Friday, October 31, 2008

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King

(Book Review)

I found this as an audiobook at the Cascade library the last time I was back home.

Actually I had seen it on the shelves several times before, but I had never checked it out because I wasn’t sure it would interest me. But this time I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s a free public library, right? It’s not like I’m out anything if I don’t like it. I might as well give it a try.”

I’m glad I did.

This is a book about art history. Now personally, I’m not very interested in art history, but I am interested in history. And there is (I think it goes without saying) a lot of overlap between the two.

This book weaves together a lot of different threads to make its story. There’s a lot of history and historical background. There’s a lot of biographical information about the artists involved. And there’s a lot of commentary on their evolving art styles. I was very interested in the history, somewhat interested in the biography, and not so interested in the art styles. But that’s just me. Since I’m a history geek, I’ll review this book from a history geek’s perspective. If you’re an art student, you might have a completely different take on it.

This book follows the lives of two artists, Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier who represented two different poles of the French art world in the 19th Century. The book follows their career from the early 1860s through the mid 1870s.

Now, if you know you’re French history, you no doubt realize that some very interesting events occurred during this period; Louis Napoleon’s ill-fated Mexican adventure, the Franco-Prussian War, the downfall of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) and the end of the 2nd Empire, and the creation of the 3rd Republic. And the Paris Commune.

This book is rich with historical background on all of these events and more. And Ross King is a talented writer who has a gift for story-telling. I really enjoyed listening to him as he narrated through all these events.

It is not, however, primarily a history book. And the history geek in me would occasionally get frustrated that, whenever Alex Ross was getting into some really interesting historical events, he would then double back to tell the reader what was happening in the French art world.

The- Paris -Commune, as regular readers of this blog know, has long been one of my pet interests, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to give this book a try in the first place.

The Paris Commune also has a special connection to art history. Gustave Courbet, a socialist realist painter, was a member of the commune. After the fall of the commune, Courbet was one of the lucky ones to survive the firing squads, but he was convicted in court of being behind the Commune’s decision to topple the Vendome Column, and ordered to pay for its restitution, which financially ruined him for the rest of his life.

(The Vendome Column was a monument to the battles won in the Napoleonic Wars. The Paris Commune, with its emphasis on internationalism, decided to pull down this monument to military imperialism, only to have the Column rebuilt after the fall of Commune.)

I was vaguely aware of Gustave Courbet even before reading this book. Courbet was a minor character in the historical novel “The Voice of the People” by Jean Vautrin. He also makes an appearance in Jules Valles’s memoir, “The Insurrectionist”. And the book “Revolution and Reaction” contains a defense of Courbet written by his friend Jules Castagnary.

However, Ross King’s book gave a lot of biographical information about Gustave Courbet both before and after the commune. (Although King’s book is primarily about Manet and Meissonier, a lot of other artists pop up in the narrative and Courbet is perhaps the 3rd most important figure in this book after its two main principles.)

Although here again, I must repeat that this book is not primarily a history book. The Paris Commune section of this book is extremely short and, aside from the incident of the Vendome Column, only the barest of historical outline is given.
A pity, because if King had wanted to, there were some other interesting incidents he could have focused on. For example the artist Renoir (who pops up in Ross’s book at times) had the narrowest of escapes from a Commune firing squad, and was saved only by his association with Communard Raoul Rigault--(as recorded in "The Fall of Paris" by Alistair Horne (A)).

For me, another interesting part of this book was the intersection between the artists and the state. On the more benign side, there is Louis Napoleon’s skillful maneuverings to prevent an overly severe Salon art jury from causing him political problems while at the same time avoid looking like he was actively interfering in the private world of arts.

But there is also the story of Delacroix’s famous painting, “Liberty Leading the People” and the history of how it was banned for years before it was allowed to be exhibited publicly.

There is also Manet’s painting, “The Execution of Maximilian” which he labored on intensely, but in the end was not allowed to exhibit because of the political nature of the work.

And in between the two there are more subtle examples, like the Napoleonic government’s (successful) attempt to win Meissonier’s friendship and discourage the republican themes that were beginning to emerge in his art.

These, and some other examples in the book, perhaps explain why there is an abundance of religious art in art history, but comparatively few overtly radical works.

If nothing else, this book is very well written. Art history students should enjoy it. And most history students will as well.

Link of the Day
Levin, Stabenow, and Ehlers Ranked on Environmental Votes

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kusu / 玖珠

(Better Know a City)

Like a lot of other cities on this project, Kusu is a city I knew well before I even set off. My familiarity with Kusu was largely due to my good buddy Greg, who lived there during our JET years. Although Kusu was a good hour’s drive away from my home in Ajimu, I made the drive several times over the years to visit Greg, and together we would go swimming in the Kusu waterfalls, or go hiking up the Kusu mountains.

In fact I spent my first Christmas in Japan in Kusu at a JET party in Greg’s apartment. And when Greg and I set off for our hitch-hiking trip, we left from Kusu. (The first segment of our video takes place mostly in Kusu, inside Greg’s apartment, and then at the Kusu highway rest stop).

Like Honyabakei, I decided to do Kusu in two separate days. My reason was simple. I wanted to swim in the waterfall during the heat of summer, but I wanted to do my hiking around during the cool of fall.

Let’s start with August.

Day 1, August Ryumon Waterfall
Swimming in the waterfall is always more fun if you bring along a couple of friends, so I set off with Stewart and Yousuke. We planned to get an early start and leave at about 9:15, but one of us (it was me) got off to a bit of a late start leaving his apartment, and it about quarter to ten before we were on the road.

It took us almost an hour and a half to get to Kusu. From Nakatsu, we had to drive through Sanko-Mura, Honyabakei and Yabakei before arriving in Kusu. And even then we had to drive through the town and follow a series of winding side streets before getting to the Ryumon Waterfall.

It had been about 3 years since I was last at this waterfall. As far as I can remember, the last time I was here was when I was in August 2005 when I was showing Chris (the new JET in Ajimu at the time) the sights of Oita prefecture back in the summer of 2005. (In fact you can see Chris's Photos from that trip here).

Unlike the Yabakei waterfall, Ryumon is not very secluded. In fact it can get quite crowded sometimes. I was hoping to avoid most of the crowds by going on a Wednesday, but no luck. It may have been a Wednesday afternoon, but it was still in summer vacation, right during the middle of Obon holidays. The Waterfall was packed with people.

Fortunately the parking lot was crowded, but not full. (I’ve been to this waterfall on days when you couldn’t even get a parking spot, and had to park down the road and walk in). The man in charge of parking waved me into the parking lot, and then continued to wave me on to a small little side street. He indicated a very small spot between a tree and another car, just large enough for a car to squeeze in sideways.

“You know, in America, I never had to learn how to parallel park to pass my driver’s license test,” I remarked to the boys as I tried to squeeze into the small opening. I had to do a little bit of back and forth, but eventually I got the car in.

A little boy was in charge of collecting the parking fee, and ran up to the car. “500 yen,” he said.

I started to unbuckle my seatbelt and open the door. The boy seemed to be worried that I wasn’t planning on giving him the money. “500 yen, 500 yen,” he repeated.

“Yeah, hold on, just let me get out of the car first,” I muttered in English.
“500 yen,” the boy said.

I hit my head on the car door as I got up, which I blame the boy for, since I was trying to take out my wallet and get out of the car at the same time. “Okay, here’s your 500 yen,” I said, handing the parking fee to the boy.

“Look at all the cars here,” Stewart commented. “The whole population of Kusu must be out today.”

“Actually in my experience, most of the people you meet at this waterfall have traveled from outside of Kusu,” I said.

And sure enough, the license plates on the cars were from literally all over Japan. There was Kyoto, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kagoshima, Nagasaki, et cetera. I even saw a couple cars from my old stomping grounds in Gifu Prefecture.
Now, granted it was the middle of the Obon Holiday. If we had come during another time of year, we might not have seen quite so many far away license plates. But it still shows the waterfalls ability to attract people from far away.

And it’s no wonder. Ryumon Waterfall is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty. The Waterfall consists of four parts. Up at the very top, the water from the river falls straight down off a cliff face, in one of the many vertical waterfalls in Japan made by shifting plates. It then collects in a pool underneath, which is, like many of these mountain streams, pristinely clean and crystal blue.
The water then overflows out of the first pool, and cascades down the sloping rock face for several more meters, until it collects in the bottom pool, where most of the children swim.







Video 1


Video 2


I don’t know how well my video or pictures capture it, but it’s absolutely beautiful in person.

The weather, it should be added, was surprisingly cool for an August day. Never fails, huh? We spent the entire week baking in the Kyushu sun, and then the one day we actually set out to go to the waterfall, the skies were overcast and the air was even a bit cool. But it was still more than warm enough to justify a swim.

