Friday, February 29, 2008

Tombo Times: Japanese Student Movement part 2

Once-again-Yet- another- Tombo- Times- article. Continuing from last month, this is Part 2 of my series on the Japanese student movement. And again, despite being a 2 parter, you'll notice the information is a bit crammed in for space, even compared to this paper I wrote at Calvin. I tried to do the best I could with the space I had.

This article, along with the rest of the Tombo Times, is available on-line here:

History Corner: The Japanese Student Movement Continued
The second large wave of student protests in Japan began around 1967. This time the causes were numerous. The largest issue was the Vietnam War. Japan of course was not directly involved in the war, but the Japanese government was on record as officially supported the American War effort. Plus the many American military bases in Japan were often used as a stopping point for troops en route to Vietnam.

This was also true of the American basis in Okinawa, although Okinawa was still under the American administration authority at the time (it would not be returned to Japan until 1972). Thus the freedom of Okinawa became another issue the in the student movement.
Students also protested the docking of American nuclear powered warships in mainland Japan, such as the visit of the “USS Enterprise” in 1967. Finally students pressed for reform within the University system, urging the University to become more democratic and protesting against exams and tuition increases.

At first the protests largely had the support of the Japanese public, but support waned as the protests became more and more violent. Images of students firebombing their own universities and throwing molotov cocktails at police became common on Japanese TV. Finally in large universities the academic year was forced to stop all together as police stormed student barricades, and even the prestigious Tokyo University was not able to accept a new class of students because of riots on campus. When classes finally did begin again, they did so under police guard.

Much of the Japanese student movement was similar to student movements in Europe and in the United States at the same time. There was a generation gap between the old left in Japan and the new left. The old communist left had focused on sacrifice and misery, enduring torture and imprisonment in the 1930s. The new student left focused on joy, hedonism, excitement and happiness. The old left was dogmatically Marxist, while the new left showed a high interest in Marx, but also borrowed heavily from humanist and existentialist thinkers. In fact the student protests in 1960 were significant because they were the first leftist protests in Japan not controlled by the Communist party.
Also similar to Europe and America, many of the student organizations resisted the urge to organize themselves into well structured hierarchies despite large public support. A minimalist approach to structure was adopted, with an egalitarian emphasis. Visible leaders were discouraged.

However perhaps unique to Japan was the high level of factional infighting that took place among the student groups. Ideological splits have always been characteristic of the left, but at the height of the student movement in Japan the students spent more time fighting each other than they spent fighting the police. If you look at some of the old archival footage and see two groups of students with different color helmets hitting each other over the head with wooden poles, you can not help but be reminded of a school sports day. Factional infighting between student groups even got so violent as to produce several casualties.

The violence on campus peaked around 1970, but various factions of the student movement continued in other places. The construction of Narita airport was a concentration of protest well into the 1970s, and even years after the airport was finished, protests would revive every time the airport expanded.
The farmers, who were forced to give up their ancestral land to make room for the airport, began the protest. They were quickly joined by the students who were able to lend ideological justification to the farmer’s opposition. During the Vietnam War, there was also fear among the left that, because of the size of the proposed airport, it could be used to land U.S. military planes.
Two students and four riot police were killed during the years of violent protests surrounding the construction of Narita Airport.

Also as in Europe in America, some small terrorist groups did emerge out of the broader based student movement. The most famous of these was “The Japanese Red Army”, which itself split into several different factions using the same name. One faction of the Red Army isolated itself up in the mountains where they held nightly purges until they had killed off 14 of their own members. The surviving members then took a tourist lodge hostage during a televised stand off with the police.

Another faction of the Red Army hijacked a passenger airplane and flew it to North Korea. They resided in North Korea for several years afterwards, and are rumored to have helped in the much publicized abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean government.

A third faction went to Paris where they hid out disguised as Japanese tourists. They formed alliances with Palestinian terrorists and are most famous for an attack at Lod Airport in Israel in which 26 people were killed. They also hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in Libya in 1973, and in 1974 blew up an oil storage tank in Singapore.

Further Reading
Perhaps the most thorough English source is “Fire Across the Sea: the Vietnam War and Japan” by Thomas Havens.

Aside from this work it is difficult to find English sources on the larger Japanese student movement outside of academic journals. However terrorist groups like “The Japanese Army” have received perhaps an unproportionate amount of attention, and there are a few books such as “Blood and Rage: the story of the Japanese Red Army” by William Farrell (which can be found in Oita's Prefectural library).

To the extent that the Japanese film industry has paid attention to these years, it too has chosen to focus almost exclusively on the Red Army. Just this past year the movie “Terrorist” was released, which focused on the aftermath of the attack in Lod Airport. Also “The Choice of Hercules” (usually available with English subtitles on the DVD version) retells the story of the hostage stand-off with the Red Army from the perspective of the police. “Ame no Hikari” depicts the same events, but from the perspective of the Red Army students.
Other than that, many local library have some a series of documentary videos on the 20th Century in Japan, which contain some footage of the student battles with police.

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World
Perhaps as you watch Hillary Clinton’s dreams ripped to shreds, you’ve allowed yourself to feel a small measure of human sympathy for her. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. She still feels compelled to blatantly lie about everything important, as Robert Naiman explains here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier

(Movie Review)

This probably wasn't the best use of my time. But it was late at night and I was having trouble falling asleep. And I found a copy of this on the internet through a clone of TV Links.

(I probably shouldn't be admitting this. But in my defense I would gladly have paid to rent this movie had it only been available here in Japan. I much prefer watching a movie on my TV as opposed to my computer).

Anyway, this is one of a series of direct to DVD animated films about the DC Universe. According to wikipedia, it is based off a graphic novel of the same name, which I have not read, but which is supposed to bridge the gap between the golden age of comic book heroes and the silver age.

Right away I guess you can tell we're into geek territory. And as every comic book geek knows, the discrepancy between the silver age of comic books and the golden age of comic books is what created the DC Multiverse, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and all the continuity problems DC comics is still plagued with to this day.

This story offers a new interpretation of what happened in between the end of the golden age, and a rebirth of the heroes in the silver age. Because the story is set in the actual 1950s, it does not take place in DC's current rebooted timeline. But because it has both golden age and silver age heroes occupying the same universe, neither is it set in the old pre-crisis multiverse. So it would be difficult to know how to classify this story, other than a completely new interpretation.

Most of the old classic silver age heroes are back here. Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, Berry Allen as the Flash, the Martian Manhunter, and of course Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

...If this movie had come out 10 years earlier, I might have said I was overjoyed to see the old "Superfriends" gang return to animation. But in fact we just got done with the "Justice League" and "The Justice League: Unlimited" (both of which came out while I was in Japan, but both of which I caught up with using TV Links). And now all of a sudden it's not such a big deal to see the Justice League back on TV again.

Which means in order to be a success this movie had to up the ante, and give us fans a little more to be excited about rather than simply a 75 minute continuation of the "Justice League" cartoon. And it doesn't do this. There's nothing horribly wrong with this movie, but there's nothing that would make me recommend you go out of your way to see it, or watch it as anything other than a time killer when you can't fall asleep late at night (like I did).

Of course the premise of the passing of the torch from the golden age to the silver age is very promising. If only the golden age characters were utilized. In fact they are only alluded to. At one point Superman says, "now the Justice Society of America has been forced into retirement, and Hourman is dead", and that one line is about all the screen time they get. How did Hourman die? Why is the JSA in retirement? These questions are never answered.

