Saitama & Genos: Superman & Batman

In some ways, Saitama and Genos from One Punch Man are a similar pairing to Superman & Batman. Saitama is the strongest man in the world, virtually unstoppable. He is also fairly upbeat, at least on the surface. (His inner doubt and occasional apathy is a natural consequence of his unstoppability--and a dilemma I wish writers would give Superman.) Genos, on the other hand, has a dark backstory (in 20 words or less) and a degree of impetuosity. He also depends on machines and an "Alfred" to confide in. 

There are multiple differences, of course, especially since Genos undisguisedly looks up to Saitama, even to the point of moving in with him. ("Absolutely not," Saitama says. "Oh, you'll pay rent. Gotta toothbrush?")

But the major difference, to me, is something inherent to the manga and anime, namely, neither Genos or Saitama are expected to do everything, not even Saitama. 

That is, Saitama is limited in one very important way: he can only fight where he is, when he is, and if he knows about the threat. When the arena gets invaded by monsters, Saitama is in the bathroom. He gets out only after Suiryu is practically pulverized.

The reality here is also true with Superman & Batman. Lois & Clark has a decent episode in which Lois, temporarily a superhero, gets upset when she realizes that stopping to help in one crisis will prevent her from helping in another, no matter how fast she is. 

The difference is that One Punch Man assumes that of course, heroes can't be everywhere at once. When the alien ship comes to conquer Earth, a few S heroes are on the ground; Tornado is doing her thing while getting irritated; a few C and B heroes are helping survivors. Genos, in the anime, is supervising Child Emperor. Saitama is the only hero on board the ship, where he wanders around trying doors and saying, "Hey, where's the head boss?" 

He finds him and defeats him. The point is, he can't do that AND manage the stuff on the ground. 

This assumption is so embedded that when Handsome Kamen Amai Mask shows up and castigates the heroes' failure to prevent all the devastation, the response isn't shame but disgust at his ego. 

Genos and Saitama don't bother to argue (Saitama isn't there). One does the job one can. One does the job of the moment. A hero is a hero for coping, not for being all things to all people. 

Saitama's consistent refusal to bargain his powers for special treatment is part of this reality--and indicative of Saitma's inherent moral code, of which he seems largely unaware. A great many things end up on his To-Do list because they occur in front of him--or because Genos got himself into trouble. But the fact is, "It's in front of me" is the ultimate reality. Saitama only knows what he knows. 

Genos and Saitama are limited and they expect to be limited

It makes them, for all the monster-killing stuff, more relatable than many superheroes. 

It likely helps that their reactions are delightfully pure young male. 


Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, The Demon Child

Interview with the Translator has reached Hills of Silver Ruins! To begin those questions, it is first necessary to address The Demon Child, a horror/suspense novel by Fuyumi Ono, which ties into The Twelve Kingdoms.

Kate: Parts of the 12 Kingdoms novels have a suspense, Hitchcock-like aura. Yet The Demon Child is rather like suspense meets splatter-fest (a truly stunning number of people die in that book). According to the manga I read, Japan has both suspense and splatter horror. Does Hitchcock/Shyamalan 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).

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

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.

Problems with Utopia: How Do They Come About?

My Troas backstory connects to the
fantasy world in Kouros Underground.

Utopias almost always have some kind of backstory, though often the backstory is like E. Nesbit's explanation for why the time-traveling children in one of her books can understand languages in the past: "Why pursue the question further? The fact remains [that they could]. You may think what you like." 

Back to the business at hand...

The backstory that I introduce in Chapter 5 of His in Herland (and flesh out in Chapter 14) takes liberties with Gilman's backstory. In sum, I make Herland or Troas a fantasy world rather than an unexplored area of our 2022 world. 

The reason may be self-explanatory. The problem of isolation compelled me to remove the most direct world-building connections. In 2022, what with Google Satellite and so on and so forth, how hidden could a utopia remain? Wouldn't someone come along and tax it? 