Yosuke went off to change his clothes. Stewart and I, who were already wearing our swimsuits, proceeded to climb up to the top of the waterfall.

No matter how busy the bottom of the waterfall gets, the top pool is always empty. There are no little kids, and few adults. In part because it’s a bit of a climb to get up there. You have to walk up the left side of the sloping rock face, and then at the very end climb almost vertically up the last big rock.

Up at the top, Stewart and I removed our sandals and shirts, and got ready to jump in. There was a crowd of Japanese teenage boys next to us, trying to work up the courage to jump off the rock down into the pool.

From the top of the rock, it can look pretty far down, but I had been to this waterfall several times before, and I knew that the worst thing you can do was to think about it too much. So I gently moved myself to the front of the boys, and jumped in. Stewart followed shortly after.

“That was quite a jump though,” Stewart said afterward. “Looking up at that rock from here it must be several meters, and when you’re at the top of it looking down it looks even higher than it actually is.”

“The last time I was here,” I said, “a couple guys jumped off from the very top there,” I said, pointing to the top of the cliff where the water first flowed over.

Stewart looked around. “How did they get up there? I don’t see any path to the top.”

“There isn’t. They must have just climbed up the side of the mountain and bushwhacked their way through all the trees until they got to the top of the river. I’m not sure which why they went, but it must have been a bit of a climb.”

We swam around back and forth in the waterfall. I got out of the pool once to help Yosuke find where we were, and then we jumped back in.

During the week before hand, it had been sweltering in the Kyushu summer, and I had promised myself that once I got to this waterfall, I would spent the whole afternoon swimming around in it.
But once I was actually in the water, I felt that after 10 minutes I was sufficiently cooled off, and Stewart, Yousuke and I spent more time sitting around on the edge of the waterfall than we did actually swimming in it.

It is possible to slide down the cascading rock face part of the waterfall. In fact the signs for Ryumon waterfall proudly proclaim it, “The best sliding waterfall in Japan”.

However, unlike the Yabakei waterfall, the rocks are not quite so smooth to be able to slide down comfortably on your rear end. You do get bounced around a bit as the water lifts you up from one rock ledge and pushes you down on the other.

For that reason, almost everyone brings some sort of device to use as a cushion on the way down. Rubber inter-tubes seem to be the most popular. Some people also bring foam mats. I’ve even seen people slide down on plastic bags, although I’m not sure how much cushioning those plastic bags actually give.

Greg and I never remembered to bring anything during our many trips to Ryumon waterfall, and for that reason we would just slide down on our butts. It is possible to do this. (In fact, somewhere at home I have a great picture someone took of Greg and me both sliding down this waterfall at the same time, doing a kind of race to the bottom). However, you do pay for it. Your rear end gets a little bit bruised, and you might have trouble sitting down for the next couple days.

I tried to get Stewart and Yosuke to slide down the waterfall, but after my description of the risks involved, they decided they were happier just looking. As for myself, after contemplating the pros and cons, I decided that the thrill of sliding down the waterfall was probably not worth a sore butt. Besides, since I had already done it before, there probably was no need to do it again anyway.

Instead, we sat on the edge of the upper most pool, and watched other people slide down. And, even greater entertainment, we watched other people try to climb up.

Greg and I had learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to try and walk up the rock face where the water is actually flowing. It may look tempting enough. The water is shallow, and the rock face appears to slope up gently. But it’s a mistake. The whole thing is as slippery as a banana peel.

Being a veteran of this waterfall, I had specifically steered Stewart and Yousuke to the thin strip of dry rock on the left hand side. But not many other people seemed to have learned this lesson, and almost everyone was trying to climb up the middle of rockface where the water flowed. And they were falling down left and right.

I joked to Stewart that I should get out my video camera and just film people trying to climb up. Later, I could edit all the falls together into one long sequence, and add some “Benny Hill” chase music to it or something. I didn’t end up doing this, but I think I easily could have. There was no shortage of people falling that afternoon.

I stood up to jump back in the waterfall, and Stewart did me the favor of observing that my swimsuit was torn in the back. I had noticed there was a small tear when I put it on in the morning, but I figured it was small enough I could still get away with wearing the suit. As Stewart point out to me, the tear had grown larger (I suppose as a result of swimming around and jumping in and out of the waterfall). Now it was torn from the top all the way to the bottom, exposing my left butt cheek to the public at large.
If this had been down at the bottom pool, it might have been a cause for more embarrassment. However since we were at the top pool, where very few people made it up to anyway, I just shrugged it off and said I supposed this meant it was my last day of wearing this suit.

Round about this time, a Japanese man with a yellow loudspeaker in his hand started yelling something. He was standing down way at the bottom of the waterfall, so it was difficult to make out what he was saying, but he was obviously yelling in our direction. He was also carrying with him a big yellow sign that said, “Public Safety”.

Because Stewart’s Japanese is better than mine, I asked him to translate. “Is he talking to us? What’s he saying?” But Stewart also had a hard time making out what the man was yelling about. So we asked Yousuke, our Japanese friend. But even Yousuke couldn’t hear it clearly. The man was too far away, and the megaphone had a way of garbling his speech even as it increased the volume. Besides, we were so close to the waterfall that it was difficult to hear much above the sound of the rushing water.

The old man yelled some more, appeared to give up and walk away, then abruptly came back and yelled off another flurry of comments, and then walked away again. “Is he talking to us?” I asked. “Do you suppose he noticed the tear in my swimsuit?”

The whole thing remained a mystery for about two more minutes, and then we realized what the man had been yelling about. Several teenage boys had climbed up to the very top of the waterfall cliff face, and were now working up the courage to jump down from it. Because we were at the top pool, we had been too close to see over the cliff, but from the bottom the old man in charge of safety must have seen them. His efforts to yell them away not withstanding, they were getting ready to jump down.

The first one did a run and jump and landed spectacularly in the pool to the applause of everyone. The second one hesitated for a long time, and appeared to be unsure of what he wanted to do. “I don’t blame him for being scared,” I said to Stewart. “Look at how high that is. It looks high from down here, can you imagine how high it has got to look when you’re actually at the top of it?

“Of course,” I added, “He’s got to do it now. After having gone through all the trouble and bushwhacking they did to find their way up to the top, you can’t just turn around and go back down. Not to mention all the people watching him now.”
And he did eventually jump it. It took him another five minutes to work up the courage, and he was white faced with terror when he made the jump, but he did it.

Several other jumpers came as well. It turned out there was quite a group of them there. Every time we thought they were finished, another face would tentatively peer over the cliff face and prepare to jump. I didn’t keep track, but there must have been about 12 of them by the time they all finished jumping.

We left not long after that. As beautiful as the Ryumon Waterfall is, you can only stay in one place and swim for so long before it begins to get boring. I observed that the afternoon was still young, and that the Yabakei waterfall was on our way back home anyway, so why don’t we go swimming in another waterfall for a while. Stewart and Yousuke agreed with me, and we left Kusu for the afternoon.

Day 2 October

In the cool of the fall, I returned to Kusu for another day.

Being by myself this time, I took the liberty of making a bunch of little stops at anything that looked interesting. For example, shortly after crossing the boarder from Yabakei, I noticed there was a small walkway alongside the main road. There wasn’t a parking lot to stop the car, but I pulled over to the side of the road and walked back and forth along the walkway for a while, taking pictures of some of the rock formations along the Kusu / Yabakei boarder.





By the time I got down into downtown Kusu, it was getting close to 9 and, between the driving and the walking around, I had been on the road for about 2 hours and was beginning to regret not having eaten a bigger breakfast in my apartment. So, I pulled into a Joyfull, the big chain restaurant in Oita prefecture.

In retrospect, maybe I should have tried to find a more uniquely Kusu restaurant, but it was early in the morning and I was hungry and I didn’t feel like being overly creative.

After breakfast, I drove down the road to the boarder between Kusu and Hita, where there is a small, but beautiful waterfall right on the side of the main road.

It’s a pity they had to build a main road (and a train track) going right up next to this waterfall, because it kind of ruins the atmosphere. But it is a really beautiful waterfall. Like the Ryumon waterfall, this one consists of two stages. There’s the lower waterfall which you can walk right up to (and even follow the path underneath it). And up above, you just make out glimpses of another waterfall which fills the pool right above it. Because of this structure, one waterfall you can clearly see, and another one in the back you can vaguely see, the visual effect of it is difficult to capture on film. Which is part of the reason why I took so many pictures, and in the end was not really satisfied with any of them.













Because it was a public holiday, there were many other sightseers around and some public employees were handing out maps describing all the sights around the river. One of them flagged me down so enthusiastically I thought I had done something wrong. “Hey, you, stop!” he yelled out at me.

“Me?” I was trying to think of what the Japanese equivalent of “What seems to be the problem, officer?” would be, when he handed me a tourist map.

