Am I the Only One Who is Sick of Rating Systems?

They are everywhere--Facebook (which I gave up several months ago), Amazon, Twitter (which I never go on but hear about), IMDB, local libraries . . .

I will admit that when I intend to buy something, I often do check reviews. I avoid 1-star and 5-star reviews on Amazon, but often 3 and 4-star reviews can be quite helpful in determining what I should risk my money on, at least re: content.

And on Amazon at least (and IMDB), the sheer volume of customers means that the reviews eventually even out. Just about everything on IMDB, with a few exceptions, earns a C, falling into the 70% range.

But even Amazon and IMDB rating systems bug me. At the local level, rating stuff like books gets positively weird. My local library has a rating feature for books and movies, etc. The lack of volume means that most reviews fall into four categories: sycophantic, nasty, crazy, and irrelevant.

What continues to bother me, however, is the underlying implication of all these systems. One could argue that the purpose of a rating system is to help people avoid buying bad products. One could also argue that the purpose of a rating system is to help like-minded people find each other. But how people often use these rating systems--whether starred reviews or smiley faces or thumbs-up--is to "help" other people make the so-called right choices.

That is, you should spend your time and/or money on this, not that.

Whatever happened to, I read something. I like it or I don't like it? Whatever happened to: I will decide for myself? Or, I like this even if no-one else does?

Thankfully, despite the brainwashing, I still consider, But this is what the reviews (i.e. the bandwagon) said! to be a pretty pointless argument when it comes to whether or not I'll read or watch something. And I will generally ignore reviews--even on Amazon--that use that kind of reasoning.

But then I ignored my snobby friends in high school who made fun of my reading choices--because there's a stupid reason not to read something.

When did the whole world turn into high school?

Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, Language 2

Kate: As your editor, I could not check your translation against the original. Other than raising questions about the plot and various characters, I focused on the rare occasions when I felt the text needed to clarify pronouns, eliminate passive voice, and rewrite dangling modifiers. I notice these specific issues in other translations that I own. Why do these problems seem so common in English translations of Japanese texts? What is the gap here between Japanese grammar and English grammar?
Eugene: English has SVO word order and Japanese is SOV (like German). But the real difference is that it is grammatical in Japanese to drop the subject and even the object when it is understood in context (no need for anaphora). As a result, much of Japanese is OV or just V. Add to this the sociolinguistics of indirectness, and the result is that Japanese favors what translates into English as the passive voice.

The translator has to backfill the missing elements to form grammatical English. Tracking down antecedents can be one of the hardest things about translating Japanese. Once you end up with grammatical English, the direct translation is often in the passive voice and really should be rewritten. But because the translator already knows the “meaning,” the surface-level grammar can “disappear.”

That’s why a translation needs a rigorous line edit before it gets a copy edit, even if the translation is 100 percent accurate.
Kate: The book has multiple loose ends, which did not escape your notice. As a writer yourself, how do you handle a book that you enjoy but has noticeable gaps. Is translation your primary concern? Are the plot holes ever an issue?
Eugene: The translator’s job is to best communicate what the author wrote or the best estimation of what the author wanted to say based on the text. While it may be helpful to add parentheticals to clarify what is in the text, it’s not the translator’s job to add information to the narrative that wasn’t there to begin with. If there’s a plot hole, the translator’s job is to translate the plot hole.

Especially at this point, having read only two of the novels in the middle of the Boy Detectives Club series, I don’t want to make any assumptions about authorial intent or get ahead of myself.

Of course, when it comes to adaptations and overseas localization, the “integrity” of the original work is up for grabs. The NHK anime of the Twelve Kingdoms squashed two storylines together and invented a male character out of whole cloth. The English dub of Detective Conan renamed the entire cast. But as long as the copyright holder agrees, well, let marketing lead the way. Though I disapprove of such modifications.

Granted, I prefer Blade Runner with the “original” voiceover that Ridley Scott loathed and removed in his director’s cut. Then again, I’ve yet to see a director’s cut that improved on the theatrical release. I guess sometimes the “suits” and the marketers know what they’re talking about.
Kate: Referring back to tone, the translation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers uses (at least in the early volumes) old-fashioned “thee” and “thou” verbiage. I have to admit, it kind of puts me off (I prefer her contemporary works). Is this a common translation approach—does Japanese have an equivalent to King James’ English? Do translators try to match it? Should they?
Eugene: The Ōoku was the rarefied women’s quarters of Edo Castle so this might be an attempt to reflect the hierarchal language of the court. To be sure, the language of the time was as distinct as Elizabethan English is from modern English, so this could also be an attempt to reflect that historical distance and the peculiarities of that social class.

My sociolinguistic stance is that historical characters should sound like they sounded to their contemporaries. NHK historical dramas split the difference, using certain terms and conjugations that are associated with “historical” Japanese, but not so much that the dialogue is rendered incomprehensible. A similar middle ground is what BBC and Hollywood historical dramas use: “Shakespeare with the hard stuff removed.”

Though as in the case cited above, simply getting the terms of address right—finding the right analogues for the honorifics—should often suffice. The dialogue can only withstand so much complexity. 
 Kate: In the past I’ve asked you what you would like to see translated. In general, what do you think DOES get translated? Do the choices reflect translators’ preferences? Their readers’ demands? The ease of translation? Length of text? What is popular in the moment? What seems most likely to transfer between cultures? How does a publisher decide?! 
Eugene: Educated guesses here.

What gets translated is whatever publishers think will sell and whatever they can afford to license. Or what they love. I’m referring to popular fiction as opposed to literary fiction, which exists in a different realm. In the latter case, the reputations of the author and translator will figure into the calculations, as do their professional and academic relationships, such as that between Van C. Gessel and Endo Shusaku.

Clouds Above the Hill, Ryotaro Shiba’s massive retelling of the Russo-Japanese War (think of it as Japan’s War and Peace) was translated into English at the expense of his publisher, who hired three translators to tackle the sixteen-hundred pages. This was a labor of love for the publisher, as I doubt the English translation will ever break even (though Shiba is a bestselling author in Japan).

