Thursday, May 26, 2016

Anime for the American Mother

Every year I am among among thousands of young people—and one of the few people over age thirty—(what we used to call the “older generation”) at the Otafest convention. It’s a gathering for fans of Japanese culture and entertainment. I’ve written about Otafest before; today I will suggest a few Japanese animation, or “anime,” titles for an over-thirty mother to view. Why?

Because: At a reader-writer-publisher convention, When Words Collide, a housewife, call her Jane, asked me about anime. Jane asked not about animated movies but about weekly television cartoons from Japan, asking me to assist her to smash her brainwashing. Jane realized she was culturally trained to think that TV animation had to always be at the level of the Saturday morning cartoons of her childhood: always for laughter, always for children. For Jane, an animated version of The Little Mermaid would “have to” follow the cartoon Disney version of a happy ending, not like the tragic movie version or the written story of Hans Christian Anderson. Now, because her teenage daughter was watching anime, Jane really wanted to give anime a try.

To help a mother escape brainwashing:

Think of anime as being from a foreign culture, and don’t be a cultural chauvinist.

Americans, God bless them, can’t do stillness. This I documented in a recent essay, Freefall into Anime archived May 2016. (With two suggested anime opening credits to click on) Nor can they still their tongues. I was struck by the difference in the English language dubbing of a feature length Japanese animated movie, based on the book series The Borrowers, called The Secret World of Arriety. Having watched the U.S. version in theatres, I was astounded to watch the beginning of the film on Youtube, from the UK. I learned the Americans had added dialogue where Arriety is rushing around. Better to have the girl talking to the insects, thought the Americans, than to have silence. The British and I would beg to differ.

The British, as I saw on the CBC, were making television shows intended to be shown in order long before the Americans did. Hollywood did not dare make a weekly “five-year novel” until Babylon-5. (See my essay Death of Buffy, archived January 2012) Rather, American shows, both live action and animated, were always a franchise, to be shown in any order, a franchise created without any resolution in mind, a franchise to be cranked out in endless, mindless monotony right up until the ratings began to fail. Sometimes, desperate to keep the audience interested, they’d throw in a shark for someone to jump over. But not in Japan. There the creators of anime are not bored by their own shows. And there, like Buffy, the cartoon hero can die—even before the final episode.

An anime series begins with a set number of episodes in mind, to be shown in order, leading to an intended resolution.

In Japan a full year, or season, of TV runs over two half-seasons. Some shows are intended to wrap up in just a half-year: 13 weeks. I will restrict my list of recommended shows, “for a mother to try out,” to ones that are resolved after only 13 episodes.

I suggest Haibane Renmei. Imagine a small brick town and fields where wind power turbines are not exotic, but as old and familiar to the children as telephone poles. Where older children take care of the younger ones. Where in fact the so-called “children” have halos and wings for they are angels, earning their keep in a town of humans. Here are no wicked witches or monsters or machine guns, just a very troubled angel. The pretty (shown here without credits) opening music shows the protagonist plunging to earth to be reborn with wings.

Another show that, while not showing normal anime artwork, would surely help to disrupt brainwashing would be Kino’s Journey. The first episode shows three criminal scum on the road who would never be shown on the American Teletoon channel—but after that, I can assure Jane, none of the other folk Kino encounters are as sinful. Kino travels from country to country (city-state) alone.  

The countries are not in Japan, but in a European-flavored imaginary land. As for Japanese culture, I should note they have a concept of excellence, associated with the “way” or “do.” They may invest a lifetime learning “the way of the tea ceremony,” or learning Karate-do, “way of the empty hand.” When Kino insists on practicing with a pistol every morning it is not to be a cowboy gunfighter, but to pursue excellence as taught by “one who has gone before” which is the literal translation of “sensei,” or teacher.

Here’s the opening (without credits) song, one that might be too dull for an American child. And—wow! —Here’s an intriguing trailer, without spoilers about the cultures of any country, that explains and entices better than I ever could.