I'm not sure if some of this is gone into more detail in the original graphic novel, but as I've not read that I've only got this film to review. And the film should be able to stand on it's own.

It's implied that all this was a result of McCarthyism, which is somewhat fitting because in the real world McCarthyism (or at least it's offshoot, Fredric Wertham and the Senate subcommittee hearings) was attacking the comic book industry at the time, and did play a part in the transition from golden age to silver age. But other than name dropping McCarthy once or twice, these issues are never really explored inside the film itself.

A trip over to the fan reviews at amazon shows that some fans are complaining that the big 3 (Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman) get less face time than minor characters like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter. (I've only linked to one review, but I've been in enough geek circles to know this is a common complaint).
Myself, I've always been the opposite sort of geek. The kind who thinks Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman have gotten more than enough screen time over the past 50 years or so, and it's nice to see some of the minor characters come to the forefront. This is why I would have liked to see the Golden Age characters get some screen time here.

Nevertheless, the movie does through a few bones to geeks like me. Minor comic book characters like Rick Flagg, King Faraday, Ray Palmer, and Ace Morgan (from "Challengers of the Unknown") all have roles in this movie. At the very end of the movie more comic book characters show up like Green Arrow, the Black Hawks, and Adam Strange. Although these last three appear out of nowhere near the end of the movie with no explanation whatsoever. Still, the fans know who they are and what their story is, and it's good to see them.
...And yet, after the series "Justice League Unlimited" just got done, with it's big geek fest of all sorts of rotating lesser known comic book heroes, this also has the feeling of "been there, done that."

The story itself is passable. Nothing great, nothing horrible. I'm not sure all of it makes sense, but I won't go into nitpicking just yet. (It is after all, just a cartoon).

There is a shameless attempt to add drama near the end by making it appear that Superman has died. (Come on! No one believes for a second Superman is really dead. And we've seen this kind of thing a million times before in a million different movies).

In short, unless you're a hard core geek, there's no need to run out and rent this movie.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on the Death of Moughniyeh

My Two Cents: Ralph Nader Campaign

In Response To: All the media hype surrounding the announcement that Ralph Nader is running for President again, such as this NPR article here, this youtube video here, and many other similar pieces.

Honestly I don't see what the big deal is. Ralph Nader is running as a 3rd party candidate. So what? Every presidential election lots of people run as 3rd party candidates, as anyone who's ever been in a voting booth knows full well: the Workers World Party, The Libertarian Party, The Socialist Party, The Communist Party, The Natural Law Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and of course the Green Party (you'll recall they split ways with Nader after 2000, and have been running their own separate presidential candidates since 2004).

Why does Nader get all the special attention? Of course because he acted as a spoiler in 2000. But so what? That was 8 long years ago. And there's nothing like 8 years of Bush to make us former Naderites realize the error of our ways. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those repentant Naderites from 2000, who is now a little bit older and a little bit wiser and now believes that voting for the lesser of two evils might not be such a bad idea after all. Related blog entry from 2004 election here).

Ralph Nader got 0.34 percent of the popular vote in 2004, and there's no reason to think he'll do any better in 2008. So everyone should just lay off him. If he wants to run for president as a 3rd party candidate, let him run. He knows he's not going to win. He's running for the same reason every other 3rd party candidate is running. To raise issues that are important to him, and to try and pressure the more mainstream candidates. And there's nothing wrong with that.

I won't be voting for him this time around, but all this fuss being made about his candidacy is ridiculous.

Link of the Day
From Peter Bratt: Building a Democratic Kent County

Monday, February 25, 2008

Calvin Videos 1


Since converting our old VHS tapes to DVD last summer, here's a clip from the Calvin files. (Is it just my computer, or has google video been pretty touch and go lately? If you have any trouble playing this video, I've also loaded the same clip onto youtube here).

This is sometime in the Spring of 1997. I don't remember the time any better than that. Brett had been talking for a while about all the cool things we could do if only we had a video camera. At the same time, my family had recently gotten a new slick hand held video camera, so I asked if I could have use of the old one. (One of those big clunky video camera's from the late 80s that you had to rest on your shoulder).

This is the first thing we tapped on it. We didn't really know what we were doing, and we were just trying to figure out how to use the thing. (I shouldn't say that. It implies we got better over time.)
This was on the tail end of a Swagman family video tape, which is why the first couple seconds you can hear some confusion over who is supposed to press which red button. Then we cut into my dorm room freshmen year, where the BB King music is playing.

Next several of my things are stolen (first my back pack, then my shoes) and I am running around trying to catch them.

It has been said video never really captures real life, because people act different when the camera is on. Which is partly true. But in our case, this is more or less how we spent Freshmen year. The music is very typical of what we listened to, especially after I hooked up with Brett and Cecil and their musical tastes.
The fake punches and reactions are something we spent more time doing than I like to admit back then. (I can't help wondering now if there was some better way I could have spent that time).

The shoe relay, when the boys would steal something of mine and run through the dorms, handing it off to each other and me running always two steps behind, was so famous several people wanted to put it on our floor t-shirts at the end of the year. It was good exercise for me. (We ended up going with a different theme on the T-shirts, although I can't remember what that was now).

Link of the Day
A Military Recruiter Articulates a Justification for the Iraq War

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Honyabakei/ 本耶馬溪

(Better Know a City)

Honyabakei: A city in Two Days
Around 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from Chris asking me if I wanted to do some hiking, and did I know any good places. I recommended the area around Honyabakei. I also decided to bring along my video camera with me with the idea to combine the outing into a "Better Know a City" Entry. But of course by the time we got out and about, we only had a half a day of sight seeing. So I thought I would bend my rules slightly, and do Honyabakei as a two parter. Some other day later in the week I would come out and spend another few hours there to round out anything I may have missed.

....That was way back in November. It's taken me this long to get out again and finally complete my entry on Honyabakei. I am really terrible at sticking with this "Better know a city" Project.
As with the last time I apologized, there are numerous excuses. Some legitimate, and some just a result of laziness. At the rate I'm going, it's looking very unlikely that I'll ever finish this project. Which Brett actually predicted long ago when I first told him of the idea. "You're never going to finish this," he said.
"No, I'm pretty sure I will," I said.
"No you won't. I know you. You'll wake up in the morning, and you'll consider your choices of either driving out to this town in the middle of nowhere, or going back to sleep and then later watching some TV, and you'll chose going back to sleep every time."
....Be that as it may, here is my tour of Honyabakei, two different days spread out over several months.

The first day was back in mid-november. After a late fall, the leaves were just beginning to change colors. The air had begun to cool. All over Japan, thousands of desperate un-employed Nova teachers were getting increasingly frustrated. Across the atlantic, an enthustic republican party was feeling optimistic about Rudy Guiliani and Fred Thompson. ...

The First Day:

Chris, myself, and we rounded up Mr. Kingsley as well, set out in my car towards Honyabakei.
The road there was a little backed up, something I had worried about actually. Ordinarily the countryside of Honyabakei doesn't get a lot of traffic, but now is the time of year when the leaves are changing on the trees, and Honyabakei is one of the best places to see the fall leaves. Also it was the start of a 3 day weekend, and everybody was out. (That being said though, the traffic was never as bad as I thought it might be. I had heard stories (probably exaggerated) from JETs in the Honyabakei area about traffic at a complete stand still on a weekend fall day. We had to wait a little longer at the stoplights than usual, but we general kept moving).

