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


RED and a Reverse Bechdel

I was all set to post about Mechademia, but then I saw RED today and somehow my plans changed. (I also saw a soccer game at which they gave away red scarves, but I didn’t get one, so who cares?) Anyway, on with the show.

Slight spoilers, though not too bad.

RED is the story of Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA assassin who is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, but also beginning to find love – until he is suddenly attacked by assassins. Bada bing, bada boom, he is back in the game. In short order he collects his lady love Sara Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) – to keep her safe, of course – and a handful of old comrades (or at least pleasant enemies) and sets about finding out who wants him dead/stopping them. It’s a fun movie that I would encourage you to see. For all the violence of the premise there’s not a ton of gore. There are plenty of explosions, which always pleases me, but your mileage may vary on that one. No, what I want to talk about here is the Bechdel test. For those of you who don’t know it, the Bechdel test came out of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. It’s gained notoriety because it showcases cleanly and clearly how badly women are represented in films. The test has three parts, as follows.

A movie must have:
1. two female characters
2. who talk to each other
3. about anything except men.

It sounds so simple. Women constitute about half the population. We talk to each other often at work, at home, on the phone, in locker rooms and restrooms… Topics of conversation include our jobs, our bosses, our kids, our hobbies, our yoga classes, new recipes, plays… You would think films would capture this as a matter of course. But they don’t. If you want to see how your favorite films stack up, head over to The Bechdel Test and search for them. You might be surprised. Then again, you might not. The Social Network failed, for anyone who’s been following the hubbub about that.

Now, you’re probably thinking “So, does RED pass?” and really, I’m not sure. There are four named female characters with speaking parts that I recall*, and of them I think two do speak together about something other than a man. That being an exchange along the following lines:

Boss: “What are you doing?”
Employee: “Nothing. Just… nothing.”

Not much, but enough to pass. Remember, this test is a basic measure; it’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all of realistic portrayals of women. There might have been more such exchanges, too. As I said, I didn’t pay that close attention. (I was too busy having fun.) What I did notice was how multiple characters pulled aside Frank Moses and spoke to him… about a woman.

There isn’t a reverse Bechdel test – two men who speak to each other about anything except a woman – because we don’t need one: practically every movie would pass it with flying colours. RED is a little different. It works Moses’ progress in falling in love to his progress in settling into retirement. In other words, it realistically suggests that, for a male character, a girlfriend isn’t merely a person the bad guys can kidnap at the appropriate moment or a fun roll in the hay while waiting for an assassin to come. She’s someone to talk to, someone you have to work with – and occasionally someone you really, really want to like you even though you effectively kidnapped her. In short, she is a part of your life. So we have Moses mentioning the woman he collected so that she wouldn’t be killed to his old friend, and then his other friends ask him about her, repeatedly, and then when the bad guys kidnap her (as you knew they would) naturally they have to mention her on the phone to him and again to each other. She’s central to the movie, as she’s central to Moses.

I didn’t keep track at the beginning of the movie because it’s so rare, but I wonder if this movie could pass a reverse Bechdel test? It might not. If Sara Ross is involved in all of the scenes where they’re planning how to find the bad guy, I don’t think it would.

This left me thinking, if a movie failed a reverse Bechdel test, would I care so much if it passed the actual Bechdel test? After all, if a movie solely included mixed-sex group scenes it would be incapable of passing the test, but at the same time it would be putting female characters front and center throughout the entire film, which is what the test was made in hopes of. I could go for that.

Final note, for those who are skeptical that the short dialogue above should give any proof of a movie’s seriousness about depicting women: I’ve noticed, over the years, that some TV and film pieces manage to work in small hints that yes, there are these creatures called women out there. A short scene in NCIS where the head of NCIS, an agent and a forensic pathologist – all female – discuss the most appropriate courtroom attire to ensure that one is taken seriously. Use of a sanitary pad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound in Salt. There is such a moment in RED. I’d be happy to tell you about it, but it alone of all the scenes in the movie (and there were many funny moments) got the entire audience laughing as one. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I assure you that it’s there. In addition, please note that I have written this whole post without mentioning Helen Mirren’s Victoria. This is because she is so fantastic I didn’t feel I could do her justice in the context of a Bechdel test-related post. And someone chose to make the most noticeable assassin female. Good choice. Offhand, for major characters I’m counting seven male and four female. For an action movie, that’s rather astonishing. Go take a look and see if you don’t like it.

