Fairy Tales: Cinderella's Appeal

From Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

Cinderella is the oldest fairy tale, and it appears in nearly all cultures from Egypt to China, from Persia to Europe.

"Why is it popular?" is such a loaded question--and results in such loaded answers (Cinderella is popular due to patriarchal domination, women's wish-fulfillment fantasies, foot fetishes)--that answering it is to enter a quagmire of literary exegesis.

My answer: the popularity rests in the story, the original perfect combination of two factors: (1) what Tolkien (thousands of years after Cinderella was created) called eucatastrophe, the salvation that occurs in the darkest hours; (2) the surprise and fun of disclosure: the princess revealed! 

Joseph of Egypt's narrative falls into this category, and explains why out of all the Old Testament stories, it was preserved almost entirely as an intact narrative.

Listeners love the rescue story. The cynics can argue that our desire for rescue is wishful thinking. But I think the attraction comes down to fundamental human wiring. 

We know that human beings may live most of their lives in what Donna calls blahness. But still, life is never entirely what we expect. We have the capacity to be surprised. We have the capacity to see lights at the ends of tunnels. Sometimes they appear. Sometimes we make them appear. And sometimes, when they don't, we create art and literature that become, surprisingly enough, their own lights at the end of the tunnel.

Recognition and restoration are experiences we crave. They are the reasons we build stuff and make things and form relationships and live in a state other than nihilistic anarchy.

Despite its powerful themes, Cinderella isn't my favorite fairy tale (I'm a bigger fan of Beauty and the Beast tropes), but I do have a few Cinderella favorites from the picture book section:
  • Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleischman, which addresses different versions (see above). Quite captivating!
  • James Marshall-illustrated Cinderella--because James Marshall's illustrations always make me laugh.  
  • "Catskinella" from Virginia Hamilton's gorgeously illustrated (by Leo and Diane Dillon) Her Stories.
  • CinderEdna (which turns Cinderella on its head)--liberated and funny!

I hate to disappoint the Grimm fans, but I generally avoid versions where people's heels and toes get cut off.

I have reviewed Branagh's film version.

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Horror II

Kate: In Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan, author Zack Davisson states, “[Y]ou have probably noticed when talking about Japanese yokai…you’ll usually hear about them in conjunction with the Edo period.” 

Hills of Silver Ruins comes across as late medievalism edging into early modern, the time period right before what is classically referred to as the Industrial Revolution, which anticipatory decades spawned Gothicism.  

Is the Edo period Japan’s Gothic period? Like in England, was the Edo period evoking a mix of nostalgia and glorification towards a diminishing past? What is the connection between the Edo period and supernatural/ghost stories, the look/feel of classical horror?

Eugene: The Edo period roughly coincided with the Elizabethan through early Victorian. The civil wars were over, the political situation had stabilized, and a middle class emerged. As you put it, the people of the period saw themselves emerging from an age of medievalism, which evoked "a mix of nostalgia and glorification towards a diminishing past." The evolving roles of the samurai are a good example, as the once-warrior class quickly turned into a hereditary civil service, who now had money and time on their hands

They were eager to be entertained. So basically there were a lot of Hans Christian Andersens running around supplying material to keep the writers, artists, and playwrights busy. In the process, they fictionalized popular historical events, codified the folklore, and created many cultural institutions that remain to this day. Like Shakespeare, kabuki was once entertainment for the masses, with ukiyo-e artists producing pin-ups and prints that celebrated famous kabuki actors. Now both are considered high brow.

Everything Affects Everything Else: Fish at the Time of the Reformation in England

Years ago, a show on television and then on VHS called Connections and narrated by James Burke (who has a cousinly resemblance to John Cleese) made a splash. The point of each episode was to start with one thing--bananas, for instance--and show how historical and technological and personality threads connected bananas to, say, airplanes and the French Revolution and stamps. 

The connections were not the daft "trivia" connections that people make on Amazon videos: This actor once made a movie in which there was an uncle named Fred, and the actor has an uncle named Fred! The connections were actual connections, reverberations, a butterfly flapping its winds and creating a hurricane, networks across time and space. 

I came across one such connection in Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking by Kate Colquohoun. The book's history chapters are fascinating, and I say that as someone whose eyes tend to glaze over during writerly descriptions of recipes. 

In a chapter on the Tudors, Colquohoun points out that Henry VIII not only disposed of monasteries and such, moving a tremendous amount of property into the crown's coffers, he changed feast days, including fasting and fish on Fridays. 

I knew about the former but not about the latter since Henry VIII was more Catholic, in many ways, than the Protestant revolutionaries in his own country. But yep, he did change demands on fish. Consequently, fish suffered economically--in large part because people thankfully gave up eating fish. One citizen admitted "to finding salt fish nauseating and river fish muddy." As the author explains, "Lamprey were falling rapidly out of fashion and fish was becoming political." Hey, we're Protestant now! was the perfect excuse. 