Our first stop was the cliffs of Aonodomon. This place is famous in local legend. The details of the story seem to vary depending on which local your talking to, but basically in the olden days of yore it was very dangerous for people to walk across the cliffs of Aonodomon. A Buddhist monk spent his whole life, or a good chunk of it anyway, cutting out a tunnel by himself with just a hammer and a chisel. (Some say he was trying to atone for a murder he committed in his youth.

Anyway, Wikipedia article here and some panaramic pics of the area here, here and here. (My own pics posted below of course, but I can't compete with these).

There's a nice trail up and around the cliffs, and we hiked up that. Here's a video of some parts of that hike. I had to split it into two parts because of the length.
(By the way, this is as good as time as any to admit that on a lot of these "Better know a city" videos I'm obviously abusing the fact that google video has free hosting and no video limit or time limit. So I just let the video run for a while to see what will happen. If you don't feel like sitting through all of this, we're still cool.)
Part 1

Part 2

(When Brett came to Japan, I took him on the same hike, and we also made a video of the same area where we also left the video camera on for way too long video taping us walking around and our mundane conversation. Now that I've transferred my videos onto DVD, I hope to put it up as a retrospection at some point. In the meantime just ask him to show you his copy if you run into him. Or, these- pictures- here are all from the Aonodomon Hike.).

And here are a couple pictures I took along the hike:

And after hiking through the cliffs, here's the tunnel and river on the way back to the car.

By the time we had completed our little hike, it was after 3 o'clock, and the sun was already beginning to fade. (The sun sets fast in Japan. This time of year it's getting dark by 5). We decided however we could still fit one more hike in and headed out towards Rakanji.

Rakanji is a temple built onto a mountainside. It's a very easy climb up (especially compared to the hiking we had just done around the cliffs of Aonodomon), but they have a chair lift going up the mountain anyway for the faint of heart. We decided to take the hike.

From the top of the temple was a great view of the Honyabakei valley:

At the top we walked around and explored the temple. To actually go inside the temple was 200 yen (about $2) extra. Kingsley opted to pass. Chris and I went in and took the temple tour.

There was also a garden behind the temple which we toured as well

(Brett and I also went here when he came up. Ask him to see the video).

After that, we tried to see about getting up to the top of the mountian. I had forgotten that the path only goes halfway up, and that to get all the way up we needed to take the chairlift. We had a brief debate about whether we wanted to buy a lift ticket or not but in the end we decided to do it. The lift tickets were overpriced (about $7) but Chris was leaving Japan soon and probably wouldn't get another chance to come back to this area.

(The chairlift itself was pretty old fashioned. Chris commented that one of the things he liked about Japan was all the cheesy kind of old stuff was still in use. I said that this might just be because we're out in the countryside and places like Tokyo were more up to date. Chris countered that even in Tokyo you can still find stuff like this. We never did reach full agreement on this).

We took the chairlift up to the top of the mountain, where there was a little sight seeing tower from which we could get a nice 360 degree view of the Honyabakei area.

After that the boys were complaining of hungry stomachs, and the sun was beginning to set, so we headed back to Nakatsu for some Curry dinners.

Thus ended day one.

The Interim
I did actually make it out to Honyabakei a couple times in the interim. For example, when a friend visited over the holidays from Fukuoka, I took him hiking in the Honyabakei area. We went over more or less the exact same trails, so it didn't seem necessary to document it on video camera.
The only difference was that instead of driving back and forth from Rakanji to Aonodomon, we followed the signs for a walking trail between the two attractions.
The trail started out cutting through the forest under the fall leaves, and I allowed myself to hope that we had found a wonderful little trail between the mountains. Then the trail veered down towards the main road, and merged with the side walk along the road. Which was not quite so scenic and I thought was cheating a little bit. Eventually the path led us into some construction area, and stopped altogether. After that we just walked along the main road. Not quite as scenic as we hoped, but it did get us there in the end.
Along the way we stopped at the Yabatopia, a little tourist trap located at the interesection of two rivers. I had driven by Yabatopia several times over the years, but never bothered to stop. Now that we were on foot, there was no reason not to.
There was absolutely nothing of interest there (as I had long suspected). A couple of closed down buildings with no one around. It could have been that we had just come during the off season. Maybe in the summer they re-open up, and sell soft serve ice cream or something.
We ate lunch at a shop at the base of Aonodomon before hiking up. This was my decision, I didn't want to start a hike on an empty stomach. It ended up not being my best decision, as it was that much harder hiking with a belly full of rice and noodles. We would have done better to wait to eat a big lunch until after the hike....

And now fast forward to February, for my second day into Honyabakei:
Day 2

...Actually I've got to admit, having satisfied my conscience by going out to Honyabakei for another half a day, I can't help but wonder if I should have just called it quits after the first trip. I'm not saying there's nothing else to see in Honyabakei, but if there is I sure didn't have luck finding it.

My first stop was the old Dutch stone bridge. (So called Dutch bridge because it was made of stones imported from Nagasaki, and the Dutch used to have a trading post in Nagasaki long ago. At least that's my best guess at reading the Japanese sign next to the bridge).

I got out of the car and walked along the bridge, then I walked along the Yamakuni river for a while. I've always thought this river was very beautiful.

Unfortunately, the Japanese construction companies are always messing with it. (A big problem in Japan, as anyone who has read "Dogs and Demons" knows). Today was no different, and you can see them at work on some sort of construction project on the river as well.

Next, armed with a couple of tourist maps I had picked up on my last trip, so I was determined to get out and see parts of Honyabakei away from the main road. This proved to be pretty much a wild goose chase.
As so often happens when touring the Japanese countryside, many areas marked clearly on the map seem not to exist in real life. Or one can follow clearly marked signs that lead you up and up a winding mountain road, only to take you nowhere at all.

There were a number of fire fly observation points along the road, but February is the wrong season to see fireflies. (Actually fireflies are notoriously hard to see in Japan. Unlike their American counterparts, they're only visible for about a week and a half during the spring, and then only near rivers.If you come to Honyabakei in this small window of time, apparently you can see some fireflies there).

After a lot of winding up and down mountain roads, I didn't find that much of interest. I drove down roads following signs that promised hiking trails, but didn't find anything. In the end I did park my car at a private campground (closed during February) and walked around a bit. There was a bit of a trail going up the mountain, but it didn't feel so much like a hiking trail as an old dirt road that was unused and had grown over a bit.

Nevertheless, I did find a couple temples hidden up in the mountains.

...And I also found some more evidence of the construction companies at work.

Unfortunately, you see this kind of thing all over Japan. I think it's just an obsencity. And, although we don't see a lot of this kind of thing in Michigan, I know it takes place in other parts of the US as well. These mountains have stood for thousands of years, and our generation thinks it has the right to tear it down.
(At least this mountain is hidden in the middle of nowhere. It's not uncommon to be in the middle of a Japanese town and be able to see them slowly tearing down a mountain right at the town's edge. In fact this was going on in the town I lived in up in Gifu. Like all old Japanese towns, this town was thousands of years old, and for thousands of years people looked to their east and were able to see that mountain peak there. Then some construction company makes a backroom deal with some shady politician, and it's okay to tear it down. The real tragedy is that most of it is being used to make concrete and construction materials for public works projects that don't need to happen and are pure pork barrel. Once again, reference Alexander Kerr's "Dogs and Demons" for more on this problem.)

