Conversations with The Translator: Japanese Business Culture

Kate:
Japan is often described as a high context culture and the United States as a low context culture. In low context cultures, people—Americans—explain themselves more. Since American culture is comprised of many immigrants who don't share a background of cultural references, things have to be spelled out. In high context cultures, people—Japanese—explain themselves less. There's more reliance on what's going on between-the-lines.

A few years ago, while preparing for an Interpersonal Communications course, I read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. She argues that many problems in business arise when two different high context cultures come together—since they don't share the same core references, the implied communication goes awry.

Does the Japanese business world rely on "I can take for granted that you understand what I'm talking about?" Does it work? Does nobody worry that if the implication is misunderstood, a law suit could be right around the corner?
Eugene: It's true that Japan is a high-context culture, meaning that everybody is assumed to share the same operating system, and if you don't then you pretend you do. Rather than "high" and "low," call it "go along to get along" versus "I'm from Missouri."

The value of "go along to get along" is that everybody is loath to make waves. Making waves only proves you weren't getting along. The steep downside comes when your superior assumes X has been communicated and you have no idea what X is.

Even worse, your superior may simply be trying to communicate what his superior assumes he understood and is kicking the can down the road. According to novelist Kaoru Takamura (she began her career at a foreign trading company):
In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can't make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours.
It comes down to the ratio of actual work to CYA. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding style of Japanese business becomes a way of avoiding blame. If you've got to cover your superior's ass, you're going to make doubly sure your own ass is covered too.

The hallowed business practices of ringi (the bottom-up circulation of new proposals) and nemawashi (the politicking that accompanies it) do produce a sense of collective responsibility and wa (harmony).

But they also obviate personal responsibility (the buck stops nowhere) and chew up tons of time. Noah Smith states it bluntly: white-collar productivity is horrendous in Japan. There is a price for everything, and the one for "getting along" can be steep. In this video, Shogo looks at history, culture, and social psychology to explain how things got to be this way in Japan. This video by Nobita covers similar ground from the perspective of the "Fundamental Japanese Mindset."
Kate:
Meyer makes the point that heads of business are often the most skilled in either low context or high context (a successful American businessman is very good at direct communication; a successful Japanese businessman is very good at implied communication). She also points out that business people who work internationally become adept at switching between contexts.

In the manga and light novels I read, working abroad is a big deal—very sophisticated and outside-the-box and sexy. How common is working abroad for Japanese workers?
Eugene: Working abroad is a big deal, for much the same reasons that studying abroad is a big deal, and thus usually avoided, unless it can be squeezed in without disrupting the normal school year. Except for students who intend to step outside the Japanese education system, once you get off the "escalator," you may never get back on.

This is why employees who are transferred even within Japan will often leave their families behind. A common plot device to get a high school student living on his own is to send his parents somewhere else because of work.

Likewise, working abroad can throw a wrench into an employee's climb up the organizational ladder. While it can present opportunities for an enterprising employee who designs his career advancement around the acquisition of certain skills, the possibility is more often than not looked upon with dread.

In Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out, a mystery series about a pair of bank examiners, the punishment for playing fast and loose with the bank's finances (short of committing an actual felony) is always a transfer to a branch office out in the boonies.

Kate: Ah--like how badly behaved police officers always get transferred to Staten Island! 

The point about harmony is interesting. Some textbooks label cultures low context versus high context and some label them individualistic versus collectivist. According to the textbooks, in collectivist cultures, "we" (collective harmony) is given precedence. It is more acceptable to criticize outsiders than insiders. In individualistic cultures, "I" is given precedence and criticism of insiders is more acceptable.

Erin Meyer of The Culture Map points out that high/low/individualistic/collectivist is relatively relative (although Japan is the most extreme of the high context cultures). She quotes from a German businessman: "We Germans always complain that the British are disorganized, chaotic, and always late—exactly the complaint the British in your example lodged against the French."

Which reminded me of a very funny movie I saw from Scotland in which the London police officer is portrayed as a big, loud, practically Texan-like guy, kind of the way Americans are sometimes portrayed in British shows (like Keen Eddie, although there, Keen Eddie's brashness is admired as impressively efficient if lacking in tact).

Is there another Asian group that the Japanese present as being noisy, brash outliers?
Eugene: Well, there's Osaka, which Nobita says is probably the best fit for the extraverted foreigner.

P.J. O'Rourke described South Koreans as the Irish of Asia. The history between Korea and Japan shares certain resemblances with that between Ireland and Great Britain. Compared to pretty much everybody else, Japanese are the reserved and well-mannered Brits of Asia (which, like Great Britain, didn't stop Japan from trying to colonize the whole region in ill-mannered ways). Here's Nobita again.

Japanese immigrated to the Americas in significant number at the turn of the last century. Japanese Brazilians now constitute the largest Japanese population outside Japan. In the 1990s, the Japanese government launched a "reverse migration" program that gave preference to Japanese descendants from South America, especially Brazil.

The program met with mixed success. With a population of over 200,000, Brazilians of Japanese descent today constitute the fifth-largest ethnic group in Japan.

But according to Takeyuki Tsuda, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University, "Japanese Brazilians ended up being much more culturally Brazilian, leading to complaints that they can't speak Japanese, are too loud in apartments and in public, and don't follow community rules."