Right now, the light novel is ascendant, in no small part because of the manga and anime tie-ins. Publishers are going to lean toward titles and authors and genres that are getting good press and good ratings. When GKids or Crunchyroll announce a bunch of licenses, publishers will be looking at all the marketing possibilities for those titles. I’m sure a lot of product packaging goes on too.

Makoto Shinkai does the novelizations for his own films. GKids has already acquired the North American rights for Weathering with You (the film). Yen Press published Your Name (the novel) so odds are they will get Weathering with You as well. I assume that publishers like Yen Press have stables of translators they work with, and that a translator who has worked with an author will keep working with that author.

Frankly, I have no real idea. I mean, Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa Corporation and Hachette Book Group, so they’ve got all kinds of access and very deep pockets. I’d love to get the low-down on how they leverage that access. But I don’t know, except that, at the end of the day, they still have to turn a profit.
 Kate: Thanks so much for the interview! It will be exciting to discover with The Bronze Devil what Kogoro Akechi and Yoshio Kobayashi do next!! 

Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, Language 1

Kate: There are a number of colloquialisms scattered throughout the text. Were colloquialisms such as “still as stone” or “cards up my sleeves” your choice or Edogawa’s? Was there a place where you substituted a Japanese colloquialism with an English colloquialism?
Eugene: Most colloquialisms don’t survive a literal translation. I’m always delighted when one comes close (enough) because of linguistic convergent evolution or because of shared cognates.
The expression I translated as “cards up my sleeve” has dictionary translations of “secret skill” and “trump card.” A more literal rendering might be, “Don’t you know I’ve got trump cards I can produce at any time?” So it comes down to what I imagine that character would say in English.

Ultimately, all language arises out of the colloquial and cannot be separated from the constantly evolving culture, which is why the “definition” of a colloquial expression is usually going to be another colloquial expression.

Star Trek: TNG did a cute episode on the subject though it was flat wrong about the linguistics (it’d make sense if everybody was speaking different dialects of the same language). It’s the same mistake that tries to turn kanji into ideograms with transcendent “meanings.” Kanji are logograms. I would go so far as to argue that kanji in practical use are graphically little different than written English words and morphemes.

Which means that if I think about it long enough, I can probably come up with a better version. But translators, especially in manga, anime, and light novels, rarely have enough time. I see now that I used that expression twice (“ace up my sleeve”), so I changed the first one to, “Time for my last-ditch measure. This one will teach you a lesson!”

A running joke in My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is Hachiman mistaking Saika for a girl (speaking of beautiful boys). In one scene, Hachiman quips, “Would you make miso soup for me every morning?” It’s an old school marriage proposal, but translated literally (as it is in the anime), it will sound strange if you don’t know the cultural background.
Kate: Likewise, there are several places where Edogawa is clearly playing with language. How did you solve a problem like “ash” for both “embers” and “tree”? Where else did you have to solve such a problem? How do word-plays complicate translator’s lives?
Eugene: I’ll pat myself on the back for that one. Edogawa uses the homophones hai (ash) and hae (fly). They sound almost identical, but “ash” and “ash” are identical!

Wordplay is the bane of a translator’s existence. Unless you are truly fluent in both languages, you’re going to miss stuff. The same goes for cultural references. This is one area when traditional literary analysis really helps. Unless somebody points stuff out, you’re stuck at the surface level and whatever you’ve picked up on your own.
Kate: I notice a construction in The Space Alien that I see in many other light novels. An event will occur. Then a character will respond as if from the beginning of the event. For example: 
One, two, three, four, five of them, flat and round and shining with a silver light, shot over Ginza Avenue and flew off toward the west. Ichiro wasn’t imagining things. His father could see them as well.
Is this a typical construction in Japanese novels? Description followed by summary or reaction?
Eugene: This is a construction in Japanese fiction that others have taken note of, that is, flipping the usual sequence of objective description and subjective reaction. I see this “out of order” style with dialogue tags too (which I usually “fix” to avoid confusing the reader). Dialogue can be “self-tagged” by the use of pronouns and conjugations that indicate who is speaking, something that doesn’t work well in English.

In western narrative fiction, an unattributed observation is attached to the POV character or to an omniscient authorial voice. It’d be interesting to study whether anything profound can be concluded about writing styles that link (and how tightly) or separate the observation and the observer.

An article by Chiyuki Kumakura, “History and Narrative in Japanese,” presents a fascinating analysis of the paradox of who exactly is doing the talking in Japanese narrative fiction and when (grammatically) the act of recollection actually takes place. Indeed, I often encounter a mix of past and present “tense” in Japanese prose that in English would be written all in the past tense or all in the present tense.

Kumakura’s explanation is that
The Japanese verb system functions not in terms of “person” like European languages but in terms of the ways phenomena are perceived by the speaker. For this reason, Japanese time consciousness is focused only at the moment of perception or recognition, and therefore, there is only one moment, and one moment only, namely the present time that is crucial in Japanese.
In the original Japanese, the passage cited above contains two descriptive sentences in the present and present progressive tenses and two “reactions” in the past tense. Here is a more grammatically literal translation.

“It [= 'the strange spectacle'] is flat and round and shining with a silver light. One, two, three, four, five of them are flying at tremendous speed over Ginza Avenue and off toward the west.” And then back to the past tense for the reaction of the POV character: “Ichiro wasn’t imagining things. His father could see them too.”

Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, The Story

Kate: Torai’s assistant is a beautiful, mysterious, faintly sardonic young man wearing possible military garb. These young men populate manga and anime! What is the fascination? Why do they show up so often in Japanese art? (As opposed to the big, tough, rough & ready young men in British/American adventure stories who wear lots of guns and safari garb?)
Eugene: There is no shortage of muscled tough guys in manga and anime, especially those aimed at the Young Jump demographic. Sports series like Ashita no Joe in the 1960s and 1970s and action series like Fist of the North Star in the 1980s were so over the top that their over-the-topness has become iconic. Today, One Piece and Dragon Ball are two of the most popular anime in Japan and around the world.