I was reminded of Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, Ghost Map, How We Got to Now, and Wonderland. I was reminded in part because Johnson, like Burke, argues a more nuanced view of cause and effect than often allowed for in sledgehammer academic theories. I was also reminded because Johnson argues on more than one occasion that changes, adaptations, and new ideas may be influenced by want, DESIRE, as much as by necessity. 

Human beings are very good at arguing profound, intellectual, important reasons for why they do what they do--doesn't mean something far more atavistic and ego-id-like isn't at work.

One tourist in the 18th century suggested, "[Not one Englishman] has ever eaten a dinner without meat." Despite being an island nation, apparently many Englishers would rather have their roast beef than their fish.   

Fairy Tales: Remarkable Italo Calvino

Like Grimm, Lang, and Perrault, Calvino is a must-read when it comes to fairy tales. 

Italo Calvino's 1956 Italian Folktales arrives with a remarkably nuanced and modern introduction. 

It is notable for several points:

1. Calvino addresses the unifying nature of a folktale collection. With both the Brothers Grimm and with Italo Calvino, the tales come from "states" within a nation, separate regions that historically did not necessarily perceive themselves as belonging to a single culture. 

While acknowledging the motives and challenges of prior collectors, Calvino's efforts are far more self-conscious since he is aware of the ephemeral nature of "place." Moreover, he makes the important point that "international circulation of common tales does not exclude their [regional] diversity" since every teller emphasizes particular elements. Along the same lines, storytellers will assume knowledge by their listeners depending on their location--find it necessary or not necessary to describe customs and governances (the point Calvino makes here is why I suggest that "true" tales tend to leave out details rather than incorporate them). 

Calvino doesn't disguise his own role--he is consciously, deliberately translating and adapting works from various sources.

2. Calvino addresses elements of the Cupid & Psyche myth that show up again and again in "romantic" tales, which address "every love thwarted and forbidden by law, convention, or social disparity. That is why it has been possible, from prehistory to the present, to preserve, not as a fixed formula but as a flowing element, the sensuality so often underlying this love, evident in the ecstasy and frenzy of mysterious nocturnal embraces." 

I will return to Calvino's point when the list reaches Beauty & the Beast and its accompanying motifs. 

3. Calvino's introduction is renowned for the extraordinary line: "folktales are real." Tales reflect the human condition, the human experience. Although Calvino soured on communism (as many idealists did with Stalin), he saw the tales as reflecting a reality that dovetailed with his political sympathies: the day-to-day burden of poverty, the struggle for subsistence. 

Calvino's introduction is far too deprecating. I approached the book--a birthday present from my early twenties--with some worries that the tales would be romanticized "intellectual" retellings, not that different from the "original" Princess Bride that Goldman mocks in his seminal work. 

But Calvino was a honest collector. The tales read like tales and include all the uncomfortable details of their originals, such as the punishment of the slave who attempts to marry the king in place of the princess (reminiscent of "The Goose Girl," another uncomfortable tale) and the simpleton who blithely kills the joker who pretended to be dead: "Well, now he is." 

An honest and dedicated collector: like Poe with his three mystery tales, Calvino covered nearly every type of tale that fairy tales offer. 

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Horror I

Kate: Book II of Hills of Silver Ruins introduces the “haunted house” nature of Asen’s court. A horror element creeps through these chapters.

Parts of Ono's books are rather like suspense meets splatter-fest, especially considering Taiki's prequel (or "other-quel") The Demon Child. According to the manga I read, Japan has both suspense and splatter horror. Does the Hitchcock/Shyamalan suspense approach take precedence or gore? Do the two genres fall into distinct categories as in the United States (high versus low art) or do the folks who produced Godzilla have a more flexible view of horror?

Eugene: I don't know that any one horror genre takes precedence. There's something for everybody. When manga and anime started making waves outside of Japan a half century ago, the often explicit nature of the material quickly caught everybody's attention. The blood and gore has been there all along, with the "Pinky Violence" exploitation flicks taking off in the late 1960s. Anything Hollywood could do, Japanese filmmakers could do (on a fraction of the budget), except when they were actually forbidden by statute.

Observes Donalf Richie, "American pornography is kept forever on its elemental level because, showing all, it need do nothing else; Japanese eroductions [sic] have to do something else since they cannot show all."

On-screen violence wasn't prohibited so it flourished. Some critics point to the last scene in Sanjuro by Akira Kurosawa, during which a malfunctioning squib produced a spray of blood that afterwards became de rigueur.

The first Godzilla is an effective noir thriller. But it spawned the often goofy tokusatsu genre that probably compares well (in commercial terms) to the Hollywood comic book franchises, especially with A-list actors and directors now tackling what used to be B-movie material. "Spiritual horror" is also a well-established genre. When paired with feel-good outcomes, series like Noragami, Beyond the Boundary, and Natsume's Book of Friends bear comparison to Ghost, Ghost Whisperer, and Touched by an Angel.

