I just finished reading Casino Royale, the first of the Bond novels and of course the novel that was adapted into the newest of the Bond films. There's a lot about the book that's dated — Bond's innate sexism as a character, for instance, is presented in such a way that it's not always clear if he's the sexist one or Fleming himself is simply (if unwittingly) recording his own feelings about women. What's odd is that the struggle that Bond engages in with SMERSH — the Russian counterspy bureau that he makes his sworn enemy by the end of the book — hasn't really dated much at all, and the second half of the film essentially matches the majority of the book in all the significant details.
Another thing that's striking is Le Chiffre, who in the movie is actually a more interesting character. In the book his desperation is more hinted at than anything else; in the movie, he's clearly in way over his head, and we feel it profoundly, especially in the infamous scene where he gives Bond a beating that makes every man in the room run for the exits. I liked the fact that he was not some giant, untouchable figure of evil, but a scared, somewhat banal and corrupt person whose corruption would eventually be his undoing. The movie stays true to that, even if the way it's presented is a lot more jazzed-up (not that I mind!).
Here's hoping the next film — working title Quantum of Solace — is a worthy follow-up.
A piece in the Times about Amazon's Kindle got behind some of the usual statistics about the fact that "no one reads anymore". It's something of a misinterpretation. Those that do read more than make up for the many who don't — in other words, while about 30% of people surveyed recently claim not to have read a book in the past year, another 30% have read at least fifteen in the same timeframe. (Note that while books are mentioned, there's no discussion [at least not here] of newspapers, websites, blogs, etc.)
There's a lot of further nuances to this whole discussion that convince me that reading — not just "books" — is far from dead as a leisure or self-education activity. The web, for one, has made it easier than ever to get your hands on text (hey, you're reading some right now!), and also acquire books in general — something Amazon knows from the inside out, which is part of the reason they tend to be one of the first places people go when looking for a book they can't find. And on top of all that, publishing stands to be a $15 billion industry this year, according to the article's references — hardly a dying market.
Oddly enough, I'm reminded of the video-game market. There are many people who never play video games, never touch them, never bother with them. They're heavily counterbalanced by all the people who not only do all those things, and do them with an enthusiasm that far outstrips expectations.
It is frustrating, though, to encounter people who simply don't read for pleasure or self-enlightenment. One of my pet theories about such people is that a fair chunk of them may simply have undiagnosed or untreated reading disabilities — e.g., they were taught with a non-phonic / "whole word" reading method which often creates functional illiterates — and so reading isn't something they want to put themselves through, no matter what the reward. I'm not wholly convinced we live in a "post-literate" culture except in the sense that people think they can get bigger kicks elsewhere, and usually can.
Maybe this is the best way to put it: We live in a culture where nobody reads the people who grouse that nobody reads anymore.
The 5-disc Blade Runner set on Blu-ray arrived the other afternoon, at the store where I'd ordered it. I'd actually gotten the 4-disc set on DVD from a friend as a belated gift, but I was able to swap it for the Blu-ray set for only a couple dollars more, and everyone went away happy.
So far I've only watched the first disc — and just the feature on the first disc, no commentaries or anything like that — but its status as legend is re-cemented in my mind. The touch-ups they've made, by the way, are so subtle and well-done that you'd never know they were there unless you were hunting for them in the first place.
On the way back I swung through a local bookstore and took a look at what was on the discounted tables. To my surprise, they had marked down the recent snazzy-looking reprints of Ian Fleming's Bond novels, so I grabbed two: Casino Royale and You Only Live Twice. I did remember reading some of the Bond adventures when I was much younger — like Moonraker, which is so far removed from the film it's not funny — but my memory of them was pretty hazy, and I had tried to read them at an age where I didn't appreciate most of what was going on.
I also snapped up a bunch of other things that looked interesting and were dirt cheap:
There's also a bunch of new comics in for review at AMN (soon to undergo a name change — more on that later), including the long-awaited Purgatory Kabuki, the Hell Girl manga, and a reprint of Masamune Shirow's Dominion (Tank Police). Look for all that soon.
Over the last six months or so I find the list of records that spend the most time in my music player has evolved yet again. Some of this stuff is material I want to review at length, but a cursory rundown should do:
A piece in the Times entitled "Their House to Yours, via the Trash" talks about how book scavengers eke out a living on New York's mean (main?) streets. The target of their hockery: the Strand Bookstore, a Mecca for booklovers and booksellers alike.
Most of the stuff they sell ends up in the $1 bin outside the shop, but that's actually one of the first places I end up looking on a warm day, and the treasures you can find there are startling. I once blundered across an original copy of Mel Lyman's Mirror at the End of the Road in that bin, although when I found out a bit more about Lyman I felt weird having it around the house and got rid of it.