So I departed from Gilman's text, but not nearly as much as one would think! Gilman's backstory is that Herland came about when war and various natural disasters shut off the country geographically from the rest of the world. There was a slave revolt. The "would-be masters" (Gilman's phrase) killed off the male overlords, then turned on the women. The remaining women rose up to protect themselves. Eventually, the only people left were "a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women" (57). 

"This sounds like Titus Andronicus," Van, the narrator writes, "but that is their account of it" (56-57). (In other words, The fact remains...)

One of Terry's arguments--he is a product of our contemporary age--is that there is absolutely no reason for him to believe the women's account without outside proof. He accepts certain basics after he meets Alim(a), such as reproduction being the result of parthenogenesis. But he is being taught a history in a language he is quickly mastering but only as far as he can with materials and conversations supplied by his captors. Setting aside the problem of history and historical evidence (streamlined narratives are always suspect), why should the women tell the three male invaders the truth anyway? 

Terry would agree with P.J. O'Rourke's point in Holidays in Hell that a bunch of fuzzy liberals being shown carefully selected sites by Soviet Union officials are not going to learn anything  except the official narrative.

Interestingly enough, the "true" version I use--the women escaped Troy when it fell to Agamemnon et al.--matches Gilman's core idea. Archaeologists postulate that the ancient city of Troy was destroyed at one time in battle and at another or around the same time possibly by earthquake. Likewise, some archaeologists trace the myth of Atlantis to a volcanic eruption on Santorini that destroyed, quite literally, half the island. 

The dates are off but they dovetail with the clever use Gilman makes of history, geography, and the classics. I've always been impressed that she didn't create her utopia out of some Shangri-la fantasy--that is, it wasn't created on purpose but by necessity. She was experimenting with a "What if?" not a "Life should be." And I admire "What ifs?" story lines. 

Chapter 5

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, The Animated Series, Part II

Kate: In one post, you comment that hopefully Taiki can eventually be reunited with his shirei in the future. My initial reaction was, “Really?! They may be protective but yikes! Sociopaths!” However, after watching the series, I felt the same!

On the other hand, having now seen the entire series (hooray, interlibrary loan!), I’m glad I read the majority of the books first. I think I would have been quite confused otherwise. In the series, one (unnecessary) character (Asano) entirely disappears, only to re-merge later in a very odd fashion. Taiki’s story begins, gets rolling…then abruptly cuts off. Youko’s meeting with Suza and Shoukei is far too long, which is regrettable since it is a powerful story and delivers a fantastic climax. The most power-action stories—Shouyuu and Enki’s—are delivered rather late in the series.

Were you influenced by the series at all during your translation process?

Eugene: Although watching the NHK series got me interested in the books, my opinion of the series declined sharply after I started reading them and it became more of a distraction than a help. To be generous, you could argue that NHK stole a march on the whole isekai boom to come, but it had the effect of diminishing the centrality of Youko's character.

Kate: I recently was able to interlibrary loan Star Blazers, an animated series from my childhood that I remembered despite growing up in a house without a TV. As Wikipedia remarks,

Many fans regard Star Blazers as more ‘adult’ than other cartoons shown in the United States at the time, as personal tragedy, funeral scenes for fallen comrades, and the extinction faced by humanity were left intact. The very Japanese theme of ‘the honorable enemy’ was also a tremendously important aspect of character development

—all this despite the show being somewhat “bowdlerized” by American producers.

The thankful lack of afterschool messaging is what I remembered. Anime and manga appear to have the elements mentioned above plus a lack of messaging! Twelve Kingdoms is remarkably dark in places. How do other anime compare?

Eugene: Rewatching Demon Slayer: Mugen Train got me thinking that the dream sequences would provide plenty of fodder for Freudian analysis (or maybe it's more Jungian), though they didn't have nearly as much fun with it as they could have.

When it comes to psychoanalysis, practically every character in Fruits Basket needs serious therapy, but of course, that subject never comes up. Aside from the cinematic forensic psychologist, clinical psychiatry gets little respect in Japan, in both fiction and reality.

I don't think there's a single shrink in A Silent Voice. A Hollywood version would have one in every other scene (and audiences would wonder if there weren't any).