Bonus Videos:

Here are some videos of Brett and I doing the Aonodomon hike from when Brett visited Japan.

Video 1:

Video 2:

Video 3:

Video 4:

Link of the Day
Democrats, Iraq, and Withdrawal

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

座頭市 / Zatoichi

(movie review)

This film came out in 2003, and I remember at the time there was a lot of excitement in my office among my Japanese co-workers (particularly the slightly older co-workers) about this film.

One of them explained it to me, "It's about a man the eyes can't see." Because of her poor English, I thought this was an invisible man type story, but it turns out it's a film about a blind Samurai.

And, in fact, a visit over to wikipedia shows that this film actually a re-make of a 1962 Japanese film (actually a whole series of films beginning in 1962), which explains why my older co-workers were so excited about this new film coming out.

The character of Zaitoichi is in many ways similar to the comic book character Daredevil, although it predates Daredevil. A blind man whose other senses have become so finely attuned that he can perform incredible feats of athletics and swordsmanship all without being able to see a thing. (If you reference the wikipedia article, they have a list of other fictional blind heroes with superhuman fighting skills. It's interesting how this rather bizarre idea is popular across cultural barriers).

The new remake film is directed by and staring Beat Takeshi. My siblings inform me that in recent years reruns of the old Takeshi show "Takeshi's Castle" have become very popular on cable TV in the US, but in addition to being in silly gameshows Beat Takeshi has starred and directed in several Japanese films over the years.

This film might be a bit of a vanity project on his part, because he cast himself in the title role, but he plays the part perfectly. I've never seen the original, so I can't compare actors. But I really liked how Beat Takeshi played Zatoichi as a self-effacing humble blind old man. In contrast to the usual macho action heroes, he's the kind of guy you would usually just ignore when you walk into a room. You have no idea he's even dangerous until he springs into action.

The plot of this movie is pretty interesting as well. To be honest, when I first heard the idea of a blind Samurai, I thought that would be a pretty thin premise to string out a 2 hour movie on. But fortunately there are several different plot threads going in this film. When the film opens, we are introduced in the first few minutes not only to the Zatoichi, but also to a ronin Samurai who is seeking employment as a body guard to get money for medicine for his sick lover. And a pair of murderous geisha's who are trying to get revenge on their murdered parents. All of these plots come together as the film progresses.

As interesting as the film is, my short American attention span comes into play once again. I usually finish a Japanese film thinking it went on for just a beat or two too long, and this one was no exception. In my American opinion, it could have easily lost about 15 minutes of fat in the editing room, but I think this is just a cultural difference.

Beat Takeshi is famous for his offbeat sense of humor, and much of this film is played for comedy. And played pretty well. I'm not usually a big fan of Japanese humor, but I thought this film was pretty funny. And there's even a great, if slightly bizarre, tap dancing sequence at the end in which most of the cast takes part.

Mixed in with the hilarity, there's also a bit of pathos in the film as well. It's not unusual for a Japanese film to mix tragedy and comedy, although it does grate on my Western sensibilities a bit.

And at certain points it can be a very violent film to. Samurai sword battles, blood spurting, limbs going flying, people getting cut in half, et cetera.
After reading books like "Shinsengumi by Romulus Hillsborough" I do understand the realism of this a bit more. Hillsborough describes how it was not unusual for fingers and hands to go flying off during a Samurai sword fight, and how after a battle the streets were filled with body parts.
However the funny expressions people have on their faces as they get hacked apart or sliced open make me wonder if some of this isn't being played as black comedy, which I find somewhat less tasteful. I mentioned the same complaint in "Sukiyaki Western: Django". It is possible that I'm misinterpreting another style of acting I guess.

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World Coincidences and
Torture always comes home

Monday, February 18, 2008

処刑の島 / Punishment Island

(Movie Review)

Yet another Japanese movie I rented for no other reason than just because it had English subtitles. (And because it was an old movie, and I'm a sucker for old stuff. And because, with my limited Japanese, I was able to pick out that it was something about anarchists from the DVD box).

It's always dangerous to rent DVDs blind, but sometimes it can be very rewarding as well, and this turned out to be one of those cases.

The movie opens with a man taking a ferrie into a small island town. He says he's looking for someone, but he won't say anything more than that. As the movie progresses, through a mixture of flashbacks and conversation, we begin to find out more about this man, and why he's come to this Island, and what he's looking for.

Because of this gradualy unfolding of the story the first half of the movie really held my attention. For that reason, I think this is one of those movies that it is best to go into knowing as little as possible.

Unfortunately, it's hard to go into a movie completely blind these days. Every English review I could find of this film on-line gave away the plot. As did the original preview (included as a DVD extra). As I think the DVD box would have done, if only I had possessed enough Japanese knowledge to be able to read the whole thing.

I myself will try not to give away any more than absolutely, but if you think you might see this movie someday, I recommend you stop reading this review here....

...If you're still with me, as the story unfolds we learn that the main character, Sabo, was a child in the reform school that used to be located on the island during World War II. And he's come back to get revenge on the people who brutalized him.

Although many of the elements of this film are standard themes from revenge movies, but the timing and pace of the film help give it a tense atmosphere and held my attention all the way through.

There are also some political overtones, and interesting ironic symbolism. For example, the teacher who knew the boys were being treated as slaves, but did nothing to help them, keeps a massive picture of Abraham Lincoln in his living room.
I wonder if his character might be meant to represent all Japanese people who knew the government was doing bad things during the war, but were too timid to do anything about it. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

As for the anarchist connection mentioned above, that does come into play near the end of the film. (Although it's not really essential to the film's plot. It could just as well be any kind of political dissident.)

Link of the Day
Obama, Japan, roots for accidental namesake

Friday, February 15, 2008

Visa Renewal Blues

(This can be considered on of my update series. Now up to number 6 after 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5)

The last time I dealt with getting my visa renewed was in the summer of 2004. As I wrote at the time, I showed up with my visa extension form all filled out and ready to go. The immigration officer looked at the form, and said, "Hmm, this form is out of date, you'll have to fill out a new form over there." So, I got a new form, and took 15 minutes to fill it out (labouriously copying out my address in Kanji, looking up my passport number and copying down my alien registration number). I went back with the second form and, after waiting in line, handed it back into the immigration officer.

"Hmmm," he said. "The visa your applying for is an instructor visa. But actually you're going to be working for a private company. You need to apply for a "specialist in humanities" visa. That's a different form."
...So back another 15 minutes, filling out a 3rd form.

The real killer is that it was the exact same form each time. The same information in the same boxes--just the heading on the top was different.
And to add insult to injury, this was all information they had right in front of them anyway. All the info I filled out on the forms could be found on my passport or alien registration card, which they had in front of them and made copies of.
But welcome to the Japanese beauracracy, right?

This time around was much, much, more frustrating.
When I was a JET and with a private ALT company, I was on a 3 year Visa. NOVA only sponsors 1 year visas (rumor has it because their turn around is so high, so they don't want to give people a 3 year pass to Japan and then have them walk off the job).