In the commentary track for Kinji Fukasaku's film Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (a really outstanding piece of work that I will cover here shortly), there is some discussion of the covenant or pact that exists between rural Japanese villagers, something that has apparently not changed in centuries. Normally there are ten rules that exist between villagers, but if for whatever reason the village chooses to shun you as an outcast, you will only be protected by two of them: 1) you will be rescued if your house catches fire, and 2) you will be buried when you die. Unfortunately, I don't think the commentary mentioned what the other eight rules were, so I'm probably going to have to dig those up on my own and find out.
Some of this is obviously going back into Tensai Kenki, since one of the cycles of the story involves Asagiri, the fisherwoman with whom the hero becomes closely involved. I'm considering having him spend some time in her village and grow close to their way of life, at first as a survival measure and then later as a kind of — for some reason the word atonement came to mind. By being with them and by living as he does, Ryu performs a kind of emotional or spiritual ablution, a way of distancing himself from something he's done.
It's odd how my imagination can work. I didn't know what Ryu would be atoning for, specifically, but somehow it seemed right for the emotional arc of the character to include this. Something he has done demands a wholly different kind of behavior from him than anything else he's ever manifested before — a behavior which at first coalesces into an urge to just run (i.e, run and hide in the fishing village), but which later changes into something else.
I followed that line of thinking, and ended up with what seems to be the first major arc of the story: the drawing-together of the three main characters.
* * *
In his fourteenth year, Ryu — son of a reasonably well-off samurai — attends a fencing school and injures one of his fencing partners badly enough that the other boy dies. Ryu is deeply disturbed by this — not just that he caused someone's death but because now that he he has actually killed (in an "age of peace", no less), he realizes just how exhilarating it truly is to have that much power over the life and death of another. He's still sorting through this morass of emotions when the dead boy's father shows up and begs Ryu's own father for the chance to duel with the young man — for real — as a way to clear his family's name. Ryu's father refuses, but Ryu himself insists on doing it — not because he wants to kill the other man, but because he has at least half a mind to let himself be killed.
The day of the duel arrives, and Ryu's father takes the opportunity to turn it into a bit of brutal theater — a way to show his own lieges the importance of passing the right values down to one's children, etc. The fight is a ghastly farce: Ryu's wounded (if only superficially), and his father goads him on to finish the job. Only when the boy is backed into a corner does his killer instinct assert itself and finish the job. Overcome with self-loathing, Ryu abandons his home, his title, and his privilege.
Not long after running away, Ryu finds himself in the company of Aki, a thief and con artist who also sells his services as a bodyguard. Ryu doesn't much like siding with him, but does so mostly as a way to protect his own hide, and in return does his best to appeal to whatever nascent morality might be within Aki, and from there goad him towards doing things that are marginally less despicable. It's not that Aki is a wholly bad person; he's just more easily motivated by greed and the promise of good times than most other things — but Ryu has a keener eye for observing Aki's behavior than either of them realize at first.
Their travels together take them to a seaside fishing village where there's allegedly a whole cache of samurai loot (swords, armor, etc.) stashed in one of the caves further up the coastline. To their amazement they find a girl, Asagiri, living there with the loot as an outcast — the other villagers treat her as a pariah, and while they don't prevent Aki and Ryu from going to her, they do sternly warn them that no good will come of it. The story Asagiri has for them: a gang of bandits originally owned the loot, bandits who attacked her original home village (much further away), but she collaborated with one of their kind to steal it away from them. He died in the process but she was able to hide here, and if the bandits show up again she'll be ready for them. Ryu finds himself responding to her advances, and after a feverish night together she's calling herself his wife, and he can scarcely see a reason to object.
Unfortunately, Asagiri's story is distorted, to put it mildly. When Aki prepares to leave both of them behind, she cheerfully tells him the whole thing, since she doesn't expect him to tell Ryu anyway. She sold out her home village to the bandits to get revenge on her father, the village magistrate, because he arranged a marriage for her to another village's magistrate (whom she despised). The bandits stormed the place, burned the village, took the women, and the bandit leader made Asagiri his chosen lady — but then one of the other village women (who had also been chosen as a concubine by the bandit leader) turned out to be at least as good at playing this game as Asagiri herself. Worst of all, one of her fellow villagers survived to take his revenge on the bandits, and she only survived by, again, collaborating with one of the more weak-willed bandits to steal some of their samurai treasure ... and then murdering him once they had got away clean, lest she be forced into becoming his husband.
Aki is aghast at what he hears, but doesn't let on. He decides to stick around at least long enough to take Ryu aside when a moment presents itself and clue the poor kid in. The opportunity never arises, however, as the bandit leader's former lieutenant — a man even more bloodthirsty than his former commander — shows up (minus an eye and a finger) with a whole new gang of goons made up of former samurai, now pirates. Ryu and Aki have to dive in and fight to first save their own necks, then Asagiri's, and then the nearby village.