King Arthur & Trina Schart Hyman: Fairy Tales

I mention in A-Z List 5 (about picture books) that I am a fan of Trina Schart Hyman to whom "I will return when I review fairy tales/folklore."

And here I am! 

Trina Schart Hyman did multiple Arthur picture books with Margaret Hodges. Although I love the illustrations, I'm not a big fan of the books as picture books. There's far too much exposition, which passages frankly have a "dumped in the middle of gorgeous illustrations" feel to them. 

However, there is one Hodges/Hyman picture book that I like as itself. 

Merlin and the Making of the King, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

The book is actually an easy reader. There is an illustration about every 2 to 3 pages. The illustrations are appropriate to the text and medium.

Similar to Hodge's and Hyman's St. George and the Dragon, the pages and illustrations use borders reminiscent of medieval manuscripts. The text is straight-forward. I'm not overly fond of Malory's version of King Arthur; Hodges does a decent job honing in on the salient points without cloaking the darker aspects.

There are fewer opportunities for Hyman's dragons and other fierce beasts. (Hodges and Hyman may have won the Caldecott Medal for St. George on the strength of the dragon alone--see below.) However, the images run from quiet settings to red-sky conflict to Arthur's death.  The result is a lush production that holds together rather than an uneven production that comes off as cobbled together.

One fascinating point about Hyman is that although she sticks to Celts and Anglo-Saxons in her books with Hodges, in later ones, her cast of characters are far more heterogeneous. I quite like it. I should mention that I do think that people who wanted the live-action Little Mermaid to be the Little Mermaid they knew from the animated feature had valid artistic reasons for their opinion: visualization is a huge part of art. 

However, I think fairy tales and folk tales are about trying out stories in different ways, from strict retellings to fantastical/surreal approaches to "how about" experiments. My position isn't political. I've felt this way from the moment I started experimenting with fairy tales roles as a kid. When I was a teen, I saw a outdoor production of Romeo & Juliet with my family. The Juliet was Asian; her parents very much weren't. The lack of continuity bothered people in my family entirely for continuity reasons. I didn't care. At all. (I didn't think it was jarring; I didn't think it was forward-thinking. I really didn't care.) She was Juliet because the program said so and that's how her character behaved. I'd figure out the backstory myself later.  

My open-mindedness here goes both ways. So, yes, I think white people can play Asian characters and vice versa.

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, The Animated Series, Part I

Kate: The Twelve Kingdoms Animated Series combines a number of characters and plot lines into one. Did the series occur after all the books were written except Hills of Silver Ruins? Or while they were being written? How does Twelve Kingdoms anime compare to the anime of other series?

Eugene: The NHK series debuted in 2002 after the publication of The Wings of Dreams. The author then took a long break, publishing Hisho's Birds in 2013 and Hills of Silver Ruins in 2019.

Especially these days, the approach NHK took seems more the exception than the rule. Many manga and light novels are episodic enough that a cour of an anime or live action adaptation can stand on its own. But there are cases where the entire run of the manga plots out a single, cohesive story.

The 2003 version of Fullmetal Alchemist was made before the manga was finished. Hiromu Arakawa worked with the studio to create an ending unique to the anime. The anime was then remade in 2009 as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, this time faithfully following the manga to the end.

The 2001 release of Fruits Basket ended on a less cordial note, with artistic differences leading Natsuki Takaya to disavow the series. She exerted more creative control in the unabridged 2019 release.

Made in Abyss and Demon Slayer released a cour of the anime, did a theatrical release, then a second cour. Chihayafuru has been periodically going on hiatus until the manga progresses far enough for another season. The manga is finally ending so hopefully the anime will now catch up.

When NHK licensed the Twelve Kingdoms, they must have gotten it into their heads to do everything at once and smush all the books together. Somebody in marketing probably insisted there had to be a teen male lead as well. I think this approach was unfortunate, especially with Shadow of the Moon.

Shadow of the Moon would actually be the easiest of the books to adapt, a straightforward heroic journey and road movie with a single POV and two main characters. It'd be nice if someone could do an unabridged adaptation of the Twelve Kingdoms, at least the first two books in the Youko arc.