To begin with Nova waited up until absolutely the last minute before sending me the forms I needed to get the visa renewed. I had begun calling them about the visa two months before, and kept kept getting told it was coming right up. When the forms finally arrived in the mail, I was able to make it down to the passport office two days before my visa expired.

I went down to the immigration office and handed in my application. The officer looked at the date and shook his head. "Wow, this is really close," he said.

"Sorry," I answered. "It's not my fault. They didn't send me the forms until just now."

"Okay," he said. "Have a seat. I'll go over this."

After a few minutes he called me over again. "Do you have your tax forms for last year?"

"No, they didn't give me any."

"They should have."

"I've only been at this company for less than a year. Could that be it?"

"No, they have them for you somewhere. There's no such thing as an employee existing without tax forms."

I just gave him a blank look so he told me to sit down again. After a few minutes he gave me a new paper form and a self-addressed envelope. "Give this to the secretary in your office," he said. "They'll know what to do with it. Then have them mail the forms to me in this envelope. Then I'll give you a call when you get the forms, and you can come back out here."

Since it's about an hour and a half drive out to the immigration office in Oita city, I wasn't thrilled with this, but you can't fight the Japanese Beauracracy. I simply nodded and went back.

The Japanese staff didn't have a clue what to do with the form I gave them. I expected this. They're nice girls but their both 22, fresh out of college, and don't have a clue what's going on. Since we lost our old staff, no one has a clue about how the company is supposed to be run anymore.

I called up foreign personal in Osaka to ask about the tax forms.

"Oh, yeah, the tax forms," someone said to me. "Listen you're a bit up a creek with those. The old Nova was supposed to send those out to you. But the old Nova has filed for bankruptcy protection, and all its files are in the hands of the government appointed trustees, so they can't send out your tax forms."

"Oh," said I. In the back of my head I was thinking it sure would have been nice if someone had bothered to tell me I was missing these important forms when they originally sent out my visa renewal papers, before I had made the hour and a half drive down to Oita.

"What I did in my case," the guy on the phone continued, "is I went to the city hall. They should have all your tax forms there."

And so it was off to Nakatsu city hall with me. I pointed to the forms and tried to show them what I needed. Fortunately it turns out one of my students works at city hall, and she took over and did all the translating for me. After some running back and forth and some people congregating around a computer, she turned to me and said, "We don't have any of your tax forms on file. The local government has no right to take taxes from you."

"Oh," I said. "So what do I do now?"

The city hall was nice enough to call the immigration office on my behalf and explain the situation. The immigration officer apparently said something like, "Oh, well, if the forms aren't there then don't worry about it then."

The city hall gave me a special note indicating that they didn't have the necessary tax forms, and we sent that in the mail to the immigration office. I then waited to hear back from the immigration office.

After a week of not hearing anything, I called them. "Yes, we just sent you a form in the mail today," one of them said. "Since you don't have tax forms, we need copies of all your pay slips from last year. And a copy of your bank records."

...And so began a search through the apartment to find all these things. While at the same time trying to avoid a fight with Shoko, who was angry with me for not being better organized. "You promised me you were keeping all your important papers safe," she said.

"They are safe," I said. "I'm positive I didn't throw any of them out. I just have to remember where I put them." Eventually, in various parts of the apartment, I found all the papers I needed. I made copies of them at work, and then mailed them out.

(To add insult to injury, around this time Nova called me up wondering why I hadn't faxed in a copy of my renewed visa to Osaka).

After a week, I received a call from the immigration office. I could come down and get the visa.

So on my next day off I made the hour and a half drive down to Oita city.
I came in and handed them my passport. They wanted to know if I had the 4000 Yen ($40) for the visa fee, and I said yes. However for some beauracratic reason, they're not allowed to accept money in the immigration office. I had to walk out of the office, get in the elevator, go down to the first floor, walk out of the building, go down to the end of the block, and pay there. Then walk back.

This part at least I was expecting. Every time I need to get a visa renewal or a re-entry permit, I have to do this little walk down the block. I paid my 4000 yen, got a special stamp, and went back to the immigration office.

Once I got back, they had my new visa stamped on the passport. But there was one problem. "That envelope you sent us last time with your pay stubs in it was actually a bit overweight," they said. "We need 50 more yen (about 50 cents) to cover the extra cost of postage."

I'm not sure if this was supposed to be their expense or mine. After all, they did give me the envelope and I only included the documents they asked for. But I wasn't going to argue about 50 cents. I fished it out of my pocked at laid it down on the table.

There was a bit of concern, and they held a mini-conference, and then said to me, "You know we're not allowed to accept money here, right? Could you go down the block again and pay down there."


"And we'll be closed for lunch by the time you get back, so just come again after 1 o'clock."


I killed time by looking at the bookstores near Oita station, and then came back after 1. Whilst I was going through all this, I thought I might as well get a re-entry permit on the passport as well, so I could leave Japan and come back. (My old re-entry permit expired with my old visa).

"Okay," they said, "just fill out this form."

....Wouldn't you know it, the exact same information that was on all the other forms I had filled out. Just the heading was different.

Link of the Day
How the Democrats Took Over and Betrayed the Peace Movement

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Plum-Rain Scroll by Ruth Manley

(Book Review)

This book was being passed around by my co-workers. One of them lent it to a student, the student gave it to me with instructions to return it to the owner. But I thought I'd read it first.

This is a children's book written by an Australian using characters from Japanese mythology. It is not itself based on any specific Japanese story, but it introduces children to Japanese mythological characters through a new story. In other words, it seeks to do for Japanese mythology what Tolkien did for Norse mythology. (Although perhaps that's comparing apples and oranges. The fairy-tale style and tone of this book could not be more different than Tolkien's epics).

....(This book was originally published way back in 1978. These days, after the Anime explosion, I wonder if it is even necessary to have a book to introduce young people to Japanese mythological creatures. Someone in the publishing industry must have thought it was because the edition I read was dated 2005).

The hero of this book is an odd job boy named Taro. Not the same character as Momotaro (the infamous most famous children's story in Japan that foreigners are told over and over), but like his namesake he does go on a journey and acquire various friends along the way. By the time he's done, in his little band includes almost every popular creature in Japanese mythology: a ghost, an Oni, a dream eater, a half Kappa-half roof watcher creature, Lord Eight thousand spears, etc.

The style of this book is very simple. This is especially noticible after books like "Harry Potter", "The Golden Compass" and other children's books that don't talk down to you.
It may simply be due to the age of the book, and the fact that way back when children's books were supposed to have a simpler style, like the Narnia series. (Perhaps someone better versed in the history of literature could help me out on this one). It may be due to the fact that the author is deliberately trying to imitate the tone and language of a fairy tale. Or, in my more cranky moments, I must confess I wondered if this wasn't an example of how undemanding a genre children's literature is for writers of limited talent.