“Yes, don’t forget to take one of these maps with you.”
He gave me a wide smile, which conveyed at the same time both the impression of great friendliness, and the expression of someone who might not be all there.

“Oh, right, thank you.” I looked at the map. “What is this exactly?”

“All the sights you can see along the Yamaura river,” he answered.

Of course, I wanted to be consistent with the rules of my project. “Is this all in Kusu?” I asked.

“The river is the boarder between Kusu and Hita,” he said. “Everything on this side of the river is in Kusu, everything on that side is Hita.”

I figured this was close enough, and decided to check some of the sights on the map later. First though I wanted to walk up to the top of the waterfall and get a look from the second pool (see video).

On my way back down from the waterfall, the same public employee flagged me down enthusiastically. “You! Come over here, come over here.” I followed his excitedly gesturing hand, and he pointed to a moss covered rock. “Look at that insect. What is it?”

It looked to me like a cross between a grasshopper and a Praying Mantis. “Uh...”

“Can it fly? Do you think it can fly?”

Whatever it was, it looked like it had long wings, so I answered yes, probably.

“Take a closer look. Do you think it can fly?”

I looked closely, and realized the whole thing was just a green leaf, which the old man had folded up and twisted to make into an origami insect. It was skillfully done, and because the life was shiny and bright green, it did look remarkably like a living insect.

“I made it,” he said proudly. “Come over here, I’ll give you one as a present.” He had, over by his stack of maps, several off these leaf-orgami insects already made. (Apparently it was not a very busy day for him). He picked one up and gave it to me. He even went through the trouble of tearing off a leafy stem from a tree, and setting the insect on one of the leaves. I did my best to appear sincere as I thanked him. As he handed it over, he asked, “Where are you from?”

I realized I was seconds away from getting dragged into all the usual questions: Do you like Japan? How long have you been in Japan? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like Japanese food? Your Japanese is very good, isn’t it?
I decided to make my escape. I answered his question briefly by saying I was from America, smiled, gave a half bow, and then turned to leave.

“That way’s dangerous!” he called out.

I abruptly stopped and looked around for another way to go. “No, I mean you can go that way,” he added. “Just be careful, it’s dangerous. The rocks are a little bit slippery.”

I thanked him again, made another awkward half bow, and left.

The map he had given me of Yamaura river had a car pictured driving along the road, so I assumed this was a driving route. But since it was a nice day, I decided to first see how far I could get by walking.

I didn’t make it too far. In fact I only got as far as the first stop. There was a small stream that fed into the main river, and there was a small mountain village alongside this stream.

I’m not entirely sure why this was marked off as a point of interest. There was an old fashioned wooden waterwheel here that added a bit of romance to the area, but it didn’t look like it had been used in years (if it ever had been put to practical use). Other than that, the whole place simply resembled any other Japanese mountain village.



Which is not to say it wasn’t beautiful. These small mountain villages in the Japanese countryside are always worth taking a walk through. A small narrow road, almost more like a path than a road, winds itself up between the houses. A stream trickles down alongside the road. Small flower gardens adorn the front of each house, and wildflowers are between the road and the stream. And a series of small rice fields are carved like steps going up the hillside.







After exploring this little village, I went back to my car and decided to set out on the Yamaura sight seeing course as marked out by the map.

There were several small stops along the way. On the video, I put all of these stops together into one segment, but the combined video represents several different points along the road.















Despite the fact that the city government had been pushing this river as a sight seeing destination, few of the stops along the way were clearly marked. And even when they were clearly marked, it was difficult to find a spot to park the car. The road was a narrow winding mountain road, barely big enough for one car at a time, and with almost no places where you could pull over and stop without obstructing traffic. Occasionally I would see a sign for a waterfall, and then have to drive on for several more minutes before I found a place where I could conceivably stop the car.

All that being said though, there were several nice waterfalls along the way, and I’m glad I made the trip, even if it was a bit difficult to navigate at times.

After that, I headed back into the main part of Kusu. There was one more waterfall I wanted to see.

During the spring of 2004, Greg had been in charge of coordinating the JET bike trip, and he had arranged lodgings for everyone at a campground in Kusu. I remembered there had been a particularly impressive waterfall adjoining the campground, and I wanted to see if I could find it again.

The waterfall was actually very easy to see from the main road. Getting down to it was a bit tricky, since it involved going through a maze of side roads. But after a few wrong turns and a little bit of driving in circles, I got there eventually. The Kanji on the signs gave the waterfall something like the name of “3 Day Moon” and it was, just like I remembered it- very impressive to look at.





After taking a couple pictures of the waterfall, I walked around the camp ground for a while. Since it was a public holiday, there were a lot of families at the camp ground, and a few children playing in the river. (Despite the fact that it was still mid-October, down here in Kyushu it was still more than warm enough to go for a swim. I was beginning to wish I had brought a swimming suit myself).



My next stop was Kirikabu Mountain.



Kusu is surrounded by a ring of mountains, but Kirikabu is probably the highest. The top of the mountain ends in a plateau, and for that reason it’s popular with both picnickers and hang gliders (and today being a public holiday, both of them were out in force).

There are some hiking trails leading up to the top of Kirikabu Mountain, and in the past Greg and I had spent a couple of afternoons hiking up these trails. On this particular occasion, however, I opted to drive up the mountain instead.

This was a bit of a moral dilemma for me, since I’m one of those snobs who normally looks down my nose at people who drive up a mountain instead of hiking it. However I remembered the hike as being, while scenic, long and pretty grueling. And I was already feeling a bit tired out from all my walking around earlier in the morning. Plus I knew the hike would take up most of my afternoon, and there were other places I wanted to explore in Kusu.

...So, I sacrificed my principles a bit, and drove up the mountain. From the top of the mountain, you get a really good bird’s eye view of Kusu, and I took a picture and did some video taping of the view.





After Mount Kirikabu, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go next. So I decided to just follow some of the road signs leading to points of interest.

One of the signs marked a water park, and that sounded kind of interesting to me so I followed it for a couple kilometers until I got to a small parking lot.

I had been sightseeing in the Japanese countryside for long enough to have grown cynical about these local road signs. You follow them for miles, and more often than not they turn out to be something small and unimpressive by the time you actually get there.

I fully expected this waterpark to be a disappointment, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

It turned out to be a trail through the woods, following a stream up the mountain until you get to a series of small waterfalls. The whole thing was very nice. The river was beautiful. The trail was clearly marked, and criss-crossed over the river several times on a series of small wooden bridges. And the final waterfalls, although small, flowed beautifully through the thick green foliage of the forest.







Next stop was the road leading out of Kusu, the 387.

Now that I live in Nakatsu, I had come into Kusu through Yabakei. But when I used to live in Ajimu, I would always drive into Kusu through Innai on route 387. It’s a long drive because you have to go up and down several mountains, but it’s very scenic, and from the road you can see a lot of valleys below, and sometimes there are a lot of interesting rock formations on the other side.

Shortly after crossing into the Kusu side of the boarder, there is a rest stop along the 387, where you can go up on a wooden look out point and get a good view of the opposite mountain peaks. Remembering this spot from my Ajimu days, I drove towards the Kusu / Innai boarder to take some pictures.





By this time, it was about 5 o’clock, and I was beginning to get pretty hungry again. (I hadn’t eaten anything since my Joyful breakfast at 9). I drove back into the main part of Kusu (and got caught up in rush hour traffic in doing so). I stopped at “Freshness Burger” (another chain restaurant) to get a bite to eat.

After eating my burgers, I discovered I was still feeling a bit tired from all the walking around I had been doing, so I ordered a large cup of coffee and just sat in the restaurant reading my book for another hour or so.

When I emerged from the restaurant, it was already dark outside. (It gets dark early in Japan). I walked through the streets of down town Kusu.

Kusu is what might be called a medium sized town, at least by Oita prefecture standards. It’s not exactly an urban center, and yet it’s not completely out in the boondocks like Yabakei is. There are lots of store fronts lining the main street. There was a large bridge crossing the river, and I walked across as I listened to the sound of the water flowing below. The sound of cars driving past mingled with the sound of the evening crickets chirping. There was a bright full moon shining down on the street, and I was suddenly overcome with a sense of “small town romance”.



Kusu has one of those down town areas that is just big enough to make it interesting, and just small enough to make it feel charming. I felt certain that around the corner there must be a small coffee shop; someplace overlooking the river where locals warmed their feet by a fire as they sipped hot cocoa.

Maybe somewhere that place exists, I don’t know. I never found it. To me, all indications showed that this town had gone to bed very early. It was only just after 7, but already most of the shops were closed, and there was nobody out in the street. Perhaps 50 years ago this street might have been a bit more lively, before the birth of the media age with TVs, DVD players, and internet that keep us all in our own houses at night.