Then there's the trend of taking an established genre like magical girl or isekai and turning it dark. Puella Magi Madoka Magica did this to perfection, though Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha went there a decade earlier. I previously described Fruits Basket as Anne of Green Gables with every other chapter written by Stephen King. I think it'd be more accurate to describe Fruits Basket as dropping Anne Shirley into an early 19th century gothic romance, the crazy aunt in the attic and all that (but with a bunch of happy endings).

Police Versus Private Detectives: Differing Investigations

Morel is le commissaire Martin Bataille
In The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, a character points out that the trope smart detective outwits dumb police is an old-fashioned idea. And to her credit, Christie's novels, after the initial Poirot short stories, portray police officers as intelligent investigators who work alongside the P.I.  

A current approach to mysteries underscores this point. With Don Matteo, the first seasons revolve around the good priest solving the crime to the exasperation of Captain Anceschi and delight of Marshal Cecchini. But later seasons present Don Matteo and the police on parallel tracks. They arrive at the same conclusion at the same time if not through the same means or in the same way (or for the same purpose). 

The approach has its positives and negatives. On the positive side, it refrains from making the police look dumb. Even in Monk, the marvelous Ted Levine as Stottlemeyer sells the part through sheer force of personality. And his character admits that "these days," he spends a lot of time babysitting Monk. 

I also like the parallel approach for the philosophical implications--a crime CAN be solved in more than one way. Any crime will produce a score of potential clues and outcomes, all of which can be traced back to the perpetrator. 

On the downside, this approach separates the P.I. from the police. It is not quite as satisfying as watching them solve it together or watching the clever amateur detective produce THE vital clue. 

A show like Elementary manages to find the perfect balance. Sherlock and Joan do take their own approach, which often connects with and/or crosses over the police's approach. More importantly, although Sherlock and Joan have the epiphanies, they are often entirely reliant on the police investigation. THE vital clue, many times, actually comes from Marcus Bell.

Fairy Tales: Native American Folktales

Native American folktales crop up throughout the entire 398.2 section, in part due to collectors' names. Joseph Bruchac is one. Since in my alphabetical order approach, I recently encountered The Boy Who Lived with the Bears and other tales collected and reold by Bruchac, I decided to cover the entire sub-topic here.

Native American folktales raise the interesting problem of whether fairy tales and folk tales can be used to learn about the past. 

A large number of Native American folktales were taken down in the mid-nineteenth century as Native Americans were steadily disappearing from the Northeast landscape. They didn't entirely disappear, of course. Maine has three major reservations: Pleasant Point and Indian Township (Passamoquoddy), and Indian Island (Penobscot). 

But the perception in the nineteenth century was that the Native American past was gone--and as with many past things that appear to be gone, romanticization set in (see Gothicism in England). It is about this time that Longfellow wrote Hiawatha. And a number of collectors set out to gather Native American lore. 

Whatever the reasoning, it should be noted that the collections were luckily made. And they instantly raise the problem of oral histories as history since, as the telephone game illustrates, a story changes as it is repeated. Some scholars, for instance, believe that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are the output of versions told and retold by multiple contributors; some, that Homer was a single genius, like Shakespeare, who was nevertheless influenced by the performance of telling the tale. Shakespeare didn't write in a vacuum--in fact, he wrote certain parts for certain actors. 

I am one of those who argues that folk tales can be used to discover history--though it is best if clues from the tales are checked against other outside information. 

The very funny "Big Eater's Wife," for instance, stresses the importance of a woman's grinding tools: her mortar and pestle. This highlighting of food preparation tools is a general motif in older folktales and myths. In Good Wives, Laurel Ulrich points out the importance of basic kitchen tools to Puritan women: a family's wealth was determined by their kitchen pot. When survival becomes a community's main concern, access to food becomes a source of power (just watch Survivor or Big Brother).

"Big Eater's Wife" is reproduced below. 

For a decent collection of Native American myths and legends (with source notes!), I recommend American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz.

Big Eater’s Wife


Big Eater ate and ate. He never stopped eating. He had his wigwam and two canoes on an island close to the mainland shore. Big Eater was powerful, but sometimes an evil ghost woman can defeat the most powerful man.

One day Big Eater was looking across the water, and there on the opposite shore he saw a beautiful young woman digging clams. How could he know that she was a ghost-witch? He hailed her across the water: "Beautiful girl, come live with me. Sleep with me!"

"No," she said. "Yes - No. Yes. No. Yes, yes, yes! Well, all right."

Big Eater got in one of his two canoes and paddled over. The woman was even more beautiful close up. "All right, pretty one, step into the canoe."

"Yes, but first I must get my things." Soon the girl came back with a mortar and pestle and some eggs. She put them in the canoe, and Big Eater paddled her over.

They ate. The beautiful woman said: "Oh my, what great heaps of food you can eat!" "Yes, I'm powerful that way." They went to bed. "Oh my, how often you can do it!" "Yes, I'm powerful that way." "Indeed this is so!" So they lived happily for a long time.

But after a while this girl got tired of Big Eater. She thought, "He's fat, he's not young. I want a change; I want to have a young, slim man loving me. I'll leave."

