All posts for January 2010


To Market, To Market Dept.

Manohla Dargis argues for a new way to make -- and more importantly, market, independent films: Independent Cinema - Poised for a D.I.Y. Revolution - NYTimes.com I have wondered, on and off, how much of this can apply to an...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/31 13:19

Manohla Dargis argues for a new way to make -- and more importantly, market, independent films:

Independent Cinema - Poised for a D.I.Y. Revolution - NYTimes.com

I have wondered, on and off, how much of this can apply to an indie lit scene as well. There, you have two main attractions, much as you do in the music world: the artist and his creations. When an author appears somewhere live, though, it's usually for the sake of a book-signing or a round-table discussion.

Merchandising, though, is obvious. Few people with a fan's mindset are gonna pass up a T-shirt -- and did I mention I've been considering trying to get plush toys made for some of my characters? No, seriously. It's just difficult and expensive, which is why it may have to come a lot later. T-shirts, though, are a snap, although even there you have to do some legwork to make sure you're not spending your money on something that's going to flake off after five washings.

Another key thing I'm trying to figure out how to work with, rather than against, is the way today's fans are more interactive than ever. You're the creator, sure, but they're creators in their own right, too.

Younger audiences might not be more active moviegoers than their grandparents (watching a film is never a passive experience), but they live in an interactive, media-saturated world. These days “everyone is his or her own media company,” Mr. Weiler wrote in Filmmaker Magazine. “With the push of a button they can publish, shoot or record and moments later it can be online for the world to see.” This audience, in other words, has its own D.I.Y. ethos, and sometimes can be part of a movie’s creative process.

The exact same thing applies to writing -- doubly so in an age of fanfiction, blog comment threads that go OVER NINE THOUSAAAND, and you-name-it. (A big part of why one of the near-future projects I have is going to be a step in that direction, and where the bound and printed book part of the project is just one of many possible endpoints for it.) I'm a little unsure about how to embrace it, especially when the size of my fandom doesn't yet lend itself to such things, but it's getting less and less silly to think about these prospects early on.

It's that much easier for indie artists to seize this new-marketing stuff and run with it, because they have both that much more and that much less at stake. More, because they're preparing to inherit a media world that has been grabbed by its ankles and turned upside down and shaken vigorously until its pockets are emptied. If they go the "old" route, they stand to inherit less of an audience -- and a less vibrant, interactive, creative, participatory one. And less, because they're starting out small much of the time and because technologies like POD and Facebook pages require very little startup investment. Anyone can dive in and start swimming. People with real talent prove themselves that much more swiftly, because the bar is universally lower.

Well, in theory, anyway. The competition's more often now about getting and keeping people's attention, not just producing the best work. It's hard not to make your mark when nobody even knows you're out there making it.

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Tags: business creativity fandom links marketing


Movie Reviews: Divide

Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. After seeing director Masato Tsujioka’s first feature Lost By Dead and writing it off as a dog’s breakfast, I found he had made another movie, Divide. From the trailer, it looked like it...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/31 00:39
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Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. After seeing director Masato Tsujioka’s first feature Lost By Dead and writing it off as a dog’s breakfast, I found he had made another movie, Divide. From the trailer, it looked like it had a better budget and more competence behind the camera. Oh, why not, I thought; it would be nice to see a director maturing and growing in front of my eyes. And so into my queue it went.

Yes, Divide is better than Lost By Dead. Very, very slightly better, as it sports incrementally improved production values and a more compact running time (it clocks in at exactly one hour). But that’s like saying a head cold is a step up from a case of smallpox. What few good ideas there are swimming around in this porridge of a movie are so incoherent and underdeveloped I almost wish they hadn’t bothered. In some ways, it’s easier to deal with a movie that makes no pretense of making sense than one which tries and bellyflops into the shallow end of the pool.

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Tags: Japan Masato Tsujioka movies


Movie Reviews: Departures

Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) was—was—a cellist for a symphony orchestra. One day, after a performance to a mostly-empty concert hall, his boss fumblingly tells everyone “The orchestra is dissolved.” Not You’re fired, which would at least have some ring of honesty...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/30 20:18
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Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) was—was—a cellist for a symphony orchestra. One day, after a performance to a mostly-empty concert hall, his boss fumblingly tells everyone “The orchestra is dissolved.” Not You’re fired, which would at least have some ring of honesty to it, but dissolved. So much for years of practice and discipline which started when he was a young boy. But life’s like that, and what matters is not that you fall but how you pick yourself back up again.

He has a plan, sort of. He and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, Collage of Our Life) will move back to his childhood village at the seaside, and live rent-free in the house (actually, a converted coffeeshop) that his departed mother and estranged father left for them. His search for work turns up an ad for “assisting departures” with a company named “NK Agency”. It’s not a travel firm, though: NK is an abbreviation for nokan—“encoffining”, the art and ritual of dressing the dead for being placed into their coffin before burial or cremation. The boss of NK Agency, crusty Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is annoyed at the typo in the ad: “It’s not departures, it’s departed,” he snarls. But he takes one look at Kobayashi, senses someone who just needs something good in his life right now, and hires him on the spot.

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Tags: Japan Yojiro Takita movies


Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's "Rashōmon": My Own Translation

I've dabbled in literary translation before, but never to any great end. Most of that was because my command of Japanese was only middling, but over time I've built it up to something I hope is decently passable. As an...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/30 13:48

I've dabbled in literary translation before, but never to any great end. Most of that was because my command of Japanese was only middling, but over time I've built it up to something I hope is decently passable.

As an extended exercise, I've started a translation project that I will be updating (ir)regularly: an English version of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's short story "Rashōmon". This was, as the title implies, one of the inspirations for the Akira Kurosawa movie of the same name, but mostly for the name and the locale rather than any of the action. Most of the plot was taken from another Akutagawa short story, "In a Grove" (which I might also try my hand at someday).

Most of my reason for doing this is entirely for my own edification and learning, and perhaps to glean some feedback from people who are better at translation than I am. It's not intended to replace anyone else's work -- certainly not Jay Rubin, whose outstanding translation I read back in the recently-republished Penguin edition. I'd recommend his work over mine any day, and my work mostly for flavor and color, and of course your own entertainment.

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Tags: Japan Ryūnosuke Akutagawa translation writing


Booked Again Dept.

The recent business with Amazon and Macmillan has been commented on in many places: Jim Hines and Cat Valente have their takes on it -- I was especially annoyed with the way Amazon seems to be trying to spin this...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/30 13:29

The recent business with Amazon and Macmillan has been commented on in many places: Jim Hines and Cat Valente have their takes on it -- I was especially annoyed with the way Amazon seems to be trying to spin this as a "database glitch". (Yes, they only meant to remove some Macmillan books and instead yanked all of them. Entirely by mistake. "And then he ran into my knife -- seven times!")

What do I think? I think there's no real winner here, unfortunately. Amazon has built a garden of their own that's popular in ways entirely apart from Apple's ecosystem, and they've already felt tension from people trying to buck their model ever so slightly -- viz. the way POD books from Lulu aren't carried directly through their system but only offered through resellers. I'm still going to be trying out CreateSpace later this year, both as a way to avoid that and as a trial of their service in general, but nothing says that's going to be the last stop on this bus. (And, for the sake of further disclosure, my site uses Amazon as an affiliate link partner, although I'm fairly sure most anyone who's been here for more than two seconds can tell.)

For me, e-books right now are an exotic tertiary technology. I plan on having plenty of dead trees surrounding me in my office for a good long time -- not just because of the DRM, or the various mutually incompatible formats, or the fragility of the devices themselves (oh snap son you got caught in the rain!), or the fact that reading anything of length on an e-book is like watching Lawrence of Arabia on a jetBlue flight ... it's all of those things at once. This internecine warfare between publisher and distribution channel is just another headache on top of the existing chills, fever and muscle pains.

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Tags: Amazon.com books business publishing technology


Padded Out Dept.

This'll be the last post I make about the iPad. Honest. The arguments I see popping up about the device seem to be in two camps. On one hand, you have people who complain it doesn't do enough, that it's...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/29 13:13

This'll be the last post I make about the iPad. Honest.

The arguments I see popping up about the device seem to be in two camps. On one hand, you have people who complain it doesn't do enough, that it's a closed-ended system, it's locked down, doesn't have certain hardware functions, etc.

Then you have the people who love it because of all those reasons.

Maybe it comes down to semantics. E.g.: "Locked down" is another way of saying "doesn't have anything I don't need/want" (although what you'll want now as opposed to later is an open question, but never mind). Ditto "doesn't do enough": whose definition of enough is in play here?

Et any number of ceteras.

It's all part and parcel of another debate: How simple should computing be? Should we make devices that require no particular computer savvy on the part of the user (something Apple has made an art form), or should we demand that people at least learn some of the "rules of the road" before touching anything so they avoid making asses of themselves and others?

I've grown up with what amounted to the second option: that you didn't park yourself in front of a PC and attempt to make use of it without knowing at least something about what you were doing. Now we're seeing a whole world of devices that are almost entirely task-based, where you don't even need to know what a file is or why memory is important. People like me, I think, have a hard time as seeing this as anything but a variant on the idea that you can eventually make a car that requires no understanding of what gasoline is or why you need to change your oil ever three thousand miles.

Even that analogy doesn't fit very well, I think. The whole point of owning a car and driving is to be able to go independently from point A to point B; in 100 years, there could be any number of ways to do that which have nothing to do with travel as we currently know it. Ditto computing, which is by and large a way to accomplish things that in and of themselves have nothing to do with computers per se.

Apple knows this, and that's why they direct so much of their energy towards making things which are not "computers". That's also what makes their critics edgy -- they feel like their territory's being nibbled away at, and that one day they're going to wake up in a world with no keyboards, no command lines, and no freedom of operation.

Is that a legitimate worry? I dunno; I think there's always going to be a decent market for general-purpose computing devices (whether or not they have a fruit logo on them). I am, however, willing to accept the possibility that computing as we know it in any form is ultimately transitory. Who today, apart from the odd hobbyist or technology historian, wants anything to do with toggle switches on the front panel, or punch cards? In fifty years all of our current nattering about the presence or lack of this or that function may seem just as quaint.

That doesn't make me any the more enthusiastic about trying to type on something that has no tactile feedback, though.

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Tags: technology


Books: Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE: Album De REProDUCTioNS

Del Rey loves us. By “us”, I mean fans who take the completist approach. People who don’t just watch the show or read the comic, but want all the ancillary goodies—the art books, the character guides, the bric-a-brac that used...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/28 22:23
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Del Rey loves us. By “us”, I mean fans who take the completist approach. People who don’t just watch the show or read the comic, but want all the ancillary goodies—the art books, the character guides, the bric-a-brac that used to never show up in English at all. Or when they did, they showed up in editions so trashy they made people wonder why anyone had bothered.

