Thursday, June 28, 2007


The Trouble With Japanese Yen

No, it isn't the weak dollar.

For me it's the fact that the price of any large ticket item is relayed in 10,000s. As in:

"How much did you pay for that Marc Jacobs bag?"

"I paid five 10,000 yen for it."

This isn't so bad if you keep in mind that one 10,000 note is worth roughly about $100 (or slightly less, but for simplicity's sake, let's pretend that $100 could buy 10,000 yen). In the Marc Jacobs bag example, it's easy to simply lop off two zeros and figure out the approximate price in dollars. Things become confusing, however, when you discuss the price of a car, or a house, or even an airline ticket.

If a house costs, oh, say the equivalent of $800,000, no one in Japan is going to say: "The house costs 80,000,000 (eighty million) yen." Instead, they will say to you: "The house costs 8,000 10,000 yen (eight-thousand ten-thousand yen)." Or, in Japanese: "hassen man."

I've never understood how the 10,000 yen note actually became a default tool for counting currency. Yes, the number 10,000 is part of the same numeric system that we all use when discussing money in the west. But why count 10,000 notes? Why not actually say that a house is "eighty-million yen," instead of figuring out how many 10,000 yen notes go into 80,000,000?

And you thought learning kanji was bad enough!

Lots of comments on this post over at Japundit.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


An Appointment with The Red Thread of Destiny or A Cell Phone Novel

A wise translator once told me that if I really wanted to learn to read Japanese (aka master kanji), I should spend an hour translating some text every day. He said that over time, I would simply learn the kanji. It didn't matter what I read as long as I was consistent.

I haven't been very disciplined. It's too easy for me to pick up meanings in context, which means that I can read a gossip book or some silly little fashion article and get the gist of what is going on. But I've been thinking that in my current interim non-creative period, I really should do as the wise translator suggested.

So, what to read? What I'd like is something easily digestible. Something in bits and pieces so I can feel that there is a natural cut-off to my daily translation work, but with an overall story arc so I want to get up the next morning to find out "what happens next."

A cell phone novel is the perfect thing.

I read recently that the mobile phone boom in Japan is alive and well. In fact, a number of the top selling works of "fiction" include hardcover versions of these mobile phone stories. Once completed, the novels are assembled as actual books and sold to the public.

This sounded like the perfect thing to discipline my unruly brain. So off I went to Kinokuniya this weekend to pick up part 1 of the 2 part "Akai Ito" series.

What does the title mean? Well, it refers to the "red thread" "red thread" of destiny that binds all lovers. According to the lore, which originated in China, all lovers have an invisible red thread (yeah, it's invisible, but it's red ) tied to their pinkies. You can't see the thread, can't see where it leads, but invariably, you will find the person you are connected to and therefore destined to love.

Here is my first attempt at translation. Voila, the opening lines (with some adjustments to make the English sound reasonable).
According to the gods, there is a red thread tied from my pinky finger to yours.

This thread of destiny isn't visible.

Nor is it a map to you.

I must love you to meet you.

So, our cell phone novel is a love story. A tortured romance, from page 1. The packaging is pretty brilliant. You can see the cover above. Know that the entire book is written in red ink. In the ensuing pages I've learned that the narrator is sure she already knows her "red thread fated lover," but he is too busy being in love with her sister to notice her. Ah! Angst! From the first installment!

So why don't we have cell phone novels in the West? Is it a technology gap type thing? Well, in the battle of who has a better cell phone, the US or Japan, the latter most definitely wins (in addition to having all around better manners when using mobile phones in public places). However, I think this isn't entirely the right question to ask. I think in part that this "mobile phone boom" comes less from a superior understanding of technology than from a shameless love of stories. A real addiction to a constant flow of narrative, a jones for the next fictional fix.

Consider for example, the world of the Japanese drama. Four times a year, each TV station launches a new set of "dramas," which are essentially "telenovelas." All have a beginning, middle and end, and producers and directors are constantly under the process of finding new stories to adapt, cast and produce. Stories are always evolving in Japan, unlike our own network models where the audience watches and wonders when a show might "jump the shark." In this model, serious "literature" is kept separate from television, though of course plenty of movies to try to adapt books. Fans go on message boards trying to figure out spoilers for the ending of the drama, and searching for gossip on what will develop in the future. Dramas adapted from books or manga are analyzed for accuracy. Fans, in other words, are fed a steady stream of stories from a variety of sources, many of which overlap.

The drama "Train Man" (Densha Otoko) which the Mockett household loved and enjoyed a couple years back started as a series of message board posts, before it became a book, then a move and then a TV show.

In the case of the first successful mobile phone book, the author created a website at the same time that he was sending out installments of his book. He read the feedback.

Readers e-mailed him with their feedback, and he incorporated some of their ideas into the story while it was in progress, so that new plot twists were constantly being added. This work was truly a collaboration between Yoshi and his readers.

(I should also note that this article points out that due to space restrictions, these cell phone novels tend to be "simple." That's fine. I don't mind starting a translation project on something simple. I'm usually considered way too cerebral in my ther life.)

