Blogroll Call

Everyone loves to be on a bunch of blogrolls, but just because you’re there doesn’t mean you’ll get a lot of visitors. This becomes more true as the blogroll gets larger. Blogrolls are subject to an inverse network effect; the more blogs in the blogroll, the less valuable the link. Kaedrin gets a small amount of traffic, so even though I have a short blogroll, I’m guessing most of those blogs don’t get a ton of visitors coming from here. So I just figured I’d throw some additional links their way:

  • Transit of Mercury, Photoblogged: Jay Manifold takes some nice pics of the planet Mercury, as well as an amusing comparison of Manifold Observatory and Powell Observatory.
  • Team of Rivals: Andrew Olmsted reviews a recent book that chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency, as well as the coalition he formed and maintained to fight the civil war:

    Lincoln’s ability to hold together a coalition of abolitionists, conservative Republicans, and war Democrats during the American Civil War stands as a signal feat of political dexterity that seems yet more impressive in light of more recent American history. … the book really hits its stride once Lincoln is elected and he assembles his Cabinet, beginning with his three rivals for the nomination. The contrast is particularly stark with modern politics, where Cabinets are formed from the victor’s circle of political allies. Lincoln, on the other hand, selected men who not only wanted the job he held, but who viewed him poorly at best in some cases. It’s hard to imagine a modern politician selecting men who viewed him with the kind of contempt Edwin Stanton viewed Lincoln, let alone getting the kind of results Lincoln did. Lincoln’s ability to get results from such disparate men is an impressive primer in leadership.

    Interesting stuff, and I think I’ll pick up the book at some point, as this seems to be an impressive example of compromise and tradeoffs (subjects that interest me) in action.

  • Ars Technica 2006 holiday gift guide: Make shopping for the geek in your family a little easier with this guide (sheesh, that sounded like advertising copy *shudders*). Most of the hardware and gadget gifts are pretty good, though expensive. However, they also include lots of interesting books and smaller gifts as well. Ars always has interesting articles though. I’ve already mentioned the Ars System Guide on the blog recently, but they also have reviews of the Wii and PS3 that are worth reading.
  • Casino Royale: Subtitle: Die almost never � nearly forever! Heh. Alexander Doenau’s take on the latest Bond flick is roughly in line with my own feelings, though one of these days I’ll get around to talking more about it on the blog.

    Which may beg the question of some audiences: where is the fun when there�s nary an insane scheme to be seen, and no psychedelically decorated gyrocopters? (thank you, Roald Dahl). The answer lies partly in Bond himself. Without the scary misogyny that Ian Fleming endowed Bond with 50 years ago, Daniel Craig plays Bond as an excellent bastard. This is a Bond so confident in his own skills that he doesn�t give a care who sees him because he has a licence to kill. This is probably the only Craig film we�ll see in which Bond is able to cut as loose as he did in Uganda, because part of the story involves developing a marginally more sensible and responsible MI6 agent, but he takes the sorts of risks that make the movie fun without being stupidly unbelievable.

    I love the description of James Bond as an “excellent bastard.”

  • Steven Den Beste has an interesting rating system (another subject I’ll tackle on the blog at some point). He uses a 4 star scale, but also includes a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” graphic (for obvious reasons). This is interesting because it allows him to recognize a technical accomplishment without actually recommending the film (for instance, I would give Grave of the Fireflies **** with a thumbs down because it is masterfully produced, but so heartbreaking that I can’t actually recommend it). In any case, if you scroll down on the link above (no permalinks there), you’ll see that Steven has started rating individual anime episodes for a series called Kamichu. For episode 6, he rated it zero stars with six thumbs down. I wonder if he liked it?
  • A collection of Jonathan Swift’s journalistic texts: Ralf Goergens over at Chicago Boyz makes an Jonathan Swift-related annotation to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle:

    Attentive readers of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle will remember Daniel Waterhouse reading a a number of astonishingly vile newspapers. Some of the most acrimonious articles were from Jonathan Swift, writing for Tory papers. Stephenson didn’t make that part up, the articles can be found here.

    I didn’t have time to do more than a bit of browsing, but some of the historical characters from the Baroque Cycle are mentioned, like Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Harley and of course Queen Anne. There also are extensive footnotes explaining the concrete circumstances under which the articles appeared.

