Direct Link to MP3 (11.0 MB, 12 minutes 06 seconds)
Akirascuro (Moe Fundamentalism)
A History of Akihabara (Tokyo Scum Brigade)
January 10, 2012
January 13, 2011
Sorry to keep you waiting! We’re back to the regular schedule.
So, I’m still unsure how much I like this season’s Gosick. I like Yuuki Aoi’s performance as Victorique, but the characters just don’t grab me yet. Still, the first mystery is intriguing, and I love the heavy Art Nouveau influence in the opening. Add in some token Gothic Lolita threads and dated racism towards East Asians, and the show gives us its handy shorthand for the 1920s…
None of which is actually, properly from the 1920s.
It’s a tricky period to evoke, at least for Japan. For perspective, Gosick is supposed to be taking place at the same time as Taisho Yakyuu Musume. I’ve sung its praises before, but it bears mentioning that TYM has some interesting and authentic period dressing: School uniforms outnumbered by kimono, western-style restaurants, and even, in the very beginning of the first episode, a cover of a contemporary enka song.
On the other hand, the opening, “Romantic Strike!,” is a notably different kind of retro.
Still, I believe that it’s retro with a purpose. The mind needs to be “taken back” a little. It’s easy to forget, for example, that Steel Angel Kurumi took place in the 1920s as well. You certainly wouldn’t remember from its theme song. Pawafuru mirakuru, imakuru.
It’s easy to see why anime goes back so often to the Taisho Era for its period pieces. It offers old-timey modernity without all the tricky wartime baggage that you’d get ten years later. But I think it’s interesting how wildly different each portrayal of this period is. It’s maybe a bit telling, too, just how rapidly everything in this culture changed.
December 1, 2010
(This is an entry about Otome Youkai Zakuro, a show airing this season about a cross-cultural exchange between Japanese soldiers and “youjin” spirit-folk in the Meiji era. I neglected to mention this in the first place, and I feel it’s important if you’ve never seen the show to at least know the setup. Sorry! - 2DT)
“In fact, the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.”
- Oscar Wilde
Old Oscar was being glib, but I think he was pretty much right. Japan as we know it was built from the efforts of the Meiji Restoration, from language to cultural values, even all the way down to the Japanese diet. I don’t mean the boring Diet with old guys (who don’t even settle their disputes with judo like their Asian neighbors). Let’s talk about the more fun, tastier diet.
Milk is nice, but for the most part it “does a body good” because we’re told that it does, and our food culture (e.g. cheese, ice cream, about half the items at Starbucks) is built around making that continue. Same with beef being “what’s for dinner”—it never has to be. But these are institutions, and as I’ve said before, institutions last.
Nowhere is this clearer than the transition of Japan into a meat-eating, dairy-swilling society. The ruling classes before the Restoration were familiar with milk, but the Tokugawa government enforced a strict ban on eating four-legged animals. Even when people did have meat, it was wild boar and venison (at least according to The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi). So when commoners were introduced to milk and beef during the Meiji era, there was a struggle to get people to drink this smelly white beverage and eat the meat of the work animal that it came from.
“Consume these products,” the rationale went, “and we will be healthy and hearty like the westerners.” But it took a lot of getting used to. Zakuro obviously isn’t having any of it, and according to history, neither did many others. But too bad they’re on the losing side of the culture war.
Because, you see, she’s already succumbing to ideology. Before the opening of Japan, there was no Japanese food. It was just food, Edo-style, Kyoto-style or what-have-you. But once the country began to absorb western ideas, it became necessary to say “this is Japanese food, that is foreign food.” The lines run deep: Even ramen wasn’t really considered Japanese cuisine until the first book on how to make it was published in 1928 (it still occupies a culinary gray area, in fact). So by drawing a line and engaging with “Jesuit” ideas, even if only to criticize them, Zakuro is participating in the long process of nation building.
It also helps that we know how this ends, at least for the food. Rice, miso soup and fish grilled in soy sauce is washoku, while curry stew, fried cutlets and omelettes are youshoku, and never the twain shall meet… Except that now, a century after the death of the Meiji Emperor, they totally do: Curry rice, omu-rice and katsu are as Japanese as it gets. Hybridity is wonderful.
May 16, 2010
This entry is dedicated to Jacob Martin, who turned out to be right after all.