And yet, as you observe, the inverse is just as true. I haven’t formulated a good theory to explain this.

As during Shakespeare’s time, men played women’s parts in traditional Kabuki (called onnagata or oyama). They still do today, and draw legions of loyal fans.
Also true of the lower brow Taishu Engeki (“popular theater”), vaudevillian troupes that feature both female leads and oyama. And then there’s the Takarazuka Revue, the famed all-female theatrical group, where the women play men.
Kate: Apologies occur in the story. Are apologies—versus lawsuits and jail time—a typical Japanese plot device?
Eugene: I think this is more reflective of Japanese culture itself. More recently, these cultural expectations have run headlong into “modern” legal principles like substantive due process, which in Japan can seem stuck back in the Edo period. A current example concerns the travails of Carlos Ghosn, the once savior and now fired CEO of Nissan/Renault. In the fallout of a boardroom coup, his involvement in a number of financial shenanigans came to light.

In the U.S., he would have paid a hefty fine to the IRS and SEC and gotten a few slaps on the wrist. In Japan it’s become the crime of the century. Except he won’t apologize!!!! Or confess!!!! He insists he is innocent!!!! Carlos Ghosn refuses to play by the “rules.” This attitude is obviously driving the prosecutors nuts. “But we’ve got you dead to rights!!!!” To western observers, on the other hand, the whole thing is starting to look like Javert obsessed with Jean Valjean.

Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, The Boys' Adventure Part

Kate: Like Robinson Crusoe and the middle of Moby Dick, Edogawa spends a great deal of time explaining the workings of a stakeout or a piece of machinery. Although assumptions are always fraught with complications, boys’ adventure stories seem to contain many more such passages than do literature aimed at girls. Why do such detailed “how to” passages fascinate boys?  
Eugene: Not just boys but men of all ages. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The male mind is dominated by left-brained, how-the-world-works thinking probably because a successful caveman had to have a theory of how the world worked and put that theory into practice by tinkering with it until he came up with something useful. The Tim Taylor model of social evolution.

Science fiction emerged in the mid-19th century with Jules Verne when a growing middle class had the time and resources to make a hobby of tinkering. As would Jobs and Wozniak, guys like Edison and the Wright brothers turned tinkering into careers.

A big driver of the computer revolution during the 1970s and 1980s was that the personal computer sated the tinkering impulse in a big way—without getting your hands literally dirty. Those early computers were like old car engines, demanding geeky how-to knowledge and using tools and taking things apart and sitting around the newsletter and magazine campfires and discussing the problem with other similarly-minded guys.

Now the metaphorical campfires are on the Internet. Computers have become appliances and the enthusiastic tinkerers have moved on to high-end gaming machines. And robots. And code.

Immediately after WWII, the black market in Akihabara became a magnet for electrical equipment startups. It grew into a Mecca for electronics wholesalers and hobbyists and today is the center of the otaku universe. Even in 1953, Edogawa was plugged into the state of the art. The same way guys devour magazines about cars they can’t afford and computers they don’t need, I’m sure his audience was eager for more.

After all, they would be the ones building modern Japan.
Kate: I remember you building go-carts in the garage when I was growing up. (Basically, my childhood was living with Sid, the kid next door in Toy Story.)  What are the Tim Taylor parts of your personality?
Eugene: I’m not a "more power" kind of guy, and have no desire to own a home or pick up a tool heavier than a hammer, but I’m a fan of This Old House and similar DIY shows and love wandering around hardware stores. I once owned all of Asimov’s science essay collections (see the connection to sci-fi below).
Kate: The Japanese enjoy lots of How-To shows. How does how-to show up in Japanese fiction? Is there an equivalent to Tim Allen's Home Improvement?
Eugene: The Japanese fascination with "how-to" is fully on display in what I call the "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way" genre. The typical approach is to have the protagonist get interested in a relatively unique activity, discover that her friends are interested in it too (or enthusiastically recruit them), and plunge in.

Plots are slice-of-life, often with little actual drama and only the rudimentary scaffolding of a plot, but with considerable attention given to the specifics of the activity, very much as a how-to guide. Recent examples include Encouragement of Climb (hiking), Laid-Back Camp (camping), and Long Riders (bicycle touring).

A related (and more plot-driven) genre has the protagonist mastering a sport or activity that most people know about but don't know a lot about. Enough expository material has to be integrated into the story so the audience can follow the drama. Recent examples include Chihayafuru (karuta), March Comes in Like a Lion (shogi), and Tsurune (Japanese archery).

I can't think of a series specifically like Home Improvement, though the movie All About Our House is basically an extended Home Improvement episode. There are plenty of programs similar to those you find on PBS Create.
Kate: And the connection to sci-fi? 
Eugene: Remember that long sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Like coverage from an auto show or an air show only in the future. The geek-out mentality is what produced it, and they thought it was so cool they didn’t edit it. It’s what Kyle Hill does on Because Science and Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman do on Mythbusters—come up with empirical and how-to explanations for improbable things.

Hard science fiction is figuring out the how-to for the future. Caper flicks, from Kelly’s Heroes to the whole Mission Impossible genre, are the same—as much about the how-to as the derring-do.

I think even conspiracy theories are driven by the desire to understand the world in a Newtonian and clockwork manner. As Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the whole world.” Of course, the problem with conspiracy theories is that one should never attribute to brilliant malice that which is adequately explained by mundane stupidity.

Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, The Genre

Kate: It appears that everyone is fascinated by aliens! Edogawa’s book is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and, even more so, Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of Wells’ famous book. What about Roswell? Is Japanese fascination with aliens equivalent to that phenomenon? Or does Japanese fascination take its own particular path?
Eugene: Very much the equivalent, and no less pervasive in popular culture. On a sociological level, it’s not hard to read this fascination as a metaphorical or psychological representation of Japan’s historical encounters with the outside world, from the 16th century Jesuits and Portuguese traders to Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in the 19th century to the Occupation following WWII in the 20th.

Aliens show up in droves in the sillier Godzilla sequels. In the 1970s, Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato defined the “combat” space opera, with evil aliens destroying the Earth Independence Day style, and another race of “good” aliens providing Earth with the technology they need to survive, except the Yamato has to fight its way through enemy territory to get it.

Also starting in the 1970s, Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura took an I Dream of Jeannie approach, with a cute alien called Lum attaching herself to a hapless teenage boy. Basically, aliens are everywhere in Japanese genre fiction.
Kate: Do the Japanese enjoy The X-Files? How do the Japanese feel about conspiracy theories?
Eugene: The X-Files is still popular, so much so that the theme music is used during talk and infotainment shows to indicate that something “mysterious” is about to be discussed.

Conspiracy theories are great fodder for plot material. As in Witch Hunter Robin and Hellsing, institutions like the Catholic Church and the historical Inquisition show up in the most unlikely places. Superheroes often work out of Buddhist and Shinto temples, while exercising their superpowers undercover. A good example is Noragami, which has the gods as well conspiring against each other.

The wide-ranging Magical Girl genre is rife with secret organizations, while everything remains “normal” on the surface. Alice & Zoroku is a recent example par excellence (it also riffs off Alice in Wonderland). Watching Alice & Zoroku, I couldn’t help seeing parallels between the “good guy” agents and Mulder, Scully, and Skinner.

The “conspiracies” can also have a kind of fairy godmother function, as in Oh My Goddess, in which the Norse goddesses labor behind the scenes to keep the Earth on an even keel, but now and then slip up and grant rather unusual requests.

The police procedural Aibou (“Partners”) mostly does “cozy” mysteries during the
regular season, and then wraps up with a two-hour TV movie special. The specials often involve complicated government conspiracies with secret agencies vying against each other and some poor sap getting murdered in the process. I personally prefer the cozy mysteries.

I don’t mind the conspiracy genre as long as I’m not being asked to take it seriously as some sort of higher political commentary.
Kate: Parts of The Space Alien have a strong horror element—more creepy than merely suspenseful. Is horror a popular genre in Japan? What type of horror? Slasher? Monster? Hitchcock? Ghosts? All of the above?
Eugene: Definitely all of the above. Horror is huge in Japan and has been for centuries, if not millennia. You can find every type of horror in abundance, from low-brow exploitation and splatter flicks to psychological to theological, mixed and matched with an enormous library of folk and fairy tales, from which, for example, the whole “girl ghost with long black hair” character emerges.

In Makai Tensho (“Samurai Resurrection”), remade at least three times with varying degrees of explicitness, the leader of the 1637–1638 Shimabara Rebellion, the “Christian Samurai” Shiro Amakusa, rises from the dead to wreak vengeance and it’s up to Yagyu Jubei (another historic character and samurai flick favorite) to save the Shogunate.

Japanese writers eagerly tap into Japan’s long history with Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity since the 16th century, and do not hesitate to borrow whatever religious elements might make for a good story. One result is Saint Young Men, a slice-of-life comedy that has Buddha and Jesus hanging out in Tokyo.

According to the critics (I’ve only read his young adult novels), Edogawa favored a psychological and modernist approach in his novels for adults. It stands to reason that such material should work its way into his young adult novels.
Kate: Like Dracula, The Space Alien indicates a fascination with new technology. This combination has been largely—though not completely—split in the West with Supernatural, for example, occasionally employing high tech, and Star Trek occasionally having a horror episode. Are the genres split in Japan? Do they overlap more than they do in the West? Or less?
Eugene: I’d say it never occurred to Japanese writers to split them apart. To be sure, there are the traditional categories like space opera and horror and mecha and magical girls and the ever-popular police procedural. But in Mob Psycho 100, a teen coming-of-age dramedy in the John Hughes mode blends in the horror and action genres, with a Buffy-style world-almost-ending in the second cour.

Dimension W starts out as hard science fiction with a premise borrowed from Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, tosses in an action hero straight out of the Fast & Furious franchise, a cute android sidekick (from Asimov’s robot novels), and often ends up with stories that would work as X-Files episodes.

A SF&F genre I consider unique to Japan, arising not only from the previous century of Japanese history but from the past thousand years, starts with an apocalyptic event that destroys a major city, after which the population picks themselves up and gets on with life. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, as in Blood Blockade Battlefield (a hellmouth opens in the middle of Manhattan), it’s a good opportunity to start a new business.

Interview with a Translator Returns!

Give a hearty Earthian welcome to The Space Alien by Ranpo Edogawa, translated by Eugene Woodbury! A new translation of a classic, The Space Alien is now available on Amazon. An introduction to Edogawa begins the book. These upcoming posts deal (mostly) with the translator and the art of translation.

The posts will cover the following: An Introduction to Edogawa & His Translator, The Genre, Boys' Adventure Stories, The Plot, and Language.

Kate: Where/when did you first come across Ranpo Edogawa’s works?
Eugene: Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Ranpo Edogawa is part of the zeitgeist. More people know of him than have read him. (At the other end of the literary spectrum, also true of Kenji Miyazawa.) He is referenced everywhere on Japanese television, from Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files to Bungo Stray Dogs to the hugely popular Detective Conan.