  • Weblog Awards: Kevin Murphy notes that since he was inexplicably passed over for the Weblog Awards, he might as well add a bunch of categories and simply declare winners. Normally, this would seem like the actions of a snarky blogger, but since Kaedrin won a Koveted Kevy, I’ll say it was the result of long-standing multifaceted research project considering nearly 2 billion blogs. Also, Kevin apparently knows something I don’t: Kaedrin won the Best Blog With A Japanese Word As Its Title. Hmmm. It would be pretty funny if it actually was a Japanese word (anyone know what it means?)
  • The New Threats: John Robb continues his incisive commentary on global guerillas:

    As the debate over the value of the Iraq study group’s report rumbles on, it’s important to reflect on larger frame within which this debate is taking place. This frame, little discussed, encapsulates nature of the threat we face in Iraq and will be increasingly likely to face in the future. With Iraq, we can catch a glimpse of the new class of threat that will increasingly define our future (and given that even a glimpse is enough to stump the establishment should be a dire warning). This new class of threat is characterized by its bottoms up pattern of growth rather than the familiar competition between nation-states. It percolates upwards through catalyzed organic growth until it overwhelms our ability to respond to it.

    My general reaction to Robb’s theories is that he is usually too pessimistic and that there must be a better way to fight these global guerillas, but he always makes for interesting and worthwhile reading.

  • Depressing Anime: Fledgling Otaku’s thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies are a little harsher than my own, but I have to say that he’s justified in calling it anime for emotional masochists. Don’t miss the comment threads on that post, the follow up post, and the recent post (in which he mentions my review). Like me, the more he learns of the context, the more he says he can appreciate its value as a work of art.
  • Tax Law Is Complicated, But Is It Vague? : James Edward Maule reads about a Judge who “struck down a portion of the Patriot Act on the ground that despite amendments to the provisions they remain ‘too vague’ to be understood by ‘a person of average intelligence’ and thus are unconstitutional.” As a professor of tax law, he wonders if the Internal Revenue Code is actually vague, and asks some interesting questions:

    If everything that could not be understood by a “person of average intelligence” were to be declared unconstitutional and removed from the planet, what would remain? Is there something wrong when a patient cannot understand a medical procedure used by a surgeon? Is there something wrong when a driver does not understand the engineering formulae used in designing the bridge over which the vehicle is crossing? Is there something wrong when someone enjoying a fine meal cannot understand the recipe?

  • Take my advice, or I�ll spank you without pants.: Johno over at the The Ministry of Minor Perfidy takes note of the glorious Chingrish of actual English Subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong. Some of my favorites:

    9. Quiet or I’ll blow your throat up.

    11. I�ll fire aimlessly if you don�t come out!

    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?

    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?

    19. This will be of fine service for you, you bag of the scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat. [sic, of course]

    20. Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough examination.

    21. Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

    This sort of thing is funny, but bad translations are also responsible for ruining a lot of decent foreign movies.

  • Extremely Cool: Indeed it is:

    The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000-year-old device, somewhat resembling a clock, found in 1902 by sponge divers in the waters off a Greek island. It has long been believed that it was a form of analog computer, used for astronomical calculations, but its precise operating mechanism was not well-understood.

    Interesting stuff.

  • Not the intended market, but still fun: Fritz Schranck has been sucked into What Not To Wear (one of those smug reality shows that berate people for having bad style, then attempt to help them out). While I’ve never seen this show, similar reality shows do have that sorta “I can’t look away from this trainwreck” quality that makes them entertaining.
  • DM of the Rings: In terms of link love, I’ve been woefully neglectful of Shamus’s brilliant DM of the Rings comic, which somehow manages to be both humorous and insightful (well, in terms of RPG gaming anyway). Using screenshots from the movies, it’s essentially what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if it were played as a D&D game.

Holy crap, that took a while. I just realized that I would have probably been better off if I’d just done one or two a day. That way I’d have had posts every day for at least a week! In any case, stay tuned for the weekly Animation Marathon review (This week, it’s Akira. Review should be up Tuesday or Wednesday).

Animation Marathon: Grave of the Fireflies

Of the six films chosen for the Animation Marathon, Grave of the Fireflies was the only one that I hadn’t heard much about. The only thing I knew about it was that it was sad. Infamously sad. After watching the movie, I can say that it certainly does live up to those expecations. It’s a heartbreaking movie, all the moreso because it’s animated. Spoilers ahead…

The film begins by showing us a 14 year old boy lying dead on a subway platform, so you can’t really say that the filmmakers were trying to hide the tragedy in this film. The boy’s name is Seita, and through flashbacks, we learn how he came to meet his end. Set during the last days of World War II, the story is kicked off by the American firebombing of Seita’s city. Seita’s father is in the Japanese Navy and Seita’s mother is horribly wounded by bombing, eventually succumbing to her wounds. The entire city is destroyed, leaving Seita and his little 4 year old sister Setsuko homeless. For a time, they take refuge with an Aunt, who seems nice at first, but gets grumpier as she realizes that Seita isn’t willing to contribute to the war effort, or to help around the house. Eventually, Seita finds an unused bomb shelter where he can live with his sister without being a burden on their Aunt. It being wartime, food is scarce, and Seita struggles and ultimately fails to support his sister.