*I should note that some people only count named characters for the test. For the purposes of this movie, I only recall the named characters + one unnamed woman who only spoke to men, and there wasn’t a huge speaking cast besides, so it shouldn’t have an impact.

Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe?): Adaptation

Sorry for the long delay in posts – something great is going on IRL that I will be able to mention shortly.  In the meantime, an overdue post on a book and its film, with spoilers.

Evelyn and Ninny, Idgie and Ruth

As (I think) I’ve written before, I am interested in adapting works – manga to anime, for example.  Awhile ago I saw the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, which is adapted from the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.  Now, I saw it for a reason which is, ultimately, unrelated to why I like it so much. Well, tangentially related.  Every so often I see an actress or actor in something and just suddenly realize that whoa, s/he is goodNCIS: Los Angeles spurred that realization for me where Chris O’Donnell is concerned.  (Stay with me, I am going somewhere.)  In NCIS: LA, O’Donnell plays an undercover federal agent who is supposed to be one of the best.  As such, the show often features him, in particular, suddenly changing his character, onscreen, while O’Donnell himself is already in character.  It’s impressive to watch.

Okay, so I was inspired to hunt down a bunch of O’Donnell’s previous works.  Fried Green Tomatoes was one of the first ones I found (many thanks to my local library and IMDB).  It’s one of those insta-classic films, like A League of Their Own, that you watch and pretty much immediately know you want to own.  Not because it has Avatar‘s special effects, or Saving Private Ryan‘s gut-wrenching realism, but because you see yourself sitting down to it on a lazy summer evening some years down the road.  You need good acting for that sort of impact, but what I didn’t realize when I rented the movie was that O’Donnell’s character dies shortly into the film, after perhaps two minutes on screen.  Oh well, those were a good two minutes.  (The following minutes were all sorts of confusing, because I had rented the movie for O’Donnell, so they couldn’t have actually just killed him off, right?  Right??  … No.)

Anyway, I liked the movie and found it interesting enough that I returned to the library for the book.  Which I also liked, for totally different reasons.  Which I also found interesting, for totally different reasons.  Okay, to be honest, practically the only attraction the two shared was the Southern accent.  In the intervening months, I’ve thought off and on about how the book was adapted, why and to what effect, and now I’m going to share a bit of what I’ve observed.  A lot of the differences lie in little details, so the next two paragraphs will be relatively long descriptions of the two properties.  If you’ve seen/read them, the jump should take you straight to the analysis.

I saw the movie first, so I’ll start with that.  Fried Green Tomatoes is the twinned story of two pairs of women, Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, in between-the-(World)-wars Alabama, and Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode in the mid-1980’s in the same area.  The movie opens with the middle-age Evelyn meeting Ninny, an elderly woman residing at the same nursing home as Evelyn’s cantankerous mother-in-law.  Evelyn and Ninny become solid friends over the course of the film, with Ninny encouraging Evelyn to turn her boring life around and Evelyn eventually inviting Ninny home to live with herself and her husband.  This turnaround involves Evelyn’s becoming a successful Mary Kay saleswoman, taking hormones for menopause, exercising, dieting and generally standing up for herself.  In part, Ninny encourages Evelyn by telling her stories about the tumultuous lives of Idgie and Ruth, which we see as flashbacks.  Idgie was incredibly attached to her brother Buddy as a child, so it deeply changed her when he (O’Donnell) died in a train accident.  She runs wild for a few years, until Ruth (depicted as Buddy’s girlfriend) is roped into trying to reform her one summer.  Things go well for awhile, but at the end of the summer Ruth marries, and Idgie returns to running wild.  Unfortunately Ruth’s husband beats her, and she eventually returns to Idgie.  They set up a household in town, and start to raise Ruth’s son, Buddy, Jr., together.  All goes well until Frank Bennett’s car is found in the river sans Frank Bennett.  Idgie and a black family employee named Big George are taken to Georgia (the husband’s home) to be tried for the crime, and it looks bad until a preacher perjures himself to get them both off.  They return to town; Buddy, Jr. loses his arm in his own train accident; Ruth dies of cancer.  There are grounds to think that Ninny is actually the elderly Idgie, and we later hear that Big George’s mother killed Frank Bennett while he was trying to kidnap Buddy, Jr., and Big George cooked the body and served it to the locals via the cafe.