But they love us, especially us Tsubasa fans, and so Del Rey has graciously consented to present us with a domestic printing of the original art collection for the series, ALBuM De REProDUCTioNS (funny caps theirs; my Shift key works fine) as part of a flood of 20th anniversary CLAMP merchandise. The book is long on art and short on under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes stuff, which is actually at least as interesting to me as the pictures themselves. But Tsubasa fans will have very little to complain about.

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Tags: CLAMP Japan anime artwork review


Bad To The Bone Dept.

Among the pile of books that accumulated next to my desk in the last month were a couple of things that touched on, in one way or another, the concept of victimology. One of them was M. Scott Peck's People...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/28 18:43

Among the pile of books that accumulated next to my desk in the last month were a couple of things that touched on, in one way or another, the concept of victimology. One of them was M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie (subtitle: The Hope for Healing Human Evil) which I picked up for $2 at my local bookstore in town.

After reading a few chapters I could see why they were letting this one go for cheap: it's a mess. The book wanders in some no-man's land between theology and psychology, cherry-picking concepts from both domains with no regard for whether or not they complement each other intelligibly. It not only gets lost in this no-man's land, but obstinately refuses to ask for directions. It also uses ill-chosen examples that do not illustrate Peck's own concepts properly, contradicts itself repeatedly -- especially in its conclusions, which are so disconnected from everything that came before it's disturbing -- and is written in a plodding, humorless style akin to having your head repeatedly clapped between two giant blocks of Styrofoam.

And yet out of that mess -- or maybe despite it -- I came away with an insight that was not related to the thesis of the book at large but still got me thinking. There are two ways of dealing sympathetically with someone who has been wronged. The first is sympathy, where we feel compelled to do right by the person because we've been wronged ourselves, maybe even in the same way, and their pain reminds us of our own.

There's another feeling some people manifest, which superficially resembles sympathy but is in fact envy -- better described as a kind of morbid fascination with suffering. (I've since found out Jillian Becker in her work Hitler's Children had expressed this same sentiment; she calls it Leidensheid.) One who feels this way is not interested in alleviating the suffering of others; rather, they simply want to borrow it so that they might too be identified with an oppressed class and thereby gain some undeserved sympathy. If anything, the idea of truly alleviating someone else's suffering would be a mistake -- it's that much less of the stuff they can sop up for themselves.

I saw hints of this mentioned in Why They Kill and in other discussions of sociopathic behavior. The sociopath plays exploitive games like this with human emotions, because he assumes everyone else is going to do the same thing. If you're not a player, you're getting played, and their worldview encompasses nothing else.

Some of this research was intended to be put towards work I was doing about a possible character for a future work, someone who had engaged in a kind of psychobiography of villainy. He wanted to understand evil thoroughly, so that he might make use of its worst tendencies to fight it in the real world. I left it an open question to myself whether or not that would work out.

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Tags: dharma sociology


Caught Dept.

J.D. Salinger, aged 91. Most famed for Catcher in the Rye, of course. I don't know if he ever knew about Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or how his work was used as a tertiary influence on the...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/28 16:06

J.D. Salinger, aged 91.

Most famed for Catcher in the Rye, of course. I don't know if he ever knew about Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or how his work was used as a tertiary influence on the plot. But given his absolute rejection of just about anything the outside world offered him with his name on it, I'm pretty sure he would have been at best indifferent to it. (It's not as if he offered up anything to say about Mark David Chapman, either.)

I remember reading a review of a number of Salinger's later works, penned by the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman; I'd been introduced to Hyman's work by way of research on e.e.cummings, and he'd also provided an affectionate afterword for many editions of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. (He didn't think much of James Purdy, though.)

Hyman was dismayed with the way the literary highway Salinger had been traveling on had turned into a country road and then a squirrel track that disappeared up into a tree. "He should come back down and go about his business," he rather curtly recommended. I, reading the review some decades later, knew all too well that nothing of the kind had ever happened.

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Tags: Ghost in the Shell J.D. Salinger books links obituary writing


Practice Dept.

So, on a totally different note (pun very intended) ... Seiji Ozawa will be leading a Japanese cultural festival later this year at Carnegie Hall. There's more in the article about Carnegie Hall's financial situation, and about Ozawa's health: he...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/27 21:17

So, on a totally different note (pun very intended) ... Seiji Ozawa will be leading a Japanese cultural festival later this year at Carnegie Hall.

There's more in the article about Carnegie Hall's financial situation, and about Ozawa's health: he has cancer of the esophagus, but his doctors are confident he'll make a full recovery. Here's hoping.

I'll have to see how much tickets are going to run for. I've never seen Ozawa conduct live, and I haven't been to Carnegie Hall itself in several dog's ages.

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Tags: Japan Seiji Ozawa links music performance


iPredict Dept.

So now that we have the "iPad", here's where I think it's going: The iPad will be a Kindle killer. Not a PC killer, not a smartphone killer -- it'll be to the digital reading market what the iPod was...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/27 14:14

So now that we have the "iPad", here's where I think it's going:

The iPad will be a Kindle killer. Not a PC killer, not a smartphone killer -- it'll be to the digital reading market what the iPod was to music.

Here's why they can pull it off. See, Apple doesn't sell "lifestyle electronics". What they sell, better than almost anyone else, is walled gardens. Ecosystems. The Mac, the iPod, the iPhone -- they're self-contained environments, and that's precisely the appeal. They're the digital versions of the VIP lounges that frequent fliers get at airports with their platinum pass.

You could argue all day whether or not in the abstract it's worth paying all that money for such things. Out of the abstract, though, people are paying all that money for those things; Apple didn't post kickin' profits last year by jiggering their stocks.

I'm betting before the month is out (hell, possibly even by the time I post this) we'll start hearing about a new wing being added to the iTunes store, one for digital reading material. It'll be what the Kindle offers, with the advantage of being material that can be moved through the Apple ecosystem -- iPad to iPhone to Mac and back again.

And yeah, it'll have DRM that will most likely be broken before the year is out, but I don't see Steve Jobs sweating over that. There are far more people fighting tooth and nail to get into Apple's arcology than there are people who want to break out of it.

ADDENDUM: A dissenting opinion. Some points here are quite valid; the main thing I wonder about is whether or not reading is going to be folded into "casual surfing". (Probably not yet.) But I can think of plenty of people who'd sooner buy one of these than pick up a Kindle simply because it provides them access to a different set of content.

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Tags: Apple books publishing technology


Booked Up Dept.

Almost by accident, I got back-linked to B.R. Myers's merciless and precise essay "A Reader's Manifesto", published in the Atlantic back in July/August of 2001. Here was a guy who was preaching nothing short of heresy. Modern literature, or what...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/26 21:44

Almost by accident, I got back-linked to B.R. Myers's merciless and precise essay "A Reader's Manifesto", published in the Atlantic back in July/August of 2001.

Here was a guy who was preaching nothing short of heresy. Modern literature, or what is marketed as same, amounts to a crime against the spirit by dint of being overblown junk -- the literary version of what Emerson, Lake and Palmer sounded like to the weary ears of the Brothers Ramone in 1974.

Myers's catechism of said literature's sins is nothing less than the very things the critics fall all over themselves praising: "evocative" prose that actually evokes little or nothing (Annie Proulx); "muscular" writing that's all meat and no sinew (Cormac McCarthy); "edgy" fiction that's about as funny as your own funeral (Don DeLillo); "spare" language that's simply a proxy for work so lax and unfocused you aren't supposed to read every word anyway; and so on. The language, though, is the most obvious Single Point of Failure:

... today's Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

The big problem is not just that these books are bad, both on a basic reading level and on a story level. It's that we turn a lot of people off to reading in general by insisting they start with this crap, when they would be better served elsewhere -- ironically enough, by writing that has by and large fallen into the public domain and is available for the cost of an Internet connection.

This is stuff I've fumed over in private myself, and a big part of why I took all the work I'd written consciously in the same vein(s) and thrown it off the end of the dock. There is no crime in being interesting and funny and even sympathetic and human; if anything, it's the sort of crime (of passion) we don't commit often enough on paper. But for some reason all that has become passé and boring -- to other writers, anyway, who now spend more time trying to one-up each other in archness and contempt for anything like Story and Plot than they do in building a connection with an audience and creating something worth investing some vicarious emotion in.

What Myers also points out, and I think is worth emphasizing, is the way critics and book reviewers (not always the same group) are a party to this as much as anyone else.

I've read reviews from the forties and fifties, and they're all much more honest and thoughtful than what we get today. The best critics now are film reviewers, people like Anthony Lane and David Denby. They write about movies the way people used to write about books.

... So many intelligent people seem to have given up on novels because they trusted the media to pick out the best ones for them. And of course it's the quality of contemporary fiction that's driving them away. The stuff is just dull.

... even the full-time reviewers like Michiko Kakutani don't seem to represent the consumer's interests to the extent that a movie critic like Roger Ebert does.[*]

This is something I've had to school myself out of: the idea that the guy on the other side of the screen/page reading my review is some rube who needs to be led out of the wilderness by the likes of me. It's the same thing Dale Peck (of Hatchet Jobs infamy) saw in Sven Birkets -- a critical stance that assumed the reader was always ignorant until proven enlightened (by the all-knowing critic, of course). It's not something you notice until it's fairly rubbing its chest hair into your face, which makes it all the harder to root out of your own work.

Myers has a few other topical zingers, like the way writers today are still beating glue out of the dead horse of American Consumerism -- that grossly tired "prison / insane asylum / shopping mall algebra", as John Swenson described what Frank Zappa was skewering in his first few records. And that was 1967, when the bourgeois had already been épated for several generations over; seeing it in rock music albeit with a relatively intellectual context at least still had novelty value back then. Today, it's about as provocative as a backwards baseball cap.

I've not been able to fathom the thought processes behind how a writer today can call himself "serious" and yet take paper-thin cheap shots at the very people buying and reading his books. I can only assume there is no thinking involved -- that it's a pose -- because it's far more frightening to think they may be completely sincere.

Maybe they just have swelled heads. At one point Myers blames "the belief that the writer is more important than the text" -- meaning we've swapped the pleasure of reading for what amounts to worshipping Genius with a cap G. The concept has become more important than the execution, and now the conceiver is even more important than the concept. Maybe he is, if only in the sense that an author is irreplaceable because only he can write his books -- and the books themselves are just artifacts, not substitutes for life or the living. But that's not what they had in mind. The cult of the Great Author has replaced the cult of the Great Book -- which would be fine, if they were great for something other than writing books that are more praised than actually read.

