And then, there was usefulness

One of the oddest parts of a doctorate, at least at the beginning, is that you enter the program because you want to help people learn, but then you basically ignore undergraduates in favor of studying like mad. It can be very isolating; you sit in your apartment and study most of the time, unless you leave your apartment and study. Plus, you have all of the normal household duties (dishes, laundry), and since you probably moved to a new city for your program you also have to set up a new apartment and adjust to a new city. Last year, my biggest “hobby”, time-wise, was shopping for new furniture and household goods. I brought a lot of stuff across the country with me, but most of it was of the clothing-and-books variety.

Postcard advertising tonight's event


All of which is to say that I didn’t feel like I had much of an impact on anything last year. I wasn’t really helping anyone or creating anything, just ingesting books and discussing them. That’s important, and I learned a lot last year, but my background is in the educational non-profit sector. It was odd to be not helping people. I’m already working on changing that this year, but yesterday something great happened. I was wandering around whiling away the hours between classes when I ran across a fellow student from a different department as he was showing a pair of visiting Japanese artists (collectively called Tochka) around. I tagged along for lunch, and suddenly it was seven hours later and I had helped translate subtitles for a short video and a set of informational cards for an exhibit of the artists’ work that is going on today and tomorrow. I had a blast, I got to help some great people, and (I hope) I helped make a suite of pieces that will explain Tochka’s art to the students who show up tonight and tomorrow.

Example of PiKA PiKA


Tochka uses long exposure photography to create gorgeous images of light (usually made by volunteers holding LED flashlights), then brings the photographs together to create short, animated films. They call these works “PiKA PiKA” in reference to the Japanese onomatopoeia pika, which means the sound of light flashing. (And yes, that’s where the pika in the name of Pokemon‘s Pikachu came from. After all, his power is lightning, right?)

I did not see that coming. I have to admit to being tired and behind in my homework, but I can handle it. I’m just excited for tonight. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, Tochka will be leading a workshop tonight, and there will be a showing and a Q&A with the artists behind Tochka, Kazue Monno and Takeshi Nagata, tomorrow. Here are some links with more information:

Details for the event tonight
Tochka’s English-language blog, which has sample video files

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New Studio Ghibli: From Up on Poppy Hill

Promo image for Kokurikozaka kara

Umi raising flags in Kokurikozaka kara

I saw the newest animated Studio Ghibli film this week, コクリコ坂から or From Up on Poppy Hill (dir. Gorō Miyazaki, using a script by Hayao Miyazaki and adapted from the 1980 manga by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi).  I’ve been trying to see a number of films this summer since I’m in Japan anyway, but it’s set in Yokohama (where I’m studying) on top of being a Ghibli film, so I would have found my way into the theatre sooner or later.

 

Studio Ghibli is best known for those of its films which were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the company’s two co-founders, but its other films are hardly low quality.  I may be generalizing a bit too much, but those films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki seem to stray into slightly more adult territory – for example, the possibility of an affair is alluded to in Poppy Hill.  The newest film melds this material with a kind of elegiac tone that made for a nice afternoon.  Beyond that, I don’t really want to say too much about the film.  Being in Japan, I watched it in Japanese, of course, and while I understood enough of the dialogue to enjoy the film, I didn’t quite get enough to feel good about analyzing it to closely.  Luckily, Aaron Gerow also saw it and has written an interesting analysis which I suggest you read.

 

Incidentally, I’ve been saving up interesting articles for awhile now, and I’ll probably be unloading a link spam on you soon.  If you’ve got any suggestions, feel free to leave them in a comment.

2010 in Review

I thought about writing a best-of list towards the end of the year, but it didn’t seem quite right.  Between leaving my job, moving across the country and starting grad school I had a pretty topsy-turvy year, and that would be reflected in any list I came up with.  Still, I’ve been thinking about all of the things I watched, read and did over the last year, and some kind of review is in order.  Here are the things – TV shows, books, movies, activities, whatever – that gave me peace on those evenings in 2010 when I was still not packed/hadn’t finished finals but was sick again/was sick of looking at mattresses yet another time.