Incidentally, Arthur Conan Doyle is no less a metaphysical presence. The titular character in Detective Conan goes by the pseudonym “Conan Edogawa.” Recent manga and anime titles include Holmes of Kyoto and the upcoming Kabukicho Sherlock.
Kate: What attracted you to this book specifically?
Eugene: Aozora Bunko (the Blue Sky public domain library, the Japanese version of Project Gutenberg) has all of his novels online. After reading Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro on Aozora Bunko, I was looking for lighter fare that’d be fun to translate. Edogawa’s young adult novels seemed a good place to begin and The Space Alien had an intriguing title.
Kate: What is Edogawa’s influence in media? 
Eugene: I compiled the following list of derived work from the Japanese Wikipedia entry for “Boy Detectives Club.” As with Sherlock Holmes, there’s always room for another adaptation.

A 1956 radio drama. Eleven movies released between 1954 and 1959. A television series from 1958 to 1960 (81 episodes). A television series from 1960 to 1963 (152 episodes). A 1968 anime series (35 episodes). A 1975 television series (26 episodes). A 1977 television series (26 episodes). A television series from 1983 to 1984 (47 episodes). A 2015 television series (11 episodes). A 2016 anime series (no end date).

Recent editions of the books were published by Poplar Books, in 26 volumes featuring original and revised covers, plus five volumes of stories by contemporary authors.

Kogoro Akechi brings to mind a less flamboyant version of Joe Shishido’s hard-nosed private eye in Detective Bureau 2-3. But the entire story structure of the Boy Detectives Club series is largely reflected in the Detective Conan series (ongoing since 1994, spinning off both animated and live-action series and movies), in which it is called the “Junior Detective League.”

It is easy to make one-to-one associations between the two series. The names of the Conan Edogawa and private detective Kogoro Mori are homages to Edogawa. One big difference is that Conan solves most of the cases but gives the credit to Mori, who functions as a kind of well-intentioned Lestrade. The “Black Organization” is more malevolent than the “Fiend,” their crimes are more violent and felonious.
Kate: Are you planning to translate more of Edogawa’s works? If so, which ones?
Eugene: I’ve started The Bronze Devil.
Kate: What other translations are you planning? 
Eugene: Fuyumi Ono’s massive new Twelve Kingdoms novel is scheduled for release this October and November in four volumes. Even after it’s published, I won’t be doing anything other than reading it for a while. But I plan to get around to it at some point.

Great Golden Girls Language Moment

Blanche and Rose are overseeing try-outs for a talent show. Blanche, naturally, is favoring all the men. The director says to Rose, "You might tell your friend not to be so capricious in her
judgments."

Rose replies:
"Ah, yes, indeed. For as we all know, it is the capricious person whose capriciosity is never truly caprified."
It's a great quote because it illustrates a point that Stephen Pinker makes as well as Charlie in Numb3rs. The human brain is wired to not only learn language but to develop and play with it. Children, for example, start with imitation. They then go through a period of time where they experiment with the rules.

So a child will start by saying, "I swam yesterday." THEN, as the child ages, the sentence becomes "I swimmed yesterday" before the child learns (as opposed to imitates) to use "I swam."

The capacity to play with the words is already there. As Charlie points out, humans can suss out (guess or intuit) what follows from half-information. Only so many letters can follow "thr"--basically the next letter has to be a vowel.

So when Rose develops or experiments with "capricious" (in large part because she doesn't know what the word means) she is doing something that the human brain does almost effortlessly. Sure, computers can be programmed to do the same thing. But the human brain is already wired to figure out different forms of a word--from adjective to noun to verb--which is as astonishing as Stephen Pinker claims!

Cary Grant: Funny Guy & Great Physical Actor

Re-post from 2005:

I recently contemplated the power of physical acting. Sir Gielgud was famously described as a great actor "from the neck up." That's  unfair to Gielgud, but it carries with it an important point: some actors are less than good at emoting--think Keanu Reeves--yet terrifically skilled at using their bodies to communicate a point.

The great Cary Grant, of course, could do both.

* * *
 
Towards the end of the movie Arsenic and Old Lace, Cary Grant sits on the stairs and talks to himself. It's an off-the-wall performance, and one of the funniest moments in classic film.

When I first saw the movie, I was familiar with Cary Grant as the elegant, suave protagonist of movies like To Catch a Thief. I hadn't realized, until I saw Arsenic and Old Lace, how much comedy Cary Grant brought to his parts. It was always there, I just hadn't appreciated it before.

I'm currently reading a biography of Grant by Marc Eliot. I've learned that Grant's background was... vaudeville would be the best word. He was part of an acrobatic troupe when he came to New York. But in his first years in Hollywood, he was mostly cast as the "elegant guy in a tux," a role that demanded little from him and kept him in the second tier of acting. (He kept getting roles that Cooper discarded.)

And then Grant broke from the Academy and become an independent contractor, an incredibly brave move in those days and also, the reason the Academy refused to give Grant any awards until 1970 when Gregory Peck insisted that it honor Grant with a lifetime achievement award. (I really don't know how anyone can believe that Academy awards aren't anything but insider political grandstanding.)

As an independent contractor, Grant got lucky. He got cast in The Awful Truth where his comedic powers made the picture the hit of the year. And then Hitchcock discovered him and developed Grant's darker side. What Grant excels at IS elegant suaveness but with a soupcon of black comedy at the back of it all. It's the snaky part of his smile.

In his biography, Eliot bemoans that Hitchcock couldn't get Grant for Shadow of a Doubt. However, I think Joseph Cotten was the better choice. The psycho uncle in Shadow of a Doubt has to disgust the viewer. The excellent script by Thornton Wilder emphasizes that this is a good town and a good family ("decent"--high praise from Wilder) that doesn't deserve this particular problem. The audience has to want Cotten to leave, has to feel more and more panicky as he continues to stay. The problem with Cary Grant is that even when he is scary, you want him to stick around. Oh, so, he might kill a few people, what's the prob?