And what do people want to read? By and large, something fun, and everyone's definition of "fun" is a little different. I like Japan, so I read a lot of stuff about the place and from it. For me that's fun -- doubly so when I can communicate to someone else what form the fun takes. Some people like Janet Evanovitch; that's fine, too. She's like AC/DC -- a band that didn't "spend so much effort on Not Being Pretentious" (as Chuck Eddy once put it) that they became just as bad as the things they rebelled against.

That's the other part of what's wrong with the current crop of writers: they're writing with one eye turned towards history, instead of both eyes on the page. They live, and work, in such utter fear of Not Being Important that they have sacrificed the very best things in their own work -- accessibility, intelligibility, human connection -- to stave off that disaster. The end result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The books stink now, and they'll stink fifty years from now, too. Maybe even worse: by that time, the pool of bad comparative examples will have multiplied by an order of magnitude.

The whole point is not to make educated guesses about what we'll be reading fifty years from now. We have no idea what anything will be like fifty years from now, so hedging your bets is pointless. The best writers are the ones who are working and sustaining themselves completely in the moment, for the audience they have right in front of them.

And if I myself stray from that goal, then you have my blessing to show up at my doorstep and clap my head between turtleback editions of White Noise and Underworld -- which I'm not ashamed to say were two of the most godawful insufferable pieces of self-important crap I've ever read in my life. Next to Infinite Jest, that is.

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Tags: criticism dharma links publishing writing


Blah-Ray Dept.

It's beginning to look a lot like the Blu-ray edition of Ran scheduled for domestic release is the crummy upsampled master, and not Criterion's own direct-from-the-negative 1080p transfer. Here's a review of the Optimum import version, which is also region...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/25 15:50

It's beginning to look a lot like the Blu-ray edition of Ran scheduled for domestic release is the crummy upsampled master, and not Criterion's own direct-from-the-negative 1080p transfer. Here's a review of the Optimum import version, which is also region A; that alone is enough to make me think our version is going to be the same crummy piece of work.

Between this and the unbelievably bad Ghost in the Shell BD, it's as if there's a hex on some of my favorite flicks from every coming out domestically in decent HD editions.

Criterion is notoriously tightlipped when it comes to talking about rights negotiations for titles, so I wouldn't be surprised if there was some serious bitterness from their side about all this.

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Tags: Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Disc Japan fail links movies


Books: ×××HOLiC: Official Guide

Once again, Del Rey loves us. By “us”, I mean ×××HOLiC fans, who have been rewarded for their fidelity with The Official ×××HOLiC Guide, a deep-dive into CLAMP’s moody and amused meditation on the nature of fate and the cost...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/25 15:01
Buy at Amazon

Once again, Del Rey loves us. By “us”, I mean ×××HOLiC fans, who have been rewarded for their fidelity with The Official ×××HOLiC Guide, a deep-dive into CLAMP’s moody and amused meditation on the nature of fate and the cost of having your wishes come true. It’s a mix of art book, trivia compendium, interview compilation, author’s commentary and various kinds of peeks under the hood—exactly the sort of thing I love to see about any series.

Most of the time, with any body of work, you only see the finished product—the book itself, the show. Any time I’m offered the opportunity to find out more, to hear directly from the creators about why they made the choices they did or how they feel things tie together, I jump for it. Doubly so for a series as rich in detail and as idiosyncratic as ×××HOLiC, and this book’s loaded with such details. It’s like a variety bentō box: there’s a little of just about everything. What’s more, Del Rey has taken the trouble to present this in its original right-to-left formatting, with a translation that’s precise and cleanly-rendered enough to make me think this book was originally commissioned for the U.S. market and isn’t an import.

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Tags: CLAMP Japan books manga review


Contradict Yourself! Dept.

A NY Times magazine article about the blog Little Green Footballs has this bit of insight (among others): ... hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/25 11:26

A NY Times magazine article about the blog Little Green Footballs has this bit of insight (among others):

... hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. ... Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.

Emphasis mine. This is made even worse by the fact that true progress cannot happen without shedding some viewpoints and embracing others, and that this happens doubly as much on the individual level as it does the collective one.

I sometimes think the more "political" a person is (in the crass, overbearing, Glenn Beck sense of the word), the more they admire someone who stands their ground and doesn't break rank -- another way of saying they never change their mind even when confronted with plenty of evidence for doing so. Consistency is seen as more important than maturation, which tells me the other person is being idealized for a quality that is more akin to a parent than a peer -- and that a fundamental kind of immaturity is at work, the kind where what's most important about the world is that you have it your way and that it never ever does anything unexpected.

Now what to do about this sort of thing on the 'Net itself? Well, for one, put back in the context that all too often gets deleted. An extremely minor example: I wasn't a fan of Vampire Hunter D when I started reading it, but I became one, and I try to own up to that fact so it doesn't seem like I'm contradicting myself.

But if we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. We are large, we contain multitudes. And we're all grownups here; we can handle it.

I hope.

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Tags: dharma links sociology


Books: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Vol. 5

Back when Mangajin was still in print, they ran regular installments of a 4-koma comic named A Visual Glossary of Modern Terms (Zusetsu Gendai Yōgo Benran), which mercilessly dissected all those quirky little aspects of modern life, and with great...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/24 15:33
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Back when Mangajin was still in print, they ran regular installments of a 4-koma comic named A Visual Glossary of Modern Terms (Zusetsu Gendai Yōgo Benran), which mercilessly dissected all those quirky little aspects of modern life, and with great visual flair. E.g., here’s a gallery of people you’d meet in a dark alley, ranked and rendered like monsters in a console RPG. (Hint: Button-mashing will not help you here.)

I suspect most people reading this have never read, let alone heard of, Visual Glossary, which is a big part of why I held off paralleling it to Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei for so long. But here we are, five volumes in, and a better parallel has yet to suggest itself. Others have described Zetsubo as a harem story (sure, maybe a harem story on heroin), but the harem stuff is there mostly to provide Koji Kumeta for a container into which to pour his jaundiced observations about modern Japan being a den of duplicity, cowardice, back-stabbing, insincerity and buck-passing. Still others, me included, have simply described Zetsubo-sensei as really freakin’ funny. That also works.

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Tags: Japan Taishō / Showa manga review


Movie Reviews: Lost By Dead

It’s a rare and wonderful thing when you see a film by a first-time director, made by people with no money and no moviemaking experience—and yet the passion they feel for what they do makes those limitations meaningless. The movie...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/22 21:17
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It’s a rare and wonderful thing when you see a film by a first-time director, made by people with no money and no moviemaking experience—and yet the passion they feel for what they do makes those limitations meaningless. The movie becomes both a receptacle and a transmitter for their energy, and you in turn become a receptacle for that energy as well.

I am not, however, talking about Lost by Dead, which leaves you feeling like a receptacle for something you flush away. It’s one shade off from being a full-blown spoof of bad indie filmmaking, but no: the director, Masato Tsujioka, was dead serious and completely earnest about making a gritty, downbeat noir in Tokyo’s underworld using a minimal budget. What he ended up with better resembles one of those dismal things on YouTube people Twitter about to each other with subject lines like Amateur Night in Japan?

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Tags: Japan Masato Tsujioka Shinya Tsukamoto indies movies review


Status Quota Dept.

More perspective on how to do something about the stagflation in the manga/anime world: unCLAMPing from the status quo. While I would personally like to see more international team-ups in Japan, too, creators don't have to team up with Stan...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/22 17:35

More perspective on how to do something about the stagflation in the manga/anime world:

unCLAMPing from the status quo.

While I would personally like to see more international team-ups in Japan, too, creators don't have to team up with Stan Lee to collaborate. Even without international collaboration, all it'll take is a few successful mainstream creators to go maverick and unCLAMP themselves from the status quo to show everyone that there are other ways to make comics and other formats they can be successful in. If the big companies were smart they would start experimenting now before creators take it upon themselves and while they still have the money and resources to do so. Someone’s got to at least try and be the next Nintendo, or get the next CLAMP under their wing, otherwise they’ll all continue their downward slide together.

The way I see it, some of this is already happening courtesy of the web, via the folks who create the cheesy flash animations and 4-koma comics on their own time. These things aren't very polished, but they get attention and they get passed around, which is the most important first step towards the long-term acceptance of anything. If people don't know about you, at all, then there's no way they're going to buy all 26 back volumes of your manga and get up to speed. They need something they can seize on now, and this sort of quickly digested, appetizer-style entertainment is a good start.

But where from there? That's the problem -- most of the people grinding out this stuff don't see where to go from there, because the next step(s) up are often doozies. They have to hone their craft to the point where they must spend a lot of time working on this stuff -- in short, become real professionals. Which, in turn, means actually trying to figure out how to make a living doing it, and the quickest way to do that often is to just hire yourself out to someone else already doing it professionally. (No, I haven't wrestled with this particular demon myself, honest; what gave you that impression?)

The big issue at stake, as I see it, is figuring out just how low the production values on a given thing can drop before it's dismissed completely. Most people aren't aware of what constitutes a "professional" piece of work vs. an amateur's job, especially after it crosses a certain threshold. (That bar is often a lot lower than you might think, as discussed in the last graf of this post.) The problem, again, is that being able to demonstrate professionalism also shows you have the ability to be consistent, to produce on a schedule and according to certain strictures -- all things that clash with the proto-punk I-drew-this-on-my-lunchbreak-and-posted-it-to-my-blog ethic.

Here's what I think what's going to happen. The dwellers of the amateur world -- the YouTubers and the Flash animators, and also people like me -- are going to wipe off most of the low-hanging fruit on the commercial tree. What remains up top will not be inspired to shoot that much higher, but will simply be on guard against sinking that much lower. And, not coincidentally, they'll have that much broader a talent pool of enthusiastic amateurs to send the Claw down to and draw up into the professional world. Their position -- or hegemony, if you wanna get all culture-critical and stuff -- isn't really threatened that much. It's the same reason why game studios who spend tens of millions of dollars developing games for the PS3 and XBOX 360 are not running scared from the guys creating Flash games. They're not even attempting to skim off the same cream from the same vat.

If anything, all this will do is put that much more pressure on the Big Boys to find ever-larger segment-spanning hits ... which will in turn grow increasingly rare and expensive to create. Thus forcing the migration for such things that much further upmarket, etc. And everything else will simply be a matter of subdividing niches that are already subdivided to begin with. (E.g.,: the tapped-out manga market being coerced to move into the light novel market, simply because there are no more market segments left for manga to tap into in Japan. Every conceivable demographic has been rung dry, twice.)

