Gymnopedie No. 1

The last episode of Community ends with a piano piece that was maddeningly familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Apparently it was from My Dinner With Andre, but knowing that fact didn’t scratch my itch since I’ve never seen that movie at all. So then I looked for the piano music on Youtube and found the answer in the comments: Gymnopedie No. 1 is the piece used in the trailer for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. Whew, I’m glad I found that out, not knowing the answer was really starting to bug me. And to think, I would have been simply out of luck in the days before the Internet. Thank you, Youtube! Also Internet Movie Database, that site has answered innumerable questions for me as well.

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

I watched The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya last night. Word on the street was that the movie was a good addition to the Haruhi Suzumiya series, and I really must concur. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get into the series until a few months ago, since apparently the last new content was from 2007. That must have been a long three years for the fans.

The Haruhi Suzumiya series reminds me a lot of The Time Traveler’s Wife – not in terms of plot or even aesthetics, but rather in the way both use science fiction in the service of the story. They’re not like too many other science fiction stories, where the writers are too busy geeking out over the ray guns to bother about the characters or the plot. Rather, the fantastic elements in both stories exist to drive forward the fundamental relationships at the heart of their respective plots – in Haruhi Suzumiya’s case, it’s about a misanthropic girl learning to appreciate the mundane and a misanthropic guy learning to appreciate the fantastic (with that term encompassing time travelers, psychics, and aliens). However, both Time Traveler’s Wife and Haruhi Suzumiya aren’t just regular stories with science fiction stuff thrown in, they would be fundamentally different without being science fiction.

I like Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s always got such interesting ideas.

Doppelgangered

I’m currently having a marathon of Legend of the Legendary Heroes while roasting a pork shoulder in the oven (and yes, the title of the anime sounds dumb). In the course of my viewing I spied a certain Miran Froaude:

The resemblance to Mai is uncanny

What an uncanny resemblance to Mai from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Mai from Avatar

Two differences:

  1. Miran doesn’t have the odango pigtail buns hairstyle and,
  2. Has a penis.

I’m just guessing on the last part, it’s not like ze whips out the block and tackle for the audience to have a gander. But damn, “Miran Froaude”? The name sounds stupid, just like a lot of made-up Japanese names from sci-fi and fantasy. Then again, I’ve come up against some pretty dumb names in English fiction as well.

Alias being adapted for TV?

Variety reports that the comic book Alias is being adapted for TV (by the screenwriter of the Twilight movie, it seems). The comic is about a washout retired superhero working as a private detective in New York. It was part of Marvel’s Max line of comic books, which were specifically geared for adult readers, so lots of sex and cursing were involved. Part of the fun was seeing stuff like the main character vomiting on Thor’s boots while muttering “Fuck, shit” over and over. In fact, Jessica Jones’ back story is that she was Peter Parker’s contemporary in high school. The idea of a foul-mouthed teenaged girl running around off panel in the 60’s Spider-Man comics is definitely amusing. It’s probably going to be a more-adult version of The Tick, showing what the comic book world is like when the supers aren’t fighting cosmic evil.

Still, it’s early days yet. Who’s to say that the writer will be able to make a good adaptation, or that it won’t be changed greatly by the studio during the development process? At the very least, they can’t keep the title, otherwise the show will be confused for the Jennifer Garner show of the same name, so for now it’s being named “AKA Jessica Jones”. Anyway, here’s hoping something good comes out of the whole thing.

That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer from Ergo Proxy

Seriously, that was it? I can’t believe I watched all 23 episodes of Ergo Proxy and by the end I was still waiting for the story to start. “Underwhelmed” would be the best word to describe my feelings.

All right, that’s unfair. The series was pretty interesting in the beginning and had great potential at successfully combining philosophical ruminations with narrative cohesion, like The Matrix. By the end, though, it turned into a mishmash of disjointed plot points pasted together with pretty visuals. Which isn’t to say that it was bad, exactly, but how could they have spent so much money on the visual effects and still not manage to make a satisfying climax for the story? Remember the structure of the three act play, people: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. Yes, those four parts fit into three acts.

Continue reading “That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)”

Battlestar Galactica 2010

Get Your War On

So, Adama didn’t nuke the planet after all.  I’m having trouble remembering other parts of last Sunday’s episode, though, since I almost dozed off a couple of times.

I don’t think it’s because the episode itself was boring, since the parts I recall seemed fairly exciting — Cylons getting blowed up, gunshot wounds to the head, and a scene where Apollo and Anders almost gave in to the sexual tension between them (this one I may have hallucinated while I was half-conscious).

I suspect I was still somewhat tired from skiing the day before and pleasantly groggy from my pork chop dinner, but I think my inattention also had to do with being in a different place and time to watch Battlestar Galactica.  This is the first time I’ve watched this show on Sunday instead of Saturday and in my old house instead of my place in Halifax.  It didn’t quite feel right, and the experience made me consider just how much context is responsible for Galactica‘s success.

Consider, for instance, that there is a new animated series of Star Trek being considered for production by whatever company it is that makes Star Trek.  The third comment points out that the original Star Trek drew upon dewy-eyed 60s optimism in its story-telling.  Star Trek failed and was cancelled in its first incarnation, but became popular in its movie version.  I think this was due partly to the difference between 1966 and 1979, the year the first movie came out.  In 1966, the United States was steadily losing its war in Vietnam, and Star Trek‘s optimism must have seemed like some cruel joke to a country dealing with major military defeats for the first time in its recent history.  In 1979, the Vietnam War was already finished for most Americans, and perhaps Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a nice distraction from the reality of corrupt presidents, dead leaders, and empty spots at the dinner table.