[End of part one]
The first installment in my ongoing series, What You're Missing, has gone up at AMN:
Each month (sometimes more often, depending on what's at hand), What You're Missing will cover a different property, anime or manga, which for whatever reason hasn't yet reached an English-speaking audience in a legit edition but deserves your attention. Said titles usually fit into one of the above three categories — previously licensed but out of print; unlicensed; unlicensable — but for all I know, some of these titles may already have been picked up and are being negotiated for as we speak.
... There are so many genuinely good and undiscovered (or at least under-promoted) releases out there, it's about time I quite lamenting that fact and did what I could to give them the exposure they deserve.
Next month will be a three-volume series by a manga-ka whose work has remained, as far as I can tell, completely unpublished in English-speaking territories.
Never to be outdone, Criterion has once again grabbed up a title I thought I would never see in a legitimate edition: Blast of Silence, a New York City noir of such amazing nihilism that it's no wonder it almost disappeared without a trace after its release.
The U.S. version of 5 Centimeters Per Second hits shelves on March 4.
Discotek, a favorite "tiny" label of mine, swings back into action with a Teruo Ishii adaptation of a Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) story: Bohachi Bushido: Legend of the Forgotten Eight. Looks like it's loaded with extras, too...
Tokyo Shock has a Sukeban Deka two-fer coming up — a great way to get both yo-yo-slinging flicks for the price of one.
Sessue Hayakawa's The Dragon Painter is also getting a release; this is something I will definitely want to check out up-close.
Also worth checking out: a little masterpiece named The Quiet Room, in what I believe is its first domestic pressing.
Not a lot of posting going on due to work and various projects, but I thought I'd drop a few notes.
Other stuff that caught my attention:
I did some rearranging in the home office, and ended up with an empty shelf immediately to my right at eye level. My first temptation was to fill it with the kinds of things that I like to pull out and read, or just look at, as a kind of mental palate cleanser throughout the day.
The list of books on the shelf is a fair jumble, but one of the big standouts is Coffin: The Art of Vampire Hunter D, courtesy of a good and longtime friend of mine. It's enormous, for one — a softcover in a hardback sleeve — and it opens up across the whole desk when I look through it. It's a nice way to remind myself that the moment we're in, here and now, is not the only thing that could exist or has existed.
One of the other books on there is the screenplay / art portfolio that Akira Kurosawa assembled for Ran. It is out of print and not easy to find, and in my utopia there will be a copy of this book to go with a copy of the movie. I think if I had to throw out all but ten books in my collection, this would be one of those ten without me even having to think about it. Kurosawa painted the pictures in the book over several years, when he was already nearly blind, and the fact that you can look at some of the stills in the movie and some of the canvases and see one-to-one matches in nearly every shot is worth more than any number of years of film school.
There's also that out-of-print book of '20s / '30s Japanese boy's magazine illustrations that I found on eBay and snapped pictures of earlier (I can't find the post I made right now). I was thumbing through that one a lot as inspiration for Vajra, actually — I strongly suspect the characters I was coming up with were nothing like their actual counterparts on the page. (And if they were, I'd be both surprised and dismayed...)
Somewhere along the way I bumped into a snippet about Richard Gere getting a dressing-down from the Dalai Lama. It went something like this: the DL said [I'm paraphrasing], "Why do you make these movies? You are only piling illusion on top of more illusion and leading people further astray."
I don't know if Mr. Gere had an answer for the DL, but had I been in Mr. Gere's shoes, my answer might have gone something like this:
Sometimes the only way to get people to see things as they truly are is to present them with an illusion. People sometimes respond more readily to a fiction, especially where something intimidatingly large is concerned; they can develop a better emotional liaison with something like that than they can a cold hard fact. This isn't a denigration, just the way things tend to play out. You can create a fiction that is positive and that is grounded in the way things actually are, or you can create something that is simply meant to be wallowed in. It's all in how it's used, and to what end. The trick, again, is to make sure that the other person knows what they're getting into; not everyone is going to appreciate being lied to without their knowing it, even if it leads to them to wisdom. You cannot lie willy-nilly and expect truth to grow out of that.
I'm really curious as to how that might have been responded to.
I haven't posted much in the last month or so, and I know it. I've mainly been dividing my in-front-of-a-keyboard time between AMN, work and The New Golden Age, and between those three things I'm often left without a lot to talk about. There's some other stuff going on that I'm not quite ready to talk about — some personal projects and things which once they're settled should be absolutely worth discussing — but again, right now really isn't the time for such things.
There's a saying, "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk," which seems to apply to what's going on here: sometimes the best way to really understand something is only after it's over and reflected on, and that's probably the best way to think about a couple of things that are taking place. (None of this is sinister or evil or anything like that; I'm probably just finding a particularly pretentious way to talk about something that, if done right, will turn out to be really nifty and well worth following up on.)