So when Big Eater went out fishing in one of his canoes, the girl made a doll, large as a grown woman. She placed the doll in her bed, took her mortar, pestle, and eggs, put them in Big Eaters' second canoe, and paddled off.

Big Eater came home early from fishing. Thinking it was his wife he was climbing in with, he got into bed. He touched the doll, and the doll began to scream and shriek. "Wife," he said, "stop this big noise or I'm going to beat you." Then he saw that it was a doll lying in bed with him. Big Eater jumped up and looked around. The mortar and pestle and eggs were gone. He ran down to the shore, got into the remaining canoe, and paddled furiously after his wife.

Soon he saw her, also paddling hard. But he was stronger than she and pulled closer and closer. He drew up behind her canoe until both almost touched. "Now I'll catch her," he thought.

Then the woman threw her mortar out of the canoe over the stern. At once all the water around him turned into mortars, and Big Eater was stuck. He couldn't paddle until at last he lifted his canoe and carried it over the mortars. By the time he gained clear water again, his wife was a long way off.

Again he paddled furiously. Again he gained on her. Again he almost caught her. Then she threw her pestle over the stern, and at once the water turned into pestles. Again Big Eater was stuck, trying to paddle through this sea of pestles but unable to. He had to carry his canoe over them, and when he hit open water again, his wife was far distant.

Again Big Eater drove through the water with all his strength. Again he gained on her; again he almost caught her. Then from the stern of her canoe the woman threw the eggs out. At once the water turned into eggs, and once more Big Eater was stuck. The eggs were worse than the mortar and pestle, because Big Eater couldn't carry his canoe over them. Then he hit the eggs, smashing them one by one and cleaving a path through the gooey mess. He hit clear water, and his wife's canoe was only a dot on the horizon.

Again he paddled mightily. Slowly he gained on her again. It took a long time, but finally he was almost even with her. "This time I'll catch you!" he shouted. You have nothing left to throw out."

But his wife just laughed. She pulled out a long hair from her head, and at once it was transformed into a lance. She stood up and hurled this magic lance at Big Eater. It hit him square in the chest, piercing him through and through. Big Eater screamed loudly and fell down dead. That's what can happen to a man if he marries a ghost-witch.

--Retold from several nineteenth-century sources

Twelve Kingdoms: Hills of Silver Ruins, Point of View 2

Kate: There’s also a kind of Cubist approach to Ono’s writing, so that events are presented by entirely new characters, such as the family that sends offerings into the mountain while Gyousou is under the mountain.

Is this, “we came at the matter from one view; now, we’ll try another” unique to Ono or does it indicate a Japanese mindset, connected to demonstrable evidence that Americans tend to take pictures of faces while the Japanese tend to take pictures of people in settings?

Context! Context is everything! 

Eugene: At least from my reading of the Twelve Kingdoms series, Fuyumi Ono uses the cinematic POV to an extent in Hills of Silver Ruins that she hadn't previously. Shadow of the Moon is an excellent example of a single POV narrative and A Thousand Leagues of Wind uses three representing the three main characters. Given the epic scale of Hills of Silver Ruins and a cast of thousands, I think this is more a case of the content and story structure driving the POV choices.

Granted, it's hard to resist jumping down the Whorfian rabbit hole. Although linguistic determinism has been widely discredited, there's a good deal of common sense left in the "weak" Whorfian (or "Sapir–Whorf") hypothesis. For example, the ability in Japanese to completely drop the subject of a sentence makes it relatively easy to create a narrative passage that doesn't even have a POV, omniscient or otherwise (which can be a royal pain to translate into English).

At the same time, though, there's so much cross-pollination, in the modern era starting with the influence of ukiyo-e prints on European art during the 19th century, that it would be impossible to disentangle them. As political metaphors, both "kabuki" and "Rashomon" are in common usage. The positive feedback loop between the samurai and western genres is well established. Blade Runner (1982) had a more profound influence on anime than it did in Hollywood.

Patlabor is one of my favorite anime franchises. Not mentioned in the above article, Mamoru Oshii's first Patlabor movie, directed as a noir police procedural, was pretty much his dress rehearsal for Ghost in the Shell.

My own theory du jour is that along with home-grown cultural trends, talent acquisition methods account for the big differences in outcomes. Japanese publishers essentially employ the Moneyball approach. Consumer art is always going to be market driven so publishers embrace established genres while chasing new trends and the same only different, while constantly scouting new talent. But even old talent is rigorously evaluated with reader surveys and sales reports.

In other words, a particularly literary style evolves because it works. Here we return to the Whorfian hypothesis in one form or another, though the popularity of manga, anime, and light novels abroad suggest that such forms evolved in Japan simply because that's where they were first tried, the same way the Hollywood action movie formula became ubiquitous by being the firstest with the mostest.

Snow Day!

 Below are some links to one of the best books about snow days:

 With music and animation:


Friendly reading:


A quiet version (good for watching the snow fall while sipping a cup of hot chocolate):

Reflections on the Nice Superhero and The Last Airbender, Part II

The question raised by The Last Airbender and other action/superhero films is--

If a superhero truly intends not to harm people, how responsible is the superhero for the consequences when the venial and evil people continue to live and carry out their venial and evil deeds? (The question, Does anyone truly believe that death won't result from the superhero's actions? is an important but separate question. Tony Stark and Hancock alone appear to address the issue of collateral damage.)

