The Spoiler Rises: The Dark Knight Rises

I’ve loved the Nolan brothers’ and Christian Bale’s take on Batman since the first film came out in 2005 while I was in Japan. Between love of the film and homesickness, I must have seen Batman Begins five or six times in the theatre. I don’t normally see films on their opening weekends, but I was thinking about making an exception for their last Batman.

The Dark Knight Rises was in an awkward position its opening weekend; it should have opened as the culmination of the Nolan/Bale series critiquing policing and citizens’ responsibilities in an era of expanding government and shrinking responsibility, but almost immediately upon its release it was overshadowed by a single person’s anti-human actions.

Psychopathic attempts at terrorizing people going about their daily lives – and everyday citizens’ responses to those terrifying events – play a prominent role in the Nolan/Bale Batman world. The perpetrator of the real-life attack played into the mythos of the films, refusing to explain his reasoning at first, leaving assorted weapons and traps scattered about Colorado and remaining, like Bane, the Scarecrow and the Joker, a cipher. Trying to, anyway. In the real world, as Film School Rejects’ managing editor Scott Beggs notes, films may be touched by a tragedy, but life goes on.

Personally, when I heard about the shooting in Colorado, it did make me pause. Copycat events aren’t uncommon when something like this occurs, and I didn’t want to be caught in a theatre with a crazy gunman. But the would-be Banes of the world can only win if people give in to fear. And I really wanted to see that movie. (Seriously, they started showing ads on TV in JUNE. I waited long enough!)

Now then, about the film itself. There will be a few spoilers here, including a big one about the end. This isn’t going to be a review, more like a set of observations. (Let’s be honest – if I were to write a review, it would consist of, “Good film, go see it!” You don’t want to read that.) Originally, I was going to write mostly about Catwoman, but now I’m going to save the for another post. Enjoy!

One of the things that first drew me to Japanese animation was its limited form. Programming for the very young aside, most anime are created to finish in a set number of episodes, usually a multiple of 13. From an American perspective, this means that they are paced more like literature than television or comics. The Batman comics, for example, were popular when they were introduced in 1939, so DC Comics continued to create new Batman stories over and over again. Occasionally a different person was swapped into the Batsuit for awhile, but ultimately Bruce Wayne has remained Batman. Similarly, as much as I love Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, seasons pass and Buffy is still slaying the big baddie, same as always. If you love her the way she is and want to see her do what she does forever, this is wonderful. If you love her the way she is and hope better days will come, seeing her get hurt and keep fighting over and over and over again is psychologically draining. It never ends, there’s no happily ever after.

The Nolan/Bale Batman is different. Yes, they made a series of films and more films could be made in the world they’ve created, but they have ended the story of Bruce Wayne as Batman with The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne, after 73 long years, hasn’t just retired to his mansion to oversee other members of the Bat-family, he faked his death and left America entirely for a happy-ever-after with Catwoman. The three Nolan/Bale films give us a full story cycle – a hero’s journey – four times over: once in each film, but also once across the three films.

In this larger journey, Batman Begins covers Bruce Wayne’s departure from the world he knew, with his allowing Ra’s al Ghul to die signifying the destruction of the last bind between Wayne and his old life as a privileged young man of Gotham. The Dark Knight gives us Batman’s initiation. In loving Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne is led back to a normal life instead of his dual existence as part-time Batman, part-time socialite. By killing Rachel, the Joker allows Wayne to separate entirely from normal human concerns, leading to his blind faith that the people of Gotham will choose to risk their own deaths instead of killing others. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne faces the issue that countless popular comic, film and TV heroes have before him: why go back? Why stop being the (super)hero who saves the world?

Bruce Wayne is an injured hermit at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Even though Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham in years, he still lives in isolation at Wayne Manor as though he himself is only Batman’s ghost or shadow. Over the course of the film, we are reminded of what Bruce Wayne discovered as he created Batman: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” Batman’s power lies not in the man behind the mask, it lies in the existence of a mask. That’s why Bruce Wayne can “die”. He may leave Gotham, but he leaves his city with the fruits of his efforts: Batman, the everlasting symbol.

The Bat Signal is regenerated for Commissioner Gordon’s use. The Bat Cave has been left ready for Robin John Blake to take up the mantle. Bruce Wayne’s hard-won knowledge has been left to the denizens of his world, leaving Wayne himself free to live again. The story of Bruce Wayne as Batman has come to an end, but the Nolan/Bale Batman world is wide open. The symbol of Batman supercedes the man.