One thing I know I ought to do is empty out some of the music reviews that got stacked up; I sat down and wrote a ton of them in the space of a couple of days, and never got them cleaned up or formatted for presentation. Sometimes talking about a record I've loved for years is like talking about my front lawn: I see it every day, I know most every knoll in it, and to talk about it just seems like the purest act of redundancy imaginable. Hard thing, to get out of one's head, and see something else.
* * *
Most of my writing work has been directed at New Golden Age, as I've mentioned, and two other projects have been back-burnered in favor of that. One was NaNo 2007, aka Vajra (which I might come back to first; it's a really interesting story, the more I think about it); the other is Tensai Kenki, which the more I think about it the less certain I feel about anything in it except the itch to do it.
I dug out the Big Book of Projects the other day — my scrapbook where I park possible story ideas and let them germinate — and was amazed at how far I'd drifted away from some of them. In my Mind, which I think I mentioned indirectly here and there, is draft-complete and has been for some time, but the story itself is just so far removed from anything I know I want to dwell in (or on) that I don't have the hear to go back and make it into anything readable. It was basically my homage to No Longer Human, and I think I even managed to alienate myself from it, it was that reader-unfriendly.
I've decided, perhaps belatedly, that I'm no longer interested in trying to subject the reader to an endurance test as some kind of proof that either I or they are "worthy". Writing Summerworld reawakened for me the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and in what form — not gray little things about gray little people with gray little lives, but Technicolor and Dolby 7.1 sound and 1080p HD. And at the same time under the razzle-dazzle, a guiding sensibility about it all — in short, everything I pulled off with that book, I'd like to do again and again, albeit in different contexts.
I always do keep busy, don't I?
There's little that's more horrible than someone else going on this great vacation and coming back with a buncha photos and a lecture about this beach and that fishing spot and lookit all those people on the golf course — and your head tilts right back off as you fall asleep.
Which is why I've been begging whatever deity that might be listening: please don't let The New Golden Age turn into a boring vacation travelogue. Please. That was a big part of why I took what was originally going to be this monster epic story that could easily have run to 250,000 words or more and filleted it down to less than half that. Somewhere in my Mess of Stuff there's a pre-treatment outline (just a bunch of scribbles, really), and I stumbled back across it not too long ago and read with horror that my original idea had been to stretch the action across not one but three separate conventions over the course of a year.
Travelogue. Vacation pictures. Bor-ring. Especially boring to the people who weren't there for any of it, who were never there for any of it — and c'mon, the whole idea is to get people who were never there to read this, so why shoot myself in the feet and wait around for gangrene to set in on top of it?
Face it (the Author told himself), the whole thing's not even really about the conventioneering experience per se; that's just the environment, the backdrop, the arena for where people link up with each other and find a little bit of community that they don't have my default out there in the rest of the world. That's the real brain / spleen / internal organ mass pumping away under it all in there: we go do these things to feel that much more connected to others. A do-it-yourself sense of community for a generation and a society that seems to be turning up its nose as the very concept of same, which is either a great thing or scary as all shivering get-out the more you think about it.
Oh, and: a possible title change. I've honestly never liked the title all that much, and I have no gift for good, catchy titles; if I did, I probably would be in marketing. I mentioned The Four-Day Weekend as another possible title, to a friend of mine, and he commanded me to bear it in mind as a strong possibility. It, too, suffers from the "it's pretty good but could be better" disease.
We had a belated birthday celebration here at my house for both myself and several friends — backdated to December! Some of the stuff I got is worth mentioning, both because I may write about them in the Books or Music section and because they're interesting on their own merits.
I also ended up with the Blu-ray of Casino Royale (which gets better each time I watch it, actually), and a slew of other little things, but those were the big attention-getters.
Incidentally, after Warner Brothers's "we're dropping HD-DVD in 2008" announcement this Friday — the weekend before CES, no less — all that's left is for Criterion to follow suit. And when that happens I may in time be selling or auctioning (or just giving) away my existing Criterion discs as they're replaced. Obviously this isn't happening any time soon, but yes, I'm seriously jonesing about the idea of Ran in HD.
(No, DRM doesn't thrill me, either, but given the way the music industry is finally giving up on DRM wholesale, I don't think the movie industry will see much point in bothering for too much longer either. Not when the delivery mechanisms and retail prices are low enough to make piracy essentially not worth the effort. Warner Brothers didn't even bother to include Macrovision on most of the Harry Potter movies because they sold so well that to do so would have simply chiseled into their profits. Also, AFAIK, the Blu-ray Disc spec doesn't mandate copy protection, either; it's just one of the features available on the platform ... but any way you slice it the next few years are going to be really interesting.)