Hiro Mizushima: The Gary Oldman of Japan

This winter, I watched the Black Butler live-action movie. It was something of a surprise since it is set in a steampunk future rather than a steampunk past, and not in England. (The manga series is rather like the Victorian version of Torchwood.)

There are other changes, and I know that many reviewers were unhappy with the changes. I thought the plot was kind of dumb. I would have liked to have seen the manga story line in which villains attack the estate--unfortunately, the movie only gives us one of the fighting servants, discounting Sebastian, of course.

The one fighting servant is very cool. But the lack of an "origin" story complicates the already convoluted plot. 

I do think the movie captured the aura of the series as well as the relationship between Sebastian and Ciel (or Earl Kiyohara Genpou in the movie). 

Truthfully, though, I watched it for Hiro Mizushima. 

I encountered Hiro Mizushima in the live-action television series Hana-Kimi (which came out several years ago). He plays Nanba in that series. And I had exactly the same reaction to him in Hana-Kimi as I had to him as Sebastian. My initial reaction was, But he doesn't look right for the part

And then, in both cases, I didn't care because he so entirely inhabits the part. 

As Sebastian, he doesn't have the height (quite) or the haughty features. His mien is more Elvin mischievous than above-it-all butler. (Likewise, Nanba is more good-student-who-breaks-the-rules than guy-who-already-looks-like-he-broke-the-rules.)

Yet Mizushima entirely captures everything about Sebastian: the hauteur, when necessary; the sardonic edge; the faint (not at all heavy-handed) thread/sense of regret (or bemusement); the cool patience. 

The love of cats. 

It's an impressive performance. 

There hasn't been a sequel, and I can see why--the chosen story line just isn't that interesting and although I didn't mind the creative license taken with Ciel, it would be rather fun to watch a version with the intended Ciel. The 2014 film version comes across as a tad Repo: The Genetic Opera when the series is something closer to Empire of the Sun (in terms of the boy's survival amongst helpers and rogues).

I would keep Hiro Mizushima as Sebastian. 

Fairy Tales: English Folklore, the Quintessence of Practicality

In the nineteenth century, searching for the "true" national identity was all the rage. Part of that search involved collecting folklore, tales from the supposedly unadulterated, "pure" nation's past.

Intellectuals of the nineteenth century had a lot in common with current academics who invest in theoretically manufactured "pure" group identities.

Although awash with as much national pride as other countries, the English never entirely embraced the "English" identity in folklore. (Perhaps due to already having an extensive empire.) Unlike even the Scots and Irish, English lore remained consistently local.

The local and regional emphasis explains a great deal about the lore of colonial transplants. A belief in witchcraft as well as the accoutrements of lore--riddles, songs, and traditions--moved to the North American colonies with the English. However, beliefs in fairies and pixies didn't travel as well. Location or place (that hill, that mound, that forest) was home to such creatures. Separation from the home meant separation from the creatures.

One of the many, many reasons for the Salem Witch Trials was likely the near-obsession by early Puritan lore collectors like the Mathers with witches and poltergeists--and I ponder if that near-obsession stemmed from loneliness. They'd lost their fairies and pixies and water monsters when they crossed the ocean. Witches and demons were all they had left to fill the wilderness and town.

So, yes, ghosts, poltergeists, and witches show up all over Puritan tales while the tales that influenced Shakespeare stayed put in the homeland--as did the legends (King Arthur, Robin Hood). Consequently, many of the English tales that have "carried" beyond local towns and hamlets--such as the Horatio Alger tale "Dick Wittington and His Cat"--contain little to no magic. Place and time and practicality rule the day.

For reading, I recommend Folktales of England, edited by Katharine M. Briggs. Richard Dorson's forward to Briggs' book does a fantastic job detailing the chronology of English lore collectors. I use Dorson's American Legends when I teach American Folklore, which book also addresses the problem of regional versus  a nationally common lore. "What actually gets told again and again and again" means Dorson and Briggs are prepared to embrace urban legends, which older antiquarians were reluctant to do. In 1965, Dorson and Briggs, along with Jan Harold Brunvand, were way ahead of the game. 

In addition, the tales in Folktales of England are introduced with contextual notes, which I always appreciate. 

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Battle Tactics I

Kate: Some of the battle tactics by the land gangs described in Hills of Silver Ruins remind me of the assault by Saruman on Helm’s Deep: ladders against the wall.

How do battles/confrontations in The Twelve Kingdoms reflect Japanese and Chinese history?

Eugene: One important factor that sets the Twelve Kingdoms apart in the fantasy genre when it comes to military matters is that one kingdom cannot invade another. It's only happened once and ended badly for the invader (despite the invader possessing the moral high ground). Even providing "aid and comfort" gets tricky.