Ooookay.  The book follows that general structure – scenes of Evelyn and Ninny interspersed with scenes from earlier on – but encompasses much, much more.  The movie is increeeedibly simplified in a variety of ways, and the reasoning behind that is clear.  In addition to the stories of Idgie, Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny, the book includes an awful lot about Big George’s family: his mother (who we find out adopted him), his wife, their kids and even their grandchildren.  Big George and his mother are prominent in the film, but the family as a whole is covered about evenly with Idgie and Ruth in the book.

Idgie, Ruth and Buddy

Aside from that family, Buddy Threadgoode’s story was also simplified rather a lot, as was his impact on Idgie or the reflection of him that you can see in Idgie.  In the film, Buddy is portrayed as the perfect son, a bit of a rascal and a horrible flirt, but ultimately a good boy who is devoted to Ruth.  In the book he is more complicated.  He and Ruth do not have a relationship – he never even meets her.  Instead, he has a long-running, serious and somewhat scandalous relationship with a woman called Eva Bates, a loose woman from a lower class who is devoted to him – and is later devoted to Idgie and then Buddy, Jr.  She doesn’t show up in the film.  The book has many sections about hobos and hobo life, and excerpts from various newspapers and newsletters that illuminate life in that time and place.  Finally, the book goes into more detail about Frank Bennett’s character – namely, in addition to beating Ruth, he also impregnated and beat a number of women in his own town, which helped convince a judge to sweep his maybe-murder under the rug.  As for the contemporary sections of the book, we mostly learn more about Evelyn’s trials and tribulations, including her time at a fat farm.  Ninny is clearly not the elderly Idgie, whom a short chapter shows selling honey at a roadside stand, and she dies at the end. Continue reading

The Role of Adults in Taming Miley Cyrus

Sorry for the slow updating – many things have been going on lately. I’ll update you on them in a few months. They’re good things, I just can’t write about them yet.

There’s been a lot of talking/blogging about Miley Cyrus’ new video and song Can’t Be Tamed. Both song and video are similar to the sorts of songs/videos we’ve seen from pop singers like Britney Spears and groups like the Black Eyed Peas. The video, in particular, features another outing of the more sexualized Cyrus that has been cropping up lately. Here she’s presented as an exotic bird on display for a bunch of rich people. Over the course of the video, she scares off the rich folk, breaks out of the cage with some feathered friends and dances about the building, only to return to the cage at the end.

She’s gotten a lot of flack for it. Even people who defend her recent attempts to mature her image are disappointed, as here:

So it’s not surprising that Cyrus would want a more adult image. And unlike many prefab pop tarts who’ve gone before her, Cyrus actually has talent galore. She’s got a hell of a set of pipes; she’s a naturally gifted musician; she’s a far better actress and comic presence than Madonna ever was — and it doesn’t hurt that she’s also stunning… What a letdown, then, is how predictable, derivative and dumb her chosen breakout vehicle turns out to be. At the top of her game, Cyrus is an artist who could do anything she wants right now. She got Nicholas Sparks to write a movie for her, for God’s sake. Why would she release a song that sounds so tinny and mechanical?

I don’t hold particularly specific taste in music, so I’m not going to get into the relative merits of different types of songs. I will say that Cyrus deserves some slack to try new things, period. She’s uberfamous, so she’s doing it all under a spotlight, but if you’re inclined to give her the slack to try out different ways of expressing her sexuality, you’ve also got to give her some slack to try out expressing herself in music through a pretty tried and true character type. And it is a character type: the reason that we can list off a handful of similar singers/songs/videos is because this is a clear, accepted way for teenage pop singers to act. Why wouldn’t she try it out?

