Thursday, May 26, 2016

Anime for A Brainwashed 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,” shows 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 live 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 UK version of the film on Youtube,. 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 him and Linh 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.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Free Fall into Japanese Anime

At a booklovers convention a mother told me she was trying to understand how her teenage daughter could be into animated weekly shows, “anime,” from Japan. She asked me: ‘But aren’t cartoons merely a series of gags for little kids?’

There will be a time (another essay) for suggesting practical titles for a mother to see, but not now: Now’s the time for explaining some of the theory of anime, because the mother’s problem was obvious: years of television brainwashing that cartoons were for children. How to help her break free?

Here’s what I could have said:

Actually, it’s Yankee adult TV shows that are for children. For example, I watched a song and dance show where each dance act was followed by another immediately: coming out of the wings and dancing to stage right, then immediately another out of the wings to stage left, and then another group immediately appearing to do their set at center stage—There was never even one full second of stillness, ever, for me to catch my breath. It’s as if American adults have attention deficit disorder, let alone their children.

Oh, their poor children: If you are in the kitchen washing dishes while the Teletoons channel is on, then all you hear is yak-yak-yak. Even if someone from the Scooby gang pronounces with great awe the mystery is solved… there won’t be a “full second” for the gang to draw a big breath and silently take it in—someone will immediately yak.

But not in anime… not from the land of people contemplating cherry blossoms. For them stillness is OK. And so in Serial Experiments Lain the camera will often hold on a humming telephone pole transformer, or repeat a silent long shot of 13-year-old Lain walking to school past blood red shadows. (See footnote)

A few years back, at an anime convention, I previewed the beginning of an anime with scenes where the camera kept holding still… to show waving grass. There was only a footpath where I presume a wide road used to be. No ray guns, no monsters, and no thought of an audience being on Ritalin. Just a quiet beauty, where a girl goes shopping for supplies in a peaceful world, long after an apocalypse. The anime is finally out on shelves now, according to Wikipedia, translated as Yokohama Shopping Log or Quiet Country Café or Café Alpha. I could recommend it to any mother, even though I barely remember the beginning after all these years. Still, the spell has stayed with me for years, enough to compose a piece this morning at my Friday Freefall class.

(Now I can remember, I just looked it up: Notice how the minute and a half opening (link) does not have the hyperactivity of a Hollywood children’s cartoon)

In a future essay, I will make suggestions for anime for viewing by aging grownups. For now, my Freefall piece suggests how anime is not for small children. (Instructive footnotes will follow)

Freefall prompt: Forget Me Nots

Flowers waved amongst the waving grass from a clean wind in a silent land. Once there were people. Some had said there were too many people, but they aren’t around now to change their minds.

Once people had been of a mind to have progress, progress and more progress. And all the while bees went along their business, aphids crawled up plant stems, and the flowers blew. Now they were blowing still. A lonely bird crossed the sky. Then the sky was empty again. A few clouds, of course, but no condensation trails of jets carrying bubbles of life. Far, far overhead, beyond the atmosphere, a few satellites continued in their decaying orbits, ever closer to death by friction of rushing atmospheric molecules, one last glorious flaming ride for the sake of humans who would not be around to see it happen.

What’s the use of a falling star if no one sees it to make a wish? But I was there. Don’t call me 9819-C; call me Peggy, for I was made to look like a human female. I had braids and a bonnet and a dress to my knees. But I knew little of humans and women. There were books in the library, but I seldom went there. I liked the out of doors. The grass rustled, billowed like the sea where once there had been a road and road shoulders and a road boulevard. All back to the world now. ‘No use crying over spilt milk’ I said. 'It’s a wonderful world of nature’ I said. Having been activated only weeks before The End, I had few memories, and what memories I had were being pushed down into the quantum soup by newer memories. I don’t suppose the humans had thought that forgetting would ever be a problem. I don’t suppose they could conceive of someone living longer than they did.

I am someone. I am Peggy. Not 9819-C. Sometimes I think it would be nice to know more. I once met a fellow named Ralph. He claimed to be human, Ralph did, and maybe he was. He told me no one knew why all the progressive lands were the ones to have cancer, why childhood allergies had appeared and then skyrocketed, why people began living less long, shorter life styles, shorter and fatter. Ralph said they’d rush to the TV every time there was a plane crash, but they never rushed to each other. The flowers blow, saying, “Forget me not.”