Thus military conflicts arise because of a civil uprising or coup d'etat or struggles for power during periods of an empty throne. All three come into play in Hills of Silver Ruins, with the land gangs taking advantage of the breakdown in political order after a coup d'etat to carve out their own spheres of influence. Analogies can be found throughout Japanese history.

Such as during the 16th century, when the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate led to the Warring States period. And in the middle of the 19th century, when an enervated Tokugawa shogunate attempted to discipline the fractious Choshu province and failed when the powerful Satsuma clan stopped pretending to be a loyal ally and aligned itself with Choshu instead.

In the case of the former, it took half a century for the "Three Great Unifiers" (Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu) to unify the country under a single national government. In the latter, Satsuma and Choshu swept aside the Tokugawa shogunate in less than a year, after which they moved the emperor to Tokyo and declared the "restoration" of the imperial government.

Even after the Meiji emperor was formally installed, regional revolts broke out across the country, culminating in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. The conflict never moved off the island of Kyushu but was costly in terms of men and material, and triggered a series of revenge assassinations.

The other big difference in the Twelve Kingdoms is that imperial succession is determined by literal divine will. Any caretaker government will end at some point. Only by keeping Taiki and Gyousou alive can Asen remain in power. A pretender's claim to the throne is always on a precarious footing.

That is why every rebellion in the Twelve Kingdom either overthrows the government, overthrows a pretender, or at some point turns into a siege.

More to follow on battle tactics that appear throughout Hills of Silver Ruins!

Jessica Fletcher Obeys the Law: The Most Basic Rule of Detective Fiction

I have complained elsewhere and in great length about why The Mentalist bugged me so much even though I adore Simon Baker. 

I intensely dislike the unknown, unnamed, unseen Big Bad character.

I despise Big Bad story lines where the Big Bad controls everything and everyone. 

The problem? The approach makes nonsense of the other episodes. If everyone is a potential enemy--if every law can be broken--if every piece of evidence can be sabotaged--if every arrest is a potential conspiracy--

How can anything be real? 

I know there are writers who like to ask that question. Frankly, I find it pedestrian and dull. I also think it sabotages mystery shows. Mystery shows rest on the premise that clues lead somewhere. A crime was committed. A villain committed the crime. The villain left evidence. The detective finds the evidence. The villain is arrested. 

Various writers have challenged the premise of one set of clues meaning one result, including Pierre Bayard in Sherlock Holmes was Wrong. But even Bayard concludes his analysis by proposing a different result using the same clues or text. (Using this approach, many fans have fun imagining Jessica Fletcher as the greatest serial killer of all time.)

In the end, what matters is that clues have meaning. If one insists on the existentialist approach, what matters in the end is that clues are given meaning. 

Strip away meaning--who cares? It would be as if Forensic Files was renamed, Everything was Imaginary, so Nobody Went to Jail and each episode was renamed, "The Episode Where Nothing Happens."

In my annual rewatching of Murder, She Wrote, I've determined that the show works (more or less) for several reasons. The main reason, of course, is the magnificent Angela Lansbury. And Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher is likely to say, "Oh, I'm not the police," right before she gets involved. 

That disclaimer is important. Jessica Fletcher believes at a fundamental level that villainy is wrong. People should report crimes. The police--however flawed--are necessary authority figures. Villains ought to be caught. The law exists, and breaking the law is a problem. She steps in out of moral obligation.

The mystery, Jessica believes, must be resolved and resolved properly and fairly. 

Great character with a clear belief system = viewable mysteries. 

Fairy Tales: Saint Francis and What Fairy Tales Aren't

This winter, a snow storm caused problems to Portland Public Library's roof in the children's area, the place I go to browse for fairy tales in alphabetical order. Consequently, the area was closed for several weeks.

When I went to find an "E" tale, the volunteer librarian volunteered to bring out some books. I agreed and ended up with Richard Egielski's Saint Francis and the Wolf

It is a jF but not one I would have selected. But that instantly provoked the question, "Why not?" 

Granted the Catholic church has "demoted" saints who are, by most reckonings, complete mythical fabrications, such as Alexius (still a saint but with no calendared feast), Dorothy (still a saint but with no calendared feast), and the Seven Holy Brothers (now listed separately); their lives or acts, we are told, were "fabulous." 

Saint Francis, however, is not one of the demoted. 

So I personally would have categorized the book under j270 alongside Lives and Legends of the Saints

The question still remains: why wouldn't I call it a fairy tale? 

The tale appears in many versions of Saint Francis's life. It exists alongside numerous tales of destructive wolves that terrorized countrysides in the Middle Ages, similar to the wolf that makes an appearance in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Anthropologists often connect these tales to a legitimate fear of rabies and the omnipresence of wild animals on the outskirts of towns. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, an actual rabid wolf may have been lurking around the town of Gevaudan, much like Jaws is likely based on an actual shark that got off course and caused havoc on the Jersey Shore. 