I walked up and down the empty street. There was a small bakery that was open, and it did look kind of cozy, but it didn’t look like the kind of place I could hang out in for long periods of time. Besides the cars that drove by, the only other creature I encountered was an un-leashed dog. The dog was obviously unnerved to find me walking on its street, and followed me for a couple blocks growling and barking. (It didn’t seem like the kind of dog that would actual attack, but I began looking around the street and noting where the closets rocks and sticks were just in case).

Sensing that the main streets were dead, I headed into the night district. Every Japanese town of any size has a night district where you can find Hostess bars, Karaoke, and Ramen shops.


The majority of these places are set up for old Japanese business men. Usually a small, narrow claustrophobic smoke filled karaoke bar containing a group of old men who speak such slurred regional dialects that it’s impossible to understand a thing they say. In the case of a hostess bar, there can be young woman there as well, but you have to pay money for the privilege of talking to them.

It’s hard for Westerners to find a place more to their taste, but Greg had found a little bar called “D-styles” which he quite liked. Lots of young Japanese people gathered there, and the bar staff was also very friendly. Every time the gang ended up spending the night in Kusu, we would always end up at “D-styles”. In fact I’ve mentioned it several times before on this blog.

I had no intention of going by myself. It’s never much fun going to these places by yourself, and on a Monday night odds are it would be pretty dead anyway. Besides, as well as I could remember, it was a 3000 yen cover charge to get in. This included all you could drink for the night (the popular Japanese tradition of Nomihodai) which was one of the reasons it was so popular with Greg and the gang, but since I didn’t drink it was never all that good of a deal for me.

For old times sake, I did at least retrace my steps and walk up to the door. It didn’t appear open, and I didn’t even see a sign for it. (Either the sign has been taken down, or maybe the bar has closed down. It has been a good 4 years since I was last there, and a lot can happen in that time).

After that, convinced that there was nothing left for me to see in Kusu, I bid good-bye to the place, and headed back home.

Link of the Day
McCain and Palin's extremely compelling reasons you should vote for their ticket

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lenin by John Haney

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series that I picked up from Oita Prefectural Library on my last trip into Oita city.

Lenin is to say the least, a very controversial figure. He’s also the arguably the most influential person in the 20th Century.

…In fact, we did argue about. Shortly before the turn of the century, Time magazine announced that they were going to choose the man of the 20th century, and, just for fun, the question was put out on the history students’ listserve at Calvin. Our musings didn't have any effect on the editorial process at Time magazine, but just for fun we debated it back and forth. Many of us, myself included, argued that if you had to pick one person who had the greatest influence on the events of the 20th Century, it would have to be Lenin. The revolution he engineered in Russia inspired communist Revolutions in China, Cuba, et cetera, until it went on to include half the world. And Lenin was also responsible for creating the Cold War which dominated most of the 20th Century. Plus, if you include the rise of fascism as partly a reaction against the communist revolutions, than you've got to throw in World War II, and all the baggage from that conflict.

The Calvin conservatives on the listserve were appalled by our choice, and enraged that a “thug” like Lenin who merely “inspired other groups of thugs” around the world could be considered person of the Century. They in turn nominated the standard conservative heroes like Winston Churchill, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, et cetera. Those of us who had chosen Lenin tried to explain to them that the “man of the Century” was supposed to be the most influential person, not necessarily the best person. They showed a remarkable inability to understand this concept, and the debate on the listserve went on for weeks.
Proof that Lenin still has the ability to inspire controversy even today.

[Who did Time magazine end-up choosing as “Man of the Century” you ask? Let’s make a game out of it. If you can’t remember, then take your best guess, and then click on this link here to see how well you predicted it.]

I’m far from an expert, but I have read a bit about Lenin over the years, and I’m always amazed at how I come away with a completely different picture of him each time. Sometimes he emerges as a brutal godless communist. Sometimes he comes across as a good guy whose ideas were all corrupted by Stalin. Even within the left, perspectives of Lenin seem to vary depending on whether the author is orthodox communist, Trotskyist, democratic socialist, or anarchist. When reading different analysis about Lenin, sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m reading about the same person.
Bork who, as far as I remember used to share my ambivalence about Lenin’s legacy, read up on it a bit when he was in his internship in Russia and came back fiercely anti Bolshevik and anti-Lenin. But you’d have to talk to him to get his perspective.

This book, while not extremely detailed, makes an effort to try and balance the facts out. I found it surprisingly fair considering it was written during the Reagan administration and is a young adult book that is clearly designed to adorn the shelves of school libraries.

The book very clearly explains who Lenin was and what his goals were. And it shows the many faults of both the Tsarist regime or the Kerensky government that preceded Lenin. However the book also portrays Lenin as a bit of a bully and autocrat even in the years before the Revolution. Lenin would engage in all sorts of questionable politicking and undemocratic practices to get his way within the party.

The book even quotes a section from historian Betram D. Wolfe who:
‘gives an account of a conversation between Akselrod and a member of the International Socialist Bureau—the Second International’s coordinating body—that captures the essence of the gulf that separated Lenin from all Social Democrats, excepting his own followers. The official asked: “Do you mean to say that all these splits and quarrels are the work of one man? But how can one man be so effective and so dangerous?” Akselrod replied: “Because there is not another man who for twenty-four hours of the day is taken up with the revolution, who has no other thoughts but thoughts of the revolution, and who, even in his sleep, dreams of nothing but revolution. Just try and handle such a fellow.”’

The book does not gloss over the political violence that Lenin and the Bolsheviks committed once they were in power. And yet at the same time it does try and put things in perspective. For example when writing about the Red Terror, the author states:

It is estimated that by October 1922, when it was replaced by the State Political Administration (GPU), the Cheka had killed approximately 140,000 people by execution, and another 140,000 while putting down uprisings.
“Many historians have analyzed the Red Terror in great detail while failing to deal with is corollary—the “White Terror”. Some perspective on this troubled issue may, perhaps, be gained from the following single fact: In Finland, which proclaimed independence from Russia in July 1917, White forces under Carl Gustaf Von Mannerheim, a former lieutenant-general in the Imperial Army, killed almost 100,000 workers, or roughly 25 percent of the entire Finnish Proletariat, in just two months—April and May—in 1918
.”

At the end of the book I think the author does a good job of summing up the ambivalence surrounding Lenin’s legacy:
Many historians have claimed that Leninism and Stalinism were essentially the same or, at least, that Stalinism can be viewed as a logical development of Leninism. Whereas others, including many non-leftists, have rejected the idea. Lenin was undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders, most effective revolutionaries, and most powerful minds of his time. His ultimate aim was always the realization of a true producers’ democracy, an egalitarian socioeconomic order promising real social harmony. As he himself stressed repeatedly, the worldwide realization of the kind of society that was at the heart of his vision would mean an end to war and an end to the exploitation of man by man. Men have seized power for worse ends than this.”

Link of the Day
Too stupid to Google it yourself?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

(Movie Review)

And here I am back with the second movie in the series.

(I know I gave a rather cranky review to the first “Elizabeth” biopic (see previous post) but although I’m reviewing these movies separately, I watched them together as a set and then did my research afterwards. If I had realized at the time how historically inaccurate the first movie was, I might never have gone onto the second. But here we are).

This was actually the movie I wanted to see in the first place; the reason I went back at watched the first Elizabeth was because the previews for this movie had caught my eye. The big naval battle scenes with the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth sitting on horseback leading her soldiers into battle, Clive Owen swinging around as the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh...

It turns out though that I was the victim of the oldest trick in the Hollywood playbook—put all the exciting scenes in the previews. The film is not exactly the big budget epic I was lead to believe it was. Most of the battle scenes (including the naval battles with the Spanish Armada) are alluded to, but not shown because the director didn't have the money to film them.

For example, the destruction of the Spanish Armada is symbolized by scenes of storm clouds coming in, then jewelry floating down to the bottom of the sea, then a candle blowing out in front of Spain’s King Phillip II. It’s clever the way the director uses what resources he does have, but movie goers should be forewarned this might not be the epic adventure they were looking for.

Other than that, it’s a decent enough movie. The acting is top notch. Clive Owen does a good job as Sir Walter Raleigh. Kate Blanchett does a good job as Elizabeth.

It was interesting listening to the director’s commentary. The director was very interested in the mythology surrounding history. He was also very interested in capturing visually interesting shots. This perhaps leads to some over the top long-drawn-out sequences near the end when he is trying to imply Elizabeth has achieved a sort of divinity. But I think some people will find it interesting. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea though.

Link of the Day
Utility Shut-Offs Increasing in Michigan

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Elizabeth

(Movie Review)

So, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” has come out in Japan now. And the previews looked really interesting to me when I saw them. But since I had never gotten around to watching the first one, which came out some 10 years ago, I decided to start with that.