In 2009, the Japanese government introduced a repatriation program to incentivize unassimilated immigrants from South America to return home, and in 2018 revised the immigration law to limit residency claims.

Kate: In a later post, we will tackle Japanese immigration laws. When Americans complain about immigration laws, on either side of the issue, it must provoke a lot of head-scratching among, oh, the rest of the world. 

Back to The Culture Map, one chapter addresses trust and how Americans split work trust from affective trust; in some cultures, however, the two things are combined: I go out to dinner with you, share friendly, personal moments; voila, we have established a strong, working relationship.

The author quotes from a boss who was upset when he and his American partner appeared to form a friendly, personal relationship over get-togethers, yet the American partner still wanted to go over their contract with a fine-tooth comb.

This is when my American culture sense kicked in big-time. My reaction was, Oh, come on. People can have all kinds of warm & fuzzy feelings—that does not make them trustworthy in the business sense (the old adage about never hiring friends comes to mind).

Meyer points out that a nation of pioneers has learned to split "I am friendly with my neighbors" from "I still own a shotgun," although her explanation is more diplomatic: America is a "peach" culture. We are warm and friendly to outsiders; however, once outsiders hit the hard pit at our core, we are impenetrable to all but a privileged few.

I had to wonder: Do Japanese business agreements ever suffer from too much trust based on "Hey, we're buddies!"? Or does hard-headedness take over in the long run?

Eugene: Perhaps nothing exemplifies this issue more than the "It's me, it's me" scam (Ore Ore Sagi) that plays on equal parts blind trust, family ties, and group image. The scam begins with a cold call, often to an elderly person, claiming that a child or grandchild is in trouble and needs money wired to them immediately. The reasons can range from settling hospital bills to paying off debt collectors to buying somebody's silence.

At the business level, the "OB" (old boy) system is alive and well (in Japan it's referred to with those initials). Injecting a large dollop of xenophobia on top of that can result in a "you and me against the world" mentality.

Toss in the context of the zaibatsu (large family-controlled vertical monopolies) and keiretsu (a set of companies with interlocking business relationships and shareholdings), and you end up with the Olympus scandal.

At Olympus, the "peach pit" was the foreign CEO. The immediate response of the board was to fire him, but the scandal had already come to light.

A more recent example is Carlos Ghosn of Nissan. He got caught up in a boardroom coup, was accused of financial improprieties, and jumped bail. He would have been better off in the long run working within the system, but I understand how he could simply not comprehend the Kafkaesque situation he found himself in. "I will not stand for this!" he declared. Well, he should have stood for it, but he had no idea how to play that game.

Or consider the financial meltdowns in the U.S. and Japan, about a decade apart. They had the same approximate cause:
The cozy relationship of corporations to banks and the implicit guarantee of a taxpayer bailout of bank deposits created a significant moral hazard problem, leading to an atmosphere of crony capitalism and reduced lending standards.
But as bad as the U.S. banking crisis was, the boom was lowered. In Japan, with all those intertwined relationships, nobody wanted to be the bad guy. Not really alive, not really dead, "zombie banks" staggered along corrupting everything they touched. The result was Japan's lost decade.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan put it best: "Trust, but verify" (a Russian proverb he learned for his dealings with Gorbachev). Without this attitude, a "diverse" society will balkanize into groups with internal trust because of common family, ethnic, and/or religious ties, but no external trust.

One way to describe the "rule of law": we don't trust each other but we both trust the law in its interpretation and execution.

Bro Chemistry: Blue Bloods

"Chemistry" in television shows often refers to the romantic tug between the leads. However, it goes beyond romance. Golden Girls, for instance, worked because the four women had chemistry--they worked well together on screen, not because they were best buddies in real life but because they had that elusive ability to build a scene together with a seeming lack of effort. 

Blue Bloods has multiple examples of chemistry: Reagan & Moore, Erin & Jack, Erin and Anthony. 

Season 2, when Jamie goes undercover, is one of my favorites, which is unusual, since I usually dislike mafia-type storylines (and no, I've never seen Sopranos and wouldn't even bother on a desert island). 

What makes Jamie's undercover story so effective is that it focuses on the rather mundane yet dangerous effects of Jamie's work. But it is massively helped that Jamie's "in" with the Sanfino family is Noble, played by Eric Morris. 

Jamie and Noble have great "bro" chemistry. They come across as two guys who would become good friends in another life, if Noble had any moral center. Jamie's guilt over Noble--and Noble's sister--is based not on the siblings getting unfair punishments. Noble and his sister have benefited from the family business. Rather, Jamie was actual friends with Noble; he "got" Noble; he knows that Noble's lack of ethics is less wilful evil and more a kind of yuppie float-through-life cluelessness. 

In another type of show, Jamie and Noble would become the FBI guy and the con artist who work together to solve crimes. 

That easy chemistry helps sell a story!

The Inventive Dope: Crabtree & Disher

One variation on the canny dope is the canny dope who suggests crazy solutions. The canny dope's solutions are often ingenious and amusing.

Detective Crabtree, Murdoch Mysteries: When Tesla and Murdoch investigate "microwaves," Crabtree suggests that in the future, microwaves could be used to cook a potato. 