St. Francis's tale takes place in fictional Don Matteo's hometown, Gubbio, which is a real place. The wolf is terrorizing the locals. They send out a knight, an army, and a war machine. All fail to stop the wolf. Finally, the loving Saint Francis approaches the wolf and persuades it to make peace. Wikipedia states that Saint Francis actually persuaded the townspeople to "feed the wolf," which would certainly have done the trick. 

The story has elements of a fairy tale, including three attempts to calm the wolf, so why would I still not designate it as one?

1. It involves no magic.  

Miracles are not the same as magic since magic is entirely dependent on either a spell or amulet. A miracle, however, is delivered by grace. 

Interestingly enough, the wolf's "taming" isn't dependent on a miracle either. It is entirely dependent on Saint Francis being a big-dog lover (so perhaps the book could be categorized under 636.7 for "dogs"). Saint Francis's actions are arguably a manifestation of God's great love but an entirely different event from, say, closing hungry lions' mouths through the will of God. 

(The difference here is necessary to understanding why Puritan ministers were opposed to both dark and "white" magic--whatever happened, they said, was whatever God willed to happen. Not everyone agreed with the ministers, of course. Humans are far too self-protective.) 

2. It is dependent on a specific time and place and person. 

Egielski tells the tale as a fairy tale--complete with knights and castles--but its resolution depends on a local and specific place, time, and person. 

In comparison, the core elements of Little Red Riding Hood existed before Gubbio and Gevaudan and persisted after them. That tale is easily universalized. 

In other words, a fairy tale involves magic and translates beyond its origins. 

King Arthur and Robin Hood debatedly also don't fall into the "fairy tale" slot for exactly the same reasons as those listed above. King Arthur may have been a real person. Robin Hood supposedly consorted with people who are, in fact, demonstrably real, such as King Richard. Not all their tales involve magic.

Granted, all tales start somewhere, and tales certainly have their specific elements--otherwise, historians and anthropologists wouldn't bother digging through them for hints of the past. But the essence of the fairy tale is something beyond time and possibly beyond reason. 

It isn't about returning to the town--where Saint Francis and the wolf end up--it is about whatever happens in the forest

Consequently, with respectful disagreement with a number of libraries (see WorldCat), I would place Saint Francis & the Wolf in the section on religion, even mythology, rather than fairy tales and folklore.

Interview with the Translator, Hills of Silver Ruins: Westerns

Kate: Gyousou’s taming of Ragou in Book IV of Hills of Silver Ruins reminds me of bucking bronchos.

I've been watching lots of Don Matteo lately, starring Terence Hill. Terence Hill and his buddy Bud Spencer (both adopted American names) did a ton of spaghetti westerns throughout their careers. They would often have their voices dubbed by Americans because Terence Hill speaks Italian, German, and English with a slight German accent, and Spencer had an Italian accent. It got me thinking, 

Why is this genre so beloved that a couple of Italian dudes would make these movies--and be beloved for those movies?

Do Japanese enjoy American Westerns? Spaghetti Westerns?

Eugene: Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from John Ford and classic Hollywood westerns when he made Seven Samurai. Then Sergio Leone perfectly captured the essence of Kurosawa's Yojimbo in A Fistful of Dollars. That launched the spaghetti western, in which Terence Hill played a big part. Trinity Is Still My Name is the highest grossing Italian film to date.

Clint Eastwood was offered the role by Leone while he was appearing in Rawhide. The television series was a big hit in Japan at the time and Eastwood visited Japan in 1962 on a publicity tour. But Hollywood imports like Rawhide quickly gave way to Japan's own home-grown variety.

Sam Peckinpah purportedly once said, "I want to make Westerns the way Kurosawa makes Westerns." Though the western has largely vanished from broadcast television in the United States, the Japanese equivalent is alive and well in the Edo period samurai actioner, with NHK running a historical drama and at least one genre samurai series every year.

In manga and anime, Rurouni Kenshin remains one of the most popular of all time, and was recently made into a five-part live action movies series released between 2012 and 2021.

To be sure, not as alive and well as it once was. From the 1960s through the turn of the century, Abarenbo Shogun ran 831 episodes and Mito Komon lasted an astounding 1,227 epiodes on commercial television. Uzumasa Limelight is about an aging stuntman in shows like Mito Komon who increasingly finds roles hard to come by as the genre fades in popularity.

Product Placement Through Storytelling: Ads in Thai Shows

The product is in Ley's hand. She is speaking to her brother.