This film is a historical biopic (obviously), and because I’m a history geek I can’t review a movie like this without getting into the historical accuracy of it. Sorry. It’s in my blood.

Now, when it comes to Queen Elizabeth, I don’t really know much about her at all. So I went into this movie pretty much blind, in good faith that what I was watching was more or less based on history. And then afterwards of course I fact checked it on the internet.

It turns out that most of this movie (in fact the whole premise really) isn’t historically accurate at all. As always wikipedia is a quick and easy reference, and you can read their description of the “dramatic licenses” of the film there. Queen Elizabeth was well aware that Sir Robert Dudley was married, because she had attended his wedding. To the best of our historical knowledge, Elizabeth’s claim to virginity holds up and she was not sleeping around with Dudley. Robert Dudley was not involved in a conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth. Sir Norfolk was not executed for his part in the conspiracy, but killed for a different conspiracy much later. Elizabeth was not as tolerant towards Catholics as the movie leads us to believe, but still tortured and killed Catholic priests just for being such. Et cetera.

The question now becomes: how big of a crime is this? Hollywood has a long history of getting very defensive whenever its historical accuracy is questioned. “Come on! It’s just a movie! It’s not supposed to be historically accurate. We create art, not documentaries. If you want accuracy, go read a book.” Et cetera.

But it strikes me that a lot of this is Hollywood trying to have its cake and eat it to. “Come on down. Bring the kids. It’s an historical movie. You’ll learn something. Give us an Academy Award!” (All of which is followed by their usual defensiveness whenever they are accused of historical inaccuracies).

I think that most people want historically accuracy in movies. People want to mix entertainment with education. And many people today see movies as an easier alternative to reading books (which of course it is). But just because they took the easier way out doesn’t mean they want to be given misinformation.

There are of course limitations in the medium. You do have to compress for time. Occasionally create composite characters. Simply some complex political situations. But within those constraints, I think the public genuinely would like historical accuracy when it goes to an historical movie. (Anyone who disagrees with this can feel free to comment below).

And with a movie like this in particular, I don’t think I would have sat through it if I hadn’t believed I was learning some history at the time. (Well, I guess if you count the internet research I did afterwards, I did learn a bit of history from the whole experience, but that’s not the point.) I mean, it’s not like you’re watching “Gladiator” or “Young Guns” here. All you’ve got in this movie is a bunch of courtroom scenes and talking heads.

With a movie like this, all of the drama is based upon the assumption that you’re watching something real that happened to real people. All of those courtroom scenes carry weight precisely because you think these are actual historical conspiracies. If this is supposed to be fiction, it’s pretty lousy fiction: a half-backed courtroom conspiracy, and a sappy love story.

Obviously the film makers thought they could get away with this because the film takes place so long ago, and concerns a country that isn’t America. (It would be hard to imagine the BBC producing a film like this). And who knows about anything about Elizabethan history? I certainly didn’t.

And, although in 2008 it is very easy for me to fact check this movie, in 1997 when this movie first came out it the Internet was 10 years younger. In those days if you spent a half hour or so searching around you could find, maybe, a private site where some cranky historian had listed all the historical inaccuracies of the movie. But there was no quick and easy reference back then like wikipedia is today.

If my theory is right about people wanting historical accuracy when they go to see historical movies, it will be interesting to see if in the years to come the internet crowd will begin to exert an influence on Hollywood.

Link of the Day
What will those crazy liberals think of next?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Serenity

(Movie Review)

This is a movie based off of a short lived science-fiction TV called “Firefly”. Which, I suppose, is one of those facts that if you don’t already know, then you probably don’t care.

I was in Japan when this show was aired, so I missed the whole mini-drama about how this show was a big hit with the fans, and then it got cancelled by the network, and then it got enough fan support to make it into a movie.

I did however manage to see the pilot episode of the series. When I was back in the States a couple years ago, a friend of mine had the entire (short-lived) series on DVD, and he insisted I watch the first episode with him just so I could see what a great show it was.

And I have to admit, it did seem kind of cool. It was an interesting combination of science fiction futuristic space movie with an old fashioned cow-boy Western. I’m not sure I found the mix of genres entirely believable, but what the hey, it was a fun idea, the characters each had enough quirks to them to make them interesting, and it was well-acted.

I never felt any need to follow the series any further than that. It’s a condition I attribute to post “Star Trek” fatigue. After spending my adolescence and most of my teens as an obsessive Trekker, and during that time faithfully following the show through 4 different incarnations, I feel burnt out.
There are all sorts of interesting TV shows these days. (“Heroes”, “Battlestar Galatica” which Bear introduced me to) and a lot of other cool looking shows. But I can’t bring myself to get fully involved in another on-going series.

So I never followed the show any further. Although I did keep abreast of things somewhat by reading Whisky Prajer's thoughts on the subject.

But when I saw this DVD in my local video store, I thought I’d give it a try. I was curious to see how everything ended up. And I was curious to see if people like me, who hadn't been following the show, would still be able to make sense of the movie.

I had only vaguely remember the pilot episode I had seen two years ago, but once the movie started up, it started to jog my memory a bit. A few of the relationships and positions of some of the characters have changed since I saw them last, but it was easy enough to figure out what was going on.

The entire show appears to have been heavily influenced by the original “Star Wars”. (I guess most space stories are in the “post-Star Wars era”). The captain of the ship is a dead-on for Han Solo containing everything from the dry sense of humor, to the scoundrel with a heart of gold, to the willingness to fight dirty and shoot first.
And the actor who plays the captain appears to be channeling Harrison Ford, with even his facial expressions inviting comparison.
(The comparison is so obvious, that the movie doesn't even try and hide it, and on some of the DVD extras the staff jokes about the similarities to Han Solo.)

Many of the planets the crew lands on also contain on uncanny resemblance to Tatooine. There are a lot of dusty sandy landscapes. And there’s also a bar full of scoundrels that could easily be a stand-in for “Mos Eisley”.
I believe there’s even a term for this concept in sci-fi circles called “a used-circle”. I’m not sure if “Star Wars” was the first movie to introduce the concept or not (perhaps someone out there can fill me in) but there’s no doubt many movies since “Star Wars” have made use of it, and this is no exception.

But if this movie/ TV show borrows a little bit from “Star Wars”, who am I to criticize? Art, as they say, does not exist in a vacuum, and everything borrows from everything else. It seems like the writers have got a pretty neat concept here, and I’m sure it would have been a great TV show if the networks hadn't cancelled it.

As a movie however, I thought it was just so-so. The problem with making a movie out of an old TV show is that fans expect anything on the big silver screen to be bigger and better than regular TV. If it feels just like a 2 hour episode of the show, you feel kind of disappointed. So there’s a lot of pressure on the screenwriters to come up with something that will blow you out of your seat.

And to be honest, to me it felt like a regular TV show. It wasn't a high budget movie, so there wasn't a ton of money to splurge on special effects, and you can tell that watching this.

The script, to be fair, does its best to come up with something that will really shock the fans. I don’t want to give anything away (although I’m sure all the fans have already seen the movie long ago by now anyway) but a few regular characters do get knocked off in this movie. And a few character relationships do develop themselves.
But all this would be a lot more interesting if this was part of a continuing series. Knowing that this movie is the swan song for these characters anyway, it is difficult for someone not a hard core fan to really care. The series is over. Let the writer kill off all of the characters. What’s the difference?

There are some half-decent action scenes. But the directing is not up to Spielberg quality. And he’s obviously working on a small budget. There’s not a lot of tight cuts, amped up dramatic music, or amazing special effects that make you feel like you’re watching a big summer blockbuster. And so, although it’s obvious that a bit more time and a few more stuntman were in the action scenes, it still feels like a TV show.

Link of the Day
On Parallel Earth, the Republican presidential candidate is an actual Neanderthal

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Transformers

(Movie Review)

Well, obviously I waited a while before rushing out to see this movie. But I've been assured by a number of people that this movie, while not exactly a work of art, was a decent enough popcorn movie. And since I was in the mood for something light and fluffy the other night, I decided to give it a try.

Like every child of the 80s, “Transformers” has a certain nostalgia value for me. And like every 7 year old boy, I thought a toy car that transformed into a robot was the coolest thing ever. (A couple years ago when I was working at the department store stocking toy shelves, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that “Transformers” are still a popular item 20 years later).

However as a result of a conservative upbringing, I was not allowed to watch the TV show a child. (My parents allowed me to have some of Transformer toys (provided it was nothing that could transform into a gun), but not to watch the TV show. (Which seems like a bit of a contradiction, but I guess parenting must all be about compromises). And so my knowledge of Transformer lore is pretty limited compared to a lot of my peers. I knew who Optimus Prime was, and I knew who Bumblebee was, but that was about it. And even then, I knew about these characters only in the sense I knew there was a toy connected to them. I never grew to care for them as beloved characters on a favorite TV show. [Although a couple years ago, Dean showed me the Transformers cartoon movie (the one where Optimus Prime dies) at his house, thus filling me in a little bit].