"Yams would be delicious!" 

"Highly impractical," both Tesla and Murdoch scold him. "It would take an entire room."

"Yes, but perhaps in the future all homes will have a potato cooking room." 

Murdoch does in fact invent this room, and it is used in a murder--an ongoing joke of the series is how many future inventions Crabtree unknowingly comes up with. 

And I love the phrase: "potato cooking room." 

Lt. Disher, Monk: At one point, Disher suggests that an astronaut suspect killed his mistress by "activating an escape pod" from a ship in space. 

When the others question him on who exactly built the escape pod, he declares that the astronaut did it.

"Out of a kit in his basement," Stottlemeyer says sardonically.

"He's resourceful."

On the one hand, these inventive dopes seem foolish in the moment. On the other, their ability to think outside the box makes them assets to an investigation. At one point, even Monk turns to Disher and asks him for one of his "crazy theories." Disher is offended, but he should have been flattered! 


Match the Actor to the Script: Death in Paradise, Season 8

I lost interest in Death in Paradise in Season 8. For a long time, I thought the problem was Ardal O'Hanlon's character. He simply wasn't as eccentric or moody or off-kilter--as strong a personality--as the previous stars, Miller and Marshall. (And I missed Dwayne.)

I was somewhat disappointed since I liked the actor. I liked his soft-accent, his gentlemanly attitude, his gentle summations. 

After going through Season 8 again (I admit, I skipped some episodes), I determined, the problem is the scripts. 

Ardal O'Hanlon's character was presented from Day 1 as a male Miss Marple: confident, wistful, given to ruminations. In another world, he would be a Catholic priest. Except he has a daughter, which made him the first family man to head the Saint Marie Police Department. 

Ruby is a great addition. Warrington is fantastic, as always. 
The best scripts for such a character are Miss Marple scripts: village problems that seem inconsequential but are actually quite far-reaching; clues that remind Detective Mooney of his aunt or cousin or neighbor back home. The domestic murder. 

That's not exactly what Season 8 delivers. Oh, sure, there are a few. But the season also delivers one of the most intense and harrowing two-parters, a mystery that would be better handled by Poole. It isn't that O'Hanlon doesn't do a good job, but the script doesn't fit his character.

I found Season 9 quite satisfying, so I'll maintain: the problem with 8 was the scripts, not the character/actor. 

In any case, it is an interesting problem of having a good actor, okay scripts, great supporting actors, and a fantastic setting, but a slight mismatch between all three.

Conversations with the Translator: The Life of a Salaryman

Kate
: So I've always assumed that "salaryman" was the equivalent of "white collar worker." However, in What Did You Eat Yesterday? Shiro relates that he became a lawyer because he knew he wouldn't be able to live up to the lifestyle expectations of a salaryman.

I gather that a salaryman is specifically a "businessman" and, moreover, that it really means "yuppie businessman." That is, a salaryman is, well, Alex P. Keaton along with the dress, the moderately conservative politics, the dedication to the corporate culture, the fairly traditional marital arrangements, and so on and so forth.

Is this correct? It seems so . . . 1950s!

But it does make World Order even funnier.
Eugene:
I would sub-categorize the term "white collar" into "salaryman" and "professional," the latter often carrying the title "sensei."

Before interviewing for the job, our salaryman-to-be submitted a resume based on the JIS resume form. Yes, there is a JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) form for resumes. That right there tells you a lot. Even if he's applying for a part-time job at 7-11, he'll probably use that standard form.

The salaryman is the man in the gray flannel suit (well, black). He interviewed in that suit during the early spring or late summer hiring seasons and now commutes to work every day wearing the same uniform (white shirt, dark suit, and tie). He is very much a "suit" and his life henceforth belongs to the company.

If he does as he's told competently enough, he can expect raises on a regular timetable. The professional at the other end of the scale is promoted based on skill. There are a lot of gradations between pure seniority promotion and pure merit promotion, with the emphasis slowly shifting from the former to the latter.

Japanese companies still offer (in principle) lifetime employment. Though the old practices of parking an unproductive employee in a "window seat" (madogiwa zoku) or transferring him to the boonies are slowly fading away, both employers and employees continue to emphasize job security over remuneration.

But unlike the "good old days" (the second half of the 20th century), firings and layoffs are more common now during economic downturns.

As socioeconomic slang, "salaryman" refers to the middle-aged man with a mortgage and a car and 1.5 kids who accepts his station in life in exchange for job security. Shall We Dance is about a man who's hit all the milestones and doesn't know what to do next.

Especially these days, it'll take an Alex P. Keaton about ten years to get there.
Kate: Moving to one of those sub-categories, lawyers pop up in many manga. In What Did You Eat Yesterday, Shiro works at a firm run by a mother and son. The son, “junior sensei,” actually can't take the lead in a trial, so Shiro--who is "A" listed, not "B" listed--has to help him out. Very British, yes?
Eugene: Unlike Great Britain and like the U.S., Japan has a "unified" system (no distinction between barristers and solicitors). However, because trials are so rare, trial lawyers are more comparable to appellate lawyers in the U.S. And Japan allows professionals to work in specialized areas like tax and patent law without being lawyers.

