The Brilliant Framing and Paneling of Tezuka Osamu

So I’ve mentioned before that I’m an unabashed fan of Tezuka Osamu, the legendary “manga no kamisama” (god of manga). I’ve been going through his Hi no tori (Phoenix) for the first time in years, and I was struck by how innovative and expressive his paneling and framing is. Tezuka is credited with bringing cinematic techniques to manga. He used establishing shots, close ups, low angles, high angles, etc., whereas most of his predecessors tended to just draw a scene as if the reader were looking at a stage, static and from one angle. (I want to give due credit for this observation, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where I read it. Probably something by Fred Schodt.) Tezuka pioneered cinematic techniques that still look great today and indeed are still in use by manga artists.

But I want to look at a few examples where Tezuka really exploits paneling and framing, going beyond an imitation of cinema to demonstrate a mastery of his medium. This is not a comprehensive overview, by any means, just some things I noticed while reading Hi no tori.

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Mishima’s Manifesto

MishimaCoupSpeech

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Related to some recent research, I’ve been looking at Mishima Yukio’s manifesto (檄geki), which he famously read from the balcony of a Japan Self Defense Force commander’s office to a crowd of JSDF officers, after taking that commander hostage and just before committing ritual suicide in 1970. I haven’t been able to find a complete English translation of the manifesto (although I found a partial translation in John Nathan’s Mishima: A Biography). Since this manifesto is of some literary and historical interest, I decided to translate it here. Note that this is the text version of the speech sent to journalists, not what he actually read on that balcony: apparently he rushed through it as the JSDF officers below jeered and booed him. Continue reading

Conceptualizing Difference

Note: This post is mostly for future reference: something I can point students to if this topic comes up in class (as it sometimes does), although comments are of course welcome.

One of the features of our current age is a breakdown in representation. A few decades ago we were comfortable bunching people into various groups and representing them in various ways: “Americans believe such-and-such,” or “Japanese think in such-and-such a way.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to national groupings, we would say “East Coasters are such-and-such,” “women are such-and-such,” “men are such-and-such,” “Californians are such-and-such,” etc. But in our current age we tend to view this totalizing or essentializing impulse with increasing skepticism. After all, there is a huge amount of variation between individuals. Even neighbors or members of the same family have different priorities, belief sets or tastes. How can something that claims to represent a huge group of people, like “Americans” or “Japanese,” possibly be valid? Think of the fairly simple statement “Americans like cheese.” We might recognize that a lot of US cuisine features cheese, or that per capita cheese consumption in the US is higher than some other countries. But at the same time, we realize that not everyone who is American likes cheese, and we each probably even know several cheese haters ourselves. Therefore we have increasingly come to realize that such representative, totalizing statements are invalid, that even small groups are not uniform, and that we’re all defined individually.

Solving Poetry

There is an article by Andrew Simmons over at The Atlantic about the importance of teaching poetry. Most of the article advocates teaching more poetry in schools, which I wholeheartedly agree with. One section, however, takes issue with the approach to teaching it:

Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

As as someone who both appreciates and teaches poetry, I have to disagree with this. Analyzing a poem does not detract from the aesthetic enjoyment or emotional resonance one receives from reading it; in fact, it allows readers to appreciate it on a new, additional level. I can’t count the number of poems I’ve read through without interest, only to realize hours or days later that a close reading reveals something really interesting going on, making me appreciate its beauty in a way I did not before. I’ve never understood those who insist that approaching art critically somehow destroys appreciation of it. Is poetry really so frail that it can only remain beautiful if left unexamined? And teaching a critical approach to poetry is especially important, since students consume huge amounts of poetry (in the form of popular music), usually uncritically.

Grand Narratives as Moe Elements

I have recently been reading through Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. In it, he puts forth the theory that a database has replaced the Grand Narratives of modernity. He’s dealing with a lot of theory on postmodernity that has a long history of discourse by other philosophers and theorists, but he sums up the basic ideas quite succinctly:

[In modernity] Various systems were consolidated for the purpose of organizing members of society into a unified whole: this movement was a precondition for the management of society. These systems became expressed, for instance, intellectually as the ideas of humanity and reason, politically as the nation-state and revolutionary ideologies, and economically as the primacy of production. Grand narrative is a general term for these systems… Modernity was ruled by the grand narrative. In contrast, in postmodernity the grand narratives break down and the cohesion of the social entirety rapidly weakens. (p.26)

Teaching Literature and Information Resolution

Recently there has been a lot of conversation about the value of the humanities. It seems that increasingly people have been questioning the value of disciplines like literature. If, as seems to be the popular perception, higher education exists primarily as institutions for job training and credentialing, what is the point of teaching literature? Reading Flaubert doesn’t train any job skills or increase anyone’s employability. And as the cost of higher education goes up, these seemingly irrelevant courses begin to just look like a frivolous expense ripe for cutting, at least from general education requirements. And, of course, the study of literature doesn’t generally lend itself well to machine-graded tests and large lectures, meaning teaching literature is largely unaffected by the efficiency gains technology might bring to higher ed, making its cost relative to other courses seem higher. So why teach literature, much less require a couple of literature courses of every student, as most universities now do?