Below a typical example:
"One step on to my bridge," he roared, "and I shall eat you all for my bedtime snack. I am Tsuki the Terrible; behold me and tremble!"
"Why should we?" demanded Taro scornfully. "We've had the better of far more frightening onis than you could ever hope to be." He sounded far braver than he felt.
"You won't be so carefree when you're side-dishes to my evening rice," retorted Oni, fingering his club lovingly. "How fine I shall look in that handsome red robe; and that dog's skin will make me a nice cosy little foot-rug for the Time of Greatest Cold--"
At this, Oboro stamped her foot. "You couldn't look fine in anything!" she stormed. "If you so much as lay a finger on my dog, I warn you, you'll be sorrier than you've ever been in your whole life!"
To her astonishment and that of her friends, a tear appeared and slowly coursed down the blue cheek of the Oni.
"Oh, please don't say that!" he implored her. "If you knew the trouble I take to look nice! I was carefully brought up, even if I am an orpahn now! I never forget the things that Mother taught my sister and me. One of her sayings was 'A nice little Oni is always neat'. She impressed it upon us that Onis who go about in tiger-skin loincloths are undesirable acquaintances; I should never dream of so demeaning myself! And yet you say that for all my efforts to uphold Mother's standards, I don't look nice in my fine clothes! And you threaten to set your dog on me!"
"Well it's your own fault," Oboro pointed out, though she was much mollified by his tears. "What do you expect people to say when you're so horrid to them? Actually your clothes are quite attractive; but you see, we simply must cross this bridge, and cross it we mean to! My dog is very fierce, if I give her the word; so don't imagine you're going to catch and eat any of us, as you no doubt did to the man from whom you got that outfit."

Et cetera.
The fairy tale style story telling is not completely without its charm if allow yourself to go along with it, but you should be forewarned going into the book.

The book is filled with not only Japanese mythological creatures, but lots of Japanese words for everyday items and culture. Andon (pedestal lamp) Daimyo (feudal lord) Gagaku (court music) Geta (wooden clogs), etc. All of these words, in addition to all the mythological words that pop up in the story, are defined in the glossary in the back.
This is great for someone like me who is trying to use this book to study Japanese least in theory. Even I have to admit I don't always appreciate having to stop the story to flip to the back and look up a word.

I'm not sure how the target audience for this book, an actual child, would react to having to look up all these strange words in a glossary. Although this book has won some awards (The Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year) I suspect this is the kind of book teachers often make children read, rather than the kind of book they would read themselves.

The first 15 pages especially, when we're just getting introduced to Taro, the stuff around his house, and the setting of the book, is filled with several Japanese words that need to be looked up in the back. After that, once the story gets going its not so bad. But if you're trying to hook the reader early on, this is probably the worst thing you should do. If anything the first 15 pages should be completely free of any words that require a trip to the glossary, and then once the reader is hooked on the story strange new words can be gradually introduced. That would have been my advice if I was the publisher.

Link of the Day
McCain Parody video

Monday, February 11, 2008

緯度ゼロ大作戦/ Latitude Zero

(movie Review)

Although this movie is not the same genre as the "Stray -Cat- Rock" series, it is another old film that needs to be watched with a forgiving attitude, and enjoyed just as much for its cheesiness as for its merits. If you think you can do that, this film is a great ride.

Some kind soul has posted the original preview to this film on youtube here. If you take a couple minutes to watch it, it's probably more effective at conveying the atmosphere of this film than my words would be.

According to Wikipedia, this film is based off of an old 1941 radio play by Ted Sherdeman, the writer of "Them!" (the 1950s movie about giant radioactive ants, which I actually saw and enjoyed as a middle schooler when it was rerun on cable).
Although produced by Toho studios, the film has an international cast, and was even able to recruit such big Hollywood names as Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero (along with a handful of other minor names). The film was originally shot all in English, with the Japanese actors learning their lines phonetically. It was later dubbed over for the Japanese release.

Although the DVD in my local rental shop was only in Japanese. Despite being a DVD. So I had to struggle through all in Japanese. I suppose it was good practice for me, although it was a bit strange to listen to Cesar Romero as dubbed over by a Japanese voice actor.

[I'm going to take a break for a slight rant here: I have long been frustrated by the fact that DVDs in Japan very rarely have English subtitles. This has prevented me from exploring Japanese cinema as much as I would like. It's one thing to struggle through a cheesy sci-fi flick like this in Japanese, but anything with more serious or complicated themes is usually off limits to me. This is why I still haven't watched classic films like "Seven Samurai", and instead I end up watching cheesy love films like "Heaven Can Wait...Maybe" because it's one of the very few DVDs with English subtitles.
I don't think it would be that much trouble to add a subtitle track for the DVD release, especially for movies which are already subtitled in their international release. But I let it go because after all I am living in a non-English speaking country.
But really, there's no excuse for a DVD release not to include the audio that the movie was originally filmed in. I mean it's a DVD. That's what they're made for.
And to add insult to injury, this film contains a directors commentary track, so they obviously took the time to add another audio track.]

Anyway, my issues with the DVD release aside, it is a fun film. It's one third Thomas Moore's Utopia, one third "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and one third "Dr. Moreau". Parts of the film also feel like "Star Trek" under water, particularly the submarine battles, and also the sets which are the 1960s version of what the future would look like.

Despite having a cast that's arguable more American than Japanese, the fact that this is a Japanese film is very apparent. The use of models in this film is the same as Godzilla films of the same era, and produces the exact same feel. The music is also very similar to the standard Japanese monster movie music, and sounds like a just a slight riff off of the old "Godzilla emerging from the waters" theme.
And there's also the bad special effects. The monsters who are obviously just puppets (and not very well made puppets at that), and the infamous "you can still see the strings" of some of the flying creatures....But then again I guess it's easy for us in the age of CGI to be snooty about older films with limited budgets. Really considering what they were working with at the time, it's amazing what they were able to pull off.

Link of the Day
Via Let's Japan: A Song for Nova Teachers who still haven't been Paid

I'm slightly luckier than this person in that I was one of the few who got my job back in January. But I feel her frustration.

Youth Group Bike Trip


This isn't a true story. It's a mostly true story. My Freshman year of English at Calvin, we were assigned to write a story about an event in our life which taught us something.
Like my previous high school assignment to write about divine intervention, this was something I had difficulty doing. Unlike TV sitcoms, Real life seldom lends itself to nice neat little events with a clear beginning, a clear end, and a lesson learned in the middle. Especially not my sheltered, suburban, uneventful life.
So I fudged it a little bit. (Oh, sure, like you've never done anything like this!). Everything in this story is true, but I messed around with the chronology to make it look like I learned a lesson out of it.
I chose to write about our annual high school youth group bike summer bike trips on which I had 5 years worth of memories to draw on (counting both the summer before Freshman year and the summer after senior year) and re-arrange a few events into a linear story.

Breaking Down While Going Up

I could hear about it before I even saw it. Andrew gave a cry of exclamation as he turned the corner. Justin swore upon seeing it, confident he was out of the hearing of our group leader. Jon, characteristically, saw the sight and then started shouting about it. I don't think I've ever heard Jon say anything in a quiet voice. Cory and I were the last two to turn the corner, and we saw it at the same time. Jon was still shouting about it, as he seldom expressed himself in few words.

The summer before I started high school I was on a week-long youth group bike trip. I had known everyone in my riding group since elementary school, if not before. The adult leader, Mr. Henrion, I could not say the same for. Before the beginning of the week I had never seen him. He was almost fifty, and an avid biker. He could almost keep up with us and was pretty fast for an old man.