The issue of unintended consequences--or fully intended consequences--deserves to be answered in either direction. And it deserves to become a haunting question. Reece poses it in Person of Interest. Bren poses it in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series when he deliberately sends a human back into an imprisoning environment to avoid the man's appearance upsetting the planet's delicate diplomatic relations and potentially leading to all-out war. Bren fully accepts what he has done and its moral implications.

For that matter, Christianity rests on one answer to that question, followed by an eucastrophe, but its followers don't necessarily answer the question in the same way, and I'm not saying they should or shouldn't. 

The point is: the problem must be faced

I think a fair answer would be: My people do what they do, but I have absolute power, so I refrain as far as I can. (This is the answer Aang appears to settle on--though stripping another human being of that being's inherent nature presents its own moral quandary.) 

But the cost of refraining (therefore, some of my people must fight and die and/or suffer) still should be addressed/faced. 

There's a reason Dune has such a complicated anti-hero at its core--because Paul is trying to balance impossible forces without resorting to the use of absolute persuasion. And he knows there is no pure answer. 

In many ways, a superhero/deity who accepts the lack of a pure answer is preferable: mercy on a day-to-day basis rather than an increasingly narrow definition of "pure" (who deserves to live) until no one is left (see Ono Fuyumi's handling of legalism and current-day university culture regarding the problems of increasingly narrowed definitions). 

But even the fall-out of the merciful decision is part of the problem. Aang's previous Avatars advise him to act quickly and without compunction in part because they regret their failure to do so. But their individual perspectives are skewed due to their regret. In reality, they can't  know how things would have turned out otherwise any more than they can foretell the end result for Aang. Aang must eventually make the decision alone.

Difficult moral problem. Good stories when it is faced! 


Fairy Tales: Asbjornsen and the Numinous North

The importance of Northern tales echoes through C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's lives and works. As they pointed out again and again, these tales arrived in England relatively "late." Norske Folkeeventyr, for instance, was collected in 1842-43 and translated into English by Sir George Dasent in 1859.

Western classics focused for many generations--going back to the Middle Ages--on antiquity. When Harvard and Yale came into being, its students studied Latin and Greek. Those myths thread through Western medieval tales and updated versions by writers like Hawthorne. When Shakespeare went classic, he went to Rome. When he went local, he went to Midsummer Night's Dream

Then the Grimm brothers made their collection followed by Andrew Lang with the English and Asbjornsen and others with the North. 

Although the collectors operated in the mid-nineteenth-century, for Lewis and Tolkien in the early to mid-twentieth century, the academic world still lingered in antiquity. They and others attempted to change that approach by doing really out-there stuff, like teaching Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. (I fail to understand why anyone considers higher academe "edgy" about anything--if it isn't "cool" and acceptable, it isn't going to show up in any "forward-thinking" professor's in-box until it is cool and acceptable. Lewis and Tolkien were considered outliers.)

Northern tales did begin to make themselves felt, most interestingly, in Disney. In the making of Snow White, Disney was influenced by illustrators such as Gustave Dore. He was influenced with Fantasia by Kay Nielsen (see book image above), specifically in the final two pieces, "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria"--in which one can see both influences.

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, of course, took everyone the final distance with unique classic tales steeped in Northern climes. 

My personal favorite picture book here is P.J. Lynch's East of the Sun, West of the Moon. In truth, I don't find the quest itself all that enthralling. It has all the requisite tropes and motifs--animal bridegroom, bargains with trolls, sleeping prince, resolute heroine. Its greatest strength, of course, is the winds, which mark the story's place much in the same way Beowulf's Grendel marks its tale by arriving from a boggy marsh in a cold climate. 

I adore Lynch's illustrations. 

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, Hills of Silver Ruins, Point of View

Kate: Fantasy depends, to a degree, on point of view. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings depends on Saruman making a personal bid for the ring, which not only puts him in conflict with Sauron but also distracts Sauron’s attention from the divided Fellowship. No matter how evil and long-lived, Sauron only knows what he knows about the ring based on limited information.

Tolkien rather takes point-of-view for granted, so much so that the limitations of knowledge get lost a bit in the movies.

Hills of Silver Ruins, however, not only depends on the limitations of point-of-view, the text, even plot, is about characters overcoming those limitations. When Taiki announces that Asen is the new emperor of Tai, he doesn’t reveal his true intent until later. Others are left to deal with the announcement as best they can.

How important is point of view to fantasy writers? How does Japanese literature handle it generally?

Eugene: In Shadow of the Moon, Ono effectively uses a single, limited POV. In A Thousand Leagues of Wind, she has three POV characters. Hills of Silver Ruins follows the more common cinematic style, the POV shifting from character to character depending on the focus of the scene. But the narrative voice never knows more than what any one POV character knows.