Kate: Silver Ruins references events in the series, such as Taiki not initially choosing Gouysuaa (though I gather one of the books addresses this event). Such references would frankly confuse me if I hadn’t watched the series. The cited event is important since Taiki uses his previous experience to push himself to pretend to select Asen.

Is Ono relying on previous knowledge by readers? Or is Ono's perspective similar to Jackson's with LOTR: You didn't watch the first film (read the prior books)? Too bad! We're moving on!

Eugene: There are passages in Hills of Silver Ruins that cannot be understood without reading The Demon Child. On top of that, Hills of Silver Ruins picks up right where The Shore in Twilight leaves off. The author is assuming that if you've gotten this far, you've already read the rest of the books.

Problems with Utopias: Sameness

As I mention earlier, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a skilled fiction writer. 

Her six protagonists in Herland, if one includes Terry, have distinct and memorable personalities. She achieves this feat easily early on and never wavers:

Van is reflective, diffident, romantic, and observant. He is basically Henry from Northanger Abbey

Jeff is chivalrous and mild-mannered. He is more intensely romantic than Van since what he perceives as romance is a narrative in his head and based on almost entirely erroneous assumptions. But he never challenges his assumptions, so hey, he is happy!

Terry is brash, chauvinistic, and domineering. 

Ellador is curious, intellectual, and direct. She and Van become the perfect yuppie couple who will tour the world and write books about it. They will have, in all fairness, a decent marriage. 

Celis in the book is sweet and fragile. I, however, give her a core of ruthlessness. Celis gets what Celis wants. She wants Jeff because she can do whatever she wants with him. That is, my Celis is more Bianca than Katerina from Taming of the Shrew. Butter-won't-melt-in-her-mouth yet her suitors feel the whip hand nonetheless.

Not Gilman's characterization but my characterization was surprisingly easy to impose.

Alima is the fiery, rebel type. I took tremendous liberties with Alima, of course. In the book, Alima and Terry are constantly at odds but both seem to enjoy it (until the end). Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 

Good characterizations and frankly more definitive than one usually finds in utopia novels. 

Here's where things get odd:

In Herland, all the women have short hair, a fact referenced in the latest chapter of His in Herland

Gilman is making a somewhat caustic point. In her social class (wealthy upper-class Americans, not quite at the Vanderbilt level but in that ballpark), a woman's hair was her "crowning glory." Gilman was unimpressed. Why should women have to put up with heavy, smothering hair that takes time to wash and comb and style (women of her class had servants) when male lions and horses also have "crowning glories"?

I think Gilman has a point. 

Except all her women have the same hair style. 

As Rodney Stark points out about religion and Yasmine Mohammad also about religion: Remove the social/top-down requirement and people will begin to worship/wear whatever they darn-well please. 

And yet every utopia (left or right, religious or political) falls to pieces around this idea. Sameness becomes equated with comfort and security. 

In fairness, there is some truth to the idea. In cultures where cultural assumptions are grassroots-givens (rather than imposed givens), the same style of dress and hair and speech can create a feeling of belonging. High school cliques exist for a reason.

Gilman is not a fan of cliques and argues for a degree of freedom unique to her utopia. 

Yet her young women don't experiment with their hair? 

Between 14-25, I bleached my hair, dyed it red, dyed it blue, dyed it black, dyed it pink. I grew it long (to my shoulders, which is long for me), cut it short, and shaved it off. I got perms. I tried out wigs. If I'd had longer hair, I would have braided it. To my everlasting gratitude, my mother was more interested than appalled by my experiments during the teen portion of those years. I honestly wasn't rebelling. I was curious

I simply don't buy the idea that the young women in Herland--if they are given as much latitude as the text argues--wouldn't do the same. 

For Terry, the lack of differing hairstyles indicates that the country is less free than his instructors argue. Terry is not necessarily right, but the cultural background that would make sartorial agreement a "given" is something Gilman wants to refute and assume at the same time. 

Utopias are always intensely personal. They reflect the author, not the differing realities of all the people who are unlike the author.