For a quick snapshot of the hero’s journey, try this website, made by the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction

Linkspam the First: Welcoming the New Season

I promised a linkspam awhile back, and then avoided doing it because the list of links I’ve been wanting to share is so long.  My solution: multiple, themed linkspams.  Today, a collection of links about television and TV shows.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but they are thought-provoking and/or informative.

First, some articles about how we watch:

Trends in TV and how to understand how decisions get made about TV shows:

Some suggestions for and commentary about women and men on TV (three more links relevant to this season in the bottom section):

A few about the real people behind the shows:

And, of course, interesting articles about the new fall season:

 

 

Whew.  I should not have started that this late at night.  More installments on the way when I recover.

Finding Film Theory in Japan

So much for updating more frequently 🙂

Well, I’m in Japan and partway through my program.   I thought I’d give a run-down on the nuts and bolts of intensive, short-term language study in Japan, writing down some of what I’ve found out about research in Japan along the way.   I’m hardly the only person doing that sort of thing (and someone I know already beat me to actually setting fingers to keys on this one to an extent), but I haven’t seen anything about the specific topics I’m going to cover.

The first thing I want to talk about is a bit boring, but horribly useful: Japanese bookstores and film theory.   Studying film academically is a matter of course in America, but it’s a relatively new development in Japan.   (See here for a short history of its development.)   To be clear, I’m talking about academic study – film theory, not film criticism.   As a result, it’s many times easier to find books or magazines reviewing the latest films, doing photo spreads on the newest hot young thing or listing someone’s favorite horror movies than it is to find an analysis of, say, the recent spurt of manga, TV shows and movies about Abe no Seimei.   That disparity exists pretty much everywhere – talking about the latest blockbuster is as international as it gets – but it’s exaggerated in Japanese scholarship.   Moreover, the way that Japanese bookstores are organized kind of highlights it.   Still, you should know the Japanese scholarship on a topic before you start shooting your mouth off, right?   I’ll show you how to navigate stores for academic books about film, and that should give you a good enough idea of how the system works that you can figure out how to find other kinds of academic books, too.

Let’s say you want to find books about women in film.   Not a specific book, just academic books on that topic.   In America, you’d stop by two bookstore sections – women’s issues and film – and maybe the women’s interest and general interest sections of the magazines/journals area.   In Japanese bookstores, there are far more sections, but they’re smaller and less likely to have what you want.   The various women’s sections (books and magazines) are largely fashion- and diet-related.   There might have been one or two other subsections, but they’re similar in tone (i.e. useless for our purposes).   There is a large section labelled nonfiction (ノンフィクション), but it seems to be all/mostly memoirs.   Likewise, there is a section labelled essays ( エセイ ) which consists of compilations of essays by single authors on a variety of general topics (i.e. a volume won’t discuss one topic in depth, but cover various aspects of society in different essays).

So much for the less-useful areas, on to the good stuff.   Japanese bookstores have at least two film sections – “film” (映画) and “Western film” (洋画) – both sections are mainly filled with non-academic works (“Best Ever” lists, for example), but I found a couple gems in them on my last trip – the second issue of Pop Culture Critique, whose theme is “girls’ combat experience”, and a book on film by one of Studio Ghibli‘s producers.   Nearby, you’ll usually find sections on TV dramas, anime and games.   Similarly, I suggest taking the time to go through the related magazine areas.   Magazines themselves haven’t panned out for me yet, but stores often shelve books and unusual items with the magazines.   On a recent trip to a bookstore I hadn’t visited before, I found a set of specially reissued Ozu films.   Each “volume” included one film and a short (40-ish page) set of specially printed notes, interviews and so on.

Now, those suggestions work for your standard new and used bookstores (i.e. Kinokuniya and Book Off), and assume you don’t have a specific title in mind (if you do, order it).   When looking for other kinds of resources, other guidelines apply.   If you want dōjinshi, for instance, Kathryn Hemmann recently posted an excellent guide to dōjinshi resources in the Tokyo area.   If you have any suggestions or know of other, similar resources, please do comment.   I’ve got less than a month left, and I want to make the most of it.

 

Update: I dropped by the Jinbocho area today, and they have boatloads of used book stores.   (Also, apparently, CD/record stores.)  There’s even a store that specializes in science-fiction and mysteries.  Some of the stores are pretty small, but the flip side of that is that they carry rarer books and magazines.  Happy hunting!

Learning Languages for Life: the FLAS Fellowship

Sorry for not updating more recently – between midterms, getting sick, finals and what I’ll be writing about today, I haven’t had the time or energy to flesh out any of the things I’ve wanted to write about recently. With any luck, things will settle down soon and you’ll get a rash of posts on slightly old topics shortly. Today, however, I thought I’d write a bit about that which is currently consuming this grad student’s life: summer plans.

