I didn’t expect a movie named Samurai Chicks to be much good, and I was right. That said, it does have the benefit of being cheap and oddball, which is better than being expensive and boring, I suppose. It does not have any samurai in it, strictly speaking, although there are chicks — albeit ones who act more like ninja than samurai. I don’t know if that classifies as false advertising, but just so you know.
What’s genuinely interesting about the movie — or rather, what is more interesting than what happens in the movie — is how it was put together as a political allegory and a statement of identity for its director, Mari Asato. On coming to Tokyo from her native Okinawa, she saw Namie Amuro dancing on the big screen in Shibuya, and shook her head at all the Amuro clones in the vicinity — as if Amuro was sending her a message only she could decipher. Read more
Roger Ebert just posted something I thought would never see the light of day: his unfilmed screenplay written in collaboration with Russ Meyer and The Sex Pistols: Who Killed Bambi?
My comment: "If this ever gets filmed, I'll make like Werner Herzog and boil and eat my shoe."
For the full story, check out Rog's blog for other posts on the same subject, as well as the amazing documentary The Filth and the Fury.
Drew McWeeny (known to most as "Moriarty" of AintItCool.com) lets fly at the way bad movies have driven out good:
I survived the '80s, thinking it was one of the most empty periods of pop culture imaginable. Now I'm watching as today's studio culture treats the '80s like this bottomless source of material to revisit, meaning I'm watching a horrible blurry Xerox of a decade that I found nearly intolerable the first time around ... [A]ll of it just stacking up, snow drifts of the same, towering so high that it all blocks out even the possibility of something fresh breaking through.
... when that's the only game being played by the actual studios that run our entire industry, it makes me feel like we are in the final days of this particular paradigm, and I'm genuinely scared that we've burned down this business and we just don't realize it yet.
The comments on the piece boil with the usual spate of "it's always been like this"-isms, which I see less now as having a sense of history and proportion about the movies and more as an admission of having no real counter-argument to begin with. When all else fails, shrug and say there's nothing new under the sun anyway.
Bad movies drive out good ones, for the same reason bad anything drives out the good: it's too easy to be bad. Or, more accurately, too easy to not demand that something be good, and just settle for whatever they pour into your lap. When you have no idea that things can be better, it seems entirely natural to believe what you have is as good as it gets.
Well, at least I can say Ninja Assassin does something I’ve never seen before: It makes ninja boring. It’s to 2009 what The Hunted was to 1995, without the saving graces of Yoko Shimada or Yoshio Harada. When it’s not boring it’s annoying, and when it’s not annoying it’s downright incurious — which makes it boring all over again.
The ninja assassin of the title is, I assume, Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), one of a secret network of assassins that has existed for centuries Their master, Ozunu (Eighties martial-arts star Shō Kosugi) recruits orphans into the family, trains them into soulless killers, then hires them out for the fixed cost of 100 pounds of gold per kill. The training is what you’d expect: a brutal master teaching his students in total seclusion, hardships galore, one trial by fire after another (sometimes literally), heartbreak, and finally Raizo striking out on his own. When Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) discovers the network, she becomes their next target. Raizo, the apostate, steps in to protect her from his own former clan brothers, and the digital blood spews. Read more
High Kick Girl! is what happens when great martial arts meets mediocre filmmaking. The “High Kick Girl” in question, real-life karate champ Rina Takeda, deserved to have a movie made that featured her talents. I just wish it hadn’t been this movie, which features even less plot than Ong-Bak, has all the personality of an industrial film, and becomes the one thing a movie like this should never become: Boring as hell.
Takeda plays a teen martial-arts wunderkind named Kei, chafing under the strict tutelage of her master. She has a predilection for finding trouble: in one of the first scenes, she casually strolls into a class full of black belts and takes them all down with her trademark boot to the face. When she’s invited to join a gang of underground martial artists named the Destroyers, with promises of good money, she naively accepts. She doesn’t realize it’s all a trap to help flush her sensei out into the open, and soon it’s her and her master against the Destroyers. One wonders why they didn’t simply, you know, follow her to class to find him, but most people watching this will have nodded off long before they come up with such complaints. Read more
I crunched site stats for March and came away with some interesting results. Here's the top article hits:
Having The Punisher and 28 Days Later up in there is kind of surprising, although Spirited Away, The Last Unicorn, Sword of Doom and The Black Cauldron have historically been the most widely-read articles in the site's history.
Tags: site stats
What a charming movie this is, and at the same time a deep and thoughtful one. Stormy Night adapts a children’s book from Japan into an animated film of remarkable intelligence and keen wit, in much the same way Kiki’s Delivery Service was brought to the screen. It’s a perfect example of how a movie can be for all ages without being a “kid’s film”, and for that reason it’s a shame it’s never been released domestically.