I’m not trying to be a feminist, but—if you didn’t know there was a gun, could you guess Kino’s gender? In ancient Japanese etchings, in the erotic ones where the couple is fully clothed, you can only discriminate the man from the woman by the samurai swords. Also, in less ancient times, there were theatre companies of all-men and all-women, with the cast playing all genders. Today, for anime that takes place in, say, a boarding school, often a wholesome good-natured student will turn out to be posing as the opposite gender. (In one series the viewpoint hero is a girl in disguise at an all-boys school—hence the sprinkling of light blue school blazers at Otafest) But I don’t suppose a housewife with a daughter would want me to elaborate on how the Japanese don’t have Puritan ancestors.

As for high school anime, a good 13-episode show is Angel Beats. Don’t be fooled by a boy’s poleaxe or the guns—nobody permanently dies in heaven, which is where they are. I am reminded of an old live action series, Harsh Realm: Imagine a high school like in our world, only bigger, where most of the inhabitants, unknown to themselves, are virtual characters, put there not by an “intelligently designed” computer programmer, but by God. The school is an afterlife, but not a final heaven—only a way station.

The real students are few—all had tragic lives and died young. They form their own school club, with a female president, having a crest and the motto, “Rebels Against the God.” But the student council president, also female, wants to herd them on to new pastures. Of course the kids are determined to resist her, hence the guns. Such a tragedy. And yet it’s laugh-out-loud funny. And yet the ending makes people cry.

Yes, cry. Here in west, from the time of ancient Greece, our stage plays have had one of only two masks: tragedy or comedy. But from the Orient we get “dramedy.” In fact, in one of my favorite long series, (Ruroni Kenshin) you could almost set your watch by the joke that always comes a couple minutes into each episode. It may surprise western mothers like Jane how Angel Beats has a greater proportion of humor in the earlier episodes. No surprise to anime fans. In fact, in a long series about a guy with three guns, Trigun, the hero is first seen bounding around like Daffy Duck—I’m not kidding: He’s dodging bullets the way Daffy does. Luckily the comic store manager who rented it to me warned me not to be misled by the queer beginning, for it soon steadies down into a good drama.

Here is the Angel Beats opening song. The unsmiling girl at the piano, without any friends, is the student president—the blowing white feathers suggest her angel wings.

Before I close, for someone willing to try a long series, I might suggest Last Exile. A married couple was so enthralled with Last Exile, that they talked to each other about naming their first boy and girl after the main characters, a brother and sister. Here is a link to the opening, sans credits.

Besides Last Exile, I see that I have linked three short-series opening songs. And a trailer. That’s enough. It’s quite fitting for my two-dimensional black lettered essay to have such links because anime is colorful, visual and aural. The links fit today’s topic, because U.S. children’s cartoons will have opening credits that are frantic and shallow but these ones are not: How very Japanese.

Sean Crawford
~As far as I can tell, it was a man with an adopted Asian first name, Joss Whedon, (Joss means luck) who made Hollywood’s first live action TV shows with dramedy, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He must have viewed Asian entertainment.

—Hey, I just realized: Whedon was the first producer in Hollywood who, without any foreshadowing, would kill off main characters right on stage! In fact, his actors would make jokes that they daren’t complain about their wages. Yes, Joss must have viewed anime.

~Hair color can be a code, according to a blogger in Japan I’ve been following for years, Peter Payne of J-List, who notes: “…white or grey hair are usually an indicator of a secret, including hidden powers. Red haired characters like Asuka from Evangelion are fiery demons who are quick to anger… ” In Angel Beats! the colors apply to an angel who needs no gun, and a fiesty leader of rebels.

~As for the couple who liked Last Exile, here is a lengthy blog post by one of my favourite web essayists, Stevey, about them discovering anime, and then trying to learn which anime suits them.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cicero, Conversations and Computers

On Cicero and Conversations
Of course you know of Cicero, the idealistic lawyer who lived at the time of noble Caesar—they knew each other. People learning Latin always read Cicero. Born into a virtuous republic, Cicero lived to see Rome enter into decadence. For his troubles in trying to keep Rome from declining, Cicero was exiled. I enjoyed the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the best seller about him by Taylor Caldwell, A Pillar of Iron.

Here is Cicero on conversation:

QUOTE: Conversation then, in which these Socratics are the best models, should have these qualities. It should be easy and not in the least dogmatic; it should have the spice of wit. And the one who engages in conversation should not debar others from participation in it, as if he were entering upon a private monopoly; but, as in other things, so in a general conversation he should think it not unfair for each to have his turn.