We all got off our bikes and guzzled down water, listening to Jon complain, while we waited for Mr. Henrion. Mr. Henrion turned the corner so that he too could see the hill. It was still far off in the distance, but we could see it was enormous. I can still picture it in my mind. It shot up incredibly fast, with snow near the top and clouds obscuring the peak from view. I seem to be the only one in the group that remembers it like this, as the rest of them have many times assured me that the hill wasn't longer than half a mile, and not as steep as I make it out to be. At any rate, it was a big hill, and we could tell right away.

"I'm not riding up that thing," Jon said to Mr. Henrion. "I'm going to walk up it."

"You know Jon," Mr. Henrion responded, "It takes more energy to walk up the hill then it does to ride up it." With that statement all talk of walking up the hill ceased. We got back on our bikes and rode up the hill. We were the fastest riding group on the whole expedition. Being the fastest group in the Church youth group didn't say much, but it did give us a sense of pride and the idea that we could handle things some of the other groups could not. We began the hill with this confidence. Mr. Henrion was given a head start, and the rest of us struggled up behind.

My thoughts drifted back to the previous night, when we had been warned of the coming rain. Knowing that the tents were far from water proof, it became essential to select a spot that was naturally shielded from the rain. While everyone else was helping to prepare dinner, I was given the job of setting up the tent. I thought I had found the perfect spot, a flat area with trees above to give shelter. My comrades were less than pleased, and I did not receive the praise I thought I deserved. As usual, Jon was the most vocal. "You idiot! You put us in a dry river bed! We're going to get soaked!" Unfortunately he proved to be right when the rain came that night, making everyone more than a little annoyed at me.

It had started to rain that night at 8 o'clock and we were all still outside. Andrew was sent to shut all the windows. Throughout the week, I had always insisted that the window beside me be left open, as I tended to be a little claustrophobic. I stuck to this rigidly even when someone wanted to use the tent to change clothes or it got cold outside. Andrew now thought it would now be funny to leave my window open during the rain. Unfortunately the rain did not limit itself to my side of the tent, and through the one open window spread out to the whole of the tent, getting everyone's stuff wet. I thought Andrew should have gotten the blame for this, but they were already mad at me for the tent location, so it was easier for them to blame this on me as well. Needless to say, we didn't have the best sleeping conditions, and I was still not quite forgiven as we began riding up the hill.

I was near the end of the pack as we labored on our way up. I could see Justin ahead of me. Justin had not been having the best of luck this week. His bike, only half a year old, broke down down probably an average of twice a day. It was a great frustration to the rest of us, as we were constantly waiting for his bike to be repaired. It was even more frustrating for Justin. When Cory started a pool on which part of the bike would break next, Justin broke into tears. I was somewhat disturbed by the whole thing, as my four month old bike was not only the exact same year and model, but also bought from the same place. I told Cory I was worried that in 2 months my bike would be just like Justin's. "I wouldn't worry about it," Cory responded. "You don't shift up on hills." He had a good point. Justin did put his bike through a lot of abuse.

Ahead of me, I heard Justin shifting on his bike, and then heard him swear. His chain started clicking as he pulled over to the side of the road. Andrew followed suit. Andrew was one of my best friends, and on this trip he was a useful friend to have. He knew more about bikes than any normal person should. He was always taking his bike apart and putting it back together for no good reason, and his ingenuity never ceased to amaze me. This was the same year he had made an odometer for his bike out of a broken calculator. Earlier in the week I had a flat tire and Andrew barely waited for me to get off my bike before he started changing it, without even asking me if I wanted any help. Never had Andrew turned a blind eye to someone with bike trouble, and so he pulled over to help Justin.

As I continued biking, I marveled at Andrew's sacrifice. I was in my last gear, and still feeling plenty of resistance. To start cold turkey in the middle of this hill would be next to impossible. I thought to myself how glad I was not to be in their position.

Maybe by thinking that I jinxed myself. "Hey Joel, come over a second. I need a hand," Andrew called out. The last thing in the world I wanted to do at that moment. I started to bike by, pretending that I hadn't heard him. Andrew repeated himself, and I knew there was no way to avoid him. I pulled over, helped Justin hold up his bike while Andrew performed all sorts of adjustments with his ever present tool set. When all was repaired, the three of us got ready to tackle the hill again. We couldn't get started, the hill was just too steep. We decided to walk up the rest of the way.

Jon, Cory and Mr. Henrion were well ahead of us, but Jon and Cory actually turned around and rode down to where we were in order to walk the rest of the way with us. We were supposed to be the fastest group, yet we were the only group that walked the hill. We walked it together though, we couldn't have made it up individually. By the time we reached the top, I felt like I had been forgiven for what happened to the tent. I learned a lot about teamwork that day.

And that's the paper I handed in. At one point I considered footnoting this retrospection to spell out exactly what was true, and exactly what was changed around, but I decided against it. No one is going to lose any sleep wondering about it.
The crux of the story hinges around a very simple moment. We were biking up a hill. Someone had trouble with their bike. Andrew stopped to help. I continued biking up. And that's all that happened. (Andrew never called out for my help, nor did he really need it). But it stuck in my mind because I realized that my natural inclination was just to continue on up, and Andrew's natural inclination was to stop and help. This was one of those moments when you realize that at heart your true nature might not be the nice loving wonderful Christian person you think you are.
I didn't really learn a lesson from it per se (or not one I could have made an essay out of anyway), but I thought maybe I could have if I built events around it to give it more emphasis. I had 5 years worth of bike trip memories from which to draw upon, although I intentionally selected some of the more mundane ones. I was worried that if I made it too exciting, the English teacher would suspect some creative licensing was going on.
(Although thinking about it now, I'm not sure she would really even have cared if she knew. And perhaps maybe she even expected it. But I was a nervous Freshman in my first month of college, so I played it safe).
Andrew, Jon, Justin, Cory and Mr. Henrion are all real people, although we were never all in the same riding group at the same time. Justin did have a bike that broke down on him about twice a day on the first bike trip, but I was in another riding group and only heard about his frustrations second hand. (And I did have the exact same bike he did, only two months newer. And although I was worried about it, fortunately mine never developed the problems his did. It served me well for a few more years until it got stolen out of our garage.)
We all discovered very quickly the first year that the donated Church tents we used on these biking trips were far from waterproof, and every year became a struggle against the rain, with at least one sleepless night each year spent shivering in a pool of water. Thus selecting a good spot on rainy nights became increasingly important.
There was on day when I arrived back to camp ahead of my tentmates, and generously erected the whole tent by myself, only to be yelled at because it was in a water drainoff area. It wasn't a big deal though, we just moved the tent. (Although by this time most of the other good spots had been taken).
The window incident is true as well, although that was another year.
There was a huge hill we went up our Freshman year, which always got remembered and exaggerated on all the previous years.
The last part about everyone riding down the hill again so we could walk up together is pure fantasy (and now that I read it again, probably a bit over the top as well). Everything else is at least based on truth.

As a bonus, below are the written comments I got back from the professor.

You have written of your experience with clarity and precision (you must have a good memory). I would only like to see a bit more conclusion. You say you felt like you had been forgiven--what in their treatment of you made you feel that way? And what specifically did you learn about teamwork? Your story only becomes more interesting when you add application.I like hearing the voices of your friends. An introduction should tell us what the paper will be about. You might begin with your ending. That would focus your paper on teamwork.

Link of the Day
Three Were Waterboarded, CIA Chief Confirms

Friday, February 08, 2008

スキヤキ・ウエスタン ジャンゴ/ Sukiyaki Western: Django

(Movie Review)

If nothing else, an interesting and ambitious film, even if it doesn't completely succeed.