Chapter 4

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding 

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, Short Stories, Part II

Kate: You commented once that political states inherently retreat to feudalism. Is legalism part of the equation? It certainly comes up in the United States with the self-righteous religious right as it does with the self-righteous progressive left. Is legalism always tied to group identity? Gekkei appears to fear that possibility—that regicide could push the kingdom too far in the other direction. 

Eugene: When political systems regress to the mean, they inevitably veer into feudalism. I would argue that all democracies have been slowly creeping in that direction over the past century.

The more idealistic the society, the faster it creates an aristocracy of mandarins convinced it is up to them to preserve that idealism, and that without them in charge, everything would go to the dogs. The comfort of having everyone's social class preassigned and fixed. Everybody knows where he belongs in the pecking order.

It's not long before they see themselves as the Edo period samurai. The samurai constituted a hereditary civil service and were actually forbidden by sumptuary laws from doing anything else. Overall, they did a pretty good job and might have lasted longer had the shogunate not pursued isolationism so fanatically and traded a bit more openly with Europe in goods and ideas.

Legalism was never part of the core philosophy of Tokugawa rule. It waxed and waned according to the shogun. Utopianism never took root. They were a pragmatic bunch. In the aftermath of WWII, it took about twenty-four hours after the broadcast of Hirohito's Surrender Rescript for practically the entire population to slough off the previous two decades of ideological sloganeering.

Unfortunately, even skin-deep ideological sloganeering can cause a whole lot of damage in the short run. But as long as it is not coupled with the perpetual motion machine of utopianism, it burns out eventually.

Kate: Ah, utopianism! One of the greatest dangers, I would argue, to religion and to politics is the belief by a group that “we can create utopia NOW.” This idealistic problem is addressed full force in “Dreaming of Paradise.”

Western culture has Plato and other attempts at creating, on paper, the perfect utopia. Does Japan have the same? Have attempts to move the utopia off paper resulted in equally problematic outcomes?

Eugene: Since 1945, groups on both the far right and left in Japanese politics have failed to gain a foothold among the general populace. The far right did find a home among the yakuza, but even the yakuza failed to thrive in the long run (especially after law enforcement in Japan got tired of them).

Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were both brutal dictators. The difference was the former was interested primarily in power in opposition to communism, not in pursuit of a utopian world. Mao coupled power (which "grows out of the barrel of a gun") with the utopianism of communism enforced via legalistic means. The result was devastation on a far more massive scale.

Today, Taiwan (like Spain after Franco) is a thriving democracy while China is slipping backwards into an Orwellian system ruled by the tools of high-tech legalism. Speaking of which, Chris Chappell's little essay on the subject at the end of this video provides a nice summary of the subject.

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.  

I decided to go with the order that suits this list. 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.

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, Short Stories, Part I

Kate: You have translated two collections of short stories connected to Twelve Kingdoms: Dreaming of Paradise and Hisho's Birds. Some of the short stories seem complete stories in their own right. Others read like filler—extra bits that got edited out but hey, here they are! Rather like Tolkien’s endless tales of Middle Earth. Is that a suitable comparison? Any other thoughts about the short stories? A favorite perhaps?

Eugene: "Jougetsu" is a nice coda to A Thousand Leagues of Wind and pays off the major plot points. I get a kick out of "Blue Orchid" because it's obvious the author did a ton of research about beech trees and was determined to share that research with the reader. Hills of Silver Ruins similarly follows the Moby Dick model, which integrates all of the background material into the narrative.

To give Fuyumi Ono credit, we're not just chasing red herrings. All those bits and pieces so exhaustively explicated and explored are beginning to fall into place.

Kate: In “Jougetsu”, Gekki makes the rather extraordinary—and insightful point—that although his assassination of the previous emperor helped the people, he personally didn’t act out of objective compassion but rather, disillusionment. He consequently refuses to take the throne.

Is Gekki’s struggle between the superego and id find its roots in Freud? Or in other philosophies?