Tomorrow, the seventh episode of Senkou no Night Raid (which will be streamed, not aired) will cover the Japanese side of the Manchurian Incident. Will the railroad bombing and subsequent invasion of Northeastern China be blamed on rogue officers? The shadowy higher-ups in the Japanese government? Perhaps even have the bombs set up by a fictional group of bad guys, who nonetheless give the Japanese Army exactly the excuse they’ve wanted?
In any case, there aren’t many ways the show can go wrong here, unless they have the temerity to claim that the Chinese actually did it. Compared to later history, the Manchurian Incident is a very “safe” way to acknowledge that Japan played dirty pool. Especially since, as hard as it is to say, the puppet state of Manchukuo actually had some good mixed into its wretched black heart.
The fact of the matter is, where Japan went, it industrialized. This is true of Manchuria, of Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. They didn’t do it for the benefit of the natives, of course, and certainly no one’s going to thank them after all the other things they did, but it left the groundwork for successful modernization in East Asia after the war. Also, although the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was a sham, the colonies did encourage some small sense of pan-Asian internationalism.
Consider the case of Li Xianglan. Born in Manchuria in 1920, she became a successful singer through the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, producing memorable hits like “Plum Blossom”:
After World War II, she was tried by the Chinese government for treason, allegedly acting as a spy for Japan. But here’s the catch: It turned out she couldn’t be tried, because she wasn’t Chinese. Li Xianglan, birth name Otaka Yoshiko, was second-generation Japanese. But that didn’t make her identity fake; Li Xianglan was her real Chinese name, given to her in childhood by her Chinese godfathers. She was a child of both cultures, at a time when that was simply unacceptable.
Interesting, right? At the best of times, I think we see some of this awkward positivity in Senkou no Night Raid. Yes, that dim sum girl is a horrible caricature (I don’t even remember her name—just please, give me one Chinese character without a single hair bun!), but the characters seem quite comfortable with their life in Shanghai. If they weren’t playing superpowered watchdog for the Japanese Empire, one would think they’d even be happy there.
Obviously, nice railroads and happy Japanese-Chinese people don’t make up for Unit 731 and the mass slave labor of Chinese civilians. Not even close! But those sorts of things shouldn’t be overlooked or forgotten, either. At least that’s what I think.
Major Arcana offers a very good historical primer.
April 20, 2010
For new readers visiting from the Aniblog Tourney, welcome! Have a look around, and feel free to ask questions via comments or e-mail.
Here’s the chef’s recommendation: My four favorite entries, which I feel exemplify 2-D Teleidoscope’s goals and methods. I’ve ordered them like a countdown, because I’ve always wanted to do something dramatic like that, but I’ll let them speak for themselves otherwise. Enjoy.
All right, now with that out of the way, let’s move to the topic at hand.
“Afternoon tea has been drunk by the English ever since the custom was started by the Duchess of Bedford in the mid-19th century.”
- Bottle label, Kirin Afternoon Tea
Japan’s fascination with afternoon tea goes well beyond the Sakura High School light music club. There are many English-style tea rooms in Japan, and the average café has tea in abundance. But the odd thing is, if you try to search for information about afternoon tea in Japan, you will come up with a lot of information about green tea and the Japanese tea ceremony, but precious little about the western kind.
If there’s one thing that the British Empire offered the world, it was standardization: One monarch, one currency, one official language… even, in fact, one preferred beverage. Wherever the British went, hot black tea sweetened and mixed with milk inevitably came with them. You still see the evidence today, in places like Hong Kong and India.
Japan was never colonized, of course, but it specifically avoided such a fate by rapidly absorbing as much of the trappings of the west as it could, especially from England. So, is it possible that this is one of those trappings, being poured after school by Mugi’s skillful hands? Are we looking at a Meiji-era tradition, or a mere fad of recent years?
The little info I’ve found suggests that it’s recent, but only in terms of places that specialize in tea. Coffee has apparently been in Japan since 1877, coffeehouses since 1888, and there are some places open today that have been around since the 1900s. I suppose that makes sense, given that Japan was forced open by a coffee-drinking culture. Still, this appears to be a relatively mysterious part of Japanese history, ripe for research.
Well, one thing we can know for certain, at least: These girls sure eat a lot of cake. You might recall in the first season that Mugi started bringing them because she claimed to have too many at her house all the time, which, given Japan’s sprawling bakery culture, makes sense. The number of boulangeries and patisseries (and they insist on such names; rarely will you get a mere quotidian “bread/cake store”) in your average Japanese city is dizzying. They also tend to model themselves after French institutions, which explains the popularity of mont-blancs and those light and fluffy cheesecakes.