The end result will be three worlds: a world of two or three things that everyone knows, a few things you yourself know, and a metric buttload of everything else which you might have heard vaguely about but will probably never have the time to learn about because it's not your thing. And probably not much of anyone else's, either.

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Tags: anime business culture links manga


Your Own Private Idaho Dept.

Among the usual roundup of links in this week's AICN Anime installment, there are several overviews of the industry in general. The word is not good, and a lot of that is because Japan remains hidebound by old-school ways of...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/22 17:16

Among the usual roundup of links in this week's AICN Anime installment, there are several overviews of the industry in general. The word is not good, and a lot of that is because Japan remains hidebound by old-school ways of doing business.

SOFT POWER, HARD TALK / Is this the year Japan jumps the shark?

When I raised the possibility that moribund company policies and outsourced labor in the anime industry might be hollowing out the next generation of domestic talent, a high-ranking executive producer in Japan replied: "We're not really afraid of outsourcing, because no one can approximate original Japanese ideas, the true value of intellectual property. Low-wage labor is one thing, but it's not the same as true creativity."

In an expanding age of rampant file-swapping, downloading, digital mashups and cross-platform network flow, "originality" may be an outdated analog virtue, losing ground to sheer speed and flexibility.

The question is, flexibility to create what? The answer seems to be: anything, anything at all, as long as it fills some kind of gap. Even if it isn't very good by "professional" standards -- like the flash show Kaitou Reinya:

If you want the actual future of anime, look to this show. The future is cheap flash animation done badly.

I agree. Viral videos on YouTube aren't quality, but they get seen. The people watching them aren't looking for "quality"; they're looking for something they sense is raw, unfiltered, direct from someone else -- even if it's put together with the most rudimentary competence. It doesn't matter, because it has a lifetime of maybe a month, tops, and will soon be cycled out and replaced with someone else equally flash-in-the-pan.

The few things that get to the stop and stay there are getting fewer and fewer, because the system designed to bring them to people revolves entirely around making hits instead of cultivating a roster. Ken Akamatsu of Love Hina fame is also dismayed at the way such things are creating a massive gap between the few success stories and the giant scrap heap of also-rans:

"In the past, the major comic magazines had a 'multiplier effect' in which the standout titles would also in turn increase the visibility of lesser-known ones... But this effect is on the wane. In short, the chances to get to know lesser-known manga are disappearing."

But the big issue (and one left unexplored by Akamatsu) is: do fans WANT to get to know lesser-known manga in the first place?

The short answer is: not really. Most manga readers -- most pop culture consumers in general -- break down into a majority who pick up what's available and a minority who pick up the new stuff and evangelize about it. Communication only goes in one direction between those two parties, and it's more often than not a mere half of one direction. "We" talk, and sometimes -- occasionally -- "they" listen.

But the "ghettoization" of manga mentioned in the same article is just a reflection of what's happening to culture in general: when you have your TV channel, your Facebook feed, your music player's playlist -- why bother with anyone else's? This is the paradox of taste: when it becomes possible for the consumer to shape his environment so that he can exclude everything that doesn't interest him, it becomes next to impossible to make discoveries. The only things that come in the door are things he's paid to experience -- and soon people wonder, without ever quite realizing why, everything seems subtly the same.

And you can bet I have a very personal and intimate reason to worry like hell about these issues, when your potential audience gets all the smaller each year.

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Tags: Japan anime business culture links marketing


Book Reviews: not simple (Natsume Ono)

Ian’s a drifter who looks like he could be any age between twenty and fifty, with hollowed-out eyes that have seen entirely too much. And yet he has a oddly naïve, wide-eyed approach to life—naïve enough that one day when...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/21 23:36
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Ian’s a drifter who looks like he could be any age between twenty and fifty, with hollowed-out eyes that have seen entirely too much. And yet he has a oddly naïve, wide-eyed approach to life—naïve enough that one day when he’s crashed out on a street somewhere, he says yes when a teenage girl approaches him and asks him to be a stand-in for her boyfriend to distract her crazy father. Then before either of them quite realize how tangled things have just become, Ian’s lying on the floor of a public restroom, dying from a stab wound to the stomach.

not simple begins with Ian’s lurid death and then leaps backwards across decades to show us how he fell this far through life. He’s been the victim of bad luck, says his friend Jim—a reporter-turned-novelist whose life has intersected with Ian’s on and off for years. Jim’s hatched the idea of turning the other man’s life story into a novel, the sort of thing no one would believe if it were fiction. And yet not simple, which is that story itself, is entirely credible from beginning to end—not because of what happens but because of how it’s told, and how the people it all happens to respond to it. It’s to most manga what intelligent indie films like You Can Count On Me or Chop Shop are to gaudy digital kitsch like Transformers or Avatar.

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Tags: Japan Natsume Ono books manga review


Wider, Better? Dept.

I was a little skeptical about a movie version of the manga Priest, but the more I hear about it, the more I like it -- especially since it's from the same director bringing us the angel's-war movie Legion. Mr....

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/21 23:09

I was a little skeptical about a movie version of the manga Priest, but the more I hear about it, the more I like it -- especially since it's from the same director bringing us the angel's-war movie Legion.

Mr. Beaks And Director Scott Stewart Talk LEGION, PRIEST And The Hording Of Anamorphic Lenses!

Mr. Beaks: You're done with PRIEST now.

Stewart: We wrapped PRIEST right before Thanksgiving. ... I shot the movie in true anamorphic with old C-series lenses from the '70s, and I'm like, "Wow. This looks so great." I'm so happy. It looks like the movies I grew up loving.

Right there Stewart made a potential fan out of me. A big part of what I miss in the movies lately is six-sprocket 70mm or at least 35mm anamorphic widescreen, both of which used that much more of the film to create its image. The current Super 35 process just blocks off the top and bottom of the frame to create the proper aspect ratio, which means you're putting that much more picture onto that much less film.

I suspect there's more use of the full 35mm frame in Japan, as many of the tokusatsu pictures use 1.78 or 1.85 instead of 2.35 as their aspect ratio. Many movies from the Sixties and Seventies also used anamorphic widescreen (e.g., the samurai classics like Samurai Rebellion or Kwaidan), but there doesn't seem to have been as much aggressive adoption of Super 35, and I wonder if that's because a) the film stock used there doesn't really support it or b) the production culture there has rejected it because it creates a movie that looks that much grainier and less colorful. Gojoe, for instance, was done in 1.85 or so, and even in the not-very-good U.S. DVD edition the colors pop out at you.

I've long disliked the trend towards a wider screen at the expense of detail or color depth. The original Blade was 2.35 and didn't look bad, but Blade II (Guillermo del Toro!) was 1.85, and it showed: the reds looked red. Yeah, you had less space on the sides of the screen, but good shot composition will more than make up for that.

Speaking of Red, I just hope the current push towards digital doesn't come at the expense of such things. I was impressed with the way District 9 and Gamer looked, and only found out after the fact they were shot digitally. But there's a part of me that's always going to love film for the same reason you never get tired of looking at the brushstrokes on a Rembrandt.

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Tags: links movies


Used Up -- And Down Dept.

The other day in a conversation elsewhere, I asserted: If you have a choice between bootlegging something and buying it used for a reasonable price, buy it used. There may be benefits that you don't immediately see. Buying a used...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/21 22:44

The other day in a conversation elsewhere, I asserted: If you have a choice between bootlegging something and buying it used for a reasonable price, buy it used. There may be benefits that you don't immediately see.

  1. Buying a used copy of something removes it from the general pool of available copies. That creates, in the long run, an incentive for the item to be reissued. If it's that much harder to find in any form, it becomes that much more desirable overall.
  2. Buying a used copy puts money back in the hands of a merchant who can then bring that many more things to other people, you included.
  3. Buying a used copy puts money back in the hands of an individual who can then buy that much more product, new or used, and further stimulate the general market for such things -- of which you're a customer.

Now, to draw a distinction or three. I know some folks who are fans of things that are really hard to find in any form, and have resorted to bootlegging to get those things. Am I going to consign their soul to the lower planes for that? No, it's just not something I feel I can opt for myself.

I suspect at least part of this attitude comes from me having modulated my intake of a lot of things, and finding better ways to (legally) satisfy my interest in them. There's NetFlix for movies, Just The Disc and other such stores for music ... but underneath all that, there's also the understanding on my part that behavior which amounts to hoarding is not good for you. (It's something I've touched on before.)

I don't believe for a moment that my behavior is going to have any effect on the net consumption behaviors of the vast majority of people out there, who are rapidly growing accustomed to getting everything for free (free to them, that is). But that doesn't mean I'm obliged to follow their example, and kneel at the same trough.

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Tags: business economics music


External Movie Reviews: Ichi (2008)

The opening scenes of Ichi, and indeed most of the first hour of the film, are so well-assembled the film itself seems to be holding its breath. A woman swathed in heavy furs stumbles her way through falling snow thick...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/20 17:57
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The opening scenes of Ichi, and indeed most of the first hour of the film, are so well-assembled the film itself seems to be holding its breath. A woman swathed in heavy furs stumbles her way through falling snow thick enough to drown in. She stumbles, and loses her cane, and from the way she gropes for it we can see that cane is her lifeline—not just in this storm, but every other time as well. She’s blind.

Next shot. She stands at the door of a house—an inn, maybe. She plays her shamisen, waiting for someone inside to hear. They open the door. They squint at her. Shoo her off. Slam the door in her face. She stands there for another long moment before dragging herself off into the snow again. This movie, I thought, is in no hurry: it’s willing to linger and make us feel what this woman feels.

And so the first half or so of Ichi unfolds, with the care and patience of a great samurai-era character study like Kurosawa’s Red Beard or Takashi Miike’s Sabu. Everything, from the elegiac and beautiful score by former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard to even the abrupt bursts of violence (they’re the punctuation, not the sentences themselves), seems just right. Maybe this would turn out to be the samurai story that they never quite seem to be able to make as of late. Then the movie begins to walk backwards in its own steps, to retreat from being really great and settling instead for being merely pretty good. But hey, that’s a lot more than we end up with most of the time.

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Tags: Japan Sori Zatōichi movies review


Sub-Sub-Division Dept.

The monetization paradox (or why Google is not my friend) - Charlie's Diary ... if I wanted to spend my time marketing my books I'd have gone into marketing. I'm a writer. Every hour spent on marketing activities is an...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/20 13:44

The monetization paradox (or why Google is not my friend) - Charlie's Diary

... if I wanted to spend my time marketing my books I'd have gone into marketing. I'm a writer. Every hour spent on marketing activities is an hour spent not writing. Ditto editing, proofreading, commissioning cover art, and so on. This is what I have publishers for. It's called "division of labour", and it's why self-publishing — unless you're an instinctive sales/marketing genius — is a Really Bad Idea™ for most writers.