I watched quite a number of Thai dramas this winter and one thing I remarked was the unapologetic product placement. At first, I barely noticed. Now, it is really obvious.

So, for instance, two teens are talking and...one of them just happens to apply acne medicine to the other and behold, here's a shot of the bottle.

I have mixed feelings about these scenes. On the one hand, they seem kind of gauche. On the other, I appreciate not having to watch an actual commercial. And I am rather impressed by the artistic demand--can writers smoothly work in the "ads" without breaking character development or cadence?

The answer is--it depends on the writer and the product. (My entirely uninformed impression is that the scriptwriters contribute--but so do the company's ad execs. Or, at least, the latter likely sign off on the related scenes. There is variation in the type of scenes and dialog different brands create. As mentioned below, Canon is quite clever, being more than willing to utilize the tongue-in-the-cheek.)

Frankly, the acne, makeup, and hair gel ads don't work that well. Occasionally, a writer can maneuver the product placement into regular conversation--as in Until We Meet Again where the effervescent Del persuades her male friends to try makeup. The conversation is cute and reflects teen bonding moments. 

Otherwise, the sudden intrusion into the script of information on various hygiene products comes across as seriously belabored. 

Food products, especially drinks, are far more natural. Characters are often eating in episodes, especially in the college-based series. It is entirely natural to get a long shot of a snack bag or drink bottle. 

In the case of the Lay ad (above), the character finishes the bag, then goes to 7-Eleven to stock up. A dramatic encounter ensues. 

Tinn repeats Gun's line in a later scene/ad. Since
it is repeated in a deadpan way, the line is quite
funny. Canon ad execs have a sense of humor!
The cleverest ads so far have been the Canon commercials in My School President. Tinn is helping Gun study--a gallant young man, he keeps imagining scenarios where Tinn and Gun bond or Tinn flies to Gun's rescue.

Except Gun, despite being academically challenged, is resourceful and practical and fully capable of refilling the ink cartridges on the Canon printer himself. He doesn't even need Tinn's help to print (see image).

"Even my mom could do it," he tells Tinn, who sighs at once again being thwarted in his role of hero. (Tinn's actual help, of course, far outweighs the cute imaginings he makes up in his head.)

In any case, the use of the printer--and the accompanying joke--is so seamless, I didn't realize until the second watching that it was a commercial. 

So far, the product placement that I've enjoyed the most has been the cat food ad in Moonlight Chicken--and not just for the view of a striking cat. The related dialog simply struck me as entirely natural.

What else would a guest do except talk about the cat?

And who doesn't want a shot of the cat? Product and all? 

I think Creative Writing classes should make this "product placement" an assignment: can your characters discuss a product in a way that sells the product but appears natural? If so--that's good writing.


Fairy Tales: Dragons Are Just Awesome!

I mention in the previous fairy tale post that dragons are just awesome

That is, unlike other natural, supernatural, and fantastical creatures in the fantasy universe, they tend to stand alone. They are not necessarily villainous, even when destructive. They are too cool for that. They may be good. They may be bad. Whatever they are, they are above it all. 

Books containing dragons, consequently, also seem to occupy a category of their own. They tend more towards "meta" than just about any other group of fantasy books. 

Tanith Lee's The Dragon Hoard

The Dragon Hoard is a very funny book about a wry, level-headed prince, Prince Jasleth, who has no choice but to set out to find a treasure. He joins up with a group of princes headed on an adventure, namely to retrieve a hoard guarded by a dragon. The adventure is headed by Prince Fearless, whose father is utterly indifferent to the quest and considers it mostly a waste of time. 

Jasleth ends up doing much of the heavy lifting on the quest--in a wry, level-headed, occasionally exasperated way--yet he remains good friends with his companions. In the end, the hoard is obtained without anyone conquering the dragon, who went off to see the dentist about its "nine hundred and fifty-four teeth."

Patricia Wrede's Dealing with Dragons (and sequels)

In Dealing with Dragons, Princess Cimorene escapes her tedious life at court and goes to work for the King of the Dragons (who is female). She wants the job and gets extremely irritated with princes who show up to rescue her. "Go away!" 

In Wrede's universe, having a princess is considered something of a cache for a dragon but also something of a bother. Few of them are as helpful as Cimorene and many of them run away before being rescued since they get tired of the life. 

In any case, the dragons are mostly occupied with their internal affairs and don't care much one way or the other. Having a princess is like having a BMW: a nice perk but not entirely necessary. 

Oliver Selfridge's The Trouble with Dragons

Trouble with Dragons is one of those books I tracked down when I got older, I love it so much. 

The dragons in Selfridge's book are unapologetically destructive, though they go after princesses and princes (people in shiny outfits) more than ordinary folk. But they are like tsunamis and volcanoes, a force unto themselves. 