Well, I tend to think that the study of literature is inherently valuable (although I admit I’m a bit biased there). The ability to analyze a text is a critical skill that is immediately transferable and applicable to many areas of life: a law, company memo, conversation with a boss or TV commercial can be picked apart and analyzed for meaning in the same way literature can. Indeed, the move to emphasize job training over the humanities and the analytical skills they endow is a little creepy to me; an attempt to turn higher education into an apparatus that produces workers with the skills to be productive but none of the analytical capacity to question. And the ability to write, which students learn in humanities courses, is a crucial communications skill that anyone with even a modicum of responsibility in the corporate world must have.

But those are the arguments already out there, and many people remain unconvinced. So I’d like to throw another idea about why literature is valuable into the ring. Continue reading

Anachronistic language in Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is a TV show currently running on Fox. It reimagines Washington Irving’s classic story by making Ichabod Crane a Revolutionary War soldier who, after decapitating the (now) Headless Horseman, is mortally wounded. He is put into some sort of suspended animation by a witch to awaken in the present-day, 21st-century town of Sleepy Hollow, where he teams up with local law enforcement to fight off a host of supernatural horrors including the (also resurrected) Headless Horseman.

The show playfully uses the introduction of an 18th-century man to the 21st-century world as a way to slacken dramatic tension. Of course (as this show is on American primetime TV), Crane is remarkably enlightened for someone from the 1780’s; he is an abolitionist who, after one surprised comment about women wearing trousers, has no problem with the basic social reality of 21st-century America. But the show constantly uses Crane’s ignorance of 21st-century technology for comic relief; he tosses aside a handgun after firing it once, not realizing it has more bullets; he ends up showering himself with cold water when he tries to investigate modern plumbing; he records voicemails as if writing a letter; computers confound him, and he is flabbergasted by (although perhaps a bit curious about) a popup for sexy internet video chat. This comedy is playful rather than mean-spirited, as Crane excels in other areas his modern counterparts are ignorant of, and he is essential to the fight against the monsters.

Enterprise as the Story of a Prince

This week I finished watching Enterprise, the troubled Star Trek prequel series. I confess that I gave up on it back when it was on the air after only seeing a couple of terribly written episodes. Having seen the whole thing, however, I now think it is fairly well done. There are a handful of terribly written episodes in the first two seasons, but the writing is really stepped up for the third season where the series shines, throwing caption Archer and the Enterprise crew into a desperate mission to save Earth. Archer must push both his crew and his ship past their breaking points. He finally falls from the moral certitude that has always characterized Star Trek, even resorting to torture and piracy.

Archer manages to save Earth and go on to lay the groundwork of an interplanetary alliance that will eventually become the United Federation of Planets, the sympathetic political entity in the other Star Trek series. Through various mechanisms, the series shows viewers that Archer’s place in history as a great peacemaker and explorer is secure. However the final episode, rather than focusing on Archer’s accomplishments, is more of a paean to Enterprise‘s chief engineer, commander Charles Tucker III, affectionately called Trip by his friends. The episode features several of his crewmates discussing their favorite memories of Trip (and accordingly, some of the viewers’ favorite memories) before Trip gives his life to ensure that captain Archer can attend the signing of the charter of the proto-Federation, thus ensuring its success.

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The Ludic Century Manifesto

Eric Zimmerman and Heather Chaplin have an article up on Kotaku boldly titled Manifesto: The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Games. Apparently the article is a preview of material in a forthcoming book, The Gameful World by MIT press. I look forward to reading it! In the meantime, I found some of their points notable. They argue that “while the moving image had been the right medium for the 20th century, the videogame [will] be the dominant medium of the 21st.” 

I have a lot of sympathy for this claim. Anecdotally, I have had experiences where video games have emerged as a new cultural commonality, a cultural lingua franca if you will. When I find myself in social situations outside of my usual peer group, often video games are the topic we can talk about. I might have little in common with people in different occupations, people who are distant from academia or (gasp!) people who have never seen Star Wars, but I find I can usually talk about Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto with them. Video games are the narrative form that people from a wide variety of subcultures have in common, a role formerly played by movies. And some have claimed that Hollywood is struggling, in part, because video games have emerged as a more attractive entertainment choice.

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