I really want to talk about the video, though. I’ll just highlight an aspect I found interesting. It opens with a number of shots of the crowd of adults around the cage that we (eventually) find Cyrus in, and it ends with Cyrus back in the cage, but the room it was in is now empty and desolate. The “rebellion” that scares off the crowd consists of spreading her (CG) wings and singing – by the time she escapes the cage, the adults are long gone. Instead of a video about being tamed, this seems like a video where a young women is first put into a box by a bunch of older people who just want to look at her (or subject her to the gaze, if you prefer more theoretical terminology). Then, upon, quite literally, stretching her wings, she is abandoned by the audience. She wanders around with some wild friends, but they eventually disappear and leave her quietly sitting in her cage, alone. It seems to me like the message is a more angsty “Adults will pressure you without being clear what they want, but if you try to figure things out on your own and get it wrong they’ll take it out on you.” That seems awfully teenager-y to me. Maybe some of the worriers should chill a bit.

Aliens/Terminator/Avatar: the mash-up

I’ve already written about Avatar as a story about new modes of life, now I want to look at it as part of the works of James Cameron. I could (and should) write more than I will, but I wanted to get something out before my memories of Avatar fade away too much, so I didn’t take the time to review Cameron’s other films first.

Avatar has reminded me more and more over time of Cameron’s Aliens, another film starring Sigourney Weaver as a woman who, for whatever reason, ends up becoming closer to an alien species than most of the rest of humanity. Aliens is a sequel, so it doesn’t compare precisely, but one character popped out at me in both films: the Company. In Avatar, Aliens and also Cameron’s Terminator films, the great evil is not a person but a company. Moreover, representatives of that company are divorced from the actions of the company as a whole.

But wait, you’re thinking, Selfridge, the Company’s administrator for Pandora in Avatar, is a human representative of the Company and makes all of the decisions which lead to the war between the Na’vi and the Company. Yes and no. But first, let me talk a bit about the role of the company in Aliens and the Terminator films.

Aliens opens with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) explaining what happened in the previous movie to a disbelieving corporate task force. We are shown Ripley trying very hard to impress the danger of the alien menace on nameless executives who are simply unimpressed. Almost immediately after, we find that Ripley has been dumped in a tiny apartment doing menial labor – forgotten and held unimportant by those she was trying to convince. Until, of course, the colony near where Ripley encountered her alien is suddenly and inexplicably incommunicado. At that point, a company representative called Burke takes Ripley and a group of Company marines to find out what happened. So far, we have a company deciding what to do about a potential threat to all of humanity, a company that has its own marines. Both of those are usually thought of as government prerogatives. However, in contrast to elected government officials calling the shots, we have largely nameless Company employees.

Most of Burke’s team dies in the film, and we find out that Burke himself had prompted the attack on the colony by sending uninformed, unnamed Company employees out to the site of the first movie’s attack to look for aliens – without telling them that there might be dangerous aliens about. At first glance, this might seem to blame Burke for everything, but why did he do it? To cover himself in case Ripley was right. Burke didn’t think that there were aliens, he just needed to be sure so that the Company didn’t get in trouble.

Fastforward to the Terminator movies. In movie one we find that Cyberdyne Systems created an artificial intelligence called Skynet which then instituted nuclear destruction of the world. Note that Cyberdyne doesn’t do anything wrong, exactly, it was their invention that wrought evil on the Earth. In movie two we are introduced to Dyson, the scientist most responsible for Skynet. He isn’t depicted as believing that his work will be either particularly good or bad; he’s just doing his job. When convinced that his work will lead to nuclear holocaust, well, he changes his tune. Terminator II gives us Cameron’s version of “hope”: Dyson’s efforts – at the cost of his life – appear to stop the destruction of humanity.

