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.

That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer dressed in black pointing her gun at the camera while standing in the stairwell of a decrepit apartment building

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.

Anyway, in case you’re still reading and have no idea what I’m talking about, Ergo Proxy is a Japanese cartoon show, or anime, that delves into themes of continuity, memory, and the meaning of life while depicting its story with a cyberpunk-inflected aesthetics.

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

Summer Reading List

Over on Rough Theory, N. Pepperrell and I have been wallowing in our guilt over not being well-read enough (is anyone in academia ever satisfied by how much they know?).  Anyway, now seems like an opportune time to share my summer reading list.  These are the books I hope to read after I finish my thesis.  I know, I’m guilty of counting chickens before they’ve hatched, but I think it’s good to be optimisitic about the future.  I don’t list novels because I tend to consume them at a really high pace and I pretty much just read whatever catches my eye when I’m at the library, the bookstore, or spy something lying around the house.  Anyway, the books I want to read:

  1. Southeast Asia Over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O’G. Anderson.  I just bought this a couple of weeks ago and I’ll probably just skim it.
  2. Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia by Renato Rosaldo.  This one I bought a couple of months ago and I’ve also yet to read it.  I’ll probably just skim it too.
  3. Friction by Anna Tsing.  Something I got for myself Christmas 2005 which I actually have cracked open, but I’ve never really, you know, read it per se (more like randomly flipped through and lingered on occasional interesting bits).
  4. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf.  Again, I’ve flipped through it, I’ve gotten the gist of it, but damned if I’ve ever actually read it through.  Another book from 2005.
  5. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermass.  I’ve actually read the introduction but not much else beyond that.  It’s yet another two year old book that I still haven’t gotten around to reading.  Damn you, graduate school!  Why can I never have the time to read all these books?  Confession: Sometimes I’m tempted to shelve it beside Madness and Civilization just to see what will happen.
  6. A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  I keep reading about this book in various articles and such so I figured I might as well see what it actually says.  One book review I read says that it builds upon the dynamic duo’s previous work, so does that mean I’ll have to read their other books before I get to this one?  I know I’ll probably have to read Capitalism and Schizophrenia at the very least.  I wonder, is that enough of a grounding to not feel lost?  I admit, I want to read D&G partly because the anime Ghost in the Shell: The Stand Alone Complex is apparently written by Deleuzians.  In one episode, a sentient robotic tank is seen reading a copy of Anti-Oedipus.  I’d really like to watch this series and get the Deleuzian references.

You know what?  This is more of a 2007 reading list, in which case I should have written this list in January.  The summer can’t be long enough for me to read all these meaty books.  Oh well, yet another reason for me to finish my thesis soon.

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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