The story: Somewhere out in the wilderness, two animals take refuge in a decrepit old barn to sit out a thunderstorm. One is Mei (Hiroki Narimaya), a young goat with a gentle, naïve attitude towards life. The other is the wolf Gav (Shido Nakamura, the voice for Ryuuk in Death Note), a bit of a buffoon, always thinking with his stomach, a bit of a coward. Both are terrified of the storm, and out of fear they talk to each other. In the dark, all they can hear is the other one’s voice, providing reassurance and company. They’re more similar than different: they have the same fears, the same hopes, the same fond nostalgia of one kind or another. They promise to meet again, and use the passphrase “Stormy Night” to recognize each other. Then comes the day of their meeting, in broad daylight, and both of them are flabbergasted. This is the guy I was talking to? Read more
How can I not take to heart a film this gleefully bonkers? Battle Heater is about a man-eating radiator, a description which all by itself could well tell you whether or not you want to see it. It’s the sort of movie where a small budget and limited resources are made up for with loving attention to detail and a sense of humor — the spiritual godfather to current stuff like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, although it’s far less gratuitously nasty than either of those films. (Yes, for some people, that is a bonus.)
The “heater” in question is actually a kotatsu, a table-shaped space heater outfitted with a cloth to cover one’s legs. It’s a common fixture in Japanese homes, as much a symbol of comfort there as a bowl of chicken soup or a cup of hot chocolate is here. A junk collector and handyman (veteran Akira Emoto, who’s been in many movies reviewed here) stumbles across a kotatsu that seems destined for the scrapheap, and takes it home to repair it. He’s one of those folks who can’t bear to throw anything away, and so his apartment makes Fibber’s closet look downright tidy. Read more
The other day, apropos of nothing, I put on the remake of Get Carter so I could have some background chatter while working on something. I'd seen the movie before, and seeing it again reminded me of a little thing I like to call the Law of Incurious Storytelling.
First off: the movie's bad. Oh, sure, it's got John C. McGinley in a great supporting role (he steals every scene he's in, and even a few he's not in), and I have no particular allergy to Sylvester Stallone — but the movie freely disregards the implications of things it even takes the time to stop and comment on.
Random example. At one point Stallone's character is told that if he kills a certain someone, he's going to spend the rest of his life running. Fine. Guess what happens? He kills the guy — and the movie ends with not so much as a soupçon, a suggestion that he is indeed going to spend the rest of his life running. He goes back home presumably to continue business as usual. You could, I guess, cough up some excuse that this is a hard-boiled nihilist noir (the way the excellent Michael Caine original was) and that we can hand-wave some of that in the name of mood and atmosphere — but there's a difference between that and just plain sloppy storytelling.
Maybe better to say incurious storytelling.
One thing I constantly push myself to do when I'm working on one of my books is to ask hard questions about the implications of any one thing that happens. If you kill a man, or let him die, 99% of the time that's not something you can just let float past you under the bridge. Use it as fuel for something: an insight, a realization, a disagreement — something that shows your characters for what they are.
Fiction may be about the exceptions in life and not the rules, but that's a lousy excuse to invoke if you pass up the opportunity to make your story that much deeper. The rule goes double for SF and fantasy, of course: the whole premise of most of that stuff is to, as Theodore Sturgeon put it, ask the next question. If you're not doing that, then all you're doing is creating a style, not a world.
The Times has a piece on breaking silence about poverty in Japan:
After years of economic stagnation and widening income disparities, this once proudly egalitarian nation is belatedly waking up to the fact that it has a large and growing number of poor people. The Labor Ministry’s disclosure in October that almost one in six Japanese, or 20 million people, lived in poverty in 2007 stunned the nation and ignited a debate over possible remedies that has raged ever since.
The article goes on to point out that Japan's official poverty rate is only a couple of points behind the U.S. This revelation seems less shocking to me than it might have been, if only because I've been that much more exposed to it through the channels I go to. Oddly enough, it was reading Natsuo Kirino's Out that brought the lower-rung hangers-on in Japan to my attention most vividly. Japan may not have the "high crime rates, urban decay and stark racial divisions of the United States" (as the article puts it), but it is shot through with divisions and riddled with problems of its own that are all the harder to confront when they're concealed not only from outsiders but itself.
Earlier in the year I accepted a gig writing music reviews for the MusiqueMachine.com site. After some messing around, I've finally started adding links back to those reviews, which will appear here in much the same manner as the AMN links did.
I still plan on looking at albums on my own, since there's a lot of stuff they may not cover which I'm still interested in talking about on my own.
Will they finally do the right thing, after all this time, and give us the original theatrical editions of the original trilogy?
I wish I didn't even have to type such a question. It just seems like a foregone conclusion to me, given the history of cinema on home video, that the original edition of any film deserves to be preserved.
The argument that gets routinely thrown around in defense of Lucas's actions goes something like this: They're his movies and he can do what he wants with them. Well, sure. And I'm perfectly within my rights to pillory him for rewriting his own cinematic history, not just once but many times, and depriving future generations of important perspective on his work.