For our purposes, they exist purely to give our favorite characters something to munch on. But it’s an interesting thought, how internationalization has seeped into Japan’s food, and unwittingly into the things we watch.
April 17, 2010
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy B Gata H Kei, but it’s actually quite good. It manages to be a sex comedy that doesn’t fall into the usual anime sex comedy pitfalls. The show’s consistently funny, even sweet. I think most of us can relate to wanting to seem more mature than we really were (or are). But that stuff aside, I’m especially drawn to one element in particular.
Is that surf rock I hear in the opening? How interesting!
To explain why that matters, we have to hop into a time machine and take another detour through Japanese history. But we’re not going terribly far back—just to the period starting around Showa 35, all the way to about Showa 50. In other words, we’re looking at the time between 1960 and 1975, the teenage heyday of today’s middle-aged Japanese.
The US occupation of Japan had ended only ten years before this time, and although there was some international tension, Japanese young people were happily consuming western pop culture at unprecedented rates. Japan was struck by Beatlemania at the same time as everybody else, and they liked Elvis Presley just as much as we did. They also developed a particular fondness for American surf rock in the mid-1960s.
Inevitably, there were imitators. The Beatles gave birth to Japanese “Group Sound” bands like the Tigers and the Tempters, and Elvis resulted in a lively rockabilly culture that is still going strong in Japan to this day (look at the gang leader Hebitani from A Certain Scientific Railgun, for example). And surf rock, oddly enough, became a popular style used by young female pop singers—in other words, what we might consider the first wave of modern idols.
See the video above. This was the stuff kids listened to in those days. Looking back on it now, I think it’s pretty neat, but the older generation at the time probably considered it a barely-musical load of tripe. Still, those kids grew up to take the reins of Japan, including the nascent industries of otaku culture, anime and tokusatsu. So is it any surprise that ‘70s shows like Kikaida were heavy on the surf rock themes as well?
Obviously, when surf rock is used in shows as background music or in opening themes (see, for example, Seto no Hanayome), it’s supposed to evoke thoughts of summer sun and beach ball fun, much like it does for westerners. I’ve mentioned before that anime soundtracks can be rather mercenary when it comes to mixing and matching styles. But there’s also a surprisingly heavy nostalgia associated with the surf rock sound in Japan, and a deeper history than you might expect at first.
Postscript: Not everyone’s watching this show, so it occurs to me that I ought to post a video of the opening itself. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure.
April 6, 2010
This entry is dedicated to Yumeka and Wanderer. Thanks a bunch.
The idea for this post started with a picture: An illustration of Ibuki from Street Fighter that my brother linked me one night. As far as ninja go, she’s rather pragmatic. Her clothes are traditional in baggy gray, completely unlike Shiranui Mai (from Fatal Fury)’s titillating reds and whites. Ibuki’s appeal seems to be that she’s a normal girl who happens to have been born and raised in a ninja village.
And yet, somehow, the two don’t seem all THAT different in spirit.
Maybe one’s Iga and the other Koga?
Women’s history (sometimes called “herstory” by people who aren’t bothered too much by etymology) can be a tricky subject, mostly because of a lack of material from the time before people decided it was important to note what women did. In the case of ninja, where fact, myth and known secrets collide and get mixed up, it’s quite difficult to get a clear history of female ninja, kunoichi, in particular. But I got curious.
As I started looking into the subject, I discovered some surprising things. I learned about Mochizuki Chiyome, a Sengoku-era noblewoman and the first kunoichi, who took girls off the streets and trained them in the arts of espionage and assassination for the daimyo. I found out about the onna-bugeisha, female samurai who enjoyed equal privilege with men until the Tokugawa government forced all women to fall into line. Tangentially, I also happened to read about the Meiji-era fascination with dokufu, or “poison women,” alluring murderesses who filled the pages of newspapers and pulp fiction.
In short, there’s a long shadow history in Japan about ruthless, powerful women. I call it shadow history, because now it has to be dug up from relative obscurity and separated from misogynist fantasies.
Today, of course, any discussion of ninja must eventually address Naruto. Not having read much of it myself, I asked some friends to fill me in. Apparently, rather than “ninja” and “kunoichi,” Naruto seems to favor the term “shinobi.” But there’s only one male healer in the cast, compared to six or seven female healers. Female shinobi in Naruto are often the weakest characters in a given team, and they are never the strongest. Finally, to round things off, here’s a post by Caddy C about women in Naruto. The gist of it is, they’re rather problematic.