Because the bar exam is so tough, many students graduate from law school without ever intending or attempting to become members of the bar. However, it is hypothetically possible to pass the bar exam and become a lawyer without going to law school or even to college. That's the premise of Hero.
Kate: Although Shiro doesn't live the life of a salaryman, he is still expected to adhere to certain social expectations! In one volume, Shiro has to attend the wedding of a fellow lawyer. She comes from a good family and is marrying someone from a wealthy family. Shiro and his cooking friend, a married woman who buys food on sale and splits it with Shiro, commiserate on what a pain this all is. Shiro MUST contribute a large amount of "gift money" simply because of who these people are and where they are getting married. He and his friend have this exchange:

Shiro: For an instructor at a training institution, the rule of thumb is that "2" suffices, but I'm not an instructor, just her senior at a workplace.

Kayoko: So that means this much (she holds up all five fingers of one hand).

Eugene: Gift giving is one of those customs that makes you happy to be a foreigner when in Japan. It's an arcane and socially complex minefield that is still going strong. Here’s a handy guide: Japan Gift Giving Customs
Kate: Yikes! The whole gift-giving pressure reminds me of numerous baby showers I've been invited to attend. I finally stopped since I couldn’t afford to keep buying so many gifts.
 
But suppose my ability to keep my job was tied into these baby showers? I would be scraping the bottom of my paycheck on a continual basis! Is this fair? Do the Japanese ever complain about this? In a noisier fashion than Shiro? (He goes to the wedding, but he and Kenji plan to eat lots of mackerel to keep within their monthly budget.)
Eugene: Yes, Japanese gripe about the pressures and obligations. Politicians and doctors (yes, doctors) get into trouble when the gift giving strays over the line into bribery, though where that line is can be hard to tell, and thus becomes an unending source of scandals.

To be continued with Japanese business culture!  

How Language Works: Cliches

In the opening scene to Poirot: Peril at End House, Hastings, played by the utterly sweet Hugh Fraser, comments on the scenery to Poirot: 

"Looks just like a patchwork quilt, doesn't it?"

Poirot, who dislikes small airplanes and small ships and anything, really, that goes up and down, refuses to look out the window. Eyes squeezed shut, he pronounces, "Non!" 

"Well," Hastings says, "it does to me. It does to anyone else."

"Not to Poirot!"

"I suppose you don't think think that [the clouds] look like a mass of cotton wool."

"Non!" 

The joke is on clueless, sweet-tempered, cliche-speaking Hastings, but Hastings has a point

"It does to anyone else" is how humans manage to communicate. We decide that "X" is called a certain thing, making it possible for us to overcome the gap between Person A's understanding of X and Persons B's understanding of X. 

The criticized yet beloved Star Trek: Next Generation episode "Darmok" takes this too far. But it underscores a valid point. Picard and the Tamarian captain learn to communicate by moving in the opposite direction to Hastings. The communication, "There's a monster" is only made possible after the men have shared individual stories about monsters. 

It is difficult to imagine any language continuing this way ("There's a monster" is so much easier and results in a lot less death) but the underlying point is valid: a common currency must exist. X needs to be recognizable to at least a majority of "everybody elses."

Picard luckily knows his mythology. 

Ah, a good reason to teach mythology! Be ready for when the aliens arrive!

Great Story Dumb Philosophy

One of my favorite books is Alexander Key's Forgotten Door.

I've liked it since I was a kid and reread it every few years. The story is fairly basic: a young man from another planet falls through an ancient door that takes him to Earth. There, he suffers amnesia. However, he quickly figures out he doesn't belong. He likes the animals yet they aren't entirely familiar. Nor is the landscape. The people he initially encounters are unpleasant and do things like hunt and eat meat. 

He eventually encounters a pleasant family, the Beans. They take him in and protect him, even though he is accused of theft, which naturally he didn't commit, and are eventually hounded from the community. His family from the other planet calls for him and he escapes the fallen world with the Beans--and their dog. 

As another reviewer points out--referring now to the work that made Key famous, Escape to Witch Mountain--Key often used the entirely non-Catholic-influenced (as far as I can tell from his biography) trope of nearly saint-like characters moving through a sinful, fallen, and evil world helped by a few fellow saints. His saints are rarely government or social figures, by the way. In The Forgotten Door, Child Welfare is ranged on the side of the bad guys. Human institutions are no better than the humans. The saints are very saintly and almost always immediately believe the protagonists. 

Let's just say: the trope is a little lacking in complex character development. 

In addition, in The Forgotten Door, Key uses an argument spoofed on Red Dwarf, namely that aliens are inherently more advanced than us humans, precisely because they don't use things like "money."

I loathe this argument. Jon, the protagonist in The Forgotten Door, wears sturdy, well-made, elegant and useful clothes and boots. He carries a dagger with gems, not for hunting but presumably for things like cutting vines. He is well-fed and well-groomed, despite his longer than usual hair (the book was published in 1965). 

All those things equal money. Even if there is no bartering system. Even if there are no coins. Even if there is no debit card. Goods = wealth. That's a fact. The kid isn't swinging from vines and wearing a loincloth--and now, I'm being unfair to monkeys because monkeys in fact collect objects. 