I’ve covered a lot of ground quickly, but I wanted to present an overview of the role of companies in some of Cameron’s major films. As you can see from these three films, companies are treated almost as living organisms themselves. People can affect the Company, maybe, but not in any meaningful way. Burke’s actions were in service to the Company. If he had not prompted the initial attack on the colony, the growing colony would eventually have prompted an attack (on a much larger population) as it spread to the aliens’ area. Moreover, Burke was the only employee of the company who took Ripley seriously enough to even send someone out to check on her claims. In Terminator II, the company is unmoved by Sarah Connor’s attempts to halt its research. However, Connor, her son and the Terminator helping them are eventually able to convince Dyson, a member of the company, to try to change its path, and he appears to manage it at great cost.

Now we have Avatar. Selfridge is in charge, and does okay various actions by the employees, but he’s also shown as, well, wishy-washy. As the embodiment of the Company, Selfridge does not really decide anything. When the scientists argue forcefully, they get what they want; when the militarists argue forcefully, they get what they want. His actions are decided by who is talking to him at any point in time. Even at the end of the movie, as he is being escorted off the planet, Selfridge pauses and looks at the victors. Confused, searching for words, he eventually gives up and goes home, seemingly unsure of just what happened.

The character of Selfridge reaches a pinnacle in Cameron’s use of employees as a (body)part of the Company. If the Company of Aliens and Terminator is uncaring, hard to move, faceless, a monolith that appears to have no motives – not even profit, really – then Selfridge is caring (unless it goes against profit, which it does); easily moved in the short term, but too wishy-washy to effect permanent change; and so full of motives that he can’t choose just one and stick with it (profit? but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone; making nice with the natives? but he doesn’t really care about them).

And here is where Cameron’s companies become evil: not in the conscious pursuit of evil actions, but in the employees of all ranks who simply try to do what the Company wants, despite the fact that companies are not alive and cannot “want” anything. Instead, employees assume that the company wants something, usually profit, and then subsumes their own selves to that company. We don’t really know anything about Selfridge the man after seeing Avatar, only Selfridge as a part of the RDA corporation.

The evil lies in that no one is responsible for the corporation’s actions. If Selfridge is simply a part of the company, then the company is responsible for his actions. But a company is not a person, and therefor cannot be punished. A government ought to have the ability to at least attempt a punishment through fines (hitting the company in the profit motive it is often assumed to have), but we never hear much about governments.

This is an eerie parallel to what we’ve been seeing in the U.S. financial system. Companies are too big to fail, so they are given money instead of fines. Yet the traders that ruined the economy and caused untold damage have not broken any laws, and therefore are not punished for their actions. The government has little to no authority over the companies, which are not bound by anything to pursue good.

Cameron’s response to this is Jake Sully’s growth, which I have argued is like opening to a new way of life, but which is also comparable to growing into an adult (his body becomes bigger, hairier; he enters a marriage; he gains skills by which he can support himself). If we look at it as Sully finding a new way of life as an adult, then that suggests that Company life is childish. To subsume your identity in a company is the same as subsuming your identity in your parents: you live on their/its terms, you accept their/its values. I think Avatar is a wonderful argument for accepting responsibility, which we could use more of.

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.

The Princess and the Frog, for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

On Monday I saw The Princess and the Frog. I saw it because I, like many others, followed the debates and controversies about Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, and I wanted to see the outcome of those debates for myself.

I was fascinated. I’m not sure how it stacks up lyrically against such classics as The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, but there was some serious, intense animation going on there. Before I get into that, I should explain a bit about the story. The movie, as you may have heard, was set in New Orleans, in the mid-World Wars period. The movie is closely involved with Creole/mish-mash culture and style. In fact, the vibrancy of the melting pot is a strong message underlying the entire movie. The entire movie, from start to finish, is moving. Here, there, everywhere. The little mermaid went from her hideout in the sea to the palace, the surface, the beach, et cetera, but that movie was really divided between under the sea and land. In contrast, we see a variety of different cultures/ways of life in The Princess and the Frog, from our heroine’s home in a semi-poor black section of town to her rich friend’s mansion lifestyle to bayou life. Each culture is presented as a valid way of life, with none demonized.

The lack of demonization showed up most clearly for me in the character of Charlotte, one of Tiana’s friends. Rich and spoiled, Charlotte was perfectly situated to be a new kind of evil stepsister – this time with shades of racism, as Charlotte was white. Instead, Charlotte was depicted as kind but thoughtless, a girl who was willing to give up her chance to become a princess – once someone pointed out that doing so would bring her friend true love.