Regardless of what female ninjas actually were or did in the misty past, today the kunoichi is loyal, selfless, remarkably skilled, yet sufficiently vulnerable to not threaten her male peers… She’s rather like the ideal Japanese girlfriend, actually.
I want to say, “how did it come to this?” but the truth is that I have a pretty good idea. It was only a matter of time.
March 15, 2010
I’m slightly behind on Hanamaru Kindergarten, but the last episode I saw was quite good. The yakuza child Hinagiku is a welcome addition to the cast; she’s clearly mature and refined beyond her years, but she still essentially acts like a little girl playing tea party. It’s great fun.
But then, why IS she so refined? Her family’s rich, certainly, but growing up in a house of gangsters and coming out like Hinagiku seems terribly unlikely. And yet, here we are, watching a five year-old girl in kimono breaking her sandal strap and introducing herself to a kabuki soundtrack. Of course, we’ve seen this type so often before.
(Incidentally, two of them also have enka theme songs. Coincidence?)
The yakuza princess is popular enough to share space on a TV Tropes entry (not that that says terribly much, mind). Sometimes she’ll have a bit of a rough, dangerous edge when backed into a corner, but the essential quality of the yakuza princess is her beauty, grace, and all those signs of an ancient fine Japanese pedigree, which are at odds with the family business. Or are they?
Here’s what I think: From the early 1800s to the present, hardly any aspect of Japanese culture has been left untouched by western modernity. Hiroki Azuma says that Japan has been fundamentally disrupted not just once, but twice in less than a century: First with the black ships and the Meiji Restoration, and secondly with defeat in World War II. Even the yamato nadeshiko, the “traditional” ideal Japanese woman, has been set up today as a reply to modern, western femininity.
And yet– claim Japanese television and movies– there is one institution that has survived the march of the ages. Its true origins are shrouded in mystery, but the popular imagination dictates that it goes back as far as the Tokugawa period, to the venerable days of the samurai. Today, it is extremely powerful, entrenched in all parts of society, and its members alone maintain the old ways. I’m talking, of course, about the yakuza.
It isn’t actually true. In real life, yakuza are really just organized thugs. But the belief that they follow ancient traditions and codes of honor—that’s no small thing. I’m saying that effectively, anime uses the criminal underground as its special space to reconstruct the lost ultra-traditional female.
(EDIT – Thanks, ghostlightning!)
First, remember this entry of mine?
No Longer Human and Misogyny
The yamato nadeshiko was originally part of that Meiji-era push to define what made Japanese culture so special and great. But it morphed into something particularly desperate during the Showa era: Women who proved their loyalty, their Japanese-ness, against the barbarian west. I would go further and say that since the end of World War II, the concept hasn’t moved away from that strict binary. A yamato nadeshiko is prized precisely because she’s such a rarity (such a direct opposite) among modern Japanese women.
When we’re dealing with otaku, it gets more complicated. If you don’t mind me dragging out Hiroki Azuma again, he says that a large part of the otaku superiority complex (sentiments along the lines of “we are the future of this country”) comes from an imagined connection to pre-modern traditions. Our old culture hasn’t been disrupted and lost, say the otaku; it has been preserved IN the otaku.
And yet! And yet, otaku culture proper is only about fifty years old. The people we know as Gainax (the guys who, incidentally, make Hanamaru Kindergarten) burst onto the scene only about twenty years after this whole thing began. Their earliest point of reference, contemporaneous with the rest of Japan, is the 1960s– in other words, the heyday of yakuza films, samurai movies and enka.
And then there’s some point to be made about how it all comes together through the otaku obsession with moe traits, and the general Japanese obsession with types. And Yamamoto-sensei, the main eye-candy, the big-breasted teacher who appears to be the perfect woman in every way without having to be a kimono-wearing Japanese girl, also complicates matters.
It’s a deep, rich subject. But at the same time, I just love how these kids can ride on grown-ups’ shoulders like parrots.
March 2, 2010
In that marvelous connective way that the blogosphere works sometimes, this post was brought about by two other posts.
The first is Listless Ink’s review of Iono the Fanatics, a yuri manga that differs from the norm in some key ways. This is not a post about yuri, but I recommend checking out the link to see what that’s all about. The point of interest for me was Yi’s use of the original Japanese title, which is just plain wrong English.