Eugene: I ascribe Gekkei's reluctance more to the notion of the "worthy vessel," arising out of the Mandate of Heaven and the Confucian concept of righteous rule. There are Old Testament parallels here, especially in the case of Saul and David. But the Chinese implementation is more deeply embedded in the culture, with higher stakes and responsibilities than the "Divine right of kings."

In medieval China, it was (hypothetically) possible for anyone to become emperor. The problem, especially in Confucian terms, becomes one of ends and means.

Granted, the bestowal and withdrawal of the Mandate tended to be an ex post facto kind of thing, The Twelve Kingdoms solves this problem by manifesting it physically. When the emperor does bad things, youma show up, the kirin dies, and then so does the emperor.

In Hills of Silver Ruins, it's observed Asen could never become emperor based on his own bad behavior (the surname problem aside). Gekkei placed himself in a similar boat, though in his case, the kirin was already dying of the shitsudou, so he was hurrying the process along. Were this China, he wouldn't have a problem.

The question is whether measures taken to overthrow an unrighteous emperor disqualify the regicide. Both Shoukei and Shushou tell him to man up because he's the best man for the job. In any case, we're back in Saul and David territory because the choice of the next emperor is up to the future kirin and nobody else.


Problems with Utopias: Bullying is Always Bullying, No Matter the Well-Meaning Ideology (or Political Position)

In Chapter 3 of His in Herland, I have Terry make the following point: 

"To be held inside walls without consent is imprisonment, however beautiful the walls or pleasant the food." 

In Herland, the three men are taken captive by a cohort of tough, athletic women, about forty in number. Terry is carrying a gun but shoots over the women's heads. Interestingly (and I think correctly), Gilman has Terry balk at shooting the women directly. He is a product of his nineteenth-century upper-class culture. "Women and children first" was not quite as common as popular culture likes to argue (on the Titanic, most of the crew simply wanted passengers, any passengers, to get in the lifeboats). But the concept existed. Terry, for all his faults, is a man's man. He won't shoot women. He won't shoot anyone in the back. 

I took the guns away since my Terry is somewhat more cool-headed and slightly more ruthless--and is perfectly aware that women can be soldiers.

However, I also have my Terry "pull his punches" in the confrontation with the women. The men have arrived on the island/in the country, imagining that they are tourists who will be shown the nearest hostel. The women see them as invaders and behave accordingly. Terry doesn't want to start an international incident.

Gilman gives the women a bland, remorseless demeanor, but she also tries to present them as non-violent. Gilman is a good writer--a point I will refer back to later--and I want to give her her dues. But Terry is my truthsayer and the truth is, Taking people captive is taking people captive

Bullying is bullying. 

One of the worst aspects of modern-day bullying is when people argue that their "niceness" or "good intentions" or "high-mindedness" or "identity" or, for that matter, other people's bad behavior and thoughts somehow wipes out the fact that they are using underhanded and cruel techniques to do nasty things: take away people's jobs, smear their reputations, steal their life's work, commit violence against them, and attempt through various venues to cow them into submission. 

It's jealousy and small-mindedness under a veneer of benevolent righteousness. 

In Herland, Van is the social scientist who wants to explain everything (away); Jeff is the chivalrous, well, boob who thinks the women are lovely and pure and noble simply for being women. Both try to excuse the women's behavior. Only Terry sees it for what it is--and he respects it. 

Elizabeth Bathory
To her credit, while keeping Terry somewhat more obnoxious than even I can stomach (but appropriate to his time frame), Gilman allows that Jeff, at least, is off-base. 

As my Terry states in the next chapter:

"Hopefully, the women’s agenda wouldn’t entail screwing us before chopping off our entrails or sending us on suicidal missions against a prowling enemy or playing games with our disemboweled guts or mounting our decapitated heads on spikes." 

My Terry knows more history that Gilman's Terry. Everybody has the capacity to be nasty. Someone doesn't instantly stop being a bully because that someone is female. 

Chapter 3

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, Isolationism

Kate: In Shore, Youko makes an impassioned speech against isolationism backed by the libertarian and maverick Enki. 

Japan has a longer history of isolationism than America and a better excuse (being a self-sustaining island—though Great Britain certainly went in the opposite direction!). 