This isn’t quite like any other animated movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful and evocative film. It has moments of great beauty, even though it’s also quite sad. It displays a patience that’s not common in animated movies. There are contemplative pauses. Characters and their actions are allowed time to breath. The animations are often visually striking, even when they’re used in service of less-than-pleasant events (such as the landscape shot of the city as it burns).

After I finished the film, I was infurated. Obviously no one really enjoys watching two kids starve, suffer, and die after losing their family and home to a war, but it’s not just sad. As I said before, it’s infuriating. I was so pissed off at Seita because he made a lot of boneheaded, prideful decisions that were ultimately responsible for the death of his sister (and eventually, himself). At one point in the film, as Seita begs a farmer for food, the farmer tells him to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt. Seita refuses, and hence the tragedy. But at least he’s young and thus reckless, which is understandable. While I was upset at Seita’s actions, I really couldn’t blame only him and the film did prompt some empathy for that character. I can’t say the same of the Aunt. Who lets two young kids go off to live by themselves in wartime? Yeah, Seita wasn’t pulling his weight, but hell, your job as an adult is to teach children about responsibilities… It was wartime for crying out loud. There had to be plenty to do. Yeah, it’s sad. Especially when it comes to Setsuko, who was only 4 years old. But other than that, it was infuriating, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to rate the movie. Then I read about some context in the Onion A.V. Club review of the movie (emphasis mine):

Adapting a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata scripted and directed Fireflies while his Studio Ghibli partner, Hayao Miyazaki, was scripting and directing his own classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The two films were produced and screened as a package, because Totoro was considered a difficult sell, while Fireflies, as an “educational” adaptation of a well-known historical book, had a guaranteed audience. But while both films won high praise at home and abroad, it’s hard to imagine the initial impact of watching them back to back. Totoro is a bubbly, joyous film about the wonders of childhood, while Fireflies follows two children as they starve, suffer, and die after American planes firebomb their town.

…Nosaka, who lost his own young sister under similar circumstances, apparently intended his book in part to chronicle his shameful pride, while Takahata explains … that he wanted viewers to learn a moral lesson from Seita’s hubris. Instead, he reports, they mostly sympathized with the boy, which is easy to do.

It turns out that my feelings about the film were exactly what the filmmakers were going for, which kinda turned me around and made me realize that the film really is brilliant (in other words, my expecation of the film as having to be “Sad” made me feel strange because, while it was certainly sad, it was also infuriating. Now that I know the infurating part was intentional, it makes a lot more sense.) As the Onion article brilliantly summarizes, “not so much an anti-war statement as it is a protest against basic human selfishness, and the way it only worsens during trying times.” And that’s sad, but it’s also quite annoying.

The animation is very well done, and while some might think that something this serious would not be appropriate in animation, I’m not sure it would work any other way. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film shows the two children using fireflies to light their abandoned bomb shelter. It’s a scene I think would look cheesy and fake in a live action film, but which works wonderfully in an animated film. Roger Ebert describes it well:

It isn’t the typical material of animation. But for “Grave of the Fireflies,” I think animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. Animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination more play; freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations.

In the end, while this is definitely an excellent film, I find it difficult to actually recommend it (for what I hope are obvious reasons). This type of movie is not for everyone, and while I do think it is brilliantly executed, I don’t especially want to watch it again. Ever. In an odd sort of way, that’s a testament to how well the film does what it does. (***1/2)

Filmspotting‘s review is not up yet, but should be up tomorrow. Check it out, as they are also reviewing The Fountain (which I reviewed on Monday).

(In a strange stroke of coincidence, I had actually watched Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro just a few days before Fireflies, not quite mimicking the back to back screenings mentioned in the Onion article, but close enough to know that it was an odd combo indeed (and I can’t imagine the playful and fun Totoro being a “harder sell” than the gut-punch of Fireflies.))

Animation Marathon

My favorite podcast, Filmspotting (formerly known as Cinecast), has a great format. They review a recently released movie every week, but they also review an older film that they have, for one reason or another, neglected. The usually choose a theme for these older movies and watch a bunch of them in a row. As such, they refer to them as Marathons, and it makes for some interesting listening, even when you aren’t watching along. They’ve done one for Westerns, Horror, Hitchcock, Screwball Comedy, and many others. Their next marathon (scheduled to start in a few weeks) is for Animation. This is the first one I plan to play along with, in part because I like animated movies and also because I have netflix now and can easily follow along with minimal effort.