Therefore having mentioned the nostalgia factor, I must also state that it has its limits in my case. The idea of seeing these cartoon robots from the 1980s transformed into a live action movie does not excite me as much as it might for someone else my age.

Which leaves just the movie itself. And the movie is pretty terrible.

It’s a Michael Bay movie, so I guess you get what you've come to expect. Namely:
* Lots of action scenes with tons of explosions and car crashes. But somehow never really puts me on the edge of my seat.

I’m not quite sure what it is about Michael Bay action scenes, but I never really get into them. It’s certainly nothing like, say, the jeep scene from “Radars of the Lost Ark”, where you feel every punch Indy hits, and you’re on pins and needles wondering how in the world he’ll ever come out on top.
Granted Spielberg is setting the bar pretty high, I know, but for all the sound and fury of a Michael Bay film, I've never felt absorbed in any of the action sequences he’s done. Instead I've felt like I was just watching a fireworks show of explosions and flying cars, and men running around.
(I also got the impression that this movie was made to be watched on the big screen. I had trouble following all the action scenes on my small TV screen.)

Another part of the Michael Bay trademark is
*a plot which walks a thin line between asking the audience to suspend disbelief, and actively insulting the audience’s intelligence

In this case though, I think he’s outdone himself.
Really, the plot of this film is just ridiculous. The overarching concept story is bad enough, but none of the little twists along the way make a whole lot of sense either.

Part of me is sorely tempted to make a long angry list of all the plot points in this film that make absolutely no sense. But I don’t think that would be a very productive use of my time. The plot holes are glaring enough, that if you've watched the movie, I’m sure you’ll be able to pick them up on your own without my assistance.

It’s not only the plot though. A lot of the physical action of this film defies credulity. The scene where the giant Transformer robots are hiding behind the house? And the parents still don’t notice? (Actually, why it was of the upmost importance to keep their existence a secret from the parents in the first place is something I never understood, but I promised myself I wouldn't write a list of all the holes in the plot).

A friend of mine told me, “It’s an OK movie, except whenever anyone opens their mouth.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to grant the first half of that statement, but the dialogue is definitely painful. And this is a feature that starts right from the opening monologue, and then just gets worse and worse as the film progresses.

All of these criticisms aside, I do have to admit the film is kind of entertaining, in a popcorn flick sort of way. There are enough explosions, car chases, and fighting robots to encourage you to shovel in the popcorn.
The plot and dialogue are terrible, but even that sort of grew on me after a while. I actually looked forward to when a character would open his mouth, just so I could hear the incredibly bad dialogue. And when the plot of the movie took yet another ridiculous twist, I kind of enjoyed seeing it sink to a new low. And it even was kind of fun to see how blatantly this movie was pandering itself to the high school crowd. (In the film, the top NSA experts in the country are slackers recruited right out of high school).
For best results, this movie should probably be watched by with a group of friends so you can shout it down “Mystery Science Theater 3000” style, but even alone in my apartment I was able to get a small kick out of enjoying how bad this movie was.

The final battle takes place in a city, which was another plot twist I didn't understand. Why did the army think it would be a good idea to draw the battle into the middle of a downtown city?

As the giant robots fought each other, buildings were demolished and panicked civilians ran for their lives. (Although they never seemed to run very far. Even after the battle had been going on for a good 15-20 minutes or so, there seemed to be no effort to evacuate the city, and each office building or restaurant the robots crashed into was full of people going about their business and caught completely off guard).

...Anyway, I was watching this scene, and I thought, “This is just as bad as those old Godzilla movies.”
And then I remembered, “Wait a minute, I use to love those old Godzilla movies.” When I was 12, 13, even into my mid-teens I was a huge Godzilla fan. And those old movies were much worse than this one. They didn't have any special effects, or big explosions, or car chases.

And it suddenly occurred to me that if I had been 12 when this movie came out, it probably would have been the coolest thing ever.
…And that probably explains the success of Michael Bay’s film career in a nut shell. The fact that hundreds of people turn 12 every day is going to keep this man in business for a long time.

*************************************************************
Since I’m in Japan, and since this movie is based off a Japanese anime, I should probably write a few words about its reception in Japan.

As far as I can tell, no one in Japan even remembers the old TV show. It obviously had a lot less impact here in Japan than it did back home.

You should, of course, always take what I say with a grain of salt, because I don’t watch a lot of Japanese TV, and my information is based on just the handful of people I happen to talk to out here in the boondocks in Oita prefecture. But I've mentioned “Transformers” to several Japanese people my age, and none of them knew what I was talking about.

“What!” I would say. “This was absolutely huge in the 80s. The big robots who could change into cars! Sure you must remember this.”

And they would pause to think for a while, and then say that it did sound kind of familiar now that I mentioned it, but they couldn't really remember any specifics.

This is not only true of “Transformers”, but a lot of the other Japanese cartoons we grew up with. I have yet to find a Japanese person who knows what I’m talking about when I mention “Voltron”. (Even when I use the Japanese name for the show “Go-Lion”). And, although I was at least able to find “The Mysterious Cities of Gold” in my video store (which is more than I can say for either “Voltron” or “Transformers”), when questioned none of my Japanese friends seem to remember it either.

Part of this is probably because there is so much Japanese Anime. And a lot of it is all pretty much the same. There were so many Anime series about robots that could change shapes, I think it must all run together in the Japanese memory.

But it’s also interesting how some things can change in popularity when they come across the ocean. Any foreigner who has come to Japan I think is surprised (and perhaps slightly worried) at how popular “The Carpenters” are in Japan. Whereas most Japanese people have never heard of, say, someone like Jimi Hendrix.
And, as I've mentioned on this blog before, most Japanese people have never heard of “Sudoku”.
Likewise the cartoon and TV shows that appear to be very popular with Japanese children (Doraemon, Ultraman, Gamon Rider, Conan Detective, et cetera) have yet to make it really big on the other side of the Pacific.

Link of the Day
Elsewhere
I have had trouble putting my finger on just why I find McCain's cynical, sinister choice of Palin so incredibly infuriating-slash-depressing. Fortunately there is no lack of articulate people to fill in my silence. Links via bookforum.

"I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not." The Paris Review interviews Marilynne Robinson (via Maude Newton).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Talleyrand by Robin Harris

(Book Review)

I saw this book in a Fukuoka bookstore, and thought, “Talleyrand..., Talleyrand..., that sounds like a familiar name. I've heard that before somewhere.” And that was about the extent of my knowledge before buying this book. However, looking over it, and noticing that Tallyrand’s life dealt with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (areas of history I wanted to learn more about) I decided to buy the book and give it a try.

In case you don’t know anymore about the life of Talleyrand than I did, it turns out he had quite a long and interesting career. He started out as a clergyman, and worked his way up to become the archbishop of Autun. Then, when the Estates General was opened in 1989, Talleyrand became active in the French Revolution, helping to create the civil constitution of the clergy. Eventually Talleyrand left the church for greater ambitions, but when the French Revolution got to hot for him he fled to England. When he was declared an undesirable alien in England, he went to America. Once things calmed down in France, Talleyrand returned and became involved with the Directory phase of the Revolution. Talleyrand became foreign minister under the Directory, and organized Napoleon’s disastrous expedition into Egypt. Talleyrand then helped to organize Napoleon’s coup in 1799. After that he served as Napoleon’s foreign minister, reshaping, together with Napoleon, all of the maps of Europe. Once he became disillusioned with Napoleon, Talleyrand helped to organize his downfall and arranged for the restoration of King Louis XVIII. After the Bourbon kings were thrown out in the July Revolution, Talleyrand served as French ambassador to London under Louise-Philippe before finally dying in 1838.

As you can see, there’s a lot of ground that needs to be covered in this autobiography, and in fact the author opens with a quote from Talleyrand’s secretary, “I have often myself seen [Talleyrand] smile at the idea of anyone attempting his autobiography.”

Perhaps because of the vast amount of material that needs to be covered, the author Robin Harris gives virtually no background information about any of the events he talks about. The assumption is that the reader is already well-versed in 18th and 19th Century European history, and is just seeking a better analysis of what they already know.

For a paperback history I bought in a popular bookstore, I found it a surprisingly difficult read. This might be partly because it was a written by a British author and published in London, and my impression, from talking to the Brits I’ve met here in Japan, is that they tend to be a lot better educated about European history than we Americans.

I was, however, able to make sense of this book partly by constantly referring back to the young adult biography of Napoleon that I read recently .