I was faced with this exact problem when I kicked off my self-pub venture. I could leave the marketing to someone else and concentrate on writing, or I could do it all.

I ended up doing it all, for one simple reason: from everything I've seen, the stuff I'm producing isn't easily marketed to big swaths of people. It's a niche of a niche, and for that reason I took it upon myself to get it out to the few people I felt would respond most to it. The best way to do that, I thought, was to go and sell to them face-to-face.

Yes, this system has tons of downsides, not the least of which is that it's time-consuming and exhausting. Yes, I do not recommend it to everyone. No, I do not regret doing it for a second, because while I may have a tiny fanbase, they're almost all people I can call by their first names, and I'm not sure I could develop that kind of thing if I went through a conventional up-market publisher.

I'm a writer first and not a marketer, but the more I think about it, every writer needs to have at least some facility in selling their work to an audience. I don't think I'm a marketing genius -- if I was, I'd be working in marketing -- but I think I know my stuff well enough to be able to pitch it succinctly to the people that matter.

I don't know if it'll be like this in another five years. I'm wildly curious to find out, though.

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Tags: business links publicity publishing writing


External Movie Reviews: Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed” Attitude. Amazing how so much meaning can be...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/19 00:29
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sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society

cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed”

Attitude. Amazing how so much meaning can be soaked up into a single word. When someone says samurai attitude, or hip-hop attitude, you know what they mean. The former is Forty-Seven Ronin and Rising Sun and Shining Steel. The latter is Jump Around Y’All and Up In This Beeyotch and Cash Rules Everything Around Me. The two barely belong in the same sentence, let alone the same show. Well, here they are. Deal.

Samurai Champloo is all about how attitudes collide, how cultures and sensibilities mix and create something new. It is itself a whole great big jumble of things: a road movie, an anti-romantic triangle (most of the main characters can’t stand each other, hilariously so), an experiment in combining past and present aesthetic sensibilities, a period samurai adventure, a comedy, a drama, a stone cold classic. And it gets all the better each time you come back to it—deeper, smarter, and funnier. It’s not just a gimmick showcase.

Watch a DJ at work: he drops the needle seemingly at random, backs up, overlays beats from two records you’d never think to play on top of each other. The same thing happens here right from the first episode, where we start with an execution in progress and then jump back 300 years—er, 24 hours—to see How It All Got Started. And it starts almost like a setup for a joke: These two guys walk into a bar …

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Tags: Japan Shinichiro Watanabe anime movies review


MLK Dept.

I wasn't sure I had a lot to say about Haiti that has not already been said -- many times, elsewhere, better, less vociferously even -- but I think I might have a few things to say about MLK. In...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/18 12:20

I wasn't sure I had a lot to say about Haiti that has not already been said -- many times, elsewhere, better, less vociferously even -- but I think I might have a few things to say about MLK.

In past years on this day, I noted that back in grade school, when we first got told about the bus protests and sit-ins, the thing that stayed with me most consistently was the photos of King being arrested, hustled into the van, and booked. Here's a man who is now a national hero, and yet in his time he had been thrown in jail. Contradiction?

That taught me several things from a young age.

  1. Things do change. The man we once threw in jail can be our hero. The change is not always within the span of our own lifetime, and not always outwardly, which is why it seems so distant and frustrating. As Barrows Dunham said: "Can we reach the goal [of a better world]? Well, maybe not you and I, who are aging under the strains of the present world. Our best hope will be to move Leviathan a little, so that our children and their children can being to see the dawn."
  2. They do not, however, change automatically.
  3. The effort required to make those changes comes with risk.
  4. The risk involved in taking those efforts must be carefully considered, so that you are not, for instance, inadvertently spreading that risk to others. This is something that seems to have been lost on, say, the WTO protesters who smashed shop windows in Seattle. (One person I know was of the opinion that such things did more real, palpable economic damage to the city than any of the free-trade agreements under discussion.)

The problem with most social disobedience after MLK is that it assumes the form, but not the content -- and sometimes not even the form. Principled dissent is difficult, partly because it's easy for the work you do to get drowned out in favor of other, cheaper, lesser protests. It becomes tempting to adopt the same shrill voice for the sake of stealing some badly-needed (or maybe just -craved) attention.

I admired King not just for what he did, but the way he insisted that it be done with skeptical attention towards motives and end results. It has become all the harder to do that, not just because the temptations to stray are greater but because the goals themselves are all the muddier. If you want to "make change", doesn't it make sense to simply seize some power first? How else is change brought on? The problem, of course, is that once you have power of some kind it is easy to stop asking yourself what you're trying to do and why, and simply plunge headlong down the slope. You become everything you were fighting, and maybe never realize it.

Dunham, by the way, knew a thing or two as well about principled dissent. He wrote the above-quoted Man Against Myth in 1947, lost his position at Temple in 1963 for refusing to finger others in front of the HUAC, and died in 1995 at the age of ninety -- more than long enough to witness King declare that his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. All his books save Myth are out of print; few people even know his name. I know I won't forget it, and I will savor it a good deal longer than, say, Noam Chomsky's.

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Tags: dharma history


Old And In The Way Dept.

If I want a sure sign of how drastically things have changed in anime in the past twenty-plus years, I need look no further than something hanging immediately to my right in my study. This is an original theatrical poster...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/17 21:13

If I want a sure sign of how drastically things have changed in anime in the past twenty-plus years, I need look no further than something hanging immediately to my right in my study.


This is an original theatrical poster for Dagger of Kamui, and in fact there's a bit of a story behind it. At A-KON in I think 2005, I stumbled across it in the dealer room. The man selling it told me I was welcome to have it for $5 if I could tell him what anime it was from. "Dagger of Kamui," I said (the poor guy didn't even get to finish his sentence), and after green crossed his palm I took it upstairs and stuffed it into a poster tube where it joined company with the posters for Gojoe and Electric Dragon 80.000 V. A good year for loot.

What's most striking about this thing is how dated the design is -- doubly so because everyone on the thing (save maybe the kunoichi, which is in itself further food for thought) looks like they aren't a day less than forty. (Closeup 1 and closeup 2.) You'd never be able to market the film today with a poster like this. Me, I actually like this kind of retro look-and-feel; it gives the whole thing an aura of maturity and gravity, not decrepitude.

Most anime product is aimed at and features younger characters, so the exceptions stand out all the more, especially when they're done well. Ghost in the Shell, of course, has a whole roster of folks who are not only well into adulthood but aging -- Batou, Aramaki -- and who come off all the better for it. They've got dignity and wisdom; they're not Happosai-like caricatures. Moribito, too (I wonder if it's a coincidence that they're both Production I.G items?), although the novel a bit more so than the show -- Balsa in the book is described as being a bit more weatherbeaten than the woman we see on screen.

I touched on this same issue, peripherally, when talking about the reissue of the Akira manga. Otomo's art makes his adults look like adults, where many manga simply feature kids, overgrown teenagers, and then jump immediately from that into wizened geezer-dom. It doesn't hurt to have the full spectrum represented, especially if a growing chunk of the potential readership/viewership for such material's quickly turning into the very age bracket most commonly left out.

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Tags: Japan anime


A Head Of The Pack Dept.

Movie Review - House - Watch Out for That Disembodied Head, Girls - NYTimes.comIt's a discussion of the insane Hausu.I haven't heard an official announcement from Criterion re: a DVD, but I sure hope Dargis is right about this....

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/16 11:48

Movie Review - House - Watch Out for That Disembodied Head, Girls - NYTimes.com

It's a discussion of the insane Hausu.

I haven't heard an official announcement from Criterion re: a DVD, but I sure hope Dargis is right about this. I don't agree with her much since she slammed Oldboy, which I found inexplicable, and she has a tendency to love a movie I also love but for reasons that make my head spin. But here she seems to be right the beep on.

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Tags: Japan Nobuhiko Ōbayashi links movies


Books: Vampire Hunter D Novel 13: Twin-Shadowed Knight Parts 1 & 2

The Ghost in the Shell TV series had two kinds of episodes. The “Stand-Alone” episodes were just that: self-contained adventures. The “Complex” episodes were meta-plot—the story that arched over and wove through the whole show, and which touched on everyone’s...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/15 22:30
Buy at Amazon

The Ghost in the Shell TV series had two kinds of episodes. The “Stand-Alone” episodes were just that: self-contained adventures. The “Complex” episodes were meta-plot—the story that arched over and wove through the whole show, and which touched on everyone’s reason for being there.

Twin-Shadowed Knight, the thirteenth Vampire Hunter D book released in English, is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a “Complex” episode so far. It gives us all of the gloriously outlandish things we’ve come to expect from the series: the physics-defying derring-do of the heroes and villains alike, the absurdly Gothic extremes of D’s far-flung future world.

It also mates all those things with major insights into—at last!—D’s origins. We don’t just get a giant underground factory where clones were stamped out by the tens of thousands; we get one where clones of D himself were manufactured uncountable thousands of years ago. And, most immediately, it is one of those very clones that is the story’s main nemesis. “D vs. D”, as the flap copy might put it.

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Tags: Hideyuki Kikuchi Japan Vampire Hunter D anime books review


Movie Reviews: Ōoku (The Inner Chambers)

Note:This movie is not related to the manga Ōoku. When I talk to other fans of movies from Asia, they praise the ambition and fearlessness of the best such films—how they aim higher and shoot farther than their pusillanimous Hollywood...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/15 21:42
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Note:This movie is not related to the manga Ōoku.

When I talk to other fans of movies from Asia, they praise the ambition and fearlessness of the best such films—how they aim higher and shoot farther than their pusillanimous Hollywood counterparts. Ōoku, however, is proof that filmmaking in Japan can be just as middlebrow and unambitious as, oh, the last four Russell Crowe movies you sat through.

It’s a crowd-pleasing soap opera adapted from an equally soapy TV series, and it’s been filmed with orders of magnitude more attention to the costuming and authenticity of the props than to the psychology of the characters. And it’s frustrating, enormously so, because a far more interesting story lurks under the skin of this sleeve-wringing tear-jerker. To bring that out would have required a screenwriter and a director with some tangible curiosity about human nature. The director here, Toru Hayashi, came straight out of television—and boy, does it ever show.

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Tags: Japan movies review samurai


Hiding In Plain Sight Dept.

Ebert adds Caché to the Great Movies. Cache :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies... a thriller that implodes, not releasing its tension in action but coiling it deeper inside. "Cache" on its fundamental level is about a family that becomes aware...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/14 20:03

Ebert adds Caché to the Great Movies.

Cache :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies

... a thriller that implodes, not releasing its tension in action but coiling it deeper inside. "Cache" on its fundamental level is about a family that becomes aware it is being watched. And not merely watched, but seen.