The vast majority of the people pursuing Ph.D.’s do so with the help of fellowships, a certain kind of scholarship. These come in a variety of forms, but the aspect that concerns me at the moment is the summer. Some fellowships cover an entire year, but some only cover the academic year. That can leave you scrambling, but it also opens up other opportunities. (To be honest, in practice most people seem to be more irritated at the scrambling than thankful for the flexibility.)

For an area studies scholar like myself, the government runs a program called FLAS, or Foreign Language and Area Studies. FLAS fellowships are designed to ensure that the United States has a pool of people trained in speaking various languages in case a need arises. The academic-year fellowship also have an area studies component, in addition to language classes. You can use a FLAS fellowship to study Arabic, Chinese, Korean and a number of other languages deemed both important to the United States and understudied by Americans. The fellowships are administered by various colleges and universities and come in 10-month and 2-month strains. In other words, a fellowship covers either an academic year or the summer. Each one has two parts: a set amount of money for tuition, and a set amount of money for you to live on. If you’re a grad student, your school may add in some extra money if it’s in a city with a high cost of living.

There are several tricks to the summer FLAS which complicate matters. First, summer classes have to be intensive – 120 hours is the minimum, and that’s only for advanced language learners. Then you have the double bind of the spirit versus the letter of the fellowship. For my own purposes, because it is best for me, I want to be as fluent as possible. The Program wants me to be as fluent as possible. Ditto everyone else on the FLAS. However, the best way to gain that fluency is often to travel to a nation where your language is actually spoken to take your intensive class – a $1,000+ cost that is not included in your fellowship. In addition, you most likely have carrying costs in America during this time – a year-long lease you can’t sublet, car insurance payments, cable/gas/electric bills – which you have to cover out of an already-small stipend.

It’s hard. Figuring out the details and trying to get additional funding so that I can do this right has occupied a lot of my time, a lot of my advisor’s time and a lot of our local FLAS administrator’s time. To some extent I’ve had to recover lost territory – I couldn’t buy plane tickets until getting the details of a certain kind of funding set, but by the time that was settled, a sale I had found was gone and tickets had gone up $500. I got $600 in another kind of funding explicitly for tickets around the same time, but now tickets are up $600 from when I first looked for them.

It’s complicated. It’s a bit unwieldy, as a system, since you have to apply for funding and programs separately, and can’t guarantee either until you’ve heard from both. This summer, lingering effects of the earthquake in Japan got several summer programs cancelled, and even more were considering until very close to the deadline by which the FLAS administrators needed to know where I was going. (Past, actually. They have been extremely understanding and helpful throughout.)

All that said, I’m going to attend the premier Japanese-language program in the world this summer, and I will be far more fluent in August than I am today. At this point in my career, I need a great honking shove in the patootie to get over that next major hump in learning Japanese. This is it.

Having this opportunity means that next year, if all goes as planned, I will be able to start learning Korean. Learning these languages helps me do my job, but it also helps the nation. We’ve seen what happens when we’re suddenly thrust into an engagement with a group whose language we hardly understand twice now. FLAS is intended to protect against that by ensuring that languages which people wouldn’t necessarily study on their own get studied and that people who might study a language a little bit in high school or college and then forget half of it are able to take the extra steps to become fluent for life.

Book list

I’ve added a page with various book recommendations. It’s divided into fiction, non-fiction and poetry right now, but I’ll probably shift it into more specific lists as I add more books. (Well, except the poetry. I’ve pretty much topped out on that list already.) This was just to get started, so feel free to suggest more in the comments. I’m not just looking for good books though, I’m looking for good books that offer something a little different. If you look at the books already listed, you’ll find that many were authored by women or the Japanese, in contrast to a lot of reading lists which mostly contain books by white men. In a similar vein, if you look at the non-fiction, you’ll see books about jobs in America, getting along with people, food safety and a little-known minority with a long history of interaction with the United States. Important topics, all, but topics it’s easy not to pay too much attention to. This list should help get you started if you decide to try the challenge.

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.

Manga sales and profitability

Every so often the blogosphere gets into a tizzy over scanlations: do they hurt or help manga sales? As ‘net-based discussions tend to, these spats frequently get dominated by one group of people claiming that scanlations are the ultimate evil and another arguing that everything, EVERYTHING should be free, at all times, in all ways. However, some smart people also comment. Sooner or later I will get around to adding a page to this site that rounds up some of the more thoughtful posts on the issue, but today I want to talk about a related problem.

Comic Book Resources’ Brian Hibbs has rounded up some hard numbers on manga sales for everyone’s perusal. These numbers probably represent about 75% of all translated manga sales in the U.S.