All sentient beings (and a lot of animals) do this, no matter how advanced. One could argue that in a utopia, people would no longer covet each other's goods. Or they would self-sufficiently create their own goods (though Jon is somewhere between nine and fourteen and is likely cared for by others). Those goods allow them to stay alive and warm and free of wounds.

That's money. What do people think money is for? So they can sit in the middle of their living rooms gloating over a pile of greenbacks? I work so I can be inside when it rains and snows, so I can feed my cats, so I can feed myself, so I can travel from one location to another, so I can wash off dirt, so I can sleep without being eaten by bears. 

I also own a Kindle and TV and a computer and lots of books. But even if I didn't "indulge" in such items, I would still need to figure out some way to obtain the stuff that keeps me alive. And food, bed, and board are goods. 

The argument about "no money" drives me crazy!

Another good, unknown Key book.
Yet I love Key's book. 

I think one reason is that The Forgotten Door is a good story. Another is that it is told entirely from the characters' perspectives. I don't have time to roll my eyes at Mary Bean's confidence that Jon comes from another planet since the entire dialog unwinds quickly and naturally within the family home. I worry about Jon getting in trouble when I know it isn't his fault. I become enthralled by the investigation--Thomas Bean and Jon searching to find the "door" Jon came through. I fret about the unfairness of the people around him and worry throughout the final chase scene.

In addition, the outcome that he is trying to achieve, "re-entry," is powerful, way less maudlin and candy-strewn than in ET. And the book tackles liminality: Jon's adventure places him inside a fairly ordinary community (despite all the evilness) yet outside it at the same time. 

In sum, a good story transcends its philosophy. It's a powerful reminder of why we humans love story to begin with.

Hollywood Can Get It Right: The Mirror Crack'd

Generally speaking, I consider the Joan Hickson's the definitive Miss Marples (the movies were recently remastered and re-released).

However, The Mirror Crack'd is one place where I think the Hollywood Miss Marple is far superior, despite the miscasting of Angela Lansbury (see below). 

In The Mirror Crack'd, Hollywood comes to St. Mary Mead. An aging and fragile female star who is about to rebuild her career buys Gossington Hall and then proceeds to get herself involved in a murder. 

Claire Bloom
The BBC The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side stars Joan Hickson as the detective with Claire Bloom as the aging and fragile female star, Marina Gregg. Barry Newman plays Jason Rudd, the devoted husband and director who knows her better than anyone. Constantine Gregory plays Ardwyck Fenn, the brusque and rude producer, while Glynis Barber plays the rival female star, Lola Brewster. 

Elizabeth Taylor

 In the Hollywood version, Angela Lansbury plays the detective and should have played it as her Murder, She Wrote persona rather than as an aged spinster. Angela Lansbury has never looked like an aged spinster in her life, not even now at age 96. 

Elizabeth Taylor plays Marina Gregg. Rock Hudson plays Jason Rudd. Tony Curtis plays the producer while Kim Novak plays the rival female star. 

And the fact is, the Hollywood cast plays nearly all the parts better. The BBC version is serious and tragic and Claire Bloom is arguably the superior actor for the lead role. But Christie is quite deliberately playing off the Hollywood mystique, including the status symbols and culture that come with it. The characters are actors who are, in a sense, playing themselves. 

Detective writer Ngaio Marsh, who worked in the theater, attempts to explain this behavior in a number of her books. It isn't that actors and actresses don't feel as passionately as they claim in their personal lives. They do. But they are trained to portray their emotions to the nth degree; consequently, their emotions come across as false, even when they aren't.

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and others manage to convey this double falsehood or double sincerity. They are depicting the end years of classic Hollywood, not the serious craft of hard-working actors.  

The one part that I prefer in the BBC version is Gwen Watford as Mrs. Bantry. Gwen Watford is extraordinarily delightful to watch in the Joan Hickson Miss Marples, and I love the scene in The Mirror Crack'd where she asks Mr. Rudd if she and the ladies of the parish can tour his marble bathrooms. 

Otherwise, the Hollywood version does a much better job capturing the milieu and the problem and the tragedy and the over-the-top resolution. Elizabeth Taylor is, after all, a great scene chewer. 

In fact, the resolution of the Hollywood version is altogether preferable--Miss Marple is allowed her summary. If only Hollywood had simply used Jessica Fletcher!

Halloween Picture in Portland, Maine

From 2018! 

I love this celebration of Halloween in Portland, Maine! Everyone should have a dragon on the roof!!


Conversations with a Translator: Trauma in Manga

Kate: Speaking of outlier behavior, another “taboo” topic is mental illness, as we have discussed elsewhere. In Otomen. Asuka has a tendency to find or be found by other Otomen, supposedly tough guys who secretly like make-up and flowers and the equivalent of Michael Bolton music. One of these guys calls himself the Flower Evangelist because he loves flowers so much. He meets a girl who was stung by a bee from a bouquet when she was young and hates flowers, so he decides to cure her. One of his approaches is subliminal treatment (flowers keep popping up and disappearing from her environment). Finally, the manga artist, Junta, points out that this approach could take YEARS; why not try something quicker?