The original movies were not perfect. They were flawed in ways that had nothing to do with the quality of the effects. But they were a product of their moment in time, and deserve to be seen that way — as direct evidence of what they were.
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One way or another, though, I suspect I've made my peace with what Star Wars has become and is likely to remain. It's something I can now take or leave, because other things have taken its place.
When I was growing up, the first three movies occupied a space in my life slightly larger than, oh, oxygen and food. One evening I was out with my parents at some mall near our house; we were at a Barnes & Noble that had a massive $1 discount bin up front. I had $3 (a ton of money for me at the time) burning a hole in my pocket, and I grabbed three books that immediately caught my attention. One was the Star Wars spinoff Splinter of the Mind's Eye (by Alan Dean Foster). The other two were the first two books in Yukio Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetraology, Spring Snow and Runaway Horses. I didn't have a clue what they were, but for some reason they caught my attention.
Over the next several years I read Splinter I don't know how many times. (This was a common thing for me at that time: I had a very small roster of books that I read over and over again, and almost nothing else.) Snow and Horses sat in a drawer and turned yellow. Every several months, I'd pull one of them out, open it up, and try to read it. I never got past the first page. I don't believe I had a learning disability, so to speak: it was just such alien territory as a story that I couldn't even begin to figure out how to process it.
Years went by. The cycle repeated itself, with a couple of changes. Splinter eventually fell off the reading list entirely. In came Stanisław Lem's Star Diaries and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. I tried cracking Snow every so often, but still couldn't get more than a few pages in without becoming hopelessly lost. But at the same time, I sensed that I was trading up — that by expanding the scope of my attention from Lucas's pastiche to other things, I was doing myself a favor.
1985. Kurosawa's Ran appeared in theaters. I saw it and was galvanized. A little research about the man turned up a review of The Hidden Fortress, which Roger Ebert had described as "the wellspring of the Force". After Star Wars, I was finally discovering Lucas's source material.
By the time my first year in college rolled around, I'd made a pact with myself: I'm going to read Spring Snow by the end of my freshman year, no matter what else happens. Somehow I'd convinced myself that if I could crack that, I could tear through anything.
Within the first month, I'd opened it up and blown through Snow — and Runaway Horses the month after that. The stone which had sat immobile for so long was now rolling downhill of its own accord, and was breaking through one barrier after another.
When the remastered trilogy reappeared in theaters, I saw it and felt great affection for it — but it was not the all-pervading, tunnel-vision love that I'd felt before. The world, my world, was that much bigger now. It wasn't that Star Wars had been pushed out; it was that my inner landscape now had that many more trees 'n shrubs in it.
Star Wars was the beginning of many things for me. But it hasn't proven to be the destination. I'll be happy to see it on BD, and I'll be disappointed if it's not the version I remember so fondly. My world's full of that much more to cherish, and take influence from, and enjoy.
Reading Twin Spica made me realize that outer space, like the Wild West before it, persists so fiercely in our cultural imagination because we have found so many ways to mythologize it. We named one of the first space shuttles Enterprise as a way of paying homage to a cultural force that made it possible. The more broadly we dream about space, the easier it becomes for our dreams to become real, and a society that doesn’t dream of where to go next — and worry about what we will become in the process — is staring at its own navel.
Yukinobu Hoshino’s 2001 Nights makes its mythologizing clear right from the title. The mythology of old (the cycle of tales from Arabia) and the mythology of the new (Kubrick and Clarke’s vision) work side by side here. From 2001 we get the arena and the technology; from the Nights, we get the way every situation becomes an opportunity to learn about human nature in miniature. It’s a mixed bag, as all anthologies tend to be, but at its best it is downright transcendent, and my only worry is that I’ll have that much more trouble unearthing future volumes. Read more
Roger Ebert stuck his neck way, way out and declared that video games will never be art. Brouhaha ensues.
After some chewing-over of the subject with a friend, I've concluded a lot of this is about semantics. What video game lovers want, more than anything else, is for games to be respected. Calling a video game a work of art is just another way of saying that it's worthy of cultural esteem, and not just a frivolity.
This is something that can only come on its own. It's difficult to demand that sort of thing; the game, or whatever it is, has to earn it on its own terms. And I think some of that has already arrived. Video games have more respect as a cultural force now than they did ten or twenty years ago. There's departments in universities that study them; they're a force to be reckoned with in the world of IT; they stimulate the development of works in other media (movies, comics, etc.) and so on.
What you are not going to see, and what I think is misguided to long for anyway, is video games displacing other cultural commodities. Games aren't going to eclipse books or movies because, well, a book is a book, a movie is a movie, and a video game is a video game. People go to each of them in turn to get things they can't from the other, and to feel that one of them can only ascend at the expense of the other(s) is chicanery.