If I had my choice, I would have preferred to read a biography of Talleyrand that explained the background of what was happening a little bit more, but I still enjoyed this.

Talleyrand’s life as a Bishop was fascinating to read about because he was incredibly promiscuous. And the impression I got from this book was that in 18th Century France all the clergy were promiscuous, and no one really seemed to care.

This, it turns out, is one of many scandals that surround the life and career of Talleyrand. He comes through in the book like the cocky smart kid

It turns out that Talleyrand was also behind the “X,Y,Z affair” which is something I vaguely remember learning about in my high school American history class.

“Since 1796, French corsairs had been attacking American shipping, in retaliation against the Jay Treaty between the US and Britain, which was deemed by Paris to have breached the terms of American neutrality. A delegation was sent to Paris in the autumn of 1797 to recover damages for US losses and to bring an end to the dispute. But the three American negotiators, John Marshall, Charles Pickney and Elbridge Gerry, were shocked by the treatment they received. They were approached by a series of agents, whose precise status was obscure, but who were clearly working for Talleyrand and who figured in President Adam’s later report to Congress on the matter as ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. The American envoys were told that the precondition for success was the payment of what amounted to substantial bribes. Specifically, they were asked to underwrite a loan of 32 million Dutch florins, to make a gift of 50,000 gold louis to the Directory, and to provide ‘sweeteners’ for the Foreign Minister and his intermediaries. The Americans sent back a long indignant report about these outrageous proceedings, which President Adams duly conveyed to Congress.
The scandal in the United States was immense. It then reached the French public through British press reports. Talleyrand indignantly defended his reputation. He even managed to persuade Gerry, the most Francophile of the US negotiators, to lend some support to his protestations of innocence. To the Directory, he simply denied any knowledge. His protestations can hardly have been credible, but for a time he survived in office. This was partly because Barras, his protector, was involved as well. But it was also because, despite the scandal, both the French and American governments knew that no one was better equipped to negotiate the peace between them than Talleyrand. It was in order to press these complicated negotiations forward that the Directory wanted Talleyrand to stay in Paris, rather than go to Constantinople….”


Talleyrand’s corruption and willingness to take bribes is a common theme in the book, but as the author points out, “Far from alienating foreign powers, Talleyrand’s venality pleased them. It seemed to guarantee his flexibility.”

In short, although sections of this book were a struggle for me, I enjoyed it on the whole and I think it helped a lot to broaden my understanding of this time period in history.

Link of the Day
Who could have ever seen this financial mess coming?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

NHK 大河ドラマ新撰組! / NHK Historical Drama: Shinsengumi!

(Japanese Video Series)

After I finished the Asahi Newsreel videos, I was hoping to find another documentary series. (I was thinking of trying to keep to a pattern of watching one anime series and one documentary series). When my local video store didn’t have another documentary series, I moved onto the historical drama section instead.

NHK, the publicly funded broadcast channel in Japan (the equivalent of the BBC or PBS) has a tradition dating back to the 1960s of producing one historical drama a year. Each year they pick out one episode from Japanese history, make it into a drama, and then show one episode a week over the course of a year. The drama wraps up right around Christmas time, and they start up a new historical drama with the new year.
It’s actually a pretty cool idea really. I wish we had a similar program in the US.

My local video store has several of the more popular series from past years on DVD, and I decided to work my way through one of them. I chose the series about the Shinsengumi, because it was the only story I was at all familiar with. And when you’re watching a television series in a foreign language, it’s always a bonus to have some knowledge of the story before hand.

The Shinsengumi were a special Samurai police force created by the Shogun to keep order in the streets of Kyoto during the chaotic years before the Meiji Revolution. Similar to the sheriffs of the old West, the Shinsengumi have become the stuff of myth and legend in Japan. (The last time I was in a Japanese bookstore, I noticed there’s a whole monthly magazine devoted to the Shinsengumi).

I first encountered the Shinsengumi about a year ago when one of our students (who was a bit of a Shinsengumi nut) loaned me his copy of “When the Last Sword is Drawn". Next I found an English book on the Shinsengumi when I was in Fukuoka: “Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps” by Romulus Hillsborough. Finally, I watched “Gohatto”, another film about the Shinsengumi (albeit one that makes some unorthodox reinterpretations about their sexuality).

After all that, plus 50 hours watching the NHK television series, you might think I’m turning into a bit of a Shinsengumi nut myself. Shoko certainly did. And in truth I did get more and more into it as the series went on. But I was never a huge Shinsengumi fan. They were right wing nut jobs on a power trip. (It’s possible to romanticize them now because they lived in the age of Samurai. If they had lived in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia, you can bet their story wouldn’t be nearly as appealing).
But because the Shinsengumi were a story I was already familiar with, I decided I could work my way through this series. I had already read Romulus Hillsborough’s history of the Shinsengumi, but to help me keep track of the story I re-read it 3 more times while I worked my way through this DVD series. (Yes, I’m a bit of a geek, I know.)
As a result of reading Hillsborough’s book to the point of memorization, and watching the whole NHK TV series, I feel like I’m a bit of an expert on the Shinsengumi now. Which is a bit odd, considering a year ago at this time I didn’t even know they existed. It’s a shame I’ve decided not to go on and pursue Japanese studies—now this is just going to be more useless knowledge I have floating around my head.
[I should also make the disclaimer that since Romulus Hillsborough’s book is the only English book available on the Shinsengumi, I am entirely dependent on his interpretation. I’ll make that disclaimer here at the beginning, but it holds true for the whole review.]

During the course of this whole project, it was also interesting to notice what a great educational tool TV can be. When I first read Hillsborough’s history, I had a really hard time keeping all the names and various factions straight, and I forgot most of what was in the book within a few weeks after reading it.
However, after seeing it all acted out for me on TV, I can remember every character perfectly and now have a name and face associated with all of the major members of the Shinsengumi. Live action drama seems to make much more of a lasting impression on my brain than just words on a page. (This drama also helped me get straight the different factions in the Meiji Restoration, but more on that later).

Before I started watching, Shoko warned that NHK dramas are not always perfectly historically accurate. “They change a few things around to make it more interesting,” she said. “You know how you’re always complaining about how historically inaccurate the TV series ‘Rome’ is? It’s kind of like that.”
[It took a few years, but “Rome” has finally hit the video stores in Japan. I’ve got to admit, I thought Mr. Guam might have just been being a puritan when he said it wasn’t very historically accurate, but after watching a few episodes for myself I got so upset by all the bad history I couldn’t finish watching it. But that’s another subject for another post.]

The NHK series is both accurate and inaccurate at the same time. On one hand, when you have 50 hours to tell a story, you can afford to take the time to be accurate. It’s not like the Hollywood biopic where everything has to be crammed into 2 hours. This film starts at the very beginning of the Shinsengumi (actually it starts several years before the beginning) and continues methodically through all of the major events up until the end.

On the other hand, the whole series is a whitewash of the Shinsengumi. In real life they were notorious killers. In this series, they abhor unnecessary violence, and only fight when it’s forced upon them. Thus, all the incidents when the Shinsengumi were the aggressors have to be reworked so that they were mere victims.

In “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film”, Donald Richie writes that “The Shinsengumi, a pro-government army [is] usually portrayed as a benevolent band of Boy Scouts” by Japanese media.
Richie doesn’t mention the NHK series specifically, but I suspect he had it in mind when he wrote those words. It is hard to imagine a more goody-two-shoes boy scout esque group of young men than The Shinsengumi as portrayed in this series. They help old women clean their houses, they protect the virtue of young maidens, and make toys for young children. None of them would so much as hurt a fly if he didn’t have to.

Someone more knowledgeable about Japanese culture might have to comment here, but I don’t think there’s any ulterior political motive behind this revisionist history. The Shinsengumi might have been right wing conservatives in the Edo period, but they belong to a time and political structure that no longer exists. Modern Japanese right wing nationalism all dates back to the Meiji Restoration, a revolution that the Shinsengumi were on the other side of.
To put this in terms of American politics: it would be like making a TV series which glorified the British loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

I suspect that the only motive behind this white wash of the Shinsengumi was just to make interesting TV. You have to create likeable characters in order for the audience to get absorbed in the story and keep coming back every week. Especially for a show targeted towards families. Also there’s been a big change in the value system from Edo Japan to modern Japan, so it was necessary to make the Shinsengumi acceptable for a modern audience.

That's my theory anyway. If someone reading this knows more, feel free to correct me.

The rose tinted lenses through which the Shinsengumi is portrayed in this series starts with the casting. The leader of the Shinsengumi, the notorious Kondo Isami, is played in this series by Shingo Katori of the pop group Smap.
(Smap is a popular boy group in Japan which also has their own variety show on TV. They might be considered the Japanese equivalent of “The Monkees” if The Monkees had stayed on TV and stayed popular well into their late 30s.)
The lovable Shingo represents an odd choice of casting for the killer Kondo Isami. Again, to put this in American terms, it might be like producing a TV series on Al Capone versus Elliot Ness, and have having all the characters on both sides played by lovable boy band idols like N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys (or whatever it is you kids are listening to now a days).