How prevalent are plots/jokes about “trauma?” It does supply plot conflict! I encounter many troubled heroes and heroines in several series (though they rarely end up in therapy). And “trauma” occasionally supplies humor that is not that different from the many jokes made by Niles on Frasier about his group therapy patients.

Eugene: Trauma has been supplying plot lines and defining character arcs going back to the beginning with Shigeru Mizuki and Tezuka Osamu, so much so it could stand as a genre or literary category all on its own.

Ever since the Magical Girl genre went dark with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and reached near perfection with Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Netflix Crunchyroll), practically every new anime season supplies at least one traumatized magical girl. But Hideki Anno deserves a lot of credit for pushing trauma to the narrative limits with Neon Genesis Evangelion(Netflix).

Anno himself described the directorial process as a way for him to work through his bouts of depression. It debuted in 1995 and Anno has been spinning off sequels and reboots in what has become a billion-dollar franchise. Frankly, I gave up on the series halfway through the first season. Mecha series start with two strikes against them in my book and the whole thing got to be too much of a downer.

Netflix recently acquired the streaming rights so I should give it another go.

I previously mentioned A Silent Voice. There’s trauma by the truckload. But as you mention, the first recourse is not to ship everybody off to a therapist. If I were to come up with a general theory, it would be that trauma shapes a character. It is not supposed to define them. The challenge for the protagonists in A Silent Voice and a series like March Comes in like a Lion is to move beyond their pasts.

As with Tohru in Fruits Basket (Crunchyroll Funimation), Rei in March Comes in like a Lion is a strong contender for having the world’s worst childhood. Well, no, Chise in The Ancient Magus’ Bride wins that award. Anyway, Tohru has already moved on when the series starts. March Comes in like a Lion is about how Rei finally does.

The Souma clan in Fruits Basket may be the most screwed up extended family in existence, not only shaped by a tragic past, but magically bound to it as well. That is why Tohru is the one person who can save the Soumas from themselves. She’s been there and done that, so she can identify, but she got over it.

Kate: In Mars, the semi-delinquet Rei, turns out to have had a twin brother, who died (or committed suicide) after his girlfriend tried to leave him for Rei. If I remember correctly, the twin brother was not entirely sane.

Rei’s traumatic childhood gives him a kind of princely cache (the family is wealthy) as well as, I suppose, an explanation of why Rei is not a team player. One of the volumes arcs deals with him walking away from the hold his dead brother has on him. His hero status is underscored by his ability to move on.

Eugene: As best I can tell, the premise of Durarara!! is that having a tortured past gives you superpowers. Now, the characters in Durarara!! are basically comic book superheroes and supervillains in a comic book world of Russian gangs, yakuza, mad scientists, and a bike-riding Dullahan (though it takes place in Ikebukuro and everybody looks mostly normal). But, again, what shapes these characters is distinct from what defines them.

So you were a serial killer (as Harry says in True Lies, “Yeah, but they were all bad”)? Okay, but what are you now?

Durarara!! revels in its non-linear narratives and never takes itself too seriously, much like the puckish Bond films from a generation ago. Fruits Basket starts out as a by-the-numbers rom-com with a pollyannish female lead and a touch of magical realism, before plunging into the dark recesses of the human (and not quite so human) psyche. 
 
More conversations to follow!

Dune (2021) Review

REVIEW

I saw the movie the night of October 21st. It was the most opportune time. It turned out to be a unique experience: the first time in my life I've seen a movie before its official release date. The theater was full and the audience attentive--and the movie is nearly 3 hours long!--but then I suppose fans are already committed. A good reason to go when I did! 

Below is my list of what I hoped to see alongside commentary

*Spoilers*
 
1. The movie focuses on Paul immediately in the opening scenes and doesn't get bogged down by its own mysticism/mythology.
 
The movie doesn't begin with Paul. It begins on Arrakis, Chani narrating. My initial reaction was disappointment--except that in a very brief sequence, the narrator lays out the Atreides versus Harkonnen struggle. Bang! External conflict instantly established!

The movie never loses this focus. The emperor's minions are brought into the story but never the emperor. I was highly impressed.  

After the brief opening, the movie immediately moves to Caladan. It is exactly how I always imagined it--if a tad more Scottish (seriously, there are bagpipes). Settings and dream sequences emphasize Caladan's abundance of water versus the lack of water on Arrakis. Finally! Someone gets the point!

2. The movie gives Jessica due credit as a fully rounded character. She is neither diminished nor dropped on a pedestal.  

Played by Rebecca Ferguson, Jessica is an impassioned powerhouse. She is not as complexly presented as in the book, but I can allow for the difference. As mentioned elsewhere, movies are by the dictates of their medium tethered to the images they choose to present. The 1984 movie tried to do too much. The Dune miniseries tried to narrow its focus at odd moments, giving the series a haphazard feel. 

Dune (2021) keeps the focus on Paul, where it should be kept. I agree with this choice.

3. Paul as potential prophet is established early on. He is portrayed as neither a yuppie nor a war leader. 

Paul is our perspective into the story. Paul being played by Timothee Chalamet makes a difference. 