Anyway, the cell phone novel boom strikes me as something quite unusual--a collaborative effort. Now, it's not that we don't have this kind of fandom in the States. Very generally speaking, I'd say that the science fiction and fantasy communities are far better at putting readers and writers together. They are also much better at being open to exploring a world or a story through different mediums. I remember, for example, how fan groups dissected the novelizations of the Star Wars prequels to try to figure out exactly why Padme died, after supposedly being stubborn and tough to have given birth to the resourceful Princess Leia.

Like a lot of people who play games (I'm really not sophisticated enough to consider myself a full fledged gamer), I have been patiently waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting) for Bioware to release its almost finished game Mass Effect . In the meantime, if I want, I can go and pick up the novel which acts as a precursor to the actual game story. I can also participate in the message boards where I can analyze every single interview or screen cap of anything that Bioware has released so far in an effort to figure out what my gaming experience will be, and if I will be emotionally satisfied.

In other words, I'm trying to say that we in the west do have this kind of blending of narrative devices in our own culture . . . but it lives in the world of genre.

I went to an interesting talk a number of months ago which feature Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor Books. He's very smart and very blunt and made the point that science fiction has been around for long enough to have penetrated the collective skulls of entertainment consumers so that we are no longer surprised by leaps in time, by warps in space, or strange memory lapses, even in films that tend to defy categorization . In other words, we've all been conditioned and caught up with the SF and Fantasy fans who were all over time travel and reality bending a half a century ago.

How long until literary types catch up with these fans who now investigate stories through mediums other than the novel?

I don't know. I don't like the idea that book readers are essentially conservative people who don't want to be open to other mediums for storytelling. I don't like the idea that a true writer limits herself to words on a page (or that a book real reviewer doesn't blog). I find this insulting.

I always hear that one reason why the cell phone is more popular in Japan than in the US is because we are addicted to our computers over here. In Japan, people don't necessarily have the kind of space to devote to a laptop.

More than that, though, I wonder just how starved my own country really is for stories, especially with the reality shows we've been bombarded with in the past number of years. It seems to me that there is a reason why we, in this country, exhaust a show in one medium (ie many years of Friends), before moving on to something else, while in Japan, stories appear on TV with each season. Does it have something to do with the appeal of disappearing into a fictional world? Is that a stronger wish or expectation outside of the US?

First posted over at Japundit .

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Monkey Majik and the Yoshida Brothers

Some stranger sent this video of the band Monkey Majik. After I got over the initial shock of seeing some gaijin in a band in Japan, I decided I actually like the song and the video, with its nod to kitsune mythology. And of course, I really, really love the Yoshida Brothers. So, thank you, mysterious person!

The ending bit with the kitsune reminded me of the opening vignette in Akira Kurosawa's film "Dreams," in which a boy is told not to go out and play, but does anyway, and in doing so, spies on a fox-wedding. As a result, he is told he must commit suicide. Never, ever mess with foxes.

First posted over at Japundit, where someone noted: Best cross-cultural music/video I’ve seen so far.Not cheesy, not even too “clichesque”. I tend to agree.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Memoirs of a Geisha

I finally got around to seeing this movie. In fact, I've just finished watching it about 20 minutes ago. I went in with very low expectations and . . . was actually disappointed.

Seriously, I've always thought Golden did a pretty good job with the book--the whole "mizuage" issue aside. I've never liked the romantic story, or perhaps to be more accurate, I've never been persuaded by it. But on the whole, I felt like he was really imagining a world with many textures and smells and characters and I respected that. I thought many of his similes were very Japanese and his "feel" for his main character, quite authentic.

The movie though. Yeesh.

When I first heard about the film and how upset people were about the casting, I couldn't get too excited in kind. As has been pointed out by many, Cate Blanchett gets to play an English queen even though she's Australian, and lord knows how many Brits have played Americans and vice versa. It's not like there are so many great roles for Asian actors out there in Hollywoodland, so in general, I'm on the side of "inter-Asian casting." And since the book version of "Geisha," and the movie production were both American based, why were people suddenly clammering for real "Japanese authenticity"? I could see the furor if the book had been written by a real Japanese person, but it wasn't.

Then I finally sat down and watched the film. I have the heebies as a result.

It wasn't the Chinese actresses, or the wierd trying-to-pronounce English accents and needing-audio-geniuses-to-splice-in-syllables that bothered me. Nor was it that during a number of scenes I kept thinking to myself, "Hey. That looks like Northern California" (it was).

(Muir Beach anyone?)

It wasn't the psychotic "dance scene" in which Sayuri throws herself into a backbend worthy of a poster for Cirque du Soleil.

Nor did it bother me that we never saw anyone eating anything that wasn't in a cup or on a stick.