I hear how game lovers feel dismayed that the things they love are "not taken seriously", but that invites other questions: not taken seriously by whom? And what would such gravitas consist of? Bigger sales? Writeups in the New York Times? A dedicated category in the Pulitzers? It's hard to say they're not taken seriously, when there's that much of a space in the public cultural consciousness devoted to them, whether you're talking about Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy n, or Wii Fit.
So is Ebert right? I think he's right in that games are their own animal, that there's no crime in loving a game because it's a game, and that seeking approval from people who aren't interested in games on their own terms isn't worth the trouble. That we cannot get some people to think of games as works of art does not mean we must also therefore think that much less of them as games. This whole business of whether or not a game is a work of art is like comparing an opera to a drive in the country.
Not long after finishing The Blue Wolf I looked at the other books waiting on my shelf for their turn. Most of them are books in translation as well — e.g., The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, about which I find myself constantly writing an opening paragraph to discuss the book and then throwing it out five minutes later.
Most of them are also fairly short. Of all the books on that shelf, I don't think two of them are more than three hundred pages — and one that is, is a graphic novel (Solanin). I don't see this as a drawback, either from the point of view of a reader or a writer. If a good book is short, I'm inclined to believe that's because the author knew exactly what story to tell.
The Blue Wolf (and Tun-Huang before it) told broadly-expansive stories in only a couple of hundred pages. They are worlds removed, both in storytelling style and length, from the massive bricks that most people associate with historical fiction. In fact, there's another historical epic about Chinggis Khan (Genghis), which runs to three five-hundred-plus page volumes. I haven't yet read it, but if it follows the pattern I've come to associate with these sorts of books, its strategy will be to assume that length equals immersion — that the way to draw a reader into a story is to write a really long story, and give them little choice but to maximize their investment of time.
The problem is, it often backfires. Length can inspire just as much skimming and indifference as it does close reading and absorption. The nadir of this sort of thing is The Wheel of Time, where we're told a giant and hopelessly involved story mostly for the sake of telling us a giant and hopelessly involved story. Another motive, I fear, is compulsively putting one over Tolkien, the para-Freudian motive for most "fantasy" authors today: kill Dad and take his place on the bestseller list and in the fan wikis.
I'm not trying to construct an argument against longer stories, but rather against using length as an automatic given: that an Epic Story has to be of a corresponding Epic Length. I have to wonder how much of that is the influence of marketing: if you have a pitch for a historical novel about the life of Chinggis Khan, why just get one book out of it when you can get three? Never mind the potential damage done to the narrative by compulsively inflating it, like pumping up a car's tire until it bursts.
Here is a novel about the life and times of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, which is as interested in the weather of his spirit as it is in the geography of the lands he conquered. It is a fascinating hybrid of two kinds of story — the sweeping historical epic and the intimate psychobiography. It starts as the latter, adds more ingredients of the former as it moves along, and by the end has turned into a striking fusion of the two. It may be fiction as far as the details of Chinggis’s life are concerned, but that simply means the facts synthesized for this story have the ring of emotional truth.
Yasushi Inoue has long been regarded as one of Japan’s greatest historical novelists, something like that country’s version of James Michener (although Inoue’s books tend to run a great deal shorter). My favorite book of his so far remains Tun-Huang, where Inoue took a historical curiosity — a cave in ancient China inexplicably filled with Buddhist treasures — and created an epic adventure that does more in two hundred pages than many books do in a thousand. Here, he pulls off something about as good, and it never becomes turgid or overblown but remains lean, spare and direct all the way through.Read more
One of my favorite Japanese novels in translation, Yasushi Inoue's Tun-Huang, is back in print thanks to the good graces of the New York Review of Books. Those of you who like sweeping historical novels, pick this up: it accomplishes more in a mere 200 pages than most books do in a thousand.
I'm also working on a write-up of Inoue's Blue Wolf, his novel of the life of Chinggis (aka Genghis) Khan.
So what's killing good literary fiction? It's not just a surfeit of navel-gazing authors, according to this fellow, but editors too scared to rock the boat:
To encourage writers to write about big issues is all well and good, but writers in an open society are going to do that regardless. The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging.
Editors are part and parcel of the pipeline that bring books to the public — the gatekeepers, to use the other oft-cited analogy. They're in the same position as movie producers or A&R people at big record labels: they have to go with what they know will work (Big Hits), or be cycled out in favor of someone else who may do that better. Their main motivation is fear of failure, not enthusiasm for success on its own terms.
The problem I have with the blockbuster model is not that it makes money, but that it drives out everything else which doesn't resemble it. George Lucas once defended what he was doing by claiming that more multiplexes meant that many more screens for intelligent indie productions to play side-by-side with big movies like his own. Nothing of the kind happened, of course, as Peter Biskind showed in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: we instead ended up with 12-screen theaters where the same three or four movies all get played side by side to maximize ticket sales, then hustled out and replaced with the next blockbuster wanna-bes. There is no marketplace for selling intelligent filmmaking anymore; that marketplace has been all but driven out of existence in favor of finding different ways to sell the same things over and over.