He is, for one, how I imagine Paul. If he reached adulthood on Caladan, he would become a friendly, relaxed, thoughtful, charismatic, yet somewhat removed and enigmatic leader. Send him to Arrakis: he becomes something else. But the elements are there already. 

Early on in the movie, Paul endures the test of the Gom Jabbar. Thankfully (since I always thought it was kind of tacky), we don't see his hand burning. All we see is his face as he reacts to the test. Chalamet may not yet have Freeman's extraordinary range of subtle facial movements; he is rapidly getting there. 

4. The Harkonnens are intelligent rivals, neither too awful (if memorable) nor too "everybody has a dark side!" token symbols

I still don't get how the Harkonnens could be in charge of anything. One thing these movies fail to realize is that evil men like Stalin had supporters--among intellectuals and among leaders drawn to a supposed adherence to their own philosophical wishes. 

The Britishers in Star Wars are at least amusingly dry.

Bad guys in drab cities sitting around bare metal rooms without furniture and then sinking into sludgy, oily baths are kind of...blah.

Frank Herbert gives the Harkonnens an Ancient Roman Caligula vibe, which is at least somewhat explanatory (bread & circuses). The movie doesn't.

The Baron is darkly intelligent. But still, I would think he would have multiple uprisings and riots on his own planet to worry about--not much time to deal with Arrakis. Oh, look, his people would say, it's a bad guy! He hangs around rooms with no chairs!

In justice, the movie isn't about the Harkonnens but about Paul. I have to commend that decision again. 

6. The movie is intelligently paced--the last two-thirds of the story has a decent flow.

I likely would have realized the following if I had watched previews and read up on the movie beforehand. I didn't. 

The movie is Book 1

About 1-1/2 hours (I presume) into the movie, I thought, "What is with these Dune scriptwriters? They aren't leaving enough time for the last 2/3rds. It's going to be a mishmash (again)."

Then, about two minutes later, I thought, "You dummy, Kate. It's Book 1."

I was impressed.

It's still a problem.  

6. Complicated Dune politics are explored, or at least referenced, through characters like Liet-Keynes. Other characters are combined.

Liet is massively underused. The exigencies of the script may have left the writers no choice.

I mention above: only the emperor's minions show up. The emperor doesn't make an appearance in Dune (2021). Nor does Princess Irulan. They don't need to! The political problem plays out intelligently without throwing every character in the book at the screen. I was extremely impressed. 

7. The movie isn't preachy. Not sure how it can be but everything seems to be these days. So--the Fremen are complex, not irritatingly self-righteous as The Victims

The movie isn't preachy. In fact, it adheres closely to the book's notable action sequences. These sequences carry the political/religious context. 
 
The problem is that unlike LOTR--which was, granted, split into 3 books by its publisher, not its author--Book 1 of Dune doesn't have a natural conclusion/wrap-up. By focusing on Paul (let me say again: awesome script choice!), the movie was able to end not on an upbeat note (the book doesn't have many of those) but on Paul's acceptance of his fate on Arrakis--or at least, on as much of that fate as he can foresee. 
 
Still, it's not exactly the same ending as Frodo parting from the Fellowship or the rescue of Helm's Deep or, even, Bilbo et al. escaping the Misty Mountains. I'm not saying Dune (2021) fails. I'm saying...
 
See below.

I don't think anyone in the audience was disappointed. I did hear one young man say to his friend, "The 'original' [his word] was half the time and covered the whole story." To which, someone in his group mentioned something about Book 1. I muttered it to myself. 

He wasn't complaining, however! His voice was one of wonderment. As my theater companion said, "I guess...2022." (The sequel, which will cover Books II and III, might not come out until 2023.) Various audience members paused outside the theater to  exchange thoughts. I don't know if they all approved of the movie, but nobody was saying, "Wow, what a waste of my entire Thursday night!" 

It is nice to go to an opening night with people who already care.

IN SUM

I was completely engaged by Dune (2021). The movie is well-worth seeing on a big screen. The focus on Paul (and through him) is one of the smartest script choices for a book-to-movie I've experienced. 

It is a problematic book to bring to screen. 

Here's why: 

There is a strong shift in tone at Leto's death. As soon as Paul and Jessica escape into the desert, the story veers in a new direction.

In the book, to a huge extent, the reader is prepared for the shift by the opening chapter blurbs, delivered (mostly) in the voice of Princess Irulan. The fatalistic essence of Paul's life's course is established. 

In the 1984 version, this tone is established early on, which I commend. It is not the scriptwriters' fault that Kyle MacLachlan is the least fatalistic-looking person in the universe. 

Not exactly Keir Dullea.

The miniseries didn't attempt to establish the fatalistic tone. The writers relied on the break in episodes, which was smart and the best approach overall. 

The 2021 movie establishes Paul's unique personality and fate, but the new tone after Leto's death is glaring. The movie should have ended with the escape from the palace, possibly with the descent into the storm. 

But it then would have become the most depressing mystical sci-fi movie since Hal started killing people off out there on a lonely space station. 

COVID could be to blame here. The sequel is still in pre-production. If the movie had come out as originally scheduled, the sequel may have been more of a certainty. The studio could have afforded a cliffhanger. 

As it is, the film editors gave the movie a resolution of sorts. 