He should observe, first and foremost, what the subject of conversation is. If it is grave, he should treat with seriousness; if humorous, with wit. And above all, he should be on the watch that his conversation shall not betray some defect in his character. This is most likely to occur, when people in jest or in earnest take delight in making malicious and slanderous statements about the absent, on purpose to injure their reputations.

The subjects of conversation are usually affairs of the home or politics or the practice of the professions and learning. Accordingly, if the talk begins to drift off to other channels, pains should be taken to bring it back again to the matter in hand—but with due consideration to the company present for we are not all interested in the same things at all times or in the same degree. We must observe, too, how far the conversation is agreeable and, as it had a reason for its beginning, so there should be a point at which to close it tactfully. UNQUOTE

I found Cicero’s quotation in A Good Talk subtitled The story and skill of conversation by Daniel Menaker. It’s good. As Mary Roach, author of Stiff blurbed on the back cover: “… I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to resist an author who compares Socrates to Columbo.”

After quoting Cicero as early as page 36, Menaker writes, “Okay, that’s it! Book’s done—at least it terms of saying what the most general rules of conversation may be. At least (for) formal conversation, (that is,) because Cicero’s admonition not to reveal one’s own defects is pretty guarded and ultimately unfollowable anyway.”

(Blogger’s Note: I added the “for” and “that is,” in order to make Menaker’s sentence easier to follow. Also, I broke Cicero into an extra paragraph in order to look better on computer screens.)

“OK, that’s it” for this week’s essay. Cicero has said it all for me.

But wait, I’ve more:

On Computers
I don’t know if today’s computers and handheld devices have meant more couches and less conversation, but they have surely meant less reading.

A cousin in a mid-sized British Columbia town shared the gossip: About an army cadet, a secondary school graduate, failing to be accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces… merely because he failed to show adequate vocabulary: In Forces terms, he had failed to obtain the required “threshold knowledge.”

He had graduated just fine; his health and fitness were fine—had he been below the fitness threshold, the forces would have sent him to “fat camp”; he had graduated high school just fine, but still he failed— probably because of all these screens and devices. While society, at least in my age group, thinks technology is being used by the smart kids, that ain’t so: Because down the years, by choosing screens, and choosing not-reading, the boy had failed to pick up enough vocabulary. And words are machetes for coping with the underbrush of life.

Granted, he was in a rural area, which, according to popular culture, means lower schooling, and granted his school was proud of their graduation rates for students of indigenous heritage, which, according to my cousin, means lower standards, but still—I blame technology. In fairness, I’m sure his fellow graduates had learned enough to get local jobs in primary industry or retail, but still—what if that young man wants to move to a big city of office towers? Or to an exotic coastal navy base?

Reading is not natural. As writer John D. MacDonald (Of the Travis McGee mystery series) testified to congress, reading is an abstract skill of decoding marks on a page. Reading is not easy. As a friend found when she taught adult education, her students would lose much of their reading ability over the summer. Reading is not monitored, not by society’s teachers: My niece was more than halfway through third grade before my sister realized her daughter was still illiterate. Three years! Her poor girl had to repeat grade three in a school that used phonetics, “hooked on phonics works for me,” not goddam “whole word.”

The problem for the non-readers is that there are so many things, such as skills for good conversation, or the ideals of Cicero, which everyday people just don’t speak of in daily life. You won’t learn by listening, you have to read…. And you truly won’t learn from the talk of fellow teenagers.

Imagine a young man moving to the big city, meeting me at an outdoor bar patio, and hoping to add me to his network of contacts. Maybe he’s hoping to start in a big corporation’s mailroom, and work his way up to executive. We converse. Imagine me learning he doesn’t know who Cicero was. I would glance at an office tower, look back to the young guy, and say, “Have you considered a career as a retail clerk?”

Sean Crawford
~As a former journalist I am well aware that most people don’t know most things. Hence newspapers explain things people “already know” (such as the on-going Fort Mac fire) just as if a reader has been isolated in a Russian prison. In other words, if you don’t know “Cicero,” relax. And watch less TV.

~The Economist has put a lengthy enthusiastic article about conversation on-line, here’s the link.

By “lengthy,” I mean it was written for real-world reading, not for viewing with a cyber-world attention span. I believe it’s OK to view only parts for now, and maybe get back to viewing it later.