The same goes with books, where the aim is not to find markets for a specific book, but to fill existing markets with books tailored to sell to that demographic. That the demographics become increasingly vertical and splintered with each year (romance — paranormal romance — undead paranormal romance) doesn't mean that much more diversity. It just means that much more fragmentation, that much less chance of any one book connecting with that many more people, because they're not sold that way anymore.
It’s a little difficult to convey the disappointment that landed like bricks dropped on the heads of many moviegoers after William Friedkin’s Sorcerer appeared in 1977. The director of The French Connection and The Exorcist had spent something like $20 million and three years on a movie that for its first half an hour didn’t even have any dialogue in English; a film which was (to most of them) a murk of existential dread and grimy Third World naturalism, not cheery escape; and which disappeared from theaters with barely a murmur to make room for Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit.
Thirty years later, Sorcerer has held up so well the date on the film almost seems wrong. Then again, it was a product of a moment in the studio system when films of remarkable grit and cynicism (Exorcist and Connection among them) were routinely greenlit as a way to provide audiences with things they couldn’t get on TV. Its globe-hopping storyline and middle-of-nowhere terrain make it feel that much more timeless: it could have been set in any of the past forty to fifty years without needing to change many details. And it features easily the most nerve-wracking second half of any film ever made, although the hour that comes before it is no slouch either. Read more
Snot Rocket and Super Detective. I’m going to just sit here for a moment and say that title out loud a few times. Snot Rocket and Super Detective. No, the original Japanese title probably doesn’t have that lovely alliteration to it, but I am savoring the way the words mash together. Kinda like half-eaten cereal falling out of a baby’s mouth.
Snot Rocket and Super Detective (that’s the last time I type that title, honest) actually provides us with the answer to what I imagine is an oft-asked question: What were Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi up to before firing bullets at each other head-on in Versus and commandeering UFOs in the live-action Cromartie High School? Among other things, this … thing, which looks like it was filmed with a camera found in a box of cereal and probably cost about as much as a box of cereal. It’s crude (not just technically but aesthetically as well, as if the Snot Rocket in the title wasn’t a tipoff), juvenile, haphazard, random, inexplicable, and often quite funny. Read more
I'm a PC guy. I've always been a PC guy, and I suspect until they stop making little beige boxes of one kind or another, I always will be.
I'm not an Apple guy. It's not because I dislike the Mac; whenever I've used any of Apple's systems, I've always been very impressed with them. The Mac is just not a country I choose to live in — because of the taste of the water, and the fact that the cars drive on the other side of the road, so to speak. It's just not home to me.
And maybe it's also not home to me because of things like this.
By now you have surely heard about the new iPhone 4.0 SDK language that appears to make creating applications in any non-Apple-approved languages a violation of terms. ... This has nothing to do whatsoever with bringing the Flash player to Apple’s devices. That is a separate discussion entirely. What they are saying is that they won’t allow applications onto their marketplace solely because of what language was originally used to create them.
I can understand Apple wanting control over what people experience when they use one of Apple's devices. That's the big attraction of the Mac and the iPhone and the iPad: it's a walled garden where things behave in highly consistent ways. But this is becoming less and less about a walled garden and more and more about just flexing one's muscles.
If they're not doing that, and the EULA is just badly worded, fine. But if it is as bad as it looks, then there's a part of me that's completely not surprised.Read more
The surest way to get people riled up in any field is to have one of its own scions slap it in the face. To wit: Matt Thorn, whose c.v. for manga translation is probably beyond reproach, recently had some pithy (shilling for venomous) things to say about the current state of affairs in that fine land. And to him, many things are rotten in the state of wordsmithing.
His argument comes down to two things:
I agree completely with the first argument. The second, not so much. But the first argument is spot-on in a way that is a little difficult to fully appreciate at first.
Good translation is hard. It ought to be. If it isn't, I'd think we were cheating ourselves out of a good learning experience. It is hard because writing with elegance and grace is a trial all by itself, and I say this as someone who has thrown out a whole order of magnitude more words than I will ever keep, because the sight of them made me ball my fists and reach for the DELETE key.
When I attempted to translate Akutagawa's "Rashōmon" as an exercise — and I don't claim I did a good job, just that I tried — I saw firsthand how easy it was to create a bad translation, because of the sheer difficulty involved in getting a halfway good one. It was easy to cop out, to settle for less. Not something that was technically unfaithful to the text, but a tin-eared, graceless piece of prose — something that you wouldn't bother with in English in the first place.
I struggled with that story, beat my head against it, and saw myself that to create something that people would actually want to seek out and read, and not just have shoved into their gullet in a college course, was an order of magnitude harder than just grinding out verbal sausage. It's easy to have just enough of a command of the language to create a translation of something that has — well, words but not music.
There is something else that Thorn tosses out, a crumb over his shoulder, but a crumb I imagine will spark many fights:
Don’t allow the praises of a few hardcore otaku go to your head. As far as they are concerned, an ugly wife must be a faithful one (and, conversely, a beautiful one must be unfaithful, and therefore suspect). They are simply unqualified to judge your work.