This film is a Japanese spoof of the spaghetti Western "Django". And in doing so, the film makers have sought to coin a new term, the "Sukiyaki Western".
...This is not the first Japanese Western movie. In my local video store there are several older films featuring Japanese cowboys. I haven't gotten around to renting them yet, but they're discussed briefly by this reviewer here. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only recent Japanese Western, however.

This is the kind of cheesy homage movie that Quentin Tarantino would love and, in an act of international casting, he's actually got a bit part in this movie.

The film retells the Japanese story of the battle between the Minamoto and Taira clans as if it had been a Western. And on top of this mixing of genres, one further level is added. All the characters in the movie are aware of the similarity of their story and the British War of the Roses, and comment on it frequently. The leader of one clan even forces his men to act out scenes from Shakespeare's "Henry VI" and halfway through the movie changes his name to Henry.

To add to the Cowboy Western feel of this movie, someone made a decision to shoot the whole film in English. So all the Japanese actors are speaking English the whole time. Some of them better than others.
Movies like "Memoirs of a Geisha" among others show that with the proper training it is possible for foreign movie stars to converse in perfect English. But the mystery speech coach who worked wonders in "Memoirs of a Geisha" is sorely lacking in this film. As a result it can at times be difficult to understand what is actually being said through the thick Japanese accents. According to wikipedia, the American release of this movie added subtitles to support the Japanese cast's English, but the DVD in my rental store only had Japanese subtitles.
...In the end I could understand almost everything, although I did have to do a lot of rewinding to try and re-listen. And I occasionally used the Japanese subtitles as support to understand the English. It did take away somewhat from the enjoyment of the movie in that it wasn't so much relaxing as it was a struggle to understand. But that's what things are usually like whenever I rent a Japanese movie.

The humor in this movie (and it is primarily a satire) is so-so. Much of it decidedly low brow. And the movie feels a bit too smug for its own good. Many actors say the art to doing comedy is to pretend your character is taking the scene seriously, and let the audience find the humor for themselves. This movie takes a different approach. Much of the humor seems to be based off the fact that it's an all Japanese cast slurring their way through American Cowboy slang and talking about Shakespeare. Which is kind of funny. But not 2 hours funny.

Another large part of the humor is based on people dying in funny ways. Or having funny expressions on their faces and making funny twitches when they die. This kind of humor pops up in a lot of Japanese new wave modern films, but I can't say I've ever been a huge fan.

I'm told that it is hard to fully appreciate this film without a thorough knowledge of the Spaghetti Westerns it is satirizing. And since I've never seen the original Django, it is more than possible that a lot of these references did go over my head.

I did catch some of the other pop culture references. For instance when the new gun man is trying to decide which clan to join, someone shouts out to him not to get any ideas about Yojimbo.
When Tarantino is telling why he named his son "Akira", he answers, "What can I say? At the end I am just an Anime Otaku". Not very subtle. If there is an art to metareferencing within films, this isn't it.

Link of the Day
Anti-War Candidates Are Top Recipients Of '08 Donations From U.S. Troops

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Samurai William by Giles Milton

(Book Review)

In 1611, London's merchants received an intriguing letter written by a marooned English mariner named William Adams, who had been living in the unknown land of Japan for more than a decade. Seven adventurers were sent to Japan with orders to find and befriend Adams. It was believed he held the key to exploiting the opulant riches of this forbidden country; but when they arrived they discovered that Adams had gone native.--From the book cover jacket

This is a fascinating story told by an author with an eye for interesting details and an indulgence for interesting digressions.

In my opinion, the title of the book is slightly misleading because it gives the impression of a foreigner trying a little too hard to fit in with Japan. And although William Adams was granted official Samurai status by the Shogun, this is not really a Tom Cruise/ Last Samurai type of story. Instead this is more of an adventure on the high seas, exploring strange and exotic foreign lands, Robinson Crusoe/ Treasure Island type story.

The book begins with a brief account of the first Europeans to land in Japan (the Portuguese) and then digresses to some of the early attempts to find the legendary Northwest passage through to Asia.

And then finally we get to the story of William Adams, and the bizarre adventure that landed him in Japan.
Of course getting to Japan is half the adventure, and Giles Milton being the great story teller that he is recognizes this. William Adams was an English man aboard a Dutch trading fleet. The ship was loaded with so many weapons it was rumored the real purpose was to harass the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, but whatever the ships original purpose it never made it. Instead it was beset with on disaster after another on the coast of Africa and then in the New World. Battles with the Portuguese, ambushes by hostile natives, and the terrors of the straits of Magellan. Finally in desperation the men decide to sail to Japan (under the mistaken impression that it was a lot closer to South America than it actually was). When they arrive, all that is left of the original 5 Dutch ships is Adams and a handful of men.

Unfortunately Adams troubles do not end there, because the Portuguese priests, already established in Japan, are horrified that the protestants have landed on Japanese shores, and try to have William Adams crucified. That is until Adams becomes the friend and confident of the all powerful Tokugawa Ieyasu, after which the tables turn and Adams is able to use his influence at court against the Spanish and Portuguese.

Then the action changes again, and we go to the adventures of the British East India Trading company, which has heard rumors of a marooned English mariner in Japan with great influence in the Japanese court, and wants to contact him and use him to set up an English trading post in Japan.

And once again, getting there is half the story, and Giles Milton guides us through all the exotic adventures in strange land the crew has before they finally arrive in Japan and make contact with William Adams.

From this point on, the book is just as much the story of the British trading outpost as it is the story of William Adams, and we follow the adventures and misfortunes, squabbles, personal rivalries, and romantic affairs of the British men stationed out in Japan, and their at times tense relationship with William Adams.

This is a fascinating story and it takes place in the brief interlude between when European explorers and traders discovered Japan, and when all foreigners were expelled and Japan became a closed off country. It is interesting to see how the conflicts from Europe were carried over all the way into the Far East, such as the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. Throughout much of this story the Dutch and English are stalwart allies, but eventually trading rivalries lead to war, much to the misfortune of the English in Japan (who are outnumbered and outgunned by the Dutch) and the annoyance of the Japanese (who resent having to police a foreign war on their own soil).
Milton, a British author, presents this as unprovoked acts of aggression by the Dutch. I'm not sure if a Dutch historian might take a different view.

The book also deals with the subject of the rise and fall of Christianity in Japan, going from at first being welcomed by the Japanese (as a way to encourage European traders) to being outlawed and horrible persecution. (If you though the Romans were cruel, it's amazing what the Japanese did to Christian converts.) The book entertains the possibility that William Adams, with his fierce anti-Catholicism and his influence in the Shogun's court, might have played some role in causing Christianity to be outlawed.

This book has been criticized for some for it's selective view of history and only focusing in on the interesting stories as opposed to providing a larger background. That's also it's charm though. Milton is an author never afraid to follow an interesting digression even if it has little to do with his larger story. So, for example, we are treated to the story of Captain John Saris, and the embarrassment his stash of pornographic pictures caused to the East India Trading company. Or the story of Captain William Keeling and his attempts to smuggle his wife onto his ship with him. And many other pointless, but delightful, similar digressions.

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World
Martin Luther King responds to Hillary Clinton, and