Some of Haneke's movies have missed the target, but this one hits not just once but again and again. It's one of the best movies I can think of for a movie-discussion circle, where everyone gets together for coffee and toast afterwards and disagrees vociferously over what they just saw.

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Tags: links movies


Stacks And Stacks Dept.

Over at Jim Hines's LJ, there's been a fascinating thread about the economics of e-book piracy. Among the things that came out which didn't have direct bearing on the main topic was an observation I made about people who pirate...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/14 18:01

Over at Jim Hines's LJ, there's been a fascinating thread about the economics of e-book piracy. Among the things that came out which didn't have direct bearing on the main topic was an observation I made about people who pirate anime chronically. Not just, say, episodes of a show not yet in general release, but who download tons and tons of the stuff, far more than anyone could ever appreciably expect to make time to watch.

I had to wonder if what I was seeing was an adjunct to another behavior many of us are familiar with in other forms: hoarding.

I'm not a stranger to hoarding, if only in a minor way. Until a couple of years ago, I had a bad habit of buying most every newly-released DVD that looked remotely interesting -- whether or not I'd rewatch it, and even whether or not I'd be bothered to open it and watch it within any reasonable span of time.

By the time I'd accumulated a stack of unopened discs half as tall as I was, I knew something was wrong. I sold off most of my collection, bumped up my NetFlix account to a four-at-a-time plan, and -- most importantly -- stopped kidding myself.

There's only so many books you can read, records you can listen to, movies you can watch, and experiences in general you can have at any one time. More than that, there's only 24 hours in a day and only one of you. Have a little self-respect.

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Tags: anime books links publishing sociology


Anti-Social Dept.

A friend of mine recently sent me an invite to a "social networking aggregator" -- oh, god, I can feel my hair falling out already -- called Threadsy. Most people know I have little love for "social networking" sites, not...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/13 14:39

A friend of mine recently sent me an invite to a "social networking aggregator" -- oh, god, I can feel my hair falling out already -- called Threadsy.

Most people know I have little love for "social networking" sites, not because the idea behind it is bad but because the implementation is often terrible. This was no exception.

And, no, the idea here isn't bad at all: you take your usual family of social networks and register them with the system, and see everything in one place. The problem is that it's not an end-user app like TweetDeck -- it's a web service.

That's one strike right there: the idea of giving the keys to my kingdoms to someone else, out there in The Cloud, doesn't thrill me. Sorry, promises from them about how secure they are mean nothing to me when Google is getting hacked.

I started the signup process. Right after they asked for a username and password, I was asked for an email address. Not simply an email address to send my user information to, but an email address with its attendant password. The registration system wouldn't advance unless I provided it with something. The box up in the corner that said "Step Two" was greyed out and wouldn't respond to clicks, so I assumed there was no way for me to go forward without giving them at least one email account that they had access to.

The hell with it, I said, and closed the browser.

I don't know if they realized how problematic it was to require that you give something that personal in order to use their service. Most of us with half a brain have already had too many phishing scams cross our desk to cheerfully submit such data. I could have given them a throwaway email address, I guess, but by that point my interest in the whole thing was already soured.

Maybe they'll revise the signup process so that you don't need to stick your neck out that far to make use of the system. I hope they do, because they're in for some rude surprises if they don't. And for now, I'll take my Facebook and Twitter as-is, thank you.

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Tags: fail technology


Movie Reviews: The Young Murderer (Seishun no satsujin sha)

Jun is a young man in his twenties who runs a bar near the airport, a tiny cube plopped down in the middle of a desolate stretch of land where the only things growing are the weeds in the cracks...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/12 22:21
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Jun is a young man in his twenties who runs a bar near the airport, a tiny cube plopped down in the middle of a desolate stretch of land where the only things growing are the weeds in the cracks of the asphalt. He has a girlfriend, Keiko, a playful young woman who works for him in the bar and has a dreamy, off-center manner about her that could be simplemindedness, or calculated seduction.

Jun’s parents are convinced it’s seduction. They run a truck-tire repair shop in another part of town, and have nothing but suspicion for Keiko. Jun’s father, in particular, is most opposed to anything between them. He has his reasons: he hired a private detective to look into Keiko’s past, and found sordidness that he wants no one in his family, especially not his son, to be involved with. Jun resents the intrusion, but Dad’s holding the strings: he owns the bar, and he can dismiss Jun just as easily as he would any other employee. There is far more resentment smoldering inside Jun’s skin than we’re allowed to see immediately, but we get our first big clue about that when the next shot after the argument with his father is Jun standing over the other man’s corpse with a blood-stained knife.

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Tags: Art Theatre Guild Japan Kazuhiko Hasegawa Mieko Harada movies review


Walled In Dept.

Further comment on the Google/China thing: Nart Villeneuve — Google’s New ApproachThe [Great Firewall of China] doesn’t have to be 100% technically effective, it just has to serve as a reminder to those in China about what content is acceptable...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/12 19:58

Further comment on the Google/China thing:

Nart Villeneuve — Google’s New Approach

The [Great Firewall of China] doesn’t have to be 100% technically effective, it just has to serve as a reminder to those in China about what content is acceptable and that which should be avoided. The objective is to influence behaviour toward self-censorship, so that most will not actively seek out banned information of the means to bypass controls and access it.

This is something many people seem to forget. There are plenty of places where the concept of "information wants to be free" (I admit, I cringe typing those words) isn't part of the general atmosphere.

I once got into an argument with someone about the concept of "internal resistance", a notion that's best summed up by someone who says "I was always secretly against the Nazis," or something of that ilk. The other person was of the opinion that if someone didn't manifest resistance to unjust authority, no matter what the circumstances, they were being cowardly. I told him that he was speaking from a position of moral comfort that most people never have the luxury of basking in in the first place, and the fact that he couldn't even see that was doubly annoying.

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Tags: links sociology technology


Walled Off Dept.

Google is apparently having major second thoughts about doing business in China at all. Official Google Blog: A new approach to China... this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/12 19:44

Google is apparently having major second thoughts about doing business in China at all.

Official Google Blog: A new approach to China

... this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities. ... we [also] have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

I see a lot more coming of this than just the obvious step of Google backing out of China.

For one, it's hard evidence that when you put all of your eggs in the basket of "the cloud", some of them are bound to break. There's been mounting skepticism about just how effective and safe (and wise) it is to have Google, or anyone else of their ilk, handle your infrastructure -- especially when it poses such a giant one-stop-shopping target for precisely this kind of criminal activity. Why hack fifty thousand systems when you can get ten times that many wholesale?

Some people are surprised it took something of this magnitude for Google to realize that it might not be such a great idea for Google to cozy up to an administration that is growing visibly more repressive with each passing week. I'm in the better-late-than-never camp, but I also had a hard time believing the no-evil-please-we're-Google stance had real teeth in its gums.

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Tags: links technology


Tow Away Zone Dept.

A problem that seems to be peculiar to NYC (at least, in the U.S.): how do you deal with diplomats constantly violating parking laws? Weiner Wants Scofflaw Diplomats to Pay Up - City Room Blog - NYTimes.comThat same study had...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/12 13:18

A problem that seems to be peculiar to NYC (at least, in the U.S.): how do you deal with diplomats constantly violating parking laws?

Weiner Wants Scofflaw Diplomats to Pay Up - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com

That same study had come back to mind as I'd started reading the article; I imagined if it didn't show up in the piece itself, someone would cite it in the comments.

The mendacious side of me has a solution. Any illegally parked car with diplomatic plates is fair game for someone to double-park in front of and not receive a ticket. That might even things up a bit.

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Tags: sociology


Z Is For ... Dept.

Not long ago, a friend of mine gave me his old Zune 30GB model (he replaced it with the current HD edition). He gave me carte blanche to gripe about it as well, because as grateful as I am for...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/11 22:01

Not long ago, a friend of mine gave me his old Zune 30GB model (he replaced it with the current HD edition).

He gave me carte blanche to gripe about it as well, because as grateful as I am for having a dedicated music player, I've somehow managed to stumble across every single feature (or lack thereof) that drives me crazy.

  • No UTF-8 support. Or, rather, no support for non-Western characters in UTF-8. The software supports such things, but not the device. Not even the current 3.x firmware for the device does this.
  • Managing playlists and syncing between the device and its host program is extremely clumsy.
  • Also, who thought it was a great idea to not allow cut and paste operations when building playlists?
  • Good idea: You can import .m3u playlists. Bad idea: They don't work when you point to UTF-8 file paths. Another workaround shot down.

And so on. I'm still going to use it -- I'd be an idiot to turn down something free and moderately useful -- but almost all the stuff I've described here seem, to me, to be features that would not significantly dilute the device's focus if they were included.

It also means I have to run two music management programs -- foobar2000, my current music player of choice, and the Zune software -- which is gorgeous to look at but runs into a serious functionality wall after a certain point. (And which goes unresponsive far too often. And which doesn't support drag-and-drop, or cut-and-paste, or even have a proper import function.)

I guess some deity is out there to make me eat my words when I said I would never use an iPod.

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Tags: fail technology


Feel Something? Dept.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a fellow named Albert Camus who speculated that the most fundamental question any thinking being would ask itself was: Do I kill myself or not? His answer was, I guess,...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/11 15:20

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a fellow named Albert Camus who speculated that the most fundamental question any thinking being would ask itself was: Do I kill myself or not? His answer was, I guess, a kind of transcendentalist one -- better not to say Yes or No, but instead to live in such a way that your whole mode of living says I'm Beyond Such Things Now. Instead of sitting around debating it, he argued, get your butt out onto the street and embody the No (to suicide) that is really a Yes (to life). If life was absurd, then make absurdity part of your life as proudly as you could.

And if it's absurdity you want, consider that I'm typing this while I have twenty pounds of extremely affectionate, half-sleeping cat shoved into chair behind me in the space between my backside and the cushion. It's a delightful feeling; I just have to remember not to lean back.

Flash-forward about twenty years. Enter Richard Hell, as dissected along multiple axes by Lester Bangs.

... it seemed to me then [on my first exposure to Richard Hell], as it does now, that the only questions worth asking today are whether human are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. If the seventies are really going to be remembered as the decade when, like a character in Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age, people actually welcome depression as a relief from anxiety, then the seething anxiety of Richard's music and his disturbing pessimism about the ultimate value of life are crucially important. [p. 262]

I'm becoming convinced these two questions are joined at the hip, and possibly at the head. If you are not sure there's no good reason to not kill yourself, maybe a big part of that is because life has become such a brutal emotional minefield that the idea of being dead is better than being numb.