However, she is an example of what I’m talking about, not what I want to focus on. That is the role the animation plays in tying this movie into the rest of the Disney pantheon, and the resulting political implications. Oh yes, political implications in Disney. I was struck.

Anyway, onto the animation. In keeping with the theme of energy and production in diversity, the animation for The Princess and the Frog riffs on several previous Disney movie styles. The memorable lagoon love song scene in The Little Mermaid is mirrored in a shot of the two frogs sitting on a little boat in the bayou as singing fireflies light up lotus lamps floating in a circle around them.

Yup, you read that right. Ariel’s big scene got co-opted to argue that frogs (read: people that don’t look like you) can/should have the same love experiences and opportunities as all the previous movies’ heroines. But it doesn’t end there: several other movie’s art styles were used at different points in the movie. I won’t name them all (because I probably didn’t notice them all), but the opening shots of New Orleans and Charlotte’s mansion are reminiscent of the artwork in Cinderella, and the ending credits are images of the bayou done in the style of Sleeping Beauty. In other words, the force and power of the previous Disney movies is used to legitimize The Princess and the Frog. At the same time that this variety of animation styles is strengthening the new movie, the fact that what could have been a cacophony of dissonant art styles does strengthen the movie underscores the overall message of strength, energy and unity in diversity.

Disney is not known for putting strong political messages in their films – quite the opposite, in fact. And the value of diversity isn’t exactly a new message. But what struck me was how thoroughly Disney went after that particular point. We see it in the storyline, where a poor, hardworking girl and a profligate prince both teach each other a bit about life. We see it in the animation, where several art styles are woven seamlessly (and skillfully) together. We see it in the characters from all walks of life who help the romantic leads along. And on, and on, and on. Disney could easily have just done a black princess movie. But they chose a couple messages (the other big one being the value of hard work) and hit those suckers with a sledgehammer. I’m impressed, Disney. I hope to see more works of this quality from you in the future.

Race fail

First I must apologize; I thought I had posted waaaaay more recently than I had. I’ve actually been planning this post for days, so I could have cut the wait awhile very easily. Anyway.

Panasonic has a new TV out called the Viera, which they are advertising in concert with the new movie Avatar. You can see one of the commercials (I think there’s more than one) here. I imagine Panasonic’s advertising group has no resident geeks with awareness of common social issues. If they did, someone would have pointed out that they were associating their TV with two media properties – Avatar and Final Fantasy XII – that have races/species that clearly stand in for Africans. Oppressed, stereotypical Africans.

Avatar sounds wonderful, and I don’t mean to suggest racism within the property itself. But you clearly have the blue-skinned natives of the world Pandora standing in for Africans during the colonial period. The humans come with their superior technology to raid Pandora (and no, I’m not even going to touch the world’s name) of her natural resources, and the natives fight back with spears and such. You could even argue that using a native woman as the romantic interest of the invader-hero replicates the sexualization of black women that goes into movies today. I don’t particularly want to, given that I haven’t yet seen the movie and many romantic interests are treated equally (if not worse – Cameron’s female characters generally rock).

Then we have Final Fantasy XII‘s Viera. Let’s see, brown skin, buxom, scantily-clad rabbit-girls… Yeah, that doesn’t replicate stereotypes of African women as sexually rapacious at all. There are, by the way, no male Viera. Presumably the females replicate asexually. If, of course, you presume the designers put any thought into it.

I don’t think Panasonic did it on purpose, but they did, in one fell swoop, tie their new product to the least-attractive aspects of two different, but wildly popular, products. It comes across badly.

The craziest part, for me at least, is that I had/have a perfectly fine view of Avatar. That is, I think you can do a story that references the complicated history between the West and Africa without being racist, I think science fiction is a good way to do that, and I think James Cameron is a skilled director who takes the time and makes the effort to present more realistic, less stereotypical characters in general. It was only when the commercial linked Avatar to the Viera of Final Fantasy XII – which I find problematic on many levels – that I even thought of race as a potential stumbling point for the film. Weird.