They’ve chosen an interesting list, though I have some reservations. Here’s the list:

As you can see, the list is dominated by Anime movies, and they haven’t yet decided which Miyazaki film they will include. In fact, they’re running a poll on their site with the three choices: Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away (Spirited Away appears to be running away with it, garnering nearly 58% of the vote so far). Personally, I think they should do a Miyazaki marathon, as I’ve only seen a few, but they’re great (and why can’t we vote for My Neighbor Totoro? I ended up voting for Howl’s Moving Castle because that’s the only one I haven’t seen.)

As I say, it’s an interesting list, but I have some reservations. I’ve seen 4 of the 6 films (assuming Spirited Away is chosen), so this is perhaps not the best one for me to play along with. I am intrigued by Grave of the Fireflies though, and I could certainly revisit Akira (which I saw many moons ago, and don’t remember all that much about it except that it was confusing). From what I’ve seen of these, I think that while they may have chosen films that illustrate the evolution of Animation, I don’t know that they’ve chosen the most enjoyable of the bunch. Akira seems to be an important film for the genre, but it’s not especially a walk in the park, for example. The only one I’d say is truly great is Spirited Away. I probably would have also recommended the Cowboy Bebop Movie, which is a very good all around experience. The other thing that might seem a little strange is that Anime seems to be a genre dominated more by series than by movies… but then I could see why these guys don’t want to spend 4.5 hours a week watching these series (I don’t know how they managed to do as much as they do).

In any case, I plan to play along, so expect some entries in a few weeks discussing the films above.

Update: The Miyazaki film will be Spirited Away. Also added links to my reviews of the films I’ve watched so far.

Bear Pajamas & Kigurumi

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the bear pajamas that Lain often wears in Serial Experiments Lain, wondering if it was perhaps a cultural thing or maybe an Anime convention. Several people commented, and commentor Lily posted an interesting explanation yesterday:

These pajamas are indeed a cultural thing in Japan. It’s a part of Japanese street fashion and the costumes are called kigurumi. People wearing them are called kigurumin. There are a few firms in Japan that produce these costumes, the most popular one of them is Sleeper’s.

Interesting. Lily also links to a page from their site which has a bunch of examples (no bears, though). A brief check of Wikipedia yields some more info:

Kigurumi (着ぐるみ?) is the Japanese name for costumed animal characters. The name comes from the Japanese term (着る – kiru: to wear) and (縫いぐるみ – nuigurumi: a stuffed toy animal).

To wear a stuffed toy animal. Heh.

Bear Pajamas

One of the things I like about watching foreign movies are the cultural differences that don’t quite make it through (it’s a novelty thing, perhaps). Sometimes this is due to poor translation and sometimes it’s due to a physical mannerism or custom that simply can’t be translated. There is a perfect example of this in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Towards the beginning of the film, the main character Chihiro is taken to the boiler room where she meets an old man with several arms who runs the place. At one point, this man puts up his hands in what looks sort of like a football goalpoast gesture and Chihiro pushes her hand through it (alas, I do not have a copy at my hands, so I can’t give a screenshot). I have no idea what this means, but it’s clearly something children in Japan do (I’m not sure how I picked up on this – I think I might have watched the movie with the commentary on at one point, which might actually explain what this means).

Most of the Anime I’ve seen are films, not series. I’ve seen a few Miyazaki movies, and some other movies like Akira and the Cowboy Bebop movie, amongst assorted other stuff. A few months ago, I watched Haibane Renmei because of the enthusiastic recommendations of Steven Den Beste (and pretty much everyone else who has seen it). Their enthusiasm is certainly warranted. Again, my expectations were constantly thwarted, which I think is part of the reason I enjoyed it so much (I’m sure this series will come up again here). I have since moved on to Serial Experiments Lain. I haven’t gotten too far into the series, but one thing that really struck me as funny was Lain’s bear pajamas, which she seems to wear whenever she’s feeling down:

(Click images for a larger version)

Lain's Bear Pajamas

Lain's Bear Pajamas

Lain's Bear Pajamas

As you can see, it’s adorable (I believe the appropriate word is Kawaii). Now, what I don’t know is if such pajamas are normal garb for young Japanese girls, or if it’s just a quirky Anime trope like washpans that bonk people on the head or Absurdly Powerful Student Councils (not that I’ve seen either of those). Like I said, I haven’t seen much anime, but I’ve fallen into the habit of reading blogs in the Otakusphere, many of whom seem to delight in posting screenshots and I seem to remember some similar type pajama/costume type stuff coming up from time to time. So is this a pseudo-trope, another cultural difference, or is it just an oddity limited to Serial Experiments Lain (one could certainly find symbolic meanings in such a visual)?