How things can get that bad was, now that I think about it, the subject of a novel I wrote and subsequently shelved. A lot of why I ditched it revolved around how I treated the problem: you can't just talk about something that crushing by simply showing someone emotionally crushed. For one, it doesn't tell you anything useful about their condition other than "look at the poor sap"; two, it makes for a monumentally depressing and boring read. People like Céline and Selby were able to write about those states of mind and make them riveting, because they had something personal to bring to the table and because they had more in mind than just showing you how bad it could get.

I've since come back to the same subject, if only tentatively, for a future book. The idea I have in mind is a) give us someone who's faced with that choice and b) follow the whole thing with good (if also mordant) humor and insight, not just a drab spiral plowing into nothingness. The guy's been smacked around by life, and he feels like it's all come down to a choice between feeling nothing and feeling despondent -- 'cos the minute he feels happy about something (himself included), he immediately feels guilty for it. Can't get too happy now, 'cos if people see me smiling while things are falling apart, they're gonna wonder what the hell's wrong with me. (Yeah, his perceptions are out of whack, but that's how drama happens in the first place -- when people see things that aren't there and act accordingly!)

The hard part isn't writing such a story, but making it into something that people will willingly subjective themselves to. Hence, funny -- rather, funny in the "Yes, I was there too" way, not the "You poor sap" way. You laugh out of empathy, an arm around the shoulder, not because you're pointing and snickering. I keep thinking the more we foster the first kind of laughter, the less we are likely to feel like our choices boil down to feeling bad and feeling nothing.

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Tags: creativity dharma writing


Eastward Ho! Dept.

Among the goodies from this week's AICN Anime report: FUNimation has the live-action Kamui film for the U.S. This was adapted from a long-running manga -- also adapted into a very 1980s animated production (Kamui no ken / Dagger of...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/09 13:43

Among the goodies from this week's AICN Anime report:

  • FUNimation has the live-action Kamui film for the U.S. This was adapted from a long-running manga -- also adapted into a very 1980s animated production (Kamui no ken / Dagger of Kamui) which is worth checking out. The manga itself was released abortively by Viz in English, and I've been clamoring for them or someone else to pick up the whole thing whenever possible.
  • They also picked up RoboGeisha, which promises to be greater than Avatar and District 9 put together. Yes, I'm being a fantard. Live with it.
  • Ditto FLCL, which I plan to re-review when it drops, partly because my original review was pretty terrible and said nothing of substance about the show.
  • And Axis Powers Hetalia. I'll probably catch hell for saying this, but I found the show offensive on too many levels to even consider watching. It's the sheer alleged guilelessness of the whole enterprise that I find doubly risible. Expect a full essay about my POV on this particular carbuncle before long.
  • Most of us by now are probably aware of the live-action Space Battleship Yamato and Gantz projects. The former I can get behind; the latter, eh. My feelings about Gantz can be summed up by saying it's about how no good deed goes unpunished, and little more than that.
  • "Takehiko Inoue confirmed that Vagabond, the fictionalized biography of samurai legend Miyamoto Musashi, will end in within the next two years." Vagabond is easily one of the three best manga currently running, next to Berserk and [insert name of Naoki Urusawa manga here], so this would be a good time to get caught up in it. Go for the VIZBIG 3-in-1 reprints; you'll get more for your money that way.

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Tags: Japan adaptation anime links live-action anime movies


Stolen and Contaminated Dept.

And now for some thing(s) completely different. So what's the most commonly-shoplifted book? The Bible, apparently. My money was on The Catcher in the Rye for some odd reason, but they name-checked Steal This Book -- the obvious choice --...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/08 11:58

And now for some thing(s) completely different.

So what's the most commonly-shoplifted book? The Bible, apparently.

My money was on The Catcher in the Rye for some odd reason, but they name-checked Steal This Book -- the obvious choice -- within the body of the article.

And a man who was a part of history twice over died at the age of 93: he survived both the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His family was also tainted with the social stigma that went with being a hibakusha (atomic bomb victim).

Robert Jay Lifton's scholarly but chilling Death in Life examines the whole issue from a scholarly perspective, but Imamura's movie (from Masuji Ibuse's novel), now that both are readily available again, are also worth it.

(Title of post is a Coil reference; harder to recommend since their work remains annoyingly difficult to find.)

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Tags: Coil Japan Shohei Imamura books links war


Tangled Skein Dept.

I've enabled comment threading for articles, on an experimental basis. Let's see how it works out......

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/08 10:56
I've enabled comment threading for articles, on an experimental basis. Let's see how it works out...

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Tags: Movable Type


Books: Akira Vol. 1

For most of us, it’s Akira the anime, not Akira the manga. Some of that can be chalked up to logistics and finances: Wouldn’t you rather rent a two-hour movie, instead of spending upwards of $125 for six volumes of...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/07 22:23
Buy at Amazon

For most of us, it’s Akira the anime, not Akira the manga. Some of that can be chalked up to logistics and finances: Wouldn’t you rather rent a two-hour movie, instead of spending upwards of $125 for six volumes of manga which have not been all that reliably available in the first place? Yeah, so would I—especially if it means getting substantially the same story and being just as confused (boggled, mind-blown) by it.

Well, you now have one less excuse. The rights to Akira in English have reverted from Dark Horse back to Kodansha, and the Big K has since set up its own publishing arm in the U.S. Ghost in the Shell and several other Masamune Shirow titles are among the first titles in the new catalog. And, of course, Akira—since a world of manga and anime without Akira is a little like a diner that doesn’t serve hamburgers or milkshakes.

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Tags: Japan Katsuhiro Otomo manga review


Cringeworthy Dept.

For some reason I'm still getting flyers from QPB, even though I haven't ordered anything from them in too long a span of time to remember. This issue, however, featured something so cringe-worthy I had to show it here: their...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/05 14:29

For some reason I'm still getting flyers from QPB, even though I haven't ordered anything from them in too long a span of time to remember.

This issue, however, featured something so cringe-worthy I had to show it here: their exclusive edition of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which features the worst cover art I've seen.

The worst.

The worst.

Ridiculously Sexist

I thought we'd left crap like this behind decades ago.

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Tags: Philip K. Dick books fail


Contrarianator Dept.

I was on the receiving end of no amount of guff from friends when I did a volte on my original "Hey, it's fun!" take on Star Trek: The Motion Sickness (2009). If anything, that only made my distaste for...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/05 13:32

I was on the receiving end of no amount of guff from friends when I did a volte on my original "Hey, it's fun!" take on Star Trek: The Motion Sickness (2009). If anything, that only made my distaste for the movie all the deeper, because now it had any number of people willing to defend it against Teh Haterz. So I wised up, and shut up, because most people aren't in the market for having things they cherish get torn up the middle, me included. You have your things and I have my things, so let's call the whole thing(s) off.

Now it's happening all over again with Avatar, and I'm in the unenviable position of wanting to see the movie less and less because of the very manner in which its fans are defending it. They use a couple of strategies that make me steaming mad, not least of all because they're total shills but also because most of the people mouthing these points of view have no idea how shill-ish they sound.

Shill The First, "There Are Only So Many Stories To Go Around," I have done a puncture job on here.

Shill The Second is a tangentially related point of view: "There's Nothing New Under The Sun" (So You Might As Well Relax And Enjoy It). And again, I see an idea being invoked as a just-so story to defend inferior work.

Concepts like there are no new stories or there are only X stories in the world are not laws of nature along the lines of f=ma. They are opinions about the nature of storytelling, and not especially informed ones at that. Yes, it is possible to take every story that is, or could be, and jam it into one of a number of arbitrary pigeonholes. That's like saying because we have zoology and taxonomy, there are no new species to be discovered, or that mutations don't take place.

"Nothing new under the sun" may be Shakespeare, but it's also know-nothing-ism of the worst order. It's what makes it possible for studios to develop and market crap remakes of crap TV, because enough people throw money at such things to make it worthwhile. (This isn't to say that they can't be fun, but that it means that many less spaces for something truly original -- and maybe that much more fun -- to take root and flower.)

What I suspect these people really want to say is not There's nothing new under the sun, but Why are you picking on me? I have to wonder if this is because there are that many fewer shared cultural experiences left -- that many fewer bands that appeal to everyone, that many less elements of common ground, and that many more ways (sociological, technological, behavioral, economic) to Balkanize ourselves. When something like Trek or Avatar comes along and gives a whole whopping bunch of people something to root for under a collective roof, the fans get resentful when the cultural party poopers come along to bawl them out for partying with lampshades on their heads. They did it when people turned up their noses at Harry Potter; they'll do it again for whatever else follows.

But it isn't about that. It's about the fact that Avatar (or Trek, or what have you) is arguably flawed in ways that will become only more glaring with time, and that by pointing out the flaws in such work it becomes possible to both seek out and make things that are better. More fun. More adept at jumping across borders instead of delineating them all the more unthinkingly.

What's the over-and-under for how long we have to wait until Avatar gets remade? I say fifteen years. By then the CGI will probably look dated enough that people will believe such a numbskull venture to be worthwhile.

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Tags: criticism movies


Genji Press: Projects: The First Genji Press "Blem" Sale!

blem, n. 1. abbreviation for "blemish" 2. merchandise with cosmetic damage but which is otherwise intact Self-publishing brings with it any number of hazards and peculiar conditions. One of them, as I've discovered, is how you can end up...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/05 12:13

blem, n. 1. abbreviation for "blemish" 2. merchandise with cosmetic damage but which is otherwise intact

Self-publishing brings with it any number of hazards and peculiar conditions. One of them, as I've discovered, is how you can end up with an amazing array of slightly inconsistent product.

Back when I first launched Genji Press, I experimented with a couple of different book formatting options. I eventually settled on the closest thing to a trade paperback edition, both in size and paper quality -- but by that time I'd already ordered, and sold, a number of books in other sizes and configurations. Also, by that time, I'd ended up fixing a number of small problems with the texts themselves -- typos, dropped lines, switched phrases, etc.

To that end, I've got a few leftovers -- blems, if you will. These are older copies of my books which are remnants of that experimental period, in a variety of sizes and with a variety of defects. Right now all I have are copies of Summerworld, but others may turn up from time to time.

IMG_0734

What I thought I'd do is pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes sell these "blems" as special collector's items -- but not at exorbitant prices. Instead, I'm selling them for a flat $10 (+$2 post) each -- along with a CD-ROM that includes the full and most recent text of the book in PDF format. So think of it as buying an e-text version of the book, with an accompanying paper copy!

Because quantities are limited, I can't guarantee which copy you'll receive from the above picture. It's first-come, first-serve.

Click here to order.

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Tags: Summerworld publishing sale writing


Our Own Myths Dept.