The series starts out in 1853 with the arrival of Matthew Perry and the black ships, 10 years before the Shinsengumi was even formed. Kondo Isami and his friend (and later 2nd in command) Hijikata Toshizo journey out to see the ship along with Sakuma Shozan, Sakamoto Ryoma, and Katsura Kogoro (all 3 leading figures in the Meiji Restoration).
In real life, as far as I can tell from Romulus Hillsborough’s history, Kondo and Hijikata never ventured out to see Matthew Perry’s ships, and they never met Sakuma Shozan, Sakamoto Ryoma or Katsura Kogoro in person.

From this moment, until the formation of The Shinsengumi 10 years later, the characters of Kondo and Hijikata act like sort of Forest Gumps of Japanese history during the 1850s. They somehow manage to randomly pop up at most of the key moments.
They discover a plot by xenophobic Samurai to assassinate the American diplomat Henry Conrad Joannes Heusken, and they try to intervene to protect Heusken. (The assassination itself is historical fact, but I don’t believe Kondo and Hijikata were involved).
[There is, by the way, a rather shameless scene in which the Japanese writers put a long speech into the mouth of the American diplomat Heusken along the lines of, “Even if I’m killed here, I have no regrets. I’m thankful just for the opportunity to have seen such a wonderful country.”
...Oh well. At least it’s no worse than the kind of patriotic mush you can also see on American TV.]
Kondo and Hijikata are also present at the scene just after the Shogun regent Ii Naosuke is assassinated by Imperial loyalists. And they befriend key figures in the Meiji restoration movement like Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro (mentioned above).
During this time, the members of Kondo’s fencing school (who would later form the core of the Shinsengumi) are slowly assembling, but by the time the Shinsengumi is actually created, the series is already one fourth over.

During the beginning of the series, Kondo Isami, the historically cold blooded killer, seems to be portraying a version of Gandhi. Kondo refuses to kill anyone, even in self defense. When he finally does kill someone to save the life of his friend Hijikata, Kondo is filled with remorse.
As the series progresses, he eventually does make a transformation to someone who believes violence is occasionally necessary, but he never becomes the ruthless killer portrayed in Romulus Hillsborough’s book.

According to Romulus Hillsborough, the Shinsengumi had a rule that if you do not kill your opponent in a fight, you must commit seppuku (harakiri). It was, he writes, “a particularly severe regulation that perhaps more than anything else accounted for the lethality of the Shinsengumi”. In the NHK drama, this regulation is nowhere to be seen, and the Shinsengumi always show mercy to weaker enemies.

As a history purist, I was slightly upset by the numerous historical inaccuracies. And yet at the same time I have to admit it made the series more interesting. Not only did it increase the like-ability of the main characters, but, since I had read Romulus Hillsborough’s book, and knew what was coming, I knew that as the series progressed the innocent boy scouts portrayed in the Shinsengumi were going to have factional infighting, start killing each other in some cases, and in other cases force each other to commit seppuku. It kept me wondering. “How are they going to portray this or that incident without ruining the image of the pure hearted characters they’ve been showing so far?”

To their credit, the TV series did not omit any of the bloodier or uglier incidents in the Shinsengumi history, but they always found an interesting way of interpreting these incidents to show that the Shinsengumi was never at fault itself, and their leader Kondo Isami abhorred any unnecessary bloodshed.

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Because of the length of this series, it took me over half a year to work my way through the whole thing. Which means I started it before I broke up with Shoko, and near the end of the relationship, when she got increasingly frustrated with all of my habits, this used to be one of the things she would (repeatedly) criticize me for. “Japanese history is thousands of years long,” she used to say. “If you’re going to make a serious effort to study it, you can’t spend all your time on just the Shinsengumi.”

And yet, from this series I learned a lot about not only the Shinsengumi, but also the Meiji Restoration.

For example Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the leading figures of the Meiji Revolution is one of the main characters in this series. In fact on the DVD jacket cover, Sakamoto Ryoma is billed as one of the 3 leading characters in the show. In some episodes sometimes as much time is devoted to Sakamoto Ryoma’s exploits as to the Shinsengumi. And near the end a whole episode revolves around Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination.

Sakamoto Ryoma is sort of like the Thomas Jefferson of Japan. He didn’t actually survive until the Meiji Restoration (he was assassinated in 1867) but he helped to broker the alliances that would result in the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogun, and his ideas helped to shape the new era.

In real life, Sakamoto and Kondo probably never met, and the two regarded each other as enemies. According to Hillsborough, “Several of Ryoma’s friends had been killed by the Shinsengumi, whom he [Sakamoto Ryoma] regarded as brutal thugs.” As for Kondo Isami, he was overjoyed to hear of Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination, and celebrated the news with a big drinking party.

However in the TV series, Sakamoto Ryoma and Kondo Isami are portrayed as close friends. Both of them undergo several ideological transformations throughout the course of the show, but they stay close friends throughout even as they end up on opposite sides of the revolution. Kondo even tries to intervenes to stop Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination.

Other leading members of the Meiji restoration are major characters in this drama, such as Okubo Ichizo, the political leader of Satsuma, Iwakura Tomomi, the leader of the anti-Shogun faction of the Imperial court, Katsura Kogoro, the leader of the Choshu loyalists, Katsu Kaishu, the commissioner of the Tokugawa Navy, and many others. Near the end of the series, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun, also becomes a major character.

I had read about all of these figures before, but I could never remember who was who. Seeing it all acted out on TV for me cemented it firmly into my brain and I started to be able to keep it all straight. I shocked several of my students by being able to converse with them about the various figures in the Meiji Restoration. (Actually, in Japan the bar is set pretty low for foreigners to begin with. Just as Japanese people are very impressed if you can utter even a few words of Japanese, they tend to also be easily impressed if you know even a few basics of Japanese history. Just knowing the name “Meiji” can sometimes create quite a stir.)

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There’s also an hour and a half epilogue about the last day of Hijikata Toshizo (the co-commander of Shinsengumi, and one of the last surviving members). It was in my video store alongside of the Shinsengumi drama, so I rented it and watched it as well. Hijikata Toshizo, and some of the other die-hard Tokugawa Shogun loyalists had attempted to create their own country, the Ezo Republic, up on the Northern island of Ezo. It was defeated by the Imperial troops, and Hijikata Toshizo died in the fight.
This was filmed a couple years after the original drama had ended, but it did manage to re-unite all of the original cast for a flashback scene.

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In addition to Katsura Shingo, there are a few other big name Japanese actors in this series. Serizawa Kamo, Kondo Isami’s rival for power in the Shinsengumi, is played by Sato Koichi who also played the Shinsengumi member Saito Hajime in the movie “When the Last Sword is Drawn”.

I thought the actor who played Okita Soji (the young 19 year old fencing prodigy in the Shinsengumi) looked familiar, and it turns out he was played by Fujiwara Tatsuya who played the lead character in “Battle Royale" and also the lead character in “Death Note” and “Death Note 2".

(Given my limited knowledge about Japanese pop culture, there are probably many more famous actors I didn’t recognize, but these are the ones I caught).

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Since my interests have shifted in another direction, this is the last Japanese DVD series I plan to work my way through.

In total, I’ve made it through 5 different series:
The Asahi Newsreels (mentioned above),
Romeo X Juliet,
The Mysterious Cities of Gold,
The Rose of Versailles,
And this Shinsengumi drama.

And I think 5 is a respectable number, considering each DVD series represents several hours of shows. This Shinsengumi series alone, for example, was over 50 hours and so represents the equivalent of one whole week of work. Or over 2 whole days of my life. Or (subtracting 8 hours sleep) over 3 days in terms of normal waking hours.

....Actually, maybe it’s best not to think about how much time I sunk into this project. At least the whole thing was good for my Japanese study. And I was able to learn a lot of Japanese history at the same time I practiced my Japanese language. So hopefully the whole thing isn’t a total waste.

Link of the Day
“History Could Be Swallowed Up So Completely”

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music music on Youtube.

Kiyoko Suizenji has long been one of my favorite old Japanese singers. When I first started linking to Japanese youtube videos, I had a hard time finding anything by her, but the internet has gotten bigger since then, and there are now several videos of her. She's from the mid to late 1960s, and does a good job of mixing traditional Enka melodies with a really bouncy pop beat. Like in this song here. And here. And here. And here. (There are a lot more videos on youtube, but this will give you a start and if you're really interested you can start sifting through them on your own).

Her big hit (although somewhat of an atypical sound for her) was the "365 Step March"