But he is perfect both in Suspicion and Notorious, where his dark side really shines (of course, Claude Rains, at 5'6", outplays everyone in the latter, with the exception of Bergman: Notorious is a truly great film). But to return to comedy, regarding The Awful Truth, Eliot writes:
Grant's catlike physicality, which had brought him to the brink of lugubriousness in his earlier leading-heel roles, now translated into a youthful, rhythmic prance fueled by the high energy of light comedy. A bend of his knee become the equivalent of a punch line. A lifting of his palms expressed a lifetime's skepticism. A tilting of his head suggested a turning of the other cheek (page 164). 
And I think that Eliot's insight here about Grant's physical (perhaps vaudeville trained) comedy is right on. It is this plus Grant's dark comedic side that explains (or helps explain) his star quality; the amazing Cary Grant who makes it all look so effortless.

On a side note, one thing about the Hollywood of that era is that it was far more drug-ridden, debauched, politically charged and crazier than it is now; we just know more about it now, what with tabloids and such. But the backstabbing and backbiting of "The Golden Era" was truly astonishing. It's astonishing how far the "greats" rose above it (or used it or ignored it) to achieve their status. Talk about powerhouses!

Great Golden Girls Moment

I comment in an earlier post that although Golden Girls has hilarious moments in Seasons 1-4, after Season 5 the humor ratchets up to a new level of outrageous satire and off-the-wall commentary.

One of the truly out-there moments occurs in Season 6, "Mrs. George Devereaux." An excellent episode in its own right, guest-starring the charming George Grizzard as Blanche's late husband, the episode contains a hilarious non sequitur.

It is delivered by Rose, of course:
Rose: Someone was actually able to deceive me once. St. Olaf's most famous OB/MAG. Obstetrician/magician. The Amazing Shapiro. He delivered Bridget. But it was so confusing. "It's a girl! Now it's a dove! Now it's a glass of milk!" I don't know how he got her in that deck of cards, but there she was, right after the King of Hearts. "Is this your baby?"
Of course, Betty White delivers this...extended metaphor?...with notable BBC panache. And a straight face. There's a reason she was nominated seven times while on Golden Girls for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Comedy Series (won once).

Lessons from Fanfiction: Life on a Starship Requires More Than 7-9 People

One of my favorite Next Gen episodes is "Lower Decks." I've always enjoyed examining a world from an outsider's perspective (outsiders to the "in-group" or main cast).

Consequently, all of my Star Trek fan fiction uses new characters--that is, I'm not writing fan fiction about Picard or Data or Janeway or Tuvok (or even Neelix). Rather, I'm writing fan fiction about unknown, unseen crew members as well as the occasional civilian.

Of course, I needed to give jobs to my outsiders. As I gave my characters jobs, I began to realize: a starship requires a lot of work!

Miles O'Brien: Great Star Trek Character!
Here, for example, are some of the jobs I gave my characters (some of these jobs exist in the Star Trek universe; some of them exist but under different titles; some of them must exist but are never referenced):
Loadmaster--The person who oversees the cargo bays. Things can't just be beamed up and left all over the place. Someone has to put everything away. 

Quartermaster--The person who keeps an inventory of supplies, such as cleaning/replacing uniforms. Because even in the future, people sweat.

Security Officer/EMT--The officer in security who can perform emergency medicine because the Doctor and Dr. Crusher can't be everywhere at once and, well, it just makes sense.

Holographic Engineer--Considering the many, many times that people carry live weapons onto the holodeck, someone must be patching all those laser and bullet holes. I also figured out a way to explain why sometimes people are able to leave the holodecks still carrying supposedly holodeck-created papers and objects. The holodeck engineers were experimenting with incorporating "real" matter alongside holographic matter! Got to watch out for those overly zealous and creative holodeck engineers.

Communication without the UT.
Translator--The Universal Translator has to be updated by someone. It supposedly works on brain waves, but Wikipedia states that it works by analyzing and identifying patterns. Diane Duane does an excellent job in her books--Romulan Way, Spock's World--exploring how someone like Uhura is constantly updating her console in response to languages identified by the Universal Translator. Duane also makes a distinction between a learned language and a translated language--some things do not translate easily.

Replicator Engineer--Someone has to program all those special dishes into the food replicators in VIP quarters. And someone has to go around and check all the replicators that weren't working the last time a starship went through some weird nebula thingy and the replicators started producing cacti in response to a request for "chocolate sundae." It sounds pleasingly sci-fi to say that everything could simply be uploaded or downloaded into everyone's quarters through some centralized A.I. The fact is, no technology works seamlessly. Someone needs to check *each one.*

Cook--Because Neelix does occasionally have to sleep (and tell stories to Naomi Wildman and go on diplomatic missions).

Someone has to "vet" these puppies--rabies on a starship is a
really bad idea.
I have at least two characters, engineers, who work on the "fabric" of the ship--carpets wear out, bolts wear down, constant exposure to space storms drills pits into metal. Windows get streaked. Aquariums require filters. Consoles get smudged. People spill stuff. Animals poop in wrong places. Someone--large crews of someones--has to make sure the ship doesn't come to pieces.

And then there are all those civilian experts in agriculture and zoology and first contact who prepare reports and PowerPoints whenever Starfleet visits a new planet.
In sum, it makes sense that an hour episode would condense the following process: a starship enters a new area of space. The crew who monitor ship-to-ship and ship-to-planet communications catch an alert: the computer has "recognized" a language but cannot identify it. First contact personnel as well as numerous linguists immediately get involved. One of the whiz kids in the back room deciphers a phrase that indicates a threat. That information is conveyed to consoles on the bridge (or directly to the captain). The ship moves into yellow alert. Security personnel are called back on duty, including security EMTs. In the meantime, all the people who keep the ship actually functioning continue to do their jobs.

Every episode uses a kind of short-hand of this process--but let's face it, the seven to ten main characters can't do everything, no matter how quickly they tap their consoles. Good leaders wisely use and winnow out information from their subordinates (and those leaders shouldn't take all the credit).

The Classic Narrative Arc

I have long considered Die Hard to be the
most perfectly paid-off of all action films.
The classic narrative arc is sometimes perceived as old-fashioned. After all, so-called real life doesn't always move seamlessly from conflict to climax to pay-offs and resolution.