By way of the Frog in a Well blog, a funny and deeply trenchant item: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/04 13:41

By way of the Frog in a Well blog, a funny and deeply trenchant item:

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai exhibition with a well designed website and a series of pamphlets distributed in San Francisco. The website is worth exploring, and becomes particularly interesting when paired with an interview with the anonymous critics on the 8Asians website.

Something I should explore as time permits is how Japan's own cultural self-criticism has evolved over the past few decades; it's become less skeptical and more sentimental, something touched on in the "soft power" portion of the parody site.

Samurai cinema's one of the biggest examples of this. Before, we had movies like Seppuku and Kill!; even the "pure entertainment" products like the Sleepy Eyes of Death movies were trenchantly anti-samurai and anti-self-colonial. They were aware that the whole samurai thing was a construction, created by people to maintain and justify the power they wielded. At the far end of the spectrum, you had nihilistic productions like Shura and Double Suicide, where corrupt samurai ideas and romantic attachments to death had their mendacity exposed. Even Kurosawa's classics had a skeptical edge to them -- his seven samurai were a ragged, mismatched bunch, leftovers from wars that didn't need them anymore (or in the case of the youngest and most naïve, someone who hadn't yet been chewed up and spit out by all that, and it showed).

Today, such full-frontal criticism has faded out and been replaced with period-picture sentimentality -- e.g., When the Last Sword is Drawn, which more or less completely eschewed the politics of the Shinsengumi era for a more personal story. Isn't that like making a Vietnam War movie where the politics of the war are never once touched on? Not impossible, just willfully blind, especially given the nature of that particular war and what it meant for everyone in it?

Of the more recent productions in this vein, only a few seem remotely critical. Perennial contrarian Nagisa Oshima gave us Gohatto, which examined the Shinsengumi and the concept of "comradely love" through a jaundiced lens, but seemed to stop short of taking an actual stance on its material. The closest we get to that is with Ryuhei Matsuda's character, who openly admits towards the end of the film that his whole reason for enlisting in the Shinsengumi was to be given the right to kill. It's a critique of his character, but not of the institution that allowed such characters to foster and be given sanction. Maybe the criticism is just far enough under the surface so as not to scare people off -- e.g., the final shot involving Takeshi Kitano and a cherry tree, which on reflection is even more cynical and ominous than I originally realized.

Even the more harmless-looking material makes me wonder -- viz., Gin Tama, which again the more I think about it the more it seems like an expression of the same kind of "new soft power" thinking. Outwardly harmless, and probably not conceived by someone with that agenda, but what drives and provokes such expressions is worth examining in detail. That manga and its TV show spinoff found a massive audience in Japan for a reason, and not just because it's funny.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this (including the self-reflexive mythology of Japan as a monoculture) in the future, especially with a whole slew of relevant stuff to review in the coming year.

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Tags: Japan criticism movies sociology


Books: Jormungand Graphic Novel 1

The cynic in me wants to call Jormungand a poor man’s Black Lagoon. The realist in me says that’s not all that far removed from the truth anyway. Jormungand plays like a spinoff title, where two minor Lagoon characters were...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/03 19:29
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The cynic in me wants to call Jormungand a poor man’s Black Lagoon. The realist in me says that’s not all that far removed from the truth anyway. Jormungand plays like a spinoff title, where two minor Lagoon characters were given a book of their own—one which only copied some of the most obvious aspects of Lagoon. Some crucial spark went missing in the process.

I hate drawing such overt comparisons to someone else’s work, because deep down I know that’s not fair. Someone sweated blood to make this book happen, and I should at least try to meet them halfway. But every time I turned the pages, I kept getting smacked in the face with more similarities than differences between Jormungand and Lagoon, and all they did was remind me of how much better Lagoon was in every appreciable way.

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Tags: Japan books manga review


This 'n That Dept.

Roger Cohen waxes dismayed over Japan's apparent propensity for encouraging otaku-dom. His argument feels like a kindler, gentler version of the sort of Oh, Those Wacky Japs luridness that was all the rage in the Eighties -- although I'd argue...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/03 01:22

Roger Cohen waxes dismayed over Japan's apparent propensity for encouraging otaku-dom. His argument feels like a kindler, gentler version of the sort of Oh, Those Wacky Japs luridness that was all the rage in the Eighties -- although I'd argue the West has built its own versions of psychological isolationism that are just as crippling.

The Times glances over a run of Kurosawa's work at the Film Forum: "it might seem a little strange that ... there isn’t a horse or a castle in sight, and where the weapon of choice is a Colt pistol. It shouldn’t. Of the 30 movies Kurosawa directed, better than half tell stories of present-day Japan ... " Under the 'scope: Stray Dog, one of the Emperor's better and yet least-discussed films. Must talk about that one someday.

And in a survey of "Books You Can Live Without", I was heartened to see Hubert Selby, Jr. make the cut not just once but twice.

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Tags: Akira Kurosawa Japan links movies sociology


External Movie Reviews: The Story of Saiunkoku, The Complete Season 1

There are few things in this job better than starting a series you know nothing about, and quickly realizing it’s a winner. So it went with The Story of Saiunkoku’s first set, and so it has gone with the full...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/02 19:37
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There are few things in this job better than starting a series you know nothing about, and quickly realizing it’s a winner. So it went with The Story of Saiunkoku’s first set, and so it has gone with the full nine-disc coffer of the first season, courtesy of the good folks at FUNimation. What might seem from the ad copy and the design work to be pure romantic fluff is anything but. It has the depth and complexity of an epic novel: it keeps you absorbed all the way through, and when it’s done you want more. (Anime: Drugs Would Be Cheaper.)

Set in a fictitious country patterned mainly after Imperial China at its most colorful and turbulent, Saiunkoku’s main character isn’t a warrior or a king—rather, it’s the daughter of a once-great family that has since fallen on hard times and disfavor. Her name is Shurei Hong, and she’s been put into the difficult position of having to keep the domestic wheels turning in lieu of her hapless father. Money is tight, opportunities scarce, and options limited—especially for a woman in a society largely dominated and steered by men. Small wonder that when she’s offered a chance to better herself, she leaps for it, and ends up vaulting clear over the rooftops.

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Tags: Japan anime movies review


¬x~x=x Dept.

Somewhere else I ran into a defense of Avatar having a weak story that ran something like this: "Well, there are only X number of stories in the world." (X varies, but it's been as low as three and as...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/02 13:38

Somewhere else I ran into a defense of Avatar having a weak story that ran something like this: "Well, there are only X number of stories in the world." (X varies, but it's been as low as three and as high as ... forty-nine, I think, in one incarnation.)

My answer is: Horse manure. There are as many or as few stories as you want there to be. The whole concept of a story is an arbitrary human construction in the first place, so any cap on the number of possible story permutations is going to be just as arbitrary.

Then comes the counter-argument: But doesn't it make sense to have these things codified, for easy reference? Sure, sez I, if that's all you're doing. But if you're creating, the last thing you want to do is tell yourself Well, there's only this many stories floating around out there, so I might as well pick one and settle for less.

I may catch fire for this, but I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a defeatist way of thinking about the subject. The more you get accustomed to thinking there are only X stories, etc., the easier it becomes to dial back your own storytelling ambitions to fit into one of those buckets. To settle for less, as I see it.

Sure, there are things which are common to all things deserving of the label "story"; that's what the label is for in the first place. I'm not trying to say that it is a good thing to be ignorant of storytelling construction. I am saying that the whole X-number-of-stories conceit is only useful from an academic point of view, as a classification device -- and even there I have my reservations, since I balk at the idea of literary criticism as a fancier version of philately.

I suspect that's why people like to apply it after the fact ("This is one of those types of stories"), even when they're not doing anything remotely academic in the process. But a lot of times this classification formula feels like it's been invoked more to excuse uninventive, lazy, cop-out storytelling. If you're going to defend a story against potentially valid criticism, why not defend the story on its own terms instead of evoking what amounts to a just-so tale about story construction?

Okay, you may say. So what about genre? Isn't that a classification device too, on bordering on an x-number-of-stories variety of classification? Well, sure. It's also not unheard of for people to use the confines of a genre as a defense against certain criticisms of what happens in the story. But a) nobody says there are only X genres in the world, and b) a genre is not an entirely closed-ended container, since a great deal of what's creative about a story can be how it starts within what a genre circumscribes and leapfrogs out of that.

If I must subdivide, I'll stick with exactly two categories of story: those that work, and those that don't. At least with that, we're all forced to make up our own minds.

Now: your turn! Feel free to disagree.

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Tags: creativity criticism writing


Movie Reviews: District 9

“Prawns,” we call them. They’re a horde of aliens, a couple of million strong, half-starved and left for dead in a giant mothership that floated to a stop just over Johannesburg. That was twenty years ago, and since then they’ve...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/01 15:40
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“Prawns,” we call them. They’re a horde of aliens, a couple of million strong, half-starved and left for dead in a giant mothership that floated to a stop just over Johannesburg. That was twenty years ago, and since then they’ve been dumped into a shantytown and segregated at gunpoint from the rest of humanity. Not that the rest of humanity wants anything to do with them except goggle at these spindly, tentacle-faced monsters from behind loops of razor wire. Their welfare has since been relegated to the MNU Corporation, who seem more interested in the aliens’ biologically-enhanced weapons than in letting them live in anything more hospitable than a slum.

It all sounds like a slightly grittier retake on Alien Nation, the not-very-good movie (but surprisingly good TV series) which started with roughly the same idea and then quickly ditched it for a formula cops-and-drugs story. District 9 doesn’t make that mistake. It is daring and intelligent and reckless all the way through. It also pulls off a neat trick with all that ambition: its best and smartest ideas are wrapped up inside the kind of audience-pleasing action that all too often become substitutes for those things. I was wondering when we’d get another movie that would sit comfortably in the same company as other maverick SF / social commentary films like Battle Royale, and here we are.

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Tags: Neill Blomkamp Peter Jackson movies review science fiction


Entirely Arbitrary Chronological Demarcation Day Dept.

Welcome to 2010, everyone. If this post isn't sufficiently witty, just insert your own post-rollover cleverness here.Expect a bit of backlog-clearing this weekend -- old posts from around the way, a couple of reviews that got stacked up in the...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010/01/01 12:58

Welcome to 2010, everyone. If this post isn't sufficiently witty, just insert your own post-rollover cleverness here.

Expect a bit of backlog-clearing this weekend -- old posts from around the way, a couple of reviews that got stacked up in the closet during December's dementia, and some other things that ended up stuffed under the rug in the madness.

Parental distortion is advised. Tip your server (and your cloud-hosting provider). A good time will be had by all that can afford it.

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