I can't say much about Japanese literature in general, but I think the hard work of creating manga and anime naturally results in a disciplined focus on a small central cast with the POV following the main characters. In manga especially, the constant challenge is to keep the drama going while keeping the workload manageable. Limiting omniscience and the cast solves most narrative problems.

Both problems crop up to an annoying degree in Hollywood productions. In Buffy and especially in Angel, Whedon kept adding cast members until the only thing they could do together was save the world once again, which got boring. The seemingly paradoxical rule of essay writing applies to fiction as well. If you can't think of what to write about, tighten the focus, don't expand it.

Less is more. I think the physical and artistic constraints of television production in the 1960s made Roger Moore as The Saint a better Bond than Roger Moore actually playing James Bond in big-budget movies.

But just as bad, often much worse, is this compulsion by writers to tell the audience everything they know. You see this reflected in the obsession with backstories and origin stories. Not that manga and anime don't do origin stories. Demon Slayer is a great archetypal example. But it is probably more common for characters to be introduced in medias res and their origins revealed later if at all.

Hence the running joke in One Punch Man with Genos trying to find out Saitama's origin story and then being disappointed at how mundane it is.

On the other hand, you can't have characters conveniently forgetting what they should already know. But again, the solution is to maintain a tight narrative focus and POV. 

Watching "Kenobi vs Anakin: The Secret Reason Why It's Boring" by the Literature Devil got me thinking about the big fight scene at the end of the third season of Railgun. The climax of the conflict is not Misaka ("Railgun") defeating her foe (that occurs in the denouement) but figuring out what her motivations are.

As Literature Devil points out, a dramatic arc like this in a fight scene is much more interesting than twenty minutes of two guys hitting each other with swords. The Japanese superhero genre excels at telling a whole story within a single climactic fight scene. (The Literature Devil uses Rurouni Kenshin as an example.) This only works if the audience doesn't already know the whole story.

Demon Slayer turns so many of its extended fight scenes into mini Shakespearean tragedies for the villains that it becomes its own "sympathy for the devil" trope.

I'll also point out that manga and anime dramatists love what Tolkien termed eucatastrophe, "the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom." Perhaps a bit too much. But, boy, are they good at it, with Demon Slayer, to cite a recent example, constituting a master class on the subject.

I think the "Entertainment District" arc of Demon Slayer is better than the Mugen Train blockbuster movie, though that fight scene could be trimmed a tad here and there. But it certainly addresses the "not enough Nezuko" problem in Mugen Train, with plenty of Nezuko as the best bad-ass demon slayer since Buffy.

Tubi has the first two seasons of Railgun.


Crunchyroll has the whole series.


Reflections on the Nice Superhero and The Last Airbender, Part I

First, Shymalan's The Last Airbender is a weird movie. 

I remembered reading a series of negatives reviews of the movie when it came out. I decided to watch it anyway before I tried out the animated series. I'm rather tired of a world in which everything is supposedly decided by votes. I'd rather read/watch something for myself. 

If you have never seen the series and don't mind "eh" movies, The Last Airbender is an adequate introduction to the world. I got interested in the series because of the movie. 

Then I watched the series. And I had to conclude--

The movie is very strange. 

I'm not talking about the so-called whitewashing. As far as I am concerned, Shymalan couldn't win here. He was either "whitewashing" or "appropriating," which is likely why he made so many of the antagonists Indian. Frankly, the upcoming series has benefited from Shymalan already being put through the wringer.  

What is strange is that he "whitewashed" for average actors. For great actors, sure. For average actors, um, why? Shaun Toub and Aasif Mandvi walk away with all the scene-chewing acting credit; everyone else's performances are rather lackluster.

What is stranger is the lack of any personal touch. As one reviewer points out, Shymalan didn't even work to his strengths. His movies are often uneven with multiple problems, but what he is good at he is very good at: directing kids, creating an aura of suspense, establishing evocative scenes, following a single perspective across a series of scenes. 

Aside from the final scene, which is quite impressive, the movie is weirdly bland. And the final scene is good by its genre's standards, not good as a Shymalan scene.  

Even stranger, the series has loads of meat that Shymalan brushes over. For a movie that was supposedly just the first season, it sacrifices depth of perception for a cobbling together of a number of issues. 

Part of that meat brings me to Part II of these two posts. 

The Avatar is instructed not to harm people, and the final sequence is an impressive show of nature's power, which I appreciate. However, in the meantime, the Avatar's henchmen--sorry, I mean, supporters--dispose of the bad guy. 

In the series, the spirits dispose of the bad guy. As one of Aang's Avatars states, "Eh, same difference." More importantly, in the series, Aang's moral perspective develops over time, coming to fruition in Season 3. He is faced with legitimate questions, specifically from Zuko: "What will you do when you face my father?" A number of Aang's own Avatars present an entirely retrospective approach to Aang's problem. They believe he should act without hesitation because they wish they had.

By trying to solve the problem in what was supposed to be the first movie, Shymalan shortchanged the character.