What is the current attitude in Japan? Has the Internet/modern economics made self-isolation a completely bogus choice? Or is Youko’s self-interested, limited involvement the answer? Isolationism—to a point; involvement—to a point.

Eugene: "Isolationism—to a point; involvement--to a point" is a good description of the Japanese attitude toward foreign affairs. Article 9 actually puts Japan in the same situation as the Twelve Kingdoms, although the prohibition against military adventures abroad is constitutional, not divine. Former PM Abe made noises about amending Article 9 but that effort went nowhere and likely never will.

This is why futuristic military dramas involving Japan and Japanese forces so often take place under the auspices of the United Nations or some convenient equivalent. But that's also what makes a war series like Gate so unique, as it comes up with a creative and entertaining excuse for the JSDF to take the gloves off without risking any real-world fallout.

It's interesting to analyze the Edo-period jidaigeki alongside the classic Hollywood western. Japan's attempt at a Manifest Destiny after 1868 turned out so disastrously that the isolationism of the Edo period is now seen in an idealized and romanticized light. George Washington's Farewell Address could also summarize the political attitudes of the average Japanese citizen and politician.

From the long view of history, the last century (and Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea in the late 16th century) will be seen as anomalies. Foreign policy across Asia can be broadly described as a bunch of competing Monroe Doctrines. As long as the centers hold (the government of China, for example, does not disintegrate into competing factions), the conflicts will mostly be found at the peripheries.

The problem, as always, is defining where the borders and boundaries are. Perhaps that is the most useful thing the gods of the Twelve Kingdoms did.

The Police Officer as Sidekick: Sam Gillepsie

The police officer as assistant to the "great detective" is a common trope in mysteries. Sometimes, the officer is wry and sarcastic, like the excellent Rupert Graves as Lestrade in Sherlock.

Sometimes, the officer is short-tempered and belligerent as several officers with Father Brown.

Sometimes, as in Jeremy Brett's Return of Sherlock Holmes, the sidekick, Lestrade, is hopeful and complimentary. The end of "The Six Napoleons" presents a wonderful speech by Colin Jeavons as Lestrade:

Inspector Lestrade: I've seen you handle a good many cases in my time, but I don't know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than this. We're not jealous of you, you know, at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we're proud of you. And if you come down tomorrow, there's not a man from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable... who wouldn't be glad to shake you by the hand.  

Max Brown as Sam Gillepsie from Sister Boniface is a nice addition for multiple reasons. Most importantly, he isn't at odds with the good sister. He happily accepts her assistance. (Marshal Cecchina from Don Matteo shares the same trait and upbeat relationship with the "interfering" religious detective.) 

Mrs. Clam initially says, "Couldn't I just say, 'Help'?"
In fact, based on his welcome of Felix, Sam is a man set on establishing a safe family/group of comrades for himself in his village. 

He doesn't come across as stupid--as sometimes  sidekicks do--but rather as invested and action-oriented, when required. His exemplary war record heavily implies that here is a man who has learned the value, in peace time, of his "live and let live" side. He wants an orderly village because he loves it and wants the people around him to be happy, not because he is devoted to legal outcomes. 

Lorna Watson as Sister Boniface is, naturally, brilliant as the clever, whimsical, practical, sweet-natured, and ever so slightly innocent Great Detective. 

Twelve Kingdoms: Interview with the Translator, Heaven

Kate: In The Shore in Twilight, The Queen Mother of the West comes across as a rather remote, entirely rational being. This view of heaven is far closer to the views of C.S. Lewis--who perceived the dead as inherently disinterested in the problems of mortality--than, say, the perspective of the movie Ghost.

Do both approaches exist in Japanese art? Remote heaven and concerned heaven? Does one approach take precedence over the other? There's always the Catholic approach—God is remote but saints are close. How does that compare?

Eugene: Heaven, in the Christian sense, is "over the horizon." This in contrast to the heaven of the pantheon, the country club where the gods hang out. Basically the rules making committee. Shows like Kamichu, Gingitsune, and Noragami have a lot of fun with the godhead as a vast bureaucracy that constantly bickers and fights like the Greek gods (when they're not partying).