The true villain is the Prime Minister. Since dragons in his kingdom lay brilliant sapphire eggs after eating a princess--and the sapphire eggs make gorgeous and expensive sapphire goblets--and the prime minister is making a bundle off the goblet factory--he encourages the prince/king to keep sending princesses out to be slaughtered. And it's very sad but eh, what can one do?!

Until a clever, resourceful, and wise princess, Celia, comes along to change things. 

In the end, the dragons retreat to the stars. They aren't punished--but they do need to stop burning stuff down and eating up farmers' herds of cows. So  they become legends. 

This meta-aspect of dragons is part of their charm. They exist inside and outside any story at the same time.  See Eugene Woodbury's Serpent of Time, which presents a "dragon" that quite literally operates outside the chronological timeline. 

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Soldiers & Shakespeare

Kate: Based on the conflicting belief systems of Asen’s good retainers in Hills of Silver Ruins, how do you think they would respond to Henry V’s speech the eve of the Battle of Agincourt?

Retainer’s Argument: But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all “We died at such a place,” ...Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

King Henry: So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation. But this is not so. The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant, for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services...Then, if they die unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.

Eugene: Henry V’s debate with one of his own soldiers on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt almost perfectly sums up the moral foundations, not just of a UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), but of the ideal code of conduct in any large organization. "Every subject's duty is the King's (or the CEO's), but every subject's soul is his own."

One realistic aspect of the Ono's world building in the Twelve Kingdoms is that guys like Rakushun are rare. Even high-ranking officials are not always clear about how the whole system works. The vast majority will have never met the emperor or the kirin. In that situation, situational rationalizations make the most sense: my guy is the right guy, especially if he's the guy in power.

The irony is that Shakespeare's Henry V is pretty much in the same position. In retrospect, it's hard to categorize the Hundred Year's War as a "good cause." It was ultimately one of those interminably stupid conflicts about where to draw the property lines. Likewise, Japan's Warring States period can be treated as a long Shakespearean drama because it didn't matter who won.

Of course, it mattered to them. But not like "City on the Edge of Forever" from the original Trek.

Given such a murky ethical environment, it's impressive that Keitou, for example, at last declares that his soul is indeed his own and allies himself with Taiki. Growing increasingly uncomfortable with being paired up with a nihilist like Ukou, Yuushou is headed in that direction too. Then again, Ukou even creeps out the Macbethian Asen.

Smelly Cats and Defunct Websites

Currently Available
Years ago, I worked for what I guess was supposed to be the new Yahoo or MSN: Examiner.com. 

The idea was to produce news that would have the same impact as news from larger, national sites, only the Examiner website would reflect local events. Reporters had to pick specific, local topics to comment on. 

I picked "Cats." I either wasn't plugged into "cat culture" in Portland, Maine (in retrospect, I should have linked up with the Greater Portland Animal Refuge League and showcased a cat a week on my feed) or Portland, Maine is more of a "dog" than "cat" city (also true). I struggled to come up with articles. 

In fairness, so did everyone. The company tried to pay us in "goods" (services), which interested me not at all. I wanted money.

However, I stuck with the organization until it folded (apparently, it has returned), and I regularly published--enough to keep myself active. It was good discipline and good practice at brainstorming ideas and churning out articles, even on a fairly meager topic. I ended up writing a great many entertainment-based articles (though I got special attention for posting a PowerPoint on how to make a cat game).

I recently thought of a topic, "Oh, I would post about that on Examiner!" 

Instead, I'm posting it here:

Smelly Cats

In the world of "problems with pets," dogs bite and bark. Cats smell and escape. 

Smelly cats show up in Major Crimes and on Friends. In "Two Options," Season 3 of Major Crimes, Rusty is requested to take a smelly cat out of its cage, so Lieutenant Tao can check it for a chip. 

At this point, if I was still working for the site, I would make a note to myself to write a separate article about "chips." My most recent cat Chloe has one (she came with it). I haven't bothered to register it. She is strictly an indoor cat and unlike some of my previous cats, she cannot get out. But the arrival of a cat with a chip in my house means that many owners are dealing with the pros and cons of the technology, whether they like to or not. 

In any case, to return to Rusty's ordeal...

Cats on television are rather like babies on television. The protesting cries nearly always occur when the cat's head is turned away. Viewers may rest assured that the animal is actually being well-treated--and is likely quite docile. 

Likewise, the cat, Princess, in "Two Options," may smell, but it is obviously beautifully maintained. 

On Friends, of course, "Smelly Cats" are idolized in Phoebe's tribute song. 

At this point, the Examiner article would address non-smelly cat litter and "dry" shampoo wipes for cat fur. 

It is much more fun to end with Phoebe's song. Her version comes first. The music video version is below. 