Sean Crawford
Calgary, May
If you watch Lain, then be advised it isn’t a franchise where the episodes can be shown in any order, as with American cartoons or the original Star Trek. The best way to watch it is without “giving in” to your logical left brain or your ADD; instead, watch it like you would watch cherry blossoms: Just enjoy each of 13 episodes separately, each on it’s own terms.

Lain was made back in the 20th century, before school kids had any tablets or handheld devices. But in Lain they do: that was science fiction.

Be warned: In America, kids normally like to read stories about kids a year or two older than them. Not for this one: Lain is a thirteen-year-old girl, but the DVD box says, “for ages 16 and up.” And rightly so. I don’t think, as a western mother, I’d watch it with my son, only with my daughter. (Maybe I’m out of touch)

I wrote of Lain in my essay Silence and Three Nerd Heroes, archived May 2013. Here’s a link to the opening song in English: Note how the cartoon music is not frantic; the show is not from Hollywood.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Whimsy for Four

Headnote: if you are from China or Japan, probably you don’t like the number four: In the orient, the word for “four” rhymes with the word for “death … a very unlucky number.

Today is for whimsy (humour) . That, and the number four.

Four: My favorite number. Now, you are probably wondering why I like the number four. (Of course you are, work with me here)

As for my numerical favorite, you might think it’s a (swells chest) grownup manly warrior thing: Four is the smallest safe number of battle tanks rolling along a sunny grassy valley. I have happy peacetime memories of walking along uphill from them, because they need protection from anyone in any suspicious clumps of trees on the hillside.

But no, that’s not my reason for loving four, or, for that matter, why I love counting to four.

You might think it’s a (eyes go wide) boyish thing: Of course you recall pirate stories where a ship could only fire one gun at a time, recoiling in smoking succession, to avoid shaking the ship apart: That’s a science thing, for Newton’s third law of reaction. But in science fiction, the space pirate ships only have, count them, four guns. As a boy I read On the Trail of the Asteroid Pirates, book three in the series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The invading pirate ship appears over an idyllic prison asteroid that is covered with nice pretty green lawns—hiding the defenses.  

“Meanwhile, the invader continued to blast relentlessly. One—two—three—four—automatic reload—one—two—three—four, reload. Over and over, firing at seemingly peaceful fields of grass, only to strike an armory, space cradle, or supply depot buried underneath the ground.”

Lastly, you might think it’s a (wide smile) childhood thing but actually I missed out, by being born too late: I wish a pretty girl from my hometown had sang her lovely hit single back when I was little.  Without singing “automatic reload,” Feist sings:

“1 2 3 4
tell me that you love me more
sleepless long nights
that is what my youth was for”

Did you know Feist danced in the opening ceremonies for the Calgary Winter Olympics? Her sparkly blue costume inspired her 1 2 3 4 hit music video; her song is almost, but not quite, the reason I like the number four.

Q: The real reason?
A: The not-so-hit music video where Feist wears dull blue denim and sings, “1 2 3 4 monsters walking cross the floor.”

Luckily for me, last year a local disc jockey mentioned the video on air, saying he really, really liked it. So I tried it out—Wow! Now it’s my favorite music video of all time! …Here’s the link for Youtube. (Footnotes are below) You’re welcome.

Sean Crawford
Footnotes, of which I have only three, not four:
1~If you want to read a little more of Tom Corbett and his pals, see My Blog is Not a Platform archived in February, 2016.

2~Here’s what Feist says:
“So, I’m on ‘Sesame Street’ walking around with a whole bunch of monsters, Elmo and his buddies, a whole bunch of chickens, a whole bunch of penguins, and a number four dancing about. It was just pure joy, simple ridiculous fun, stupid joy. There’s no irony. ‘Sesame Street’ is just a crazy great place to be.”

3~Speaking of Feist’s monster friends, some humans would say that monsters (and fairies) should be clothed, for the sake of common decency.

I answer: What about Political Correctness? Shouldn’t monsters (and fairies) be allowed to have their own culture? A clothing-free culture?” I mean, just imagine if you were a monster. Monster fur is very warm. So that’s why, among adults, I feel no shame at wearing my T-shirt showing a big unclothed fairy. It’s magic: young fairies don’t need clothes because they’re so hot.