1. NCIS: Los Angeles

No surprise here, I love my NCIS:LA.  Totally aside from the characters, writing and other aspects of art creation that the creators can actually control, over the course of the first season I went from thinking about maybe applying to grad schools… somewhere to deciding on a university in LA.  NCIS: Los Angeles was there the whole time, and occasionally suggested neighbourhoods I should not live in.

2. Jellyfish Princess

This is a new series, with new episodes posted to Hulu on Fridays as they air in Japan.  It’s sort of like The Big Bang Theory, at least in its broadest strokes, but in reverse.  A house full of female otaku becomes enmeshed with a super-stylish cross-dressing guy with predictably hilarious results.  Through the laughs though, I’m reminded constantly of some of my best friends – in a good way.

3. Butterflies, Flowers

An over-the-top romance comedy that teeters juuust this side of horrificly insulting by Yuki Yoshihara.

4. Inception

The big-budget Hollywood action flick that got people all across America arguing about what reality is, this movie just warms my little, post-structuralism-infused heart.

5. Alice in Wonderland

I loved the book, so I would probably have liked this adaptation regardless of how it was done.  But then they went and turned it into an action film bildungsroman with a heroine as the lead… and I love it!  The movie topped a year where Alice references were everywhere, and it just warmed my soul.

6. Vibrator by Akasaka Mari

I read this one for a Japanese literature class the past semester.  I don’t particularly like a lot of modern Japanese literature, but this one knocked my socks off.  Briefly, it’s about a female reporter as she takes off on a trip with a trucker she picks up in a convenience store.  She may be going insane, regaining her sanity or something else entirely.  I’m not going to spoil it for you.  Michael Emmerich is an experienced translator, and his skill is evident in the way the text sings.

7. RED

It looked like a fun action flick, and it was, but it also surprised me by failing the reverse of the Bechdel test.  Since it’s the only action movie I can think of that would fail such a test, I’m rather pleased with it for stretching the genre.

8. Fried Green Tomatoes and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

The movie and the book made me happy in a variety of different ways, and the post I made about them shot up to be my most-viewed post by far, which made me happy in a whole new way.

9. Basic Kanji Book, Vol. 1

The more I study in school, the more apparent my academic weaknesses become.  One of those is reading ability.  In the course of clearing my stuff out of my parents’ house, I came across my old (old, old oldoldold) copy of the Basic Kanji Book.  Even back when I bought it, its contents were mostly review for me, but I swallowed my boredom – at least for a little bit.  In the ensuing four or five years I developed a pattern of doing some chapters and then dropping it for months or even years.  I finally decided to finish it so that I don’t have to tote it to California and I don’t feel like a failure over a really basic kanji book.  I’ll finally be done sometime in the next week or two.  However, this book has served as a way of judging my progress over the years, so it is reassuring now to realize just how far I have come, even if I’m not as good a reader as I should be.

5 Anime to Help You Get in the Mood for Halloween

The past week or so hasn’t been particularly spooky here on the West Coast, so I went through some of the anime I’ve seen to come up with a list of mainly “oldies but goodies” that can help you get in the mood for Fright Night. Some are spooky, some are comic, but they all get that good ol’ ghosty spirit going. To mix things up a little, I’ve avoided some of the classics that you might expect to see on this sort of list – no Blood: The Last Vampire, no Hellsing, no Vampire Hunter D… You might notice that these are all vampire series. I thought it might get a bit boring to see vampire after vampire after vampire on this list. I might do a vampires-only list at some point. For now, here are some of the less-known (albeit still pretty popular) works out there:

1. Haunted Junction

This was licensed awhile back, though I think it has since lapsed. It’s hard to find, but hilarious if you can. Set in an unusually-haunted high school, this 12-episode series follows the members of the Holy Student Council, who manage the school’s plethora of ghosts and other spirits. Naturally, the members of the HSC themselves have their own magical “blessings” – one has the ability to be possessed (and frequently is), one can exorcise spirits (usually by beating up the person who was possessed) and though the third can summon spirits, he would really prefer to lead a quiet life in a normal school. My favorite part of this series is its incorporation of Japanese urban legends set in schools. Our heroes’ school is haunted by a set of benign spirits who are straight out of these tales: toilet Hanako, the buxom girl who haunts the boys’ restroom to assist with whatever they might be doing there; Red Mantle, the dashing young man in a red cape and mask who exists for the girls at the school; the skeleton in the science lab who moves on his own; and so on.