The second inspirational post comes from 21stcenturydigitalboy’s side blog, where he mentions a samurai-themed Japanese show using the English word “spirit” in its lyrics, as in “nihon no suppiritsu.” The entry’s second point, about contemporary samurai shows using loan words that would not have existed in that era, ties it all together nicely.
We are living in the third boom of Japanese English learning. The first was during the Meiji era, with places like Tokyo University set up to absorb English and western ideas, and it eventually tapered off with the end of the Taisho era. The second boom came during the US occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1960, for reasons which were very immediate and practical. The third boom arguably began in 1987, with the foundation of the JET Program, but I’d say it’s firmly a product of the Heisei era and globalization.
In other words, Japan has a very long history of interacting with English, and three distinct periods where English was absorbed rather rapidly. I believe that this is the cause of so many English-esque artifacts which have been embedded, without grammatical rhyme or reason, into the Japanese language.
The first that comes to mind is the word “the.” Forget for a moment that even your average native speaker can’t explain why exactly we use “the” when we do. The Japanese have taken our colloquial tendency to say “THE (something)” when we want to emphasize how great it is, and they’ve run with it. Which is why you get drinks called “The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky,” or going back to square one, Iono the Fanatics.
Another good example is the phrase “let’s.” The Japanese use of “let’s,” if we were to translate it into our English, means something like “let’s do this thing together, in a fun and friendly way.” This is precisely why my portrait at school drawn by the art club has written above my face, in big letters: “Let’s English!” I appreciated the thought.
When Iono the Fanatics was brought to the US, the title was changed to what it would be called in Japanese, Iono-sama Fanatics. That was a sensible decision. It’s tempting to cringe at this abuse of our mother tongue. But on the flip side, when you’re at your next anime convention, don’t forget to look for the “hentai.” Pot, kettle, black.
January 21, 2010
My desk at school is a treasure trove of things forgotten by past teachers. This includes a small stack of worn out, sun-bleached books, one of which is a history text called The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853, by Janet E. Hunter, published in 1989.
It’s a curious relic, this book. Japan was still an industrial powerhouse, threatening the US with its machine-like work ethic and impenetrable bushido. It wasn’t called the “bubble economy” yet, because nothing had burst. Hunter spends much of the conclusion talking about how successful Japan is now, and in the very last paragraph she only briefly forecasts how this prosperity might collapse:
“Much of Japan’s success before and since the war has been due to the existence of a basic degree of consensus within Japanese society… The disappearance of such a degree of unity and consensus would mark a major turning point in the evolution of modern Japan, and two factors in particular may pose a threat to its continuing existence. One is that it could well be called into question if economic growth and rising standards of living encounter serious setbacks. Secondly, the accession of the new Heisei emperor in January 1989 symbolizes the advent of a new generation, which has known little of the hardship and adversity of earlier years. Should this new generation feel unable to go along with the established consensus, the consequences for Japan, and the rest of the world, could be even more fundamental.”
It’s beautiful, how accurate this is. We know that the first condition already happened in the 90s. And as for the second…
I’ve already spilled some ink about anime’s various messages of disillusionment (“Revisiting the Post-Apocalypse: Kara no Kyoukai’s Magic Dystopia”) and non-conformity (“Toradora! and the Dilemma of Masculinity”), but I believe it bears mentioning again: The new generation is not happy with its lot, and things are changing very quickly. Today’s young people are not interested in jumping the social hoops of their parents, judging by the rise of eternal part-timers and the willfully unemployed. So what takes the place of a “game” that was once so crucial to society?
Entertainment, of course. Pure entertainment. Millions of young people with time on their hands and energy to spare (if not money or future prospects) are bored out of their blessed minds. It’s like the reason why movie theaters do well in recessions. This generation born in peace, breast-fed on luxury and brought crashing into a stagnant, hopeless adulthood is going to seek out as much entertainment as it possibly can, in as weird and as random a form as it can get.
It hardly needs mentioning that the backdrop of Durarara!! is not the real Ikebukuro ward, as it exists in the real Tokyo metropolis. These are not real people living real lives. Like Digitalboy says, they’re more like crazy pulp characters than anyone you might actually bump into in Tokyo. But Durarara!! is faithful to the spirit of Heisei: the bored tribe of youth, fueled by urban legends and Internet bravado, endlessly looking for something interesting. And in that sense, everything you will see for the next twelve-odd episodes is one hundred percent True.