I've heard the latter argument used to excuse anything from chick lit to stream-of-consciousness literary writing. I've used that excuse myself (usually when I couldn't get a story to come together).

I don't consider the classic narrative arc to be old-fashioned or cliche. I consider it archetypal, part of human wiring. It's the way we naturally tell stories ("Guess what happened to me today? Surprise!"). It's the way parents teach children to tell stories ("What happens next?") and the way children teach each other to tell stories ("Do you know what!? Do you know what?!").

The classic narrative arc and its wiring is the reason people like me have to teach students how to write essays--because essays and business documents are counter-intuitive compared to stories: in the former, one starts with the conclusion or deduction while in the latter, one builds to the pay-off.

The book is one of Christie's strongest--in part
due to her classic narrator.
The classic narrative arc does come with "givens." But "givens" are part of understanding art. Without the "givens," the reader will have no idea what is being violated or satirized or played with. Picasso excelled in traditional "givens," making Cubism a deliberate choice rather than a meandering diatribe against classical expectations.

(Frankly, violations and satires and such can get a bit tiresome after awhile. Violating the rules because one can't master the real ones is far less rebellious than it sounds.)

In any case, one of the principle delightful aspects of the classic narrative arc is the actual writing. In murder mysteries, I like the murderer to be caught. I like even more that intense satisfaction that arises when a story works. A narrative that pulls elements together is a thing of beauty, an artistic sculpture in its own right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe life is more vague and random and uncertain than fiction with no clear pay-offs or endings...

But I live life. I want art to reflect it back to me. I also want art to be more. Otherwise, I'd just go read a driver's ed manual.

Art is theology and hymns. And murals and portraits. And well-made shoes. And films. And short stories. And decorative gardens. And beautiful jewelry. And poems. And a great episode on television. And a batik. And a collage...

It's even chick-lit. My point here is that when the classic narrative arc comes together--when it works--it provides a satisfaction that goes beyond oh-they-got-married or oh-they-got-the-bad-guy. It's--

Ahh, that works.

Agatha Christie Collection Reviews: Thirteen for Dinner

In the world of Agatha Christie films, the BBC films naturally stand out: Joan Hickson's films; David Suchet's Poirot episodes and films.

However, the Agatha Christie Collection deserves some praise.

These movies are modernized (1980s) versions of classic Christie mysteries, starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, Helen Hayes as Miss Marple, and even Anthony Andrews as a private investigator. They run the range from ehhh to quite good.

I am not including Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile, also starring Ustinov, theater movies which I greatly dislike. Both movies were attempts to capitalize on the success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) by showcasing well-known actors and actresses. They are irritating rather than clever.

The made-for-television movies, however, are often quite good and even, surprisingly enough, quite accurate. These posts will supply reviews, starting with--

Thirteen for Dinner

First, a word about Peter Ustinov. Does he look anything like Christie's Poirot? No. Not even slightly.

But he is so obviously having fun, I give him a pass.

Yup, that's Suchet before he became Poirot.
Thirteen for Dinner is impressively accurate to the original text. Faye Dunaway plays a kind of prototype of Nicole Kidman's character in To Die For and does it quite well. In fact, I consider her performance and Helen Grace's performance in Lord Edgware Dies (the Poirot version) to be among the strongest of all Christie mystery performances.

I do prefer Hugh Fraser as Hastings to Jonathan Cecil--the latter actor embodies the word "daft." Still, he is so adorable, he doesn't bother me so much.

Cecil & Ustinov
Ustinov's version does a particularly fine job not only with Dunaway but with the storyline's important clues. Like many Christie novels and plays, Thirteen at Dinner rests on identity being assumed rather than verified, a psychological point that is upheld by current science. (We assume that certain markers tell us who a person is rather than looking twice.) The clues that lead to the final revelation are suitably presented.

In fact, this mystery contains some of Christie's cleverest forensic-type clues. The smart but dumb murderer manages to successfully--and believably--keep Poirot on his toes.

The movie drags a bit in places but that's fairly typical of TV movies which actually work best in fifteen minute increments. Most importantly, from my perspective, it respects the original Christie vision. Changes naturally must be made when moving from book to film. Respect for the power of the original (there's a reason the woman sold so many books!) should remain.

The Counterintuitive Yet Elegant Philosophy of Non-Action

For the A-Z List, I am reposting my review of Moneyball for the 700s. The 700s cover sports and hobbies. I've also read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, but I consider Moneyball more interesting and substantive.

* * *

Recently, I read Michael Lewis's Moneyball. It is a remarkable book, especially considering that I know little about statistics and less about baseball--or little about baseball and less about statistics: take your pick.

But the book is well-written and gripping. In many ways it reminds me of Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand which kept me on the edge of my seat even though, by the time I'd read it, I'd seen the movie several times. It takes a good writer to surprise you with a known outcome.

But the part of the book that strikes me most is not the ending. About half-way through the book, Lewis discusses Bill James, hits, and runs. He basically goes through the math of showing the worth of a player who is willing to be walked versus a player who flails away at anything (which is pretty much the way I play the game; shoot, I start waving the bat AFTER the ball crosses the plate).

He goes on to examine Oakland A's' unique willingness to "hire" (buy?) players willing to let pitches go by, even to earn strikes, in order to get on-base. David Justice--whose age had lowered his apparent worth (yeah, men in sports over 30 slow down)--still had the supreme gift of being patient at the plate. The A's, through DePodesta, had discovered that "an extraordinary ability to get on base was more likely to stay with a player to the end of his career than, say, an extraordinary ability to hit home runs."
The Two Hattebergs

Then came the part of the book that made my hair stand on end, the chapter about Hatteberg:
Hatteberg's was a more subtle, less visible strength. He was unafraid of striking out and this absence of fear showed itself in how often he hit with two strikes . . . The A's hitting coaches had to drill into hitters' heads the idea that there was nothing especially bad about striking out . . . It angered [Hatteberg] far less to take a called strike than to swing at a pitch he couldn't do much with, and hit some lazy fly or weak grounder.
Lewis discusses how counter-intuitive this business of striking out/allowing for strikes is in a culture where hitting, hitting anything, has become the end-all-be-all of a player's life.