Hibbs has some interesting analysis that I want to think through a bit, so I won’t talk about that so much. Instead, I want to talk about the differences between manga and American comic books on this list. Those differences all amount to: American comics make more money. I don’t mean in terms of size of the industry, production costs or anything like that. I mean that across the board if you look at an American comic on this list it is liable to have brought in more money than those manga selling at a similar rate. In other words, comics cost more. The three million dollar-plus sellers were all American (and two of them were Watchmen). All three had tie-ins of some kind. All three also cost $20 or more. The exception to the higher-cost American comics is the mangaesque or manga-style comics, which have prices like the manga.

To some extent, this is an apples and oranges comparison. Manga have to pay translators and licensing fees that comics don’t, and comics have to pay for artists and (often) colour printing that manga companies can ignore. But what struck me most was not the difference between how much manga and comics earn as how very, very little manga earn. The last five manga on the list (which only includes the top 750 comics/manga sold in the year) earned within the $31,000-$43,000 range. Those numbers come from multiplying the cover cost of the book by the number sold, so they don’t reflect the coupons and discounts offered so frequently. Moreover, they don’t include the bookstore’s cut, shipping to the bookstore or ANY expenses – not printing, not translation, not salaries for anyone working on the manga… That’s not a lot of money for all of the effort involved. I’m just trying out different estimates of how much each of those titles brings in, and really… it’s not looking good. On the other hand, the publishing industry has always been based on the idea that some works will sell like hotcakes and some will slowly wend their way through the market before dying a miserable death in a remainders store. I’m worried that, with manga, there aren’t enough hotcakes properties to carry a full industry, based on the current sales set up.

Turning Japanese

One of the biggest hurdles in learning Japanese is taking that step from learning basic/intermediate Japanese in class to reading actual Japanese literature, whether that’s newspapers or the latest Harry Potter. For me, the problem is rarely grammar, but frequently kanji and vocabulary. I’m always working on that in some form or other, but recently I was told that Japanese Ph.D. students need to know 1,000 kanji on entering the program. Ouch. To see how far I have to go, I printed out a list of the kyouiku kanji, the 1,006 characters Japanese kids learn in elementary school*, and tested myself on their readings and meanings. Good news: I could come up with a fair bit for most of them even with no context for the characters, and I was able to get at least something for almost all of them. Bad news: most isn’t all, and even if I remember the meanings and readings of characters A and B I may not know the reading and meaning of the word AB. Worse news: I was surprisingly bad at getting all of the information for the “easiest” characters. What’s happening is that I learned a lot of characters way back when and never saw them again. Remember the character for bamboo? You probably do (I did), but when’s the last time you read anything with the word bamboo in it? It’s one of the first characters they teach because it’s simple and a simplified version of it is part of other kanji. A lot of the ones I’m forgetting are like that: easy, but I haven’t seen them in years.

I’m now doing all sorts of stuff both to remember that which time has left in the dust and to learn new kanji. But this is a common problem, everyone who studies Japanese faces it at some point. So I thought I would post mini-reviews of some of the best resources I’ve found for pushing yourself from intermediate/advanced into advanced/fluent.

Japanese Cultural Episodes for Speed Reading is pretty much what it says it is. It’s not intended to teach grammar (or vocabulary, really). Instead, it has 74 roughly one page-long essays on simple cultural questions like “Do you greet people you don’t know in the apartment elevator?” featuring various fake characters. There are eight or twelve questions after each reading to ensure that you understood it, followed by a short vocab list.

I have to admit, I love this book. I’ve only just started using it, but it’s wonderful. The vocab list is nice, but it’s also clearly meant to be cumulative: どうりょう is defined (“colleague”) in episode one, but when it shows up again in episode four you’re expected to remember it. And they go out of their way to ensure that words like that pop up again, so you get to see useful words multiple times (repetition is key for remembering that stuff). They give you furigana in the readings for names (a sticking point for most Japanese-learners), but nothing else, so you don’t use it as a crutch. If I get to a word and look at its meaning only to find that it’s incredibly simple, I know immediately that I need to study. In works with tons of furigana, sometimes I catch the furigana out of the corner of my eye and read that before even noticing the actual kanji. That doesn’t help me practice.

Final verdict: This book rocks. It’s an easy read, but it incorporates a variety of words that you’re likely to hear (unlike those textbooks that teach you words you may hear once in a blue moon), and it supports both reviewing kanji you know and learning those you don’t. It’s a great way to keep your hand in, if you’re worried about forgetting what you’ve learned.

*Apparently they’re reviewing and expanding this list this spring. That kind of depresses me.