I’m sure we can all think of other tv shows or movies that, no matter how excellent, just didn’t catch on for some reason.  The Al Pacino movie Scarface, for instance, was a flop when it was first released, but it’s now considered a classic today, with its digital re-release celebrated by numerous film critics.  The reverse also holds true: classic Saturday Night Live skits like Jim Belushi’s samurai deli falls flat among people of my generation, the phrase “pile of dog crap” being bandied about at times.  The present is different from the past, and stories that were popular yesterday are not necessarily popular today.  But what, then, of Battlestar Galactica and its examination of the so-called War on Terror?  What of Battlestar Galactica‘s prospects for popularity among future generations of viewers?

Let us pretend that it is possible to win the War on Terror, or conversely (and perish the thought), it is possible to lose that same war (victory not necessarily being the objective of either “side”).  Let us pretend that it is now years, decades later, and we have achieved the status quo ante bellum, and the War on Terror is as distant as the Falklands War.  Would Battlestar Galactica still be considered brilliant by those who’d never seen it before?

I can easily imagine that it would be seen as too dark by future viewers who’d never been disgusted by graphic images of actual torture or had to helplessly read about monstrous crimes being perpetuated in their name many distant miles away.  In fact, Galactica might be seen as an unwelcome reminder of a past better buried, or perhaps even as a sign of the sickness of the society that it was produced in — after all, Galactica is meant as entertainment, and what is entertaining about reproducing images of terror?

The greater fear, of course, is that Battlestar Galactica will still be relevant twenty years from now.  If satire is meant to serve as a warning, then does that mean that Galactica‘s creators would like nothing more than to be a historical curiosity in the future?

I’m reminded of Weapons of Choice, a science fiction novel I read a few months back.  In it, a naval task force from twenty years in the future accidentally time travel back to the Second World War.  This means that the crews on board the ships have lived through twenty years of the War on Terror.  The future presented is grim, with summary executions of prisoners being conducted by the US military immediately after battle, and with American citizens living in a heavily militarized society.  Setting aside the author’s Tom Clancy-esque fascination with the machinery of war, the book’s portrayal of the future seems depressingly probable.

So there you have it, fellow fans of Galactica.  The series will be relevant in the future, or it will not.  A prediction, though: either way, lots of stuff will get blowed up.

Terminus est

Yes, it’s true: Ranma 1/2 has finished its run. Actually, it finished its run in Japan more than ten years ago — I’m referring to the English translations of the manga. I already know how it all ends, having read the fan-made digital translations that have been on the Internet for years, and since I was originally a fan of the animated version, which itself has been done for a while, the end of Viz Comics’ translations doesn’t impact me in any appreciable way. Still, I feel a twinge of nostalgia at the announcement of the series’ end (or rather, felt, since I’ve been meaning to blog about this since I first heard about it in November).

The history of Ranma 1/2 in North America is pretty much the early history of manga and anime in its first non-Asian environment. Apparently, Ranma 1/2 was one of the first manga hits in the US, although as I said, it was really the anime that first captured my attention. I’m willing to bet that other fans followed similar trajectories in their discovery of manga.

You see, I loved the anime. I loved it so much that I finally reached a point where I couldn’t bear to wait for more Ranma episodes to be translated and dubbed in English, so I found a place on the Internet where one could actually download the comic books which the anime was based on. These digital versions of the comic were translated by fans from the original Japanese comics, then the Japanese comics were scanned and the original Japanese dialogue digitally replaced with the English translations. Of course, the fan translators were aware of the copyright violations they were technically committing. They justified their actions by only translating issues of Ranma that Viz, the English-language publisher, still hadn’t gotten around to, and therefore these fan translations weren’t stealing money from Viz at all.

To my knowledge, this project was the first instance of what is now called scanlation, which is the production of fan-made digital translations of Japanese comics, although I’m seeing more Korean comics now and some Chinese ones, plus a handful of French bandes dessinees. Normally, scanlators only work on series that aren’t being published yet in English, and should a publisher pick up a scanlated series, the scanlators are expected to desist in their work. A publisher could charge scanlators with copyright violations, but they choose not to do so if the proper forms are observed by the scanlators. After all, a manga reader has no reason to spend money on a completely unknown series, and scanlations allow that reader to sample the wares before buying. Publishers are well-aware that turning a blind eye to scanlations and filesharing actually increases sales for their translated comics (the reverse of what opponents of filesharing claim). It’s thanks to scanlations that I’ve been introduced to manga like Eden and Welcome to the NHK!, the former being a series I intend to buy and already on my Amazon wish list.

As you should note, then, the Internet has been instrumental in the expansion of fandom, especially Ranma fandom in this case — I still remember getting tapes of the series from a friend of mine. Before scanlations caught on, which pretty much means before affordable scanners and high-speed Internet arrived, online fans of manga apparently used text translations of the comics that were released by other fans online. They’d buy Japanese versions of the comics and switch back and forth between the comic and the printed translation. It all sounds quite tedious, which is why I’m glad I never had to deal with such an unwieldy system.

Still, I haven’t explained what Ranma 1/2 is itself about. What kind of series could have aroused such passion in my young self, such devotion that even now, more than half a decade after I’d last encountered any version of the series, I should still rhapsodize about it? That’s kind of a long story, one which deserves to be explored in its own post, but definitely a topic I’ll revisit.

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So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.