BUT--and here's my point--many action/superhero movies do the same. 

More to follow...on the 27th...

Fairy Tales: The Real King Arthur, Maybe

The A-Z List tackles 398.2. King Arthur illustrates why any sorting system can result in differing placements. In one local library, 398.2 is presented entirely in alphabetical order. In another, King Arthur is listed under 398.22 while another argues that King Arthur should make his home under 398.25.  

The current list uses alphabetical order. In any case, King Arthur is a good place to take a breather and discuss what is so fascinating about fairy tales and legends (a topic I will return to more than once). King Arthur is a good place to start.

Researching King Arthur was the first major research I did on my own as a teen. And it wasn't the clanking armor version that enthralled me--or the musical. 

I had already begun to delve into King Arthur, mostly the clanking armor version and musical, when I ended up in a revival meeting in Southeast England. 

Okay, not really. My mother and I were in England touring the area around Glastonbury Tor. Somehow we ended up in a little room with extremely earnest people telling us how Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to England as a lad and then later returned with the grail. 

Throughout the presentation, my mother became more and more and more rigid--at this late date, I realize that she was nearly busting a gut not to start arguing with the presenters about history and the Bible and so on and so forth. She was also worried that I was "buying into" what was basically a folk story being sold as religious doctrine. 

I wasn't. The idea of Joseph of Arimathea in England was cool but I almost immediately dismissed it. I was never that interested in stories of Jesus as a lad. The Gospels truly don't need that much help. 

What enthralled me was King Arthur--and not the clanking King Arthur but the unavoidable implication that circa 35-70 A.D., a New Testament figure like Joseph of Arimathea wouldn't be handing off a holy grail to anybody in clanking armor. Arthur's time is circa 400 C.E.--and no, still no clanking armor, not the medieval kind. 

I don't remember if the evangelists mentioned the sparse research on King Arthur, but they did have books for sale in their gift shop, and I bought Geoffrey Ashe's King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury for 3-1/2 pounds. 

It was my first introduction to the gray areas of history, the half-stories, the pieces that grow into legend. 

A possible Roman-British officer, a recruited Celt, Artos, may possibly have overseen a stockade of some sort on Glastonbury (it is a good vantage point). Artos may possibly have been involved in a series of confrontations, which were likely, frankly, more skirmishes than battles, between Celts and Saxons after the Romans left Britain and the Saxons swept in. A monk named Gildas wrote passionately and rather nuttily about the whole thing. (Just think of Gildas as the first political pundit complaining about immigration.)

I was fascinated--even more so as I came to realize that the stories of King Arthur that show up in Morte d'Arthur by Malory and then find their way into Camelot and T.H. White's The Once and Future King are based on oral tales that crossed the channel. Some of the characters likely originated abroad. Others have clear and deep Welsh/English roots. 

As I reference in my post on Æthelred, it makes a great deal of sense that King Arthur tales took such hold. Times of enormous social change, anticipated or not, tend to throw up folk tales. Think of them as coping mechanisms. 

Although the "historical" King Arthur interested me most, and I tried my hand at a few tales--here is one; a second, based on Gawain and the Green Knight, later published, is also available--the primary result of my foray into the King Arthur legend was a passing familiarity with the tropes. The first C.J. Cherryh I read, Port Eternity, is a fascinating novel about a group of individuals cloned to be Arthurian characters headed on a spaceship to a distant planet. And one of my favorite series growing up, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, uses Arthurian legends to create a fascinating problem and a great Merlin.

I recommend Over Sea, Under Stone by Cooper first.

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Getting Around

Kate: One of the realities of Ono’s world is that distances are real! Tolkien tried to make this point, but the limited first-person rather takes over (and the movies obliterated it, to a degree--Frodo and Sam get to Osgiliath very fast). Characters cannot just “see” over the mountain or get to places instantaneously or move to the next town.

How big is Tai? How far way is the capital?

Do you work with a map in your head when you translate?

Eugene: The Twelve Kingdoms books include maps in the front material. Fuyumi Ono provides enough navigational detail when moving people around that the most useful map in Hills of Silver Ruins places Bun Province in geographical context to the other provinces of Tai.

According to historical sources, a Roman legion could cover twenty miles a day. Based on the time scales provided in chapter 24 of book 4, it takes an army about a month to cross Bun Province from west to east (from the border with Ba Province to Hakurou to Rin'u). Of course, this is often across mountainous terrain, not as the bird flies. But that still suggests a distance of two to three hundred miles.
By extrapolation, the whole Kingdom of Tai would be the equivalent of France, Germany, and Northern Italy. In other words, the kingdoms of the Twelve Kingdoms are pretty kingdomy in size, not oversized city states. (Nantes to Berlin is 760 miles and Amsterdam to Rome is 800 miles.) This also makes clear why logistics matter so much. Getting from point A to point B is not an afternoon stroll.

Our own pioneer ancestors provide relevant data in this regard. The Mormon Trail from Illinois to Utah is about 1300 miles and could be walked in three months. That's around 14 miles a day.