I was incredibly disappointed that all the characters were unrelentingly stiff. That's what I hate about "respectful minority entertainment." In wanting to be reverential, the director made all the characters come off as leaden and wooden. It was clear to me that neither the director nor the writer had any belief in the inner lives of these people. It was all repression and Zen koans instead of real dialogue. It was all "suffer suffer suffer" and "this is what it mean to be geisha," which made me think of C3PO mourning to R2D2, "It's our lot in life to suffer," and consequently made me giggle. What was with Hatsumomo wandering around Gion with that ridiculous Kabuki hair? Where was the real, intelligent and scheming woman that Golden created?

And then . . . there were moments when suddenly the film-makers couldn't help but exoticize their subjects. What, for example, was Sayuri doing in the onsen with the men? When on earth did that happen in the book? She protests to some white guy that she is "not for sale," but there she is frolicking naked in a tub of hot water with a bunch of guys? Who on earth came up with that idea? What the heck was she doing dipping her washcloth in the water (a strict no-no). I mean, if the movie was going to include a scene like that, then it should have done away with any pretense for guarding the geisha's dignity.

Ditto for the embarassing mizuage scene in which Sayuri appears in a scarlet robe. (Hint. She's in red and she's about to have sex for the first time!). She goes back to the okiya looking . . . all mysterious and deep and possibly wounded but maybe not 'cause she's a hot Asian chick and it's hard to read her emotions . . . and she is told: "Now you are a real geisha." Again. Not in the book. But I'm sure the idea that sex=geisha appealed to some producer somewhere, so they threw it in. Along with a bunch of bullsh*t about how geisha aren't prostitutes.

In other words, you could tell that the writers had read the book and tried to adapt it . . . but then had to throw in some kind of "spice" anyway which discredited the rest of the script. Why does anyone believe a geisha when she insists she is not a prostitute if she's told that she only becomes a geisha by having sex?

So, why would a writer do this? Well, there's the old "can't help but exoticize" answer. But I think it's more than that.

The movie is so incredibly stiff, at some point someone must have realized just how dead the storyline really was. There was no tension at all. And so a dash of "life" was thrown into the plot, the life being this sort of false drama that comes from Sayurai 1) becoming a true geisha at last by having sex, because mastering a bunch of fine arts just wasn't "dramatic" enough and 2) Sayuri forcing herself to have sex with a white man so we'd all feel just how icky her life really was.

But this isn't true drama--it isn't the kind of true storytelling tension that comes from creating a character that an audience loves and then putting her in a difficult situation that arises as a result of her world and the people around her (aka a realistic situation). Of course, to accomplish the latter, a writer or filmmaker has to believe in that character and in her world as inherently interesting; if the writer/director doesn't believe, then why should we?

I left the movie feeling as though the producer and director and crew all believed that the world of the geisha was physically beautiful. People always think that Japan is beautiful (or, northern California, as the case may be) and it is. But I didn't leave it believing in the inner lives of anyone on screen. And this makes me think that while Golden was able to make pages and pages of kimono embroidery and dance lessons interesting, Marshall could not because, at the end of the day, he couldn't find a way to believe in its worth himself. And thus we get, once again, sex=geisha.

In other words, as my fiance said, we leave this movie with no understanding of what a geisha is at all--which, in part, is what Golden worked to reveal to his readers. How sad is that?

The sad thing is that this movie did so poorly at the box office, it'll be a while before anyone "dares" to put together a film with an all Asian cast. Then again, if this is going to be the result, then I suppose it's best to keep Hollywood out of these Asian films all together.

Ugh. Now I'm all worked up and will doubtless sleep very poorly.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


The Pretty Boy Factory


So, where do all the pretty Japanese boys come from?

Well, Japan of course. Duh. No, but seriously. How are they annointed? One very serious contender for the source of manufacturing these pretty images is Johnny's Entertainment otherwise known as Johnny's Jimusho.

Johnny is Johnny Kitagawa. His westernized first name is no fluke, as he was born in Los Angeles, came to Japan with the military, stayed and founded Johnny's Entertainment with his sister, Mary. Johnny's runs a stablehouse of young talents, all boys as young as 10, who are auditioned every year by parents hoping their children have what it takes to be stars (modern Memoirs of a Geisha, anyone?)

The company is run somewhat like the old studio system of Hollywood; young kids are coached in singing, dancing and acting classes. The younger members, Johnny Juniors, form groups and often dance backup to senior performers, who make up "boy bands." These individual, senior members not only sing and dance, but dominate the young, male acting roles in Japan's dorama world, which, for those who don't know, are seasonal shows, akin to the telenovels of South America. The most successful "talentos" go on to endorse products, appear in side gigs and films, as is the case with SMAP, one of Johnny's most successful groups.

The genius of Johnny Kitagawa, says American composer Joey Carbone who has penned many a J-Pop hit, is his vision and ability to spot and groom a future star.

Carbone says Kitagawa’s genius lies in finding someone at a young age, and imagining what they might look like a few years later. “As a businessman, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Johnny because, in a sense, he’s more creative than his artists. His creativity is to put these acts together . . .

Could you have seen the "star potential" in this young boy? (And please note that his blood type is "A," the most desirable kind.)

Dig a little deeper, though, and the story gets somewhat, er, interesting. Maybe even messy. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for trouble. Read more »

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