I cannot count the number of times I have had utterly fruitless arguments with those very same hardcore fans about minutiae in a translation — stupid little things that shaded over into trivia, or downright obscurantism — which for them were total make-or-break details. This isn't, as Thorn put it, a question of using honorifics or not; it's a question of whether or not you're wrecking the future accessibility of your translation for the sake of appeasing a few loud people whose command of the language has most likely been scraped together from the very translations that they themselves nitpick endlessly!
I don't consider myself an authority on the quality of a translation. In fact, after breaking my knuckles on "Rashōmon" I'm inclined to spend that much less time assuming I know what I'm talking about in that department. I tried, though: I compared Black Lagoon and Guin Saga and a few others against their originals, and came away with an insight here and a revelation there. But all it did was reinforce how little I did know — and how the people who grew up with the language, who lived it when a great many others were just parroting back third-hand echoes of it, had an advantage I could never claim.
But I do know English, and I know lousy, graceless prose when I see it in that language. And such writing is all too easy to come by. The other week I finished Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood; he barely let a sentence go by in his career that wasn't either apple-cheeked with wit or fiery with insight. Then I ran across Laurell K. Hamilton's latest at the library. You could plow through the whole of her output looking for one sentence of Sturgeon's caliber; in the end, you'll just feel like someone who went into a Twinkie factory looking for fresh produce. (It's not that I think people shouldn't read Hamilton's brand of verbal junk food; it's that the taste for good cooking, as it were, is all too easily driven out of each successive generation's taste buds. Appetites for good books have to be protected and encouraged.)
The ultimately irony is how the people who seem least bent out of shape about this are fans and publishers. The fans care more about whether or not a given title is arriving at all in English, or whether or not it's being censored — not whether the translation they do get is artless and wooden (or horrendously misconceived; see below). The publishers ... well, look at the manga market, and tell me with a straight face that most of it is about artistic integrity.
Publishing is a thin enough business as it is, and the few who can make a living from their captive audiences lose no sleep over the damage done to the words they're buying the rights to. No more than, say, the original American distributors of The Seven Samurai had qualms about shearing down a third of its length. To them, Matt Thorn bulks far smaller than, say, Steve Jobs, or Rupert Murdoch. A tin ear is a small price to pay for gold in the pocket.
* * *
This might also be a good time to talk about Ōoku, a manga which in my opinion sports the single most misguided English translation I have yet seen.
The story is set in the Shogun’s court during the Tokugawa years, where the characters speak with a certain elegance and courtliness that is not found in modern Japanese. Perhaps it was determined at some point that this should be preserved in the translation, and I cannot find fault with that impulse.
But the way this has been implemented in the actual text is all wrong. It amounts to a kind of Chaucerian-to-Shakespearean hash that grates against the eyes at every line. It is a minefield of “thee”s and “thou”s and “‘pon my troth”s. I attempted — several times — to read the manga only to be stopped cold, again and again, by this approach.
It is not immersive or evocative. It is distracting and annoying. It is all but unreadable. It is tin-eared in a way that I suspect only someone utterly convinced of the necessity of such an approach could overlook.
I'm not sure if I should blame the translator, Akemi Wegmüller, or VIZ's editorial board, for this mistake in judgment. I've seen Wegmüller's work elsewhere (Monster), and never ran into this kind of issue with it. Maybe someone saw Criterion’s edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, with its multiple English-language subtitle tracks, one of which was written (by Donald Ritchie, no less) in Shakespearean lingo as a way to further evoke the film’s roots in Macbeth. You can almost see the lightbulbs flickering on: Aha! Let's try that!
Fine. Except that with a DVD, multiple subtitle tracks are an option. One can choose between them. A manga provides us with no such flexibility. We get the one translation you give us and nothing more.
That is another reason, I suspect, why Thorn is annoyed, because the translations we're getting for most of this stuff are the translations we're likely to get for a good long time, possibly for keeps. They're not like public-domain texts which can be retranslated as a labor of love. They're copyrighted productions created for what amounts to a niche market within a niche market, and the vast majority of the time, one shot is all we get.
So. Unless there are major and normative changes in the way copyright works (the odds of which I can sum up as being Not Bloody Likely), we're stuck with the current set of pipelines we have for getting any of this stuff into English at all. Let alone the things that are not just worth looking at but worth reading.
If we must choose between having a few more manga titles and having better translated ones — more thoughtfully rendered ones, ones that will still be readable decades from now by audiences with no otaku cred to buff — sorry, but I'll take what's behind door #2.
(Then maybe I won't have as big a backlog to suffer through each month.)
We are now, I think, well into the post-modern phase of superhero stories, where making such a thing automatically counts as commentary on the very genre it inhabits. These things have been done straight so many times there’s almost no choice left but to throw the audience a screwball. Good, I say.