M-, a friend of mine, has made a fun computer game that mildly parodies the Princess Maker series. If you haven’t been introduced to Princess Maker, the basic idea of each of the installments is that you have been gifted with a seven-ish year-old child (by a goddess) and have to raise her. When she gets to her teens, you find out how she turns out. Results include things like queen of hell, princess of the kingdom, magician and nothing much.

M-‘s version was originally made as a present for his girlfriend (a Princess Maker fan) and is called Princess Faker. There’s a bit of gentle humor as far as the original is concerned – for example, the original lets you feed your daughter pills that enhance her bust, which gets taken to rather comic extremes in the parody. M- is a budding game designer, and he’s come up with a fun way to pass the hours.

Without further ado, here it is.

And yes, I know I’m late on a post about my presentation. There’s so much to mull over, and I’m suddenly busy again. What can I say, it never ends.

A recurring theme

Once one learns about Said’s concept of Orientalism, one starts to see it in all sorts of writings about Japan. Orientalism is the idea that the East (and it is “the East” to Orientalists, not “Japan” or “Egypt” or even “Asian nations”) is an unknowable, ineffable place, completely mysterious to all outsiders (which, of course, tend to be white men). That definition – though largely correct – makes Orientalism seem like a simple, unimportant thing. For example, if a person were to learn Japanese and a bit about the history and culture, then one might argue that that person believed that “the East” was knowable. The devil is in the details.

Recently I have been reading Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost. I like travellers’ tales, and since it is from Kodansha (which tends to produce very well-written works) I picked it up one day at an Asian furniture/fabrics/et cetera store. The book was published after Booth’s death, so presumably there are things that he would change if he had a chance. Consequently I dislike judging him entirely based on this book. Yet something has bothered me about it from the start, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. For some reason I kept thinking back to a class that I took on Buddhist poetry last fall; one day we watched an old video about the Inland Sea area of Japan which, for an educational video, talked an awful lot about sex. The line that sparked the discussion basically said that all tourists’ most interesting thing to do was have sex with the natives. The class got side-tracked about Donald Keene (the narrator of the video), whose works apparently often discuss sex with Japanese women. (Our poor professor, who had never noticed the sex bits before, seemed rather bemused.)

I eventually realised that both the Inland Sea movie and Looking for the Lost remind me of the Orientalist stereotype of the subservient Asian woman who stands ready to meet the Western man’s every desire, sexual or otherwise. It is much less blatant in Looking for the Lost, but a sentence at the beginning of the fifth chapter finally clued me in:

All along the road I heard the scuffling of animals, but it was always the hooded women of the villages foraging for bamboo shoots and bracken.

The women here aren’t even human, and they could have been. Booth could as easily have said that he thought he heard the scuffling of animals, but it was always women instead. Now, you could easily say that he’s just trying some fancy writing there, but throughout the book he mixes animals, inanimate objects and women together. He writes of waves on a beach resembling women’s breasts, for example. Those would have to be very odd waves. Additionally, he continually inserts references to sex, such as when he mentions hostesses at bars tugging men’s penises under the tables. Asides like that don’t add to his writing, they merely serve to titillate. And they sound like a joke – at least, one assumes that the hostesses do not actually yank their customers’ private bits; that sounds more like extortion than pleasure to me. To some extent, he is just an earthy writer. After all, he also discusses relieving himself outside after drinking too much beer. But a larger part of it is him regarding the idea of the Japanese woman sexually. When he meets actual Japanese women they are always old, and he always makes fun of them in some way. There is the innkeeper with an otherwise empty inn whom he mocks for only being willing to host him if he speaks Japanese, or the passel of women at an inn who run around like busy little bees getting him settled in – until the sumo match featuring their hometown hero comes on, at which point they disappear. In the latter story, there are also men watching the wrestler, but Booth’s mockery is mostly reserved for the women. I can’t help wondering if it is because they are not the sexy, subservient, Orientalist women he wants but real, hardworking, older women who are willing to ignore their smelly, sexist, foreign customers in favor of their own interests.