2. Ghost Hunt

A collection of investigations by a psychic research center, this series is seriously spooky by the end. The center’s staff is composed of experts in a variety of paranormal fields, ranging from a shrine maiden to a priest to an onmyōji. One of my favorite aspects of this series is that it has a character type that I hate – the girl who is depicted as the only one in the whoooole group who feels for people, who consequently always argues against what other people are trying to do because someone might feel hurt – but it, unlike many other series with this character, highlights that other characters are often just as caring as her, and even more thoughtful. In other words, people lay the smackdown on the brat. I like. This anime is based on a series of light novels by Fuyumi Ono, the author of the Twelve Kingdoms series, another excellent set of books and anime.

3. Yami no Matsuei

About a standard of Japanese death folklore, the shinigami, Yami no Matsuei organizes the underworld as a giant bureaucracy, but one whose workers have superpowers. You’re already interested, right? The anime follows two shinigami, people who died with so much weighing on their minds that they couldn’t pass on and so became staff for the underworld bureaucracy. Tsuzuki and his new partner Hisoka as they try to clear up mysteries surrounding people’s deaths. The half-season (13 episode) anime gives us four mysteries which slowly tie together to reveal Tsuzuki’s secrets, Hisoka’s past and a horrifying serial killer who is obsessed with Tsuzuki. Beautiful and twisted, this is a great series to enter into the Halloween spirit with. Incidentally, the manga was put on hiatus some years back and some chapters that were never published in tankōbon or book form are finally scheduled to publish in January. Perhaps the mangaka will begin drawing the series again soon?

4. Mermaid’s Forest and Mermaid’s Scar

These two are OVA’s, or Original Video Animations (which is to say, direct to video) based on a short manga series by Rumiko Takahashi, the famous artist behind Ranma 1/2, Inu Yasha and loads more. Featuring among her darker works, the Mermaid set proposes that mermaids do exist, and that by eating their flesh some humans may gain immortality. The rest turn into horrible monsters. Of course, mermaids aren’t merely victims here. They also capture and eat immortal human flesh to maintain their youth. Into this setup are delivered Yuta, a fisherman who ate part of a mermaid captured by his fellow fishermen five hundred years ago, and Mana, a young girl who was raised by mermaids to serve as their anti-aging snack. The two travel around Japan looking for a cure for immortality and helping others caught in the mermaid snare.

5. Witch Hunter Robin

How could we have Halloween without witches? Robin is a young woman working in a secret organization like those we’ve seen in La Femme Nikita and Alias. Setting this series apart is the purpose of its secret organization: the tracking of those who may manifest witch powers, and their capture and containment should they so manifest. Many of the organization’s workers have powers themselves, including Robin, a pyrokinetic. As Robin learns more about witches and delves further into her organization the question of who can be trusted arises. One season long, this series has been lauded by basically every anime critic out there as a fantastic example of the medium. Watch it… if you dare.

Happy Halloween!

Syllabi, continued

Sorry for the wait, I’m afraid that I got rather busy, then sick, then busy catching up from being sick… it’s been hectic. I’ve got a few things in progress on this blog, and the lack of recent progress on them is due entirely to the busy-sick-busy-ness of my recent life. I haven’t forgotten any of it, though, I promise.

To pick up on the theoretical syllabus for an anime course that I’ve been making, my thoughts have been running along the lines of “how would I organize the class?” I don’t mean in terms of class discussion versus lecture versus Blackboard postings, I mean how will I set up the course so that it builds to a conclusion in a natural manner. I could (easily) go into a classroom and lecture on Miyazaki one day, cyberpunk anime the next, production methods on day three and so on until three months pass and the students have learned a smattering of this and that but don’t have a coherent body of work to take with them in the future. That wouldn’t be very good use of anyone’s time though.