Humans are Weird: Anything Could Happen

I love mystery shows! And I am willing to suspend my belief or disbelief (my "yeah right" reaction) much of the time. 

Still, I have to say that I get amused when a mystery depends on a bizarre, convoluted alibi by the killer, such as Brad's in "Mr. Monk & the TV Star," who dubs his wife's scream from one of her old B films into her work-out video; hearing the scream from inside the house, reporters assume she is being killed while Brad is talking to them. Nobody can break the alibi but Monk!

Okay, it is clever, and the episode is usual Monk fun, and really, mysteries are about the satisfaction of the reveal--which is why Columbo episodes are so successful, despite us knowing the killer from the beginning. 

But I have to laugh. In reality? By the end of the day, thousands of people would be proposing not only the above solution but...

  • Writers like to mock themselves--and agents.
    The wife was killed by aliens.
  • The wife was killed by Kennedy's killers.
  • The wife was killed by robots.
  • The wife was killed by bunny robots. 
  • The wife was killed by Brad's mistress, producer, agent, or a scriptwriter.
  • The wife faked a scream, then stabbed herself. 
  • The person being interviewed by the reporters wasn't Brad but a stand-in. 
  • A loathed political organization or person killed the wife and is trying to ruin Brad's reputation. 

And so on...

People have the capacity, especially in large numbers, to imagine the unimaginable--which creates paranoid conspiracy theories AND the tech revolution. 

Fairy Tales: Arabian Nights Without THAT Word

The best part of The Arabian Nights: Their Best Known Tales, edited by Kate Doulgas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, illustrations by Maxfield Parrish...

....is the introduction in which the editors agree that yes, one can be educated factually on customs and history from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia but...

beyond and above the knowledge of history and geography thus gained, there comes [with these tales] something finer and subtler as well as something more vital. [Although the tale's locations] can be found on a map, [they] live more truly in that enchanted realm that rises o'er 'the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn...The marvellous imaginativeness of the Tales produces an insensible rightness of mind and an increase of fancy-power, making one dream that behind them lies the new and unseen, the strange and unexpected--in fact, all the glamour of the unknown.

It is fantastic defense of fairy tales for their own sake, not for a moral lesson, carefully delineated sermon/theory, or appropriate messaging--or even, for that matter, for the sake of Victorian-swooning-personal-offense. The passage is a defense of fairy tales for themselves, for pleasure, for delight. 

Unfortunately, this argument must be made in every generation. The lecturing moralists with their theories and proper explanations and stern rebukes are always lurking to take over. In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis writes, "After a lecture of my own I have been accompanied from Mill Lane to Magdalene by a young man protesting with real anguish and horror against my wounding, my vulgar, my irreverent suggestion that The Miller's Tale was written to make people laugh."

As the editor of The Arabian Nights: Their Best Known Tales states,

We have removed no genies nor magicians, however terrible; have cut out no base deed of Vizier nor noble deed of Sultan; have diminished the size of no roc's egg...

So there!  

Except, actually, they did remove stuff--specifically, the frame story of Scheherazade. 

Researchers previously claimed that The Arabian Nights was a literary production by eighteenth-century Europeans--however, recent research indicates that its roots are more multifaceted than chiding analysis allows for. Like with the Grimm Brothers, oral storytellers/contributors played a role. As Marina Warner points out in Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction, "The distinction between genuine folk tales and literary fairy tales is difficult to maintain" (41). No culture, despite the current pressure of surprisingly reactionary modern-day academic theorists, remains pure and isolated. Everything travels.   

Now, I'm going to mention THAT word. When I viewed the Hollywood film--Arabian Nights (1942) with Jon Hall and Maria Montez--I expected it to be "exotic."

It isn't. 

I expected, that is, something like the garden in The Secret Garden (2020) (I didn't like the movie--the garden is still fantastic) or Rivendell in any of Jackson's renderings or Bread & Tulips, the whole movie. 

That is, I expected something romantic, beautifully photographed alongside gorgeous music, like the end of 127 Hours. Or the cast-of-thousands' end of Moulin Rouge

Nope. The movie reminded me of detective mystery shows from the 1970s (with the exception of Columbo), the ones that invariably include at least one fist-fight. Time for Rockford or whomever to punch someone out. Ho hum. (At least, in Numb3rs, Colby kept getting dunked in water, which became a kind of running gag.)

The lecturing moralists would approve.

Is it truly better to have one's culture perceived as the equivalent of Buffalo, New York? Rather than as something unique to others and itself? 

I grew up in New York State. Buffalo is not a place to emulate. 

There have been other movies based on the tales in The Arabian Nights. Still, thank goodness for that introduction! 

Enter into this "treasure house of pleasant things," then, and make yourself at home in the golden palaces, the gem-studded caves, the bewildering gardens. Sit by its mysterious fountains, hear the plash of its gleaming cascades, unearth its magic lamps and talismans, behold its ensorcelled princes and princesses.

Why should the Grimm brothers have all the fun?

This movie impressively retains the
humor and varying backgrounds of
the tales.