick planet and Han wants to earn a few bucks.

The Buffy model, in which the teenage heroine wants to keep being a "normal" teenager, has become de rigueur in YA fantasy. But unfortunately, as in Buffy and Angel, so is the constant resort to dystopian futures and apocalyptic plots.

That's what makes iZombie a refreshing change. Like Buffy, our heroine deals with everyday life and the challenge of being "normal" when she is anything but. As a champion of justice, she is decidedly small-scale, her superpowers not terrifically super, and difficult to handle.

Blaine turns over a new leaf . . . for about five minutes.

Upon becoming one himself, the low-life who accidentally turned her into a zombie, the very Spikey Blaine, contemplates his navel for about five minutes. And then leverages his old skills--dealing drugs--into a brand new one: the culinary brain wholesaling business.

He's still a sociopath, but a surprisingly entrepreneurial one, and that's infinitely more interesting than trashing Manhattan.

As far as that goes, instead of destroying Manhattan, I'd tell Loki to ditch Asgard and run for mayor of New York. You know, like Mayor Wilkins of Sunnydale on top of the Hell Mouth. A much bigger challenge and a way better night life.

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April 09, 2015

The downside of adult adoption


The long-standing practice in Japan of mukoyoshi ("adult adoption") solves the kind of succession problems that bedeviled kings like Henry VIII. But for the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), it caused hefty problems for the adoptees.

Hideyoshi rose to power after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). Despite a marriage of thirty years and having mistresses ensconced in castles hither and yon, he never produced any offspring. That is, until he took Cha-cha (Lady Yodo) as his mistress (at the time, legal paternity was up to the head of household).

As Oda Nobunaga's niece, Lady Yodo had an impeccable bloodline and so could bear him a son worthy of being appointed shogun, a post denied Hideyoshi because of his commoner roots. Which she did. Twice.

Even at the time, people wondered aloud about this "miracle." Unfortunately for them, Hideyoshi had turned into a cross between batty King Lear and paranoid Richard III. He launched two disastrous invasions of Korea and ordered the death of a highly-revered adviser, Sen no Rikyu (perhaps because Rikyu's renown eclipsed his).

Questions about the paternity of his sons were quickly quashed when Hideyoshi had the rumormongers executed (that's one way to address a potential PR problem).

Hideyoshi's first son died young (superstition attributed his fate to bad karma from Sen no Rikyu's death). The second, Hideyori, was designated his successor. But what to do with his adopted sons, that might also vie for leadership of the clan? Well, charges of treason were trumped up and they were sentenced to death.

Hideyoshi surely hadn't forgotten how easily he had routed Nobunaga's diffident sons and worried that the same thing would happen to his own.

And, well, it did. After his death, the regents appointed by Hideyoshi split into East and West factions. In short order, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the leader of the East faction, annihilated the West at the Battle of Sekigahara and had himself appointed shogun instead.

The travails of the Toyotomi clan in producing an heir additionally motivated Ieyasu to create the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, the male descendents of his three youngest sons were qualified to become shogun. A royal family with understudies.

The selection of the shogun itself was a political process overseen by a council of elders. Ieyasu's genius was in seeing national governance in political terms and not simply as primogeniture and will-to-power. Shoguns often abdicated and most weren't appointed until after they'd reached adulthood, and sometimes much older.

Related posts

The culture of adoption
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April 06, 2015

The Peter Principle of interface design


The Peter Principle--that in any organizational hierarchy, every employee eventually gets promoted to the level of his incompetence--isn't only a management problem. In a world that expects "new and improved" on a yearly basis, the temptation is to keep tweaking a design until it fails.

The 1995 Taurus was the epitome of a conservative family sedan, that still doesn't look out of place 20 years later. But then came 1996 and Ford turned it into a squashed jellybean. "All the aesthetics of a beanbag chair," says Cars.com.

A car and a half-melted gumdrop.

This is an increasing problem with consumer PC products because there are fewer and fewer reasons to upgrade software or hardware.

Loaded with 96 MB of RAM, my old Windows 95 machine was a snappy and reliable platform for most routine Microsoft Office 95 chores. But the Pentium 100 could barely run Winamp (it couldn't run Media Player without stuttering), and I'd maxed out the 4 GB hard drive (in two partitions because of FAT16).

My 10-year-old Windows XP Thinkpad is mostly fast enough, the 2 GB of RAM an only occasionally bottleneck. Though the on-board video card can't handle streaming HD video, SD is fine on a 1024 × 768 screen. I've got a tad more free space than the capacity of old hard drive. Still, 4 GB isn't much these days.

But I can wait until Windows 10 comes out.

The only reason to upgrade from Office 2003 is buying a new computer, and Microsoft OSes since Windows 8 don't support 2003. I appreciate that Office 2013 can edit and save PDF files, though I can do that now with my ancient version of Acrobat 6.