I’m leaning toward using the question “what do anime tell us about Japan?” as an organizing principle. Now, I’m a bit leery of that, for a number of reasons. But I think that it fits into the real world of college (i.e. department structure, diversity and other class requirements) very well, and I think it would let me tie together a number of disparate issues that I think ought to be covered.

I considered other organizational structures, but they feel off to me in various ways. For example, I could start with early animation and move my way up through time to today, looking at what issues were covered when and how alongside evolving production techniques. That has the benefit of giving students a better basis for judging whether a work is derivative or actually represents something new and interesting. However, that also limits discussion in a number of ways, and emphasizes technical aspects, like the CGI or hand-drawing debate, over the issues discussed in individual works.

So, back to the theoretical syllabus as it stands. Focused on seeing what anime tells us about Japan, we start reading a chapter of Peach Girl in class on the first day and then watching the first episode of the anime version. Right off the bat, we’re both problematizing the idea of judging anime without knowledge of the materials on which it was based (assuming it isn’t an original). Then we segue into talking about what the anime tells us about Japan/life in Japan. We can start with simple things – school uniforms, how people refer to each other. But that sets us up for the semester: What do we learn about Japan through anime? If its students wear uniforms, why is that? What does that tell us about the society? In turn, what do the things we learn about Japan tell us about the United States and our lives here?

Hopefully, that will get them thinking.

Syllabi

Inspired in part by talk at Dr. Crazy’s about syllabi (here and here), and challenged by a friend, I’ve been thinking about making a sample syllabus for a course for fun and practice recently. (Wild times at my house, my friends.) The challenge was for an intro contemporary Japanese literature course, but after giving it some thought I don’t feel ready to make a syllabus for that topic yet. Japanese literature isn’t my thing. I’m intending, should I ever make it into a Ph.D. program, to study it more, and I’ve been consciously reading much more of it (in both English and Japanese) recently, but I’m not at that level yet.

I actively avoided modern Japanese literature for a long time. I don’t like I-novels, and since I was such an immature scholar it wasn’t as though I lacked things to study. I’ve taken several courses now that either focused on or included decent chunks of premodern Japanese lit, so despite my contemporary pop culture interests I’m more comfortable with premodern than modern lit. After a lot of thought, I ended up deciding to try making a syllabus for an intro course on anime and manga.

I’m working on that now. I seem to think about syllabi a bit differently from my friend and Dr. Crazy. I can’t just come up with a list of things I want to cover, I have to organize them more. For example, I was thinking that if the class was longer (two or three hours) – which is the length of the pop culture courses I’ve taken in the past – a good way to deal with the first day would be to do all of the standard introductions, have them read the first chapter or two of Peach Girl and then show the first episode of the anime. If I were just making a list of stuff that I felt was important enough to cover, Peach Girl would never make it on there. But when I start thinking about what issues I want to cover, the relationship between anime and manga comes up. The first episode of Peach Girl stands out in my mind as a perfect example of taking each picture and word from the manga directly to the screen and animating the necessary bridging movements. Showing the students such a plain adaptation going in would, I hope, set them up to look for more complex adaptations in everything else we watch.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’ve got some ideas for themes and concepts that I would want to cover, but I have to figure out how to best get it all together. I think this project might take awhile, but I’m excited about it. After I get a syllabus done for this course, I think I might make one for a course on Japanese film. If the beginning of the anime course came to me quickly, the end of the film course is just early; naturally, Millennium Actress would be perfect last-day viewing.

More history lessons, wrapped in a spoilerific discussion of Gilgamesh

Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how the anime Gilgamesh ends.

There is a relatively unknown anime called Gilgamesh that I like. I bought it way back when (okay, only a few years ago), but I just wasn’t getting around to the end of it. Over the mass of holiday days (off work, that is) around Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s I finally got up the necessary impetus to finish it off in an orgy of about twelve episodes over a long weekend. I know that that doesn’t sound that hard – I mean, I’ve seen twelve episodes of different things in single days, and then gone back for more – but this series has a few things working against marathon viewing. For one thing, it’s bleak. The ending of the series is “gather the main dozen-or-so characters in one place, kill them off one by one except for the last two, then bring on the apocalypse”. Seriously, that is an exact description of it. The rest of the series, well, is in line with the ending.