Fairy Tales: Dragons! (With the Exclamation Mark)

I wrote previously that during a workshop class several years ago, some of my students tried to convince me to watch Game of Thrones.

I have less than zero interest in Game of Thrones. If something below Absolute Zero was a possibility, I would take it here. Soap opera doesn't interest me. Nihilism bores me to--not tears. I don't cry. I just thoroughly don't care (ironically enough). Raunch without affection and relevance makes my brain melt (and I read erotica). Dumb politics (I'm not referring to the books since I haven't read them--but everything I've read about the series indicates...dumb politics) send me screaming back to non-fiction history tomes and the everyday, non-melodramatic, mundane complications of human nature. 

See link.
However, I remember that conversation because when I balked (in a far more mild way--I did not say, "I would rather stick needles in my eyes and cat food down my ears than indulge in that show"), a student exclaimed with utter earnestness, "But it has dragons!" 

Any discussion of fairy tales must include a discussion of dragons.

The fascinating element here is that in the world of fairy tale monsters, dragons are almost always cool--hence, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug and Jabberwocky (that voice!). Werewolves can be cool but they are also often angsty with troubling family/pack lives. Vampires can be cool but they are also often campy, very angsty, and all over the place (can endure sunlight, can't endure sunlight; can barely endure indirect sunlight, sparkle in sunlight). 

Dragons are just awesome. Good or bad, they are thoroughly awesome. 

Hence, the number of picture books that focus on the wonder of dragons: Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Jay Williams and Mercer Mayer; Dragons Rules and Girls Drool by Courtney Pippin-Mathur, in which, ultimately, the princesses and dragons team up against the knight.

More to come!

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Star Wars II

Kate: As discussed in the prior post, Star Wars indirectly furthered classic archetypes in the science-fiction community. Did 1977 Star Wars accomplish anything else behind the scenes?

Eugene: Star Wars also helped to win mainstream acceptance for science fiction in general.

Hayao Miyazaki's first feature film was The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979. Now considered a minor classic, it barely broke even at the box office. Observing that science fiction was all the rage, his producer, Toshio Suzuki, suggested that he try his hand at the genre. Miyazaki's next film was the post-apocalyptic NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. Its success financed the founding of Studio Ghibli a year later.

Miyazaki would later turn to science fiction and fantasy tropes more specific to Japan in films such as Spirited Away and Princess Monoke. While Hollywood has its own versions of what I call "spirit world warriors," starting with Van Helsing and epitomized by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Constantine, Shinto (along with the Chinese wuxia genre), provides a rich menagerie of monsters and otherworldly beings.

Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen demonstrate that a mix of Shinto and Buddhist pop theology has no problem finding an international audience. And this leads to my theory about why Japanese science fiction does cyberpunk so much better than Hollywood, despite the US actually being more "wired" than Japan.

In Shinto, the "ghost in the machine" is a "real" ghost. Just as tsukumogami are not inherently good or bad, the same holds for technology and AI in all its forms. That's why Purin in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 getting resurrected as a sentient android is not an "Oh, no!" moment. It's just the same old Purin in a different container.

This is what Hollywood constantly gets wrong and why the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell completely misses the point. While manga and anime have done their fair share of mainframe-as-antagonist stories (Appleseed: Ex Machina), they have managed to not turn every production into The Matrix or The Terminator, the unfortunate fate of the otherwise excellent Person of Interest.

The Big Bad in My Roommate is a Detective: Thoughts on the Moriarty Character

 *Spoilers*

At the end of My Roommate is a Detective, the big bad or Moriarty character is confronted by the detective, Lu Yao. Sir Norman has been manipulating cases for over thirty episodes. He has done this by inserting newspaper articles/advertisements into a self-published circular. These articles/advertisements do not create the killers' motives--they already harbor murderous feelings--but rather push them to act and give them clever ways to do it. 

I don't buy it. 

I mostly don't buy it because people just aren't that observant--or gifted at making the leap from written reports to clever engineering. As my students say--and I've said myself--"I get what I'm supposed to do--but now, I actually have to write it myself."

And as Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and profiler John Douglas point out, murderers tend to stick to what they know. Forensic Files confirms: murderers, even when they think they are clever, are kind of dumb. 

However, I found the big bad in My Roommate less irritating than in other shows, such as Sherlock and The Mentalist, because he doesn't take over the story line. He has far too much influence and gets involved in far too many minor cases, but ultimately, the murderers are the people who actually did the murders.

I have zero interest in big bads who become the focus of the drama (even though The Mentalist's Red John doesn't appear on the screen, he controls many of that show's plots): How much does the big bad know?! Where is the big bad now?! Who has the big bad manipulated this week?! What will the big bad do next? How will the good guys suffer because of the big bad?! 