Big Man Japan lobs a screwball that’s a parody of a superhero genre peculiar to Japan, but which has enjoyed overseas success at least in part for its camp value. I speak of sentai, those shows where people transform spontaneously into fifty-foot-high dispensers of justice, wrestle with guys wearing foam-rubber lobster costumes, and knock over miniature scale models of Tokyo on backlot sets. Here, the parody is nothing more than taking everything that happens on these shows to their cruelest and most logical extreme. If we did have such superheroes, wouldn’t they be getting slapped with massive lawsuits every time they went to town on the Monster of the Week? Read more
This past week I watched two movies that could not be more diametrically opposed. One was The Hurt Locker, which reminded me that computer graphics and spastic millisecond edits are no substitute for standbys like strong characterization and fascinating subject matter. The other was Battle Girl Vs. The Living Dead In Tokyo Bay, the title alone of which tells you what’s up. Just typing that title alone put a stupid smile on my face.
Battle Girl came out of an odd moment in the Japanese film industry, when the video market was booming and production companies were slapping together movies that jumped on every bandwagon that had wheels, all to fill shelf space at rental stores. For indie filmmakers it was good news: they could often find money for films that might not otherwise have seen the light of day, and a lot of really wild stuff — Death Powder, or the Evil Dead Trap flicks — made it to the screen because of all that. Battle Girl is a the lower end of the spectrum: it’s notable mostly for female pro wrestler Cutey Suzuki in the lead role, and for being out of print for decades. You’ve heard of B pictures; here’s a B rental. Read more
What sort of film do you think would be made from the story of a Catholic priest who discovers he’s been turned into a vampire? Given that the director is Chan-wook Park, he who gave us Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. / Lady Vengeance, the answer is not “a horror film” or even “a blackly comic love story”, although you could use either label easily enough. Even calling this a vampire movie is a mistake, even if the main character does indeed drink blood to survive and has to stay out of the sun lest he roast.
Thirst is closest in spirit to stuff like some of David Cronenberg’s films (say, The Fly), where the gore and violence are paired up with cynical social commentary and insights into human nature. For about two-thirds of its running time, it’s brilliant. Then it begins to run long, to grow aimless and undisciplined, to substitute an audacious original idea with a bunch of progressively less-interesting replacements, and for the first time with a Chan-wook Park film I felt myself growing impatient. Read more
Space is the place.
— Sun Ra
When I was a kid, I didn’t just want to be an astronaut. I wanted everyone else to be one, too. I imagined it’d get real lonely up there if I was the only one in orbit.
Twin Spica is not, strictly speaking, about becoming an astronaut. It is about the longing to become one — the way a dream deferred (as Langston Hughes put it) can lodge in the soul like a splinter. Or it can become rocket fuel to drive you on past the stars, and inspire others to follow in your wake.
Spica posits a kind of alternate present-and-near-future for Japan’s space program. In 2010, Japan launches its own manned craft, “The Lion”, the culmination of decades of effort. The launch is a disaster: the ship crashes into a populated area and kills an untold number of people. The weight of that disaster has hung heavy across all of Japan — especially thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa. Her mother was one of those that died because of the crash, leaving her with her overworked and underpaid father as the only parent for most of her life. Now, in 2024, Asumi quietly fills out an application to enter Tokyo Space School — without telling her father.
It’s not as if she wants to get out from under his thumb. He’s a good man, just beaten down by life, and he clings to his daughter a little more tightly than he probably should. When he finds out she’s planning to go, he’s upset — but more because this is a dream he wished she had shared with him sooner, and because his daughter’s dreams matter more to him than his own. Read more
An interesting breakdown of the ecological consequences of the e-book vs. the printed book. The short version is that you need to buy about 50-100 e-books before it pays for itself, environmentally speaking.
This sounds like it should be a shoo-in for a voracious reader like me, but it's not that simple. The biggest problem I have with e-readers is that they're not books, and reading on them is still deeply distracting. I chalk this up to generational differences: I wasn't raised reading from a screen, and so I suspect people who grow up surrounded by this sort of thing won't mind one bit. From what I can tell, they love it, and I can see why: you don't lose your place, you can find any phrase by typing, and so on.
But the effort required to train myself to read on one of those things hardly seems worth it when most of what I want to read isn't even available in this format in the first place. I don't read paper books because they're "better" (although there's an argument to be made there), I read them because right now that's the only way to get what I want. Nine-tenths of the books I seek out aren't available in any digital form at all, and there's not much cost savings, if only because most of the real cost of making any book is not materials but paying everyone involved along the way whose name isn't on the cover.
The ecological side of it has another dimension not encompassed by the article. Books are inherently lendable. E-books, less so. A friend of mine wanted to buy me a copy of a certain Kindle book as a gift and couldn't really do that: he had to buy me a gift card with the ASIN of the book in question as the gift note.