(I have to wonder, how many fans based on previews, not fans of the book or prior movies, are rushing home this weekend to check out the book/prior movies?)

It is an odd circumstance since in a way the editors/studio had to opt for some kind of resolution as opposed to an aesthetically coherent film. I don't fault them for the choice--but--

It is a difficult book to render on film. 

Hmmm, how soon will a director's cut come out?

PRIOR REVIEWS:

Dune (1984)

Miniseries, Part 1

Miniseries, Part II 

 

Dune (2021) Preview

PREVIEW TO REVIEW

Dune always struck me as more in line with Highlander and other such franchises than, say, Peter Jackson's franchises. And I never entirely got the appeal of Highlander. I was interested in Dune (2021), but originally planned to see it sometime in the distant future on DVD.

My motive to head to the theater was the surprising choice of Timothee Chalamet as Paul. It was so entirely counter to previous choices (see Kyle MacLachlan and Alec Newman) though closer to Newman than to MacLachlan. But it indicated a vision of the book that outweighed previous renditions--and a willingness to go outside the obvious to complete that vision. That is, Chalamet had already made a name for himself but not in sci-fi. The choice was governed by ability and persona, not by box office credentials (he has them now).

I am always fascinated by books made into films since the attempt is so fraught with issues (and complaints from diehard book fans, who can never be satisfied). It is also rare to be in a position to compare high caliber (well-financed) films of a single source against each other--other than Jane Austen and Agatha Christie (and Agatha Christie films usually indicate no more than token interest in the books themselves). That is, Peter Jackson's LOTR is fairly definitive, simply because, well, who else is going to put in the same time and energy and money and thought? 

Dune attracts intensely invested investors. Unusually for books-become-movies, I was able to prepare by viewing two versions (theater and TV) that were highly applauded for their attempts (I also reread the book). 

So what about Dune (2021)

PRIOR REVIEWS:

Dune (1984)

Miniseries, Part 1

Miniseries, Part II 

Miniseries, Part III

Suspension of Belief Failures: Matlock

I'm such a mystery show junkie that I will watch shows that range from Diagnosis Murder to Elementary, from Death in Paradise to NCIS. Bones. Castle. Miss Marple. Jake & the Fatman. Even Criminal Minds in its initial seasons. Blue Bloods. The Closer. Major Crimes. Person of Interest. Murder, She Wrote. Poirot. Father Brown. Monk. Murder in Suburbia. Law & Order. Numb3rs. House, early seasons. Psych. The Mentalist (in parts). Rosemary & Thyme. Mysterious Ways. Now & Again. Various Star Trek episodes. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). Sherlock (for Martin Freeman).  Nero Wolfe. Columbo. Miss Fisher. Shakespeare & Hathaway. 

And Matlock

I enjoy Andy Griffith. I'm a big fan of the Andy Griffith Show. And I often enjoy the investigation part of Matlock episodes. 

The court scenes are silly. 

And I can't get past the silliness. 

I am aware that few murder mystery shows match "real life." While discussing the Wallace case, Dorothy Sayers makes a wry comment about mystery writers who want to get away with a single police detective and side-kick. In reality, there were over half-a dozen police wandering about the Wallace home the night of the murder. And some of the trace evidence might have been tracked about by at least one of them. 

(Point: I don't consider incredibly angsty mystery shows all that realistic either. The "hard-boiled" school has always seemed as contrived to me as the cozy manor house mystery--more-so in some cases.)

The problem is that there is not even the slightest itty-bitty possibility that Matlock would be allowed to do in real life even the tiniest amount of what he does in the fictional courtroom. 

And I can't ignore it the way I do with so many other shows where I allow for certain "givens" (like the incredibly short amount of time it takes for people to drive places in major cities). The list above indicates how many givens I will accept as givens. (I did entirely ignore "Red John" in The Mentalist.)

Yet by the time I reach Season 3 of Matlock, I find I'm watching the investigation--then fast-forwarding through the court scenes until the murderer's identity is confirmed. 

If Matlock's explanations of each problem were confined to his closing arguments, they would still be unrealistic but within the bounds of possibility.  Closing arguments are allowed more latitude than witness-questioning. And more bombast. 

But lawyers are simply not allowed to conduct the equivalent of police interrogations toward witnesses on the stand. Or produce radically new evidence. Or go off on tangents that lead nowhere. The truth is, when attorneys go to trial, they pretty much all know what is on the table. There just aren't that many surprises.

In real life, Matlock would never get more than two words into any of his questions. It would be like watching professional tennis, which I consider boring beyond belief since it entails watching people serve balls at each other. Every time Matlock opened his mouth...

"Objection!" 

"Sustained!"

Matlock scripts occasionally have the prosecutor stand up and make token objections. I actually find this more insulting and irritating than if the script just let Andy Griffith chew scenery, rather like the wrap-ups in Death in Paradise, which are allowed as an element of the genre and are therefore excusable. 

I don't particularly mind scene-chewing! But pretending, even for a second, that Matlock's type of questioning is even vaguely permissible in a courtroom by any standards of the modern world or, for that matter, history (and I am including the Middle Ages here) is so patently absurd--

I wish the episodes would end with the investigations.

Andy Griffith reputedly loved playing Matlock. So I'm happy for him.