I really don't care. (Possibly why I find conspiracy theories mind-numbing at best.)

My Roommate isn't run by the big bad but by the friendships, which is far more interesting. 

I also prefer the big bad to have comprehensible motives. In My Roommate, Sir Norman ultimately just wants to make a profit, which--as a guy with an overlaid British accent--makes him capitalistically evil, not "profoundly" evil, which is a relief because making a profit is at least understandable. (Though the bank plot is really the only profit-oriented crime that makes sense for Sir Norman to undertake.)

However, the sister is a FAR better villain since her motives, rather than being vaguely profit-oriented, are a swirl of conflicting pressures: her desire to keep her brother safe; her contempt for his friends and their low-origins; her pride and honor; her underlying fear of the father and whether he might do something worse.

I've said it before--I'll say it again: the most interesting villains are the villains with a face and grounded, relatable motives.

Fairy Tales: Cinderella versus Beauty & the Beast

I will likely return to Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast on my fairy tale list at a later date. For now, I want to address the fundamental difference. 

Basically, Cinderella is Sleepless in Seattle. Beauty & the Beast is You've Got Mail

That is, Cinderella is about all the stuff that the heroine (and sometimes, the hero) go through before they meet. The family squabbles. The hopes and dreams. The suffering. The angst. The best friend discussions. Dancing mice. And so on. The meeting matters--all events lead up to it. And writers can pack a great deal of purpose into the meeting, so Martha in Castle can honestly state that the evening she met Castle's (spy) father, they made a real connection. He quite literally had to go off the next morning and save the world. 

Beauty & the Beast is about the relationship--the hero and heroine getting to know each other over time. 

Many pieces of literature, like Pride & Prejudice, will combine these two romance plots. And the plots will borrow from each other. But fundamentally, the difference is between focusing on the world of the protagonists versus focusing on the world of the relationship. 

I greatly prefer the latter to the former. The former always seems to involve (1) soap opera; (2) contrived ways of separating the protagonists; (3) shoe shopping and its equivalent; (4) shindigs (rather than conversation and shared interests). 

The focus on the close relationship comes with occasional red flags, such as a Stockholm Syndrome, but I'll take it (as will many people) for the sake of delightedly watching the protagonists grow closer. 

It's a comparison that keeps on giving, so one could argue that suspense where the big bad isn't revealed until the end is using the Cinderella plot while suspense where the protagonist and antagonist form a relationship, like Bourne Supremacy and Die Hard, is using Beauty & the Beast. 

In any case, the plot of growing affection explains why McKinley's Beauty is still a classic while the plot's classic rendition, Jane Eyre, places all other romances in the shade.

Interview with the Translator, Hills of Silver Ruins: Star Wars I

Kate: Gyousou’s storyline in Hills of Silver Ruins has an Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars IV aura about it, the shadowy master Jedi who is still alive and eventually reveals himself to others.

Star Wars has many of the elements of manga, including the ongoing networks of various characters. Comments on Literature Devil indicate that people who know their Star Wars universe really know their Star Wars universe. Japanese manga/anime fans can definitely relate!

How do the Japanese feel about Star Wars?

Eugene: I don't think that Star Wars ever embedded itself in the popular zeitgeist. Rather it was the Japanese interpretations that subsequently took hold. Though to give home-grown originality credit where it's due, the enormously influential Space Battleship Yamato premiered in 1974. So while not conflating correlation with causation, 1977 does seem to have been an important science fiction pop-culture turning point in Japan too.

Leiji Matsumoto followed up Space Battleship Yamato (whose latest installment came in 2021) with Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock in 1977. The Gundam franchise launched in 1979 and is still a going concern, with The Witch from Mercury debuting last year. Much like Star Trek, Gundam was supported during its original run by a devoted fan base and later skyrocketed in popularity.

Netflix has the original Gundam compilation films and several of the sequels. Crunchyroll has The Witch from Mercury and the 2012 remake of Space Battleship Yamato, along with Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock, and two of the Captain Harlock sequels.

Gundam wasn't the first, but it pretty much defined the mecha giant robot genre (and all the merchandizing that goes with it). It also showcased one of the most enduring and ubiquitous tropes in the contemporary fantasy and science fiction genres, namely the ordinary kid who discovers he has great nascent powers. With grueling effort and sacrifice (and a mentor), he masters those powers in time to save the day.

Yeah, pretty much Luke Skywalker. Though similar character arcs can be found in Buffy and Harry Potter, the Japanese version is closer to Karate Kid, with an emphasis on the grueling effort. Like Harry Potter, Tanjiro in Demon Slayer is orphaned (along with his sister) by a demon in need of slaying. But he goes through a training regimen that kills most of the people who attempt it. Even at that point, he's still a novice.