In between bouts of work (it's been grueling), I have been reading Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n'Roll-Generation Saved Hollywood. The title is at least half irony, since the book chronicles the way the director-driven Seventies gave way to the producer- and hit-driven Eighties and beyond. One of the most common takeaways from the book is the old standby about how after Star Wars, the target audience for a movie has been kids with short attention spans — some of them well into their forties.
Dig under that, though, and you'll see some the roots of the current blockbuster-or-nothing mindset. One of the little discoveries that Paramount made when Jaws exploded all over the planet was how important it was to book a movie wide and draw attention to it as early as possible. Before Jaws, a movie was lucky to open in a couple hundred theaters nationwide. After Jaws, a movie that didn't open on 2,000 screens or more was a flop out before it even sold a single ticket. The emphasis had shifted, permanently, from audiences to distributors.
The studios didn't care: when their former golden boys like William Friedkin (who was notoriously contemptuous of studio heads) were going from The Exorcist and The French Connection to over-budget, virtually unsellable stuff like Sorcerer (which is a favorite of mine, don't get me wrong), they were completely justified in dumping them and going with people like Spielberg. Or better yet, with producers like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, people who thought of a movie as a "package" and were more autorial than the directors they themselves hired or fired.
Even more telling is a passage, something I also remembered from Skywalking, where George Lucas talked about how he wanted control over the toy rights for Star Wars. The film cost $16 million (in 1977); he figured it would make $10 million and they could get the rest back through ancillary licensing. Nobody believed him, especially considering it took over a year to get a toy designed and released, and by that time who would care? Today, the toy lines and video games are often co-designed with the film — c.f., Avatar — because nobody is dumb enough to think they can make a package of that size without omitting some of the most lucrative parts of the deal. I suspect the video-game tie-in side of things may not turn out to be as good a deal as many want it to, given how the costs of designing a decent video game are skyrocketing and the agent/rock-star algebra begins to figure into game-making as it does in many other places. (There is, of course, one easy way to avoid all that: make a game, but don't bother making a decent one.)
What's most striking, though, is how the movie industry during this period realized how movies could be big business again. TV came along, and left the movies more or less starving for audiences — one of the things, I submit, that made it possible to do away with the older Will Hays-era production code and create the MPAA. Movies shrank. You had the occasional Love Story or other breakout hit, but even those were tiny compared to what was to come later. It became that much easier to experiment, to do things like Last Tango in Paris, because the stakes across the board were correspondingly smaller. After The Exorcist and Jaws and Star Wars, the only way to do anything was to shoot for as broad an audience as possible and cross your fingers, over and over again.
Making films for intelligent audiences was something Woody Allen did — an indie maverick who could set up his own deal. It wasn't something for a company or a studio, even if that studio was named Miramax — a company determined to churn out its own variety of Oscar-fodder product (all graced with one of the ugliest and most soulless corporate logos ever spat out of a computer). And as more and more of those very people-not-projects directors died (the book ends with the death of Hal Ashby, he of Being There and the undeservedly-unseen The Landlord), the whole thing became package- and project- driven, not story- or even concept-driven. (Jaws was optioned while it was still in galley form; Spielberg swiped a copy of the proofs and read them over the weekend, and first thing Monday morning stuck his neck out to do it.)
And now, a segue into my usual concerns:
I've talked before about how the real customers for this stuff now are the distribution pipelines — the Best Buys, the Canal+s, the Loewses. Talk about how digital distribution or what have you levels the playing field is misleading: yes, I can get a book into print and even sell it on Amazon, but that means nothing to the millions of people who know nothing about it and wouldn't know where to go digging for it. I'm still also skeptical on how much of an audience you can swing your way with FaceTwitTubeSiteBook™ — if only because such things seem to work best for flash-in-the-pan stuff, and don't lend themselves to being repeatedly exploited, because people are generally smart enough to know the difference between real fandom and AstroTurf.
So what works, especially on the dozens-not-millions level that people like me occupy? Building and keeping an honest and immediate audience for your work, I guess. A personal connection between you and your fans. Not letting the machinery of promotion get between you and the people you're actually trying to reach. And not convincing yourself that spending $500 on a newspaper ad that won't even get read by your intended audience was a good idea.
There are two ways to talk about Astro-Boy, each a little incomplete, so I must speak of both. Way #1 is as an Osamu Tezuka fan, seeing his work adapted for the big screen for a primarily English-speaking audience. Way #2 is to just see it as something created for and marketed to younger viewers. The first way, for me, lies disappointment. The second way … well, it’s a little harder to say since I’m not seven anymore.
And yet I can see kids in the single digits enjoying this immensely, while their parents at least don’t feel like they need to nap with their eyes open. It has energy and spirit and its heart in the right place, although I know I’m forever doomed to see it as a gateway to the main event: the original comics, and of course everything else Tezuka did. It’s not like we could expect them to make Ode to Kirihito, but it’s also not like choosing Astro-Boy means they settled for lesser source material. Read more