The other factor against watching this one in marathons is the animation. They either put a lot of money into it, or not much at all, and I honestly can’t tell. At first I thought it was rather well funded, but when I started marathoning the end, I was struck by what looked like cheap animation. Did they run out after spending most of their budget on the earlier episodes? Was mediocre animation covered by cool character/world designs from the start? Was I just rushing to the point where everything became a blur in my eyes? All are equally possible.

I finished the series a few weeks ago now, but it still haunts my mind. I had trouble figuring out why, until I finally made the connection with history/the past. One of the things that attracts me most about anime is the way it serves as a sort of gateway drug for students. You like the cartoons? You would understand them better if you spoke Japanese. You adore Rurouni Kenshin but have no idea who these ishin shishi and shinsengumi are? Why not try a little history? That’s how I got into it all, and even the most casual fans are often interested in hearing someone explain juuuust a bit of Japanese language/culture/history/et cetera if it makes them understand their favorite series more.

So, what’s the connection with Gilgamesh? Gilgamesh takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. (I know – I said that the show ends with an apocalypse. It does; there are TWO apocalypses. As I said, it’s dark.) We find out the reason for the apocalypse in the last episode, and it is…

A woman’s jealousy.

Seriously.

We can call down apocalypses now.

(You know, for all that I’m outraged as a feminist, I’m rather attracted by the thought of having that power. Perhaps it’s for the best that this is a load of hogwash.)

Anyway, when I first heard this, I was appalled. I mean, seriously!?! In this day and age, we’re supposed to believe that a brilliant, beautiful young scientist can be so consumed with suppressed jealousy that it takes on a life of its own and destroys most of the world? And then goes on, some years later, to destroy the rest of it? Naaah, I don’t think so.

But then I got to thinking. That’s what we scholars are supposed to do, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long, but there you go. Woman+jealousy=death. Where have I heard that before? Lady Rokujou, perhaps? Tale of Genji, anyone?

In the Tale of Genji, Lady Rokujou becomes so jealous of Genji’s other women that her spirit leaves her body – without Lady Rokujou’s knowing – and kills one of them. The other woman in question is below Genji, class-wise. This parallels Gilgamesh fairly closely. The Countess (Lady R-) becomes jealous of the brilliant Terumichi Madoka’s wife. In this case, class isn’t the issue so much as intelligence. Both the Countess and Madoka are brilliant scientists, the wife is simply a sweet girl – a photographer. In addition, though I said earlier that the Countess’ spirit causes the apocalypses, it’s more complicated. The Countess’ jealous spirit enters into and then is embodied by an ancient power called Tear. The Countess knows nothing of this for years afterward. So you could say that the Countess’ spirit went wandering just like Lady Rokujou’s.

I’m not really sure what to do with this, though. So the story riffs on the preeminent work of classical Japanese fiction, so what? It’s still horribly sexist. But this one bit of history gives us a handle on the rest of the series.

Leave out the ending; simply consider the rest of the series. Do bad things happen to women? Yes. Do bad things happen to men? Yes. Are they comparable? Often, or at least that appears to be the intention. (I’m thinking here of some characters’ issues with finding out that they are clones. Wouldn’t bother me, but it was presented as horribly scarring to those characters.) And there appears to have been some editing. From the copious material that came with my DVD’s, I learned that one scene was originally intended to be a rape scene. I also learned that that episode was given to a female director and suddenly it was consensual sex. That’s not definitive proof of anything, but I’ll still cheer a little for involving women in the industry at decision-making levels.

There’s also the issue of history/legends in the story overall. As you might guess from the title, Gilgamesh is a new take on the legend of Gilgamesh. The legend of Gilgamesh doesn’t have female characters that I know of, but Gilgamesh has them in spades, and in important positions too. The anime isn’t a direct take on the legend, but builds off of it. So I can see tying the question of arrogance in Gilgamesh to the issue of jealousy in Gilgamesh. After all, what is jealousy if not the arrogance to argue that you are better for your beloved than anyone else? The past runs through Gilgamesh like water in Kyoto. Understand that past and new meanings open up for you. But I don’t think that that denies the previous meanings; jealous-women-end-the-world just doesn’t sound right to me.