Though if you play your cards right, it doesn't hurt to get one of the minor gods on your side, like Yato in Noragami. Noragami tackles both the high and the low, dealing with the dead that have remained behind because of their worldly attachments and are causing problems, and also with the convoluted politics of the pantheon (Yato made a lot of enemies in the past).

Kate: A Mormon movie--I think it was God's Army--argued that the God one believes in is entirely determined by one's parental figure. How was a person raised to believe authority figures should or will behave? Does the same exist here?

Eugene: It seems a weird reversal, but the West (speaking broadly) insists that society is responsible for the individual, while the East says that the individual is responsible for society ("every man is a part of the main"). This leads to a "nail that sticks up gets hammered down" mentality. But it also has the paradoxical effect of placing responsibility back on the individual.

In other words, self-esteem is not something that society imparts upon the individual. It has to be earned. As Lenora Chu makes clear,

"Self-esteem" doesn't exist in the Chinese lexicon, at least not in the way Americans use it. In China, a child's regard for herself is rarely as important as [are] stark evaluations of performance. Almost as if child-rearing were an Olympic sport, the Chinese rank children on everything from work ethic to Chinese character recognition and musical skill.

The difference in Japan is that Japanese parents spend less time in tiger mom mode. Rather, they (and society at large) set rigorous goals and expectations that children are supposed to aspire to and achieve through their own effort (ganbaru). More often than not in Japanese high school dramas, the parents are nowhere in sight, or are hanging back at a safe distance.

Of course, the real world might beg to differ. But it is interesting what gets idealized in our storytelling. This may explain why the spunky orphan (or virtual orphan) who rises above the lousy hand she was dealt in life is such a popular character in Japanese YA fiction.

Problems with Utopias: Isolation

All versions of His in Herland have struggled with the problem of isolation. In the second version, not published, I even created trade between Herland, an island, and the mainland over a bridge. 

In the current version, I place Herland in a far more isolated position, even more isolated than in Gilman's book. In the book, the young men hear stories about the country (about the size of Holland) from guides plus they discover woven cloth in a river. Stuff leaks out.

The problem, of course, is that in reality, people also tend to leak out. Even in the book, the non-mobility of the women, though carefully explained, is increasingly unbelievable. Why wouldn't Herland's citizens simply up and leave? George Mallory isn't the only one who wanted to climb a mountain because it was there.

In fairness, Gilman's women are infinitely practical, which is a welcome change from rampaging idealism, but human nature is not infinitely practical, male or female. Road trips and rituals like Rumspringa exist for a reason. At age 25, I drove cross-country in a non-air-conditioned Dodge Colt (stick shift) in the summer with a cat by myself. I would never do that now!

Even during Japan's most extreme isolationist period, people still knew it was there--and eventually showed up in a "here we are--what are you going to do now?" way.  In addition, one of the most fascinating revelations of archeological digs is how much people got around in the past.  Goods from Asia show up in medieval England. Folks from England show up in the Mediterranean world. 

Even in the nineteenth century, the time of no-holds-barred nationalism, the attempt by antiquarians to discover the "pure" past of a nation ended in failure. German fairy tales weren't German--for one, a lot of them were French. 

And so on. 

Isolation is necessary to utopias. Mobile people undermine utopias since (1) restless people indicate that people care about more than "needs" (sorry, Marx); (2) if mobile people can leave, other mobile people can arrive, and there goes the perfectly structured society. 

Star Trek tackled this problem in several ways (setting aside the utopian ideals of the show itself). TOS tackled it philosophically: How can you thrive if you are too happy? TNG tackled it, to my mind, somewhat more realistically. In "Masterpiece Society," the engineers on the planet are too excited about Enterprise technology to give it up. Now we see the cost of not being part of a space-faring community! No, thanks!

Welcome to human nature. 

To avoid the plot issues of constantly mobile people, the current version of His in Herland is extremely isolated--though Terry suggests that even this state of affairs can't last. 

People are always going to come.

Chapter 2

His in Herland or Astyanax in Hiding