It isn't just counter-intuitive in baseball--it is counter-intuitive in life. At least American life.

I read what Lewis wrote about the worth of not reacting precipitously and thought, "But that's just about every single argument I've tried to make with institutionalized groups of people throughout my life."

And I've lost--because our culture says that to do something, ANYTHING, is better than not doing something. Administrations/heads/bosses/supervisors/political acquaintances feel a constant compulsion to rejigger things, overview stuff, review whatever. Change what happened before. Add extra steps. BIG BIG BIG. MORE MORE MORE.

I knew I was a libertarian before reading Lewis's book. I had no idea it was more than just a distaste for punditry and political excess.

For example, I have always instinctively worked to keep my courses from becoming morasses of "little work"--continual small homework assignments and projects with endless readings and recourse to the textbook. I always figured, if I can't convey basic writing principals in a single semester using a minimum of assignments/texts, I'm not doing my job. The more I've taught, the more I've come to believe this.

Likewise, I have worked for charitable organizations where I got frustrated because instead of doing the minimum required by the organization's rules--and doing that minimum well, i.e. not burning people out--the organization wanted to reinvent the moon: take everyone to Hawaii, create the biggest celebration ever. Any balking on my part was perceived as indifference, a lack of fellow feeling and compassion.

Except the desire to do more ("if less is more, just think how much more, more would be," Frasier argues) doesn't necessarily result in happier, more helped, more fulfilled people.

Constant motion doesn't automatically achieve anything (nope, not even throwing money at the problem: check out the true end of most lottery winners). And Moneyball proves this. Or maybe Bill James did before the Oakland A's put it to the test and Lewis wrote about it. But Lewis says it in a way that instantly clicked in my head: There's nothing automatically meritorious about doing-something-for-the-sake-of-the-doing. There's nothing to be gained from creating more and more hoops for people to jump through for the sake of showing how hard other people are working. There's nothing worthwhile about inventing or exaggerating supposed needs just so administrators can then fulfill those needs.

There's no merit in appearing caring and charitable, especially if the care and charity is merely meant to show off the personalities and character of the responders.

"We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented," states Matthew 11:17. Seems like an odd sentence to show up in the New Testament but boy, does it say a lot about human nature, especially the political mindset, wherever that mindset appears.

Lessons from Fan Fiction: Superman is the Most Realistic Superhero

These posts--Learning from Fan Fiction--maintain that in the process of writing fan fiction, one learns quite a bit about the original series/film/novel/story/legend that one is emulating.

I should add that this only truly works if the fan-fic writer attempts to write within the original world. If, like with so many movies, the fan fiction is simply a jumping off point--the writer is using one idea/character in order to create a completely different storyline/universe--that's . . . not wrong. It's just not fan fiction.

I recently delved into fan fiction based on Lois & Clark. My (unexpected) conclusion: Superman is more realistic than most other superheroes.

The realism becomes apparent when the fan-fic writer is forced to deal with what Clark would do, what Superman would do, what solution is the most plausible, and so on and so forth.

1. Clark/Superman has a job, and he doesn't want to get fired.

There is no evidence that Clark needs to work in order to keep from starving/freezing to death. But he does work. Rather than standing myopically outside of society, he works with the same citizens he intends to help. The fact that he works professionally--keeps appointments, hands in articles on time, follows up on interviews--indicates that he values his work.

It also indicates that he cannot be everywhere at once; most crimes are better handled by professionals within their specific venues. He can afford to spend time pondering headlines.

2. Clark/Superman has parents and presumably an entire collection of relatives.

He certainly has neighbors and colleagues, not to forget the vendor who sells him hot-dogs.

The realism here isn't so much Clark's/Superman's extroverted nature. It is rather that he realistically has to take other people into account when he makes decisions about work, holidays, vacations, etc.

Consequently, Clark/Superman doesn't evoke that chill that ordinary people feel when they read that a Hollywood celebrity invited 1,000 "friends" to a shindig. Superman has a community and a limited number of friends. How normal is that!

Superman lifts an island.
3. Clark/ Superman truly is mostly there for the big stuff and doesn't try to micro-manage.

He isn't trying to run the universe. It never seems to occur to him that running the universe would be within his purview. He isn't rushing around instructing fire fighters and police and aid workers where to go and what to do. He doesn't pretend to be a financial advisor or accountant. He doesn't even pretend that he knows all the ins and outs of an operation.

When he helps the Red Cross, he lets them tell him where to take the big truck of supplies.

Superman's limitations, even if self-imposed, give him interesting ethical dilemmas. Since he can't (or won't) always help, when should he help? Who should he trust? Whose rules of law should he honor? 

4. Clark/Superman doesn't have his own prison.

Because, come on, prisons are expensive! Really expensive! All those supervillains need to be, presumably, fed and clothed and, maybe, rehabilitated. Unless the prison is just a big torture chamber, their varying needs have to be considered: the guy who can survive in super-cold; the gal who needs super-warm, etc.

Unfortunately, the sheer, enormous cost of the things that superheroes are supposed to do figures into few calculations (except in Hancock). Superman's costs, however, are built in.

Frank Miller cleverly has Superman and Batman face off against each other as the intelligent optimist who compromises with the powers-that-be (because he knows his own limitations) versus the cynical idealist/rebel who stays in the shadows (because the system is just that bad).

I like both superheroes. But Superman--for all his "faster than a speeding bullet" prowess--is far more realistic. And, oddly enough, in the long run, he is also somewhat more relatable.

Because I don't yet have my trillionaire bank account. Not that I would turn it down. But nope, not yet.