Upgrading will be nice but not necessary. And it'll be a big pain in the neck because I'll have to upgrade most of my software.

Microsoft is betting its future on customers like me, and designed Windows 10 to appeal to us XP and 7 diehards. Even with Windows 8.1, Microsoft was quick to assure its user base that, "No, no, we haven't killed the desktop! It's still there! Promise!"

Windows 8 "improved" the interface in ways that nobody had asked for, hardly anybody wanted, and the tech press scorned. And yet now every other tech website sports big blocky boxes in bright primary colors surrounded by acres of wasted screen space, while giving barely a thought to actual usability.

At least the Google News page can be customized in a utilitarian, information-rich format. And Craigslist gives you lots of useful text in a few rudimentary columns. No fancy-dancy anything. Good for them.

The genesis of this rant was that Netflix has again "improved" its interface to the point of being useless. In the past, you could switch from the "video store" display, with its slow, space-hogging images, to a "spreadsheet" master list that was fast, flexible, and sortable.


Not only is the spreadsheet gone but so is the master list. Now to scan through the anime titles (the only category I'm really interested in), you have to sort the ten sub-genre lists separately. Netflix couldn't have made itself less user-friendly if it tried.

Or maybe they are trying. Netflix tried to get out of the physical media business before (turning the DVD business into a wholly-owned subsidiary), and I don't think they ever gave up on the effort. I can take a hint.

Netflix used to have the best anime selection anywhere. Its DVD backlist is still very good. When it comes to the new stuff, though, Netflix doesn't try to compete with Hulu and Crunchyroll. (This may change with its upcoming entry into the Japanese market.)

Given the first-sale doctrine, once the infrastructure costs had been sunk, each additional DVD could be warehoused for pennies. Mailing them cost the bucks. With physical media going extinct, long-tail streaming video aggregators had to allocate their licensing and broadband budgets more strategically.

Netflix has clearly focused on capturing cable and network offerings in the fat part of the Pareto curve (this graphic published 3/14). Except I'm not interested in subscribing to a glorified cable channel.

Cable TV for people who already have cable TV.

For the time being, Netflix is my Redbox substitute, good for the occasional Hollywood flick and TV series and the rare new anime DVD title from GKids. Otherwise, when the DVDs run out (though at two/month, it'll be a while), I can see a Roku in my future but not a Netflix subscription.

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April 02, 2015

"Massan" wrapup


Massan concluded its six-month run on March 27 (new series begin in April and October). This was the first Asadora ("morning drama") featuring a non-Japanese actor in the lead role, newcomer Charlotte Kate Fox (Northern Illinois University, MFA Acting).


To recap, Massan is a fictionalized biography of two real people: Scotswoman Jessie "Rita" Cowan (1896-1961) and Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the "father" of Japan's distilled spirits industry. "Massan" was Cowen's nickname for her husband.

For Fox, this wasn't only an extreme case of "method acting," but of real-time language acquisition. Like Fox, her character arrived in Japan knowing no Japanese. Unlike Fox, she spent the rest of her life in what was a near "total immersion" environment.

But over the past six months (closer to ten months of actual shooting), Fox has memorized--spoken and reacted to--over 40 hours of Japanese dialogue. And the results?

She did very well! By the end of the series (during which time her character has aged forty years) her Japanese had improved markedly. In interviews, she laughs at how bad her Japanese was the first few weeks. But, of course, that was the point!

It probably helps that Fox has a good ear and a fine singing voice. She's released an EP in Japan with the full versions of the folk songs she sang on the show. I hope they invite her back for NHK's gala Red and White Song Competition on New Year's Eve.

She'll next be appearing on Broadway in Chicago. I'd like to hear her belt out a show-stopper.

Fox also reminds me that, yes, there is such a thing as acting talent. I don't mean simply being able to emote on cue, but being able to naturally interact with people (you didn't know from Adam a week ago) as if you and they were those characters.

(I contrast this with the "Meryl Streep school": never let the audience forget that you are a famous actor acting! Watching Moneyball, I had to remind myself: Oh, yeah, he's Brad Pitt. And then I forgot who he was again. That's good acting.)

Well, I am often impressed by NHK's ability to cast new talent in big roles, and to nurture young talent through its "farm system."

The new heroine meets the old protagonists
(Tao Tsuchiya's third Asadora, first time as the lead).

Starting on Sunday/Monday, the Asadora returned to form with Ma're, a contemporary YA dramedy. Also according to form, the first week features the pre-teen version of the heroine. These little kids blow my socks off, they're that good.

This is one of those real-world cases (probably more the rule than the exception) where the person who got the "lucky break" deserved it.

Tao Tsuchiya with her younger self (Ramu Matsumoto)
and her cinematic parents (Yo Oizumi, Takako Tokiwa).

Thanks to her father's spendthrift ways, the family ends up broke in the sticks, where the titular character overcomes one obstacle after another as she strives to become a patissier.

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