Luke Skywalker, again. Except that archetype is sure looking like a rare species in Hollywood these days. Demon Slayer was followed by the enormous success of Jujutsu Kaisen in 2022, which took the same basic story and moved it from the early 20th century to the early 21st century. Okay, Peter Parker has a growth arc, but he powers up pretty fast and he got his superpowers from an external source.

Another commonality with Luke, Buffy, and Harry Potter is that many Japanese superheroes inherited their powers. Natsume in Natsume's Book of Friends traces his gifts to his grandmother. In Mob Psycho100, Mob's brother also has psychic powers. Shinjiro becomes the next Ultraman after his father. For key members of the Demon Slayer Corps, it is the "family business."

Family businesses in Japan (especially in the crafts) proudly announce how many generations they have been in business. (This is where adult adoption comes in handy.) The administration of Buddhist and Shinto temples has long been passed down along family lines. As in My Master Has No Tail, the master of a traditional Japanese art (rakugo, in this case) passes his stage name down to his senior apprentice.

Kabuki actor Hiroyuki Yamamoto performs as Kataoka Ainosuke VI, meaning that stage name has been passed down for six generations.

An interesting variation on this theme can be found in Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man (both written by One), where we meet the already empowered protagonists in medias res. The imperative in these cases is to get with the program. For Saitama, that means joining the superhero guild. The scrawny Mob joins the school's body building club as the junior-most member (and often ends up coming to their rescue).

Beauty and the Beast (2017): When the Couple Don't Fit

Like in Jane Eyre, the male protagonist wears great coats.

In conjunction with the topic for A-Z List 7, fairy tales, I am reposting my review of Beauty and the Beast (2017). I did not care for it. 

* * *

The Beast makes this movie. Not Belle, unfortunately. Not this version anyway. 

Casting Emma Watson as Belle is rather like casting Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre--she doesn't exude waif-like dreaminess. She exudes the kind of levelheaded commonsense that can handle Ron Weasley, a large manor house, and possibly the role of prime minister. (Keep in mind that Joan Fontaine could be perfectly cast--check out Rebecca.)

Levelheaded commonsense is not a bad characteristic for Belle to have; it simply doesn't fit the original Disney lyrics nor the 2017 movie's casting. 

Which is a pity since the casting is otherwise excellent.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou are well-cast, well-acted, and hilarious. Luke Evans' Gaston doesn't initially come across as boorish so much as down-to-earth, perceptive, and even fun to hang out with. Why wouldn't this Belle be interested? If the village is as boring as she claims, he is the most interesting thing around. 

 Of course, his descent into villainy underscores the theme: as Gaston loses any remnants of good behavior, the Beast gains in good behavior (Jean Cocteau's solution of having the same actor play both Beast and Gaston/Avenant is thematically ideal--but way too confusing a visual for a Disney movie: this is the studio that split the wolf/prince roles in Into the Woods).

The voice casting is perfect: Thank you, Ewan McGregor! In fact, as in the animated version, the song "Be Our Guest" is a magnificent old-time musical number headed by strong singers who are willing to be total hams when required.

And Dan Stevens as the Beast is excellent. As in any good Beauty & the Beast version, we come to adore him. Dan Stevens not only has a great voice (even without the Beast "filter"), the makeup/CGI gives his face the same surprising mobility of the animated Beast. The added bonus here is that his prince self is recognizable as the Beast. (But yeah, it's still not the same--I get a kick out of Belle's line: "Have you ever thought about growing a beard?") 

In fact . . . we get to know the Beast too well. Dan Stevens' interpretation of the Beast fits the original version and the personality of the original Belle. He is erudite, dry-witted, a romantic at heart, history-minded, interested in architecture, given to big-hearted gestures.  

Belle 2017 is . . . I have no idea. I guess she reads, but she doesn't seem to do it very often and she behaves as if she is reading to escape her boring life, not because it mesmerizes her--real readers read to breath. She seems generally more bad-tempered than the Beast, as if life has entirely let her down. She doesn't want to marry a dry-witted Beast. She wants to escape her boring village (again, her claim) and get a degree in economics in some big city.

She and the Beast don't fit. 

A practical, down-to-earth Belle would make an entertaining possibility--she and the Beast could discuss the stock market, debate Hayek and Keynes, ponder the Black Swan effect.

That's not what this movie was trying to do.

Perhaps the solution is to go back to animation: Moana produces a pragmatic dreamer as the utterly likable female protagonist (Auli'i Cravalho as Moana)--while Dwayne Johnson as Maui makes a carefree, rollicking Beast (who should never change).

Of course, there are few things in life that top a ship of coconut pirates. Seriously. Nothing really can top that. 

Kakamora