Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, September 05, 2003

By the way....

I finished the Mother Teresa book today. And today turned out to be the day she died back in 1997...her future feast day.

*Cue a pipe organ playing the Twilight Zone theme*

Saints' lives do have this terrible tendency to be much more challenging and relevant than we want them to be. With Mother Teresa's insistence on doing the small things, on meeting the immediate need you can see, seeing Christ in every person you meet and every "distressing disguise", and even on doing everything with a smile as a gift of love and encouragement to don't have the luxury of saying "I'm just a normal person; God doesn't expect that from me."


I've been listening to Mother Teresa's biography on tape and thinking about Ayn Rand. It seems to me that Mother Teresa's life is the refutation of Rand's ideas that service must always equal servitude. (One does wonder who cleaned the toilet at her house, as it's impossible to picture Rand doing it.) Mother Teresa lived a life that Rand would have found distasteful and degrading, in which she embraced people who were the ultimate losers in Rand's philosophy. But it was Mother Teresa who lived a life of joy, while Rand never seemed to find happiness or peace anywhere. Now, it's certainly true that some people use ideals and principles as a rope to bind other people as slaves; and Rand was right to despise that, as she was right to insist that people should work with their own dreams and talents. But it occurs to me that my own ego is just as cruel a tyrant as other people's, so serving myself is not a desirable form of employment.

Anime Rant!

There's too much anime I want that's coming out right now. Like every other olden days anime fan, this gives me both delight and a certain regret. It's wonderful that so much is available, both old and new. But it's also much harder to keep in touch with everything.

Unless you have broadband, of course. In Japan, there were always a wide variety of videotapes of anime series and OVAs (straight-to-video miniseries) available, and it was legal to copy tapes and pass them along. So there were a wide variety of tapes passed along by American fans, either in Japanese only or with fanmade subtitles (fansubs). When it became possible to buy anime in America, fans did not entirely forsake fansubs and tape chains; but it became etiquette to use them only until the American version became available. Nowadays, tapes have been forsaken in favor of VCDs or downloads off the various IRC and chat networks. Ideally, this is a way for shows to gather buzz among fans, particularly if their ratings were poor in Japan. You will get various arguments as to whether this is actually so, since there is obviously more fannish interest in distributing shows that already sound interesting to fans. In fact, you'll get many arguments as to whether younger fans even care about this "social contract" between fans and companies. Still others complain that with today's fans able to download an entire series at once, they don't develop the deep interest that an intriguing serial normally creates by making you wait weeks to learn answers and characters' fates. Fandoms for shows grow and fade within a matter of weeks or months, they say, sometimes even before the DVDs can arrive here. (Me, I don't have broadband. Never got on the old tape trails either. Ah, me.)

But the old fans forget how we used to see series on tape. (We couldn't watch them on TV. Anime on TV was restricted to a few chopped-up shows with all the names changed.) Either somebody mailed somebody else the whole series at once, or you saw 2-4 eps on a single tape and maybe never saw the rest of the show for years or ever. There usually wasn't fansubbing, so you had to follow the action as well as you could with the help of a paragraph-long summary or the exhibitor's spoken explanations. (If you were really lucky, there was a translated script.) It was fatally easy to misinterpret characters' actions when you couldn't understand their conversations or soliloquies. The very fact we _had_ fandoms for such series demonstrates that we were very very insane.

I love watching anime on TV. Cartoon Network has been a godsend. I'm not really fond of all the cutting and digital-erasing the various networks do on anime series to make them "suitable for television", though I can understand it. (But when a show is cut so you can't tell that someone was killed...that's a problem.) In many ways, however, this is ideal for the DVD makers. The TV showings raise enthusiasm for the series, and the cuts make it necessary for fans to buy the sucker instead of taping it off the TV. Also, it's nice for younger kids to be able to watch something with the plot interest of a show for older people without having to contend with all the particulars. (Unfortunately, Cartoon Network seems to have exiled most of their older-audience series to Adult Swim now, depriving kids of the chance to watch the new seasons of Big O and Inu-Yasha. The new season of Rurouni Kenshin is stuck on late Saturday afternoon, which is bad for kids who have weekend activities, chores, or church. The early afternoon has been gutted of new shows entirely, so as not to let CN compete with its sister network, Kids' WB. Bah, humbug.) Meanwhile, on Saturday morning they're showing Shaman King, the saga of a young man who not only sees dead people, but lets them possess him so he can win fights. Apparently the same folks who burn Harry Potter books are totally okay with honest-to-God pagan Japanese occultism like this. (Frankly, I'm surprised those Japanese folks who really do practice being possessed aren't insulted by the show.) But maybe it'll turn out to be better than the horrifically dubbed and English-scripted first ep.

Dubbing English voice tracks has gotten a lot better. Unfortunately, translation quality both for dubs and subtitles is still sadly uneven. There's a lot of translation of Japanese interjections as American swearwords, often in situations when the Japanese expression is not nearly strong enough to be translated so. "Baka" ("Fool" or "Idiot") has gotten translated as words I can't reproduce in a family blog. Jokes and banter are always a problem; should you translate the joke or substitute a similar one in English? What about Japanese forms of address, or the different kinds of speech which express how much respect or intimacy you feel for the person to whom you're speaking? Some of these are no-win situations, or at least have no single good solution. I can live with that. But the big bugaboo is that there are still translations which are simply incorrect or made up, for whatever artistic or accessibility reasons the writers think they have.

For example. Last night I watched an episode (on a sampler DVD included in Newtype USA magazine) of a show called Angelic Layer. (Okay, Battle Doll Angelic Layer. But that's too long; nobody calls it that....) Anyway, the main character is watching an Angelic Layer match on television. When she sees one battle doll attack in a highly artistic and lovely way, she cries, "Kirei!" ("Beautiful!" or "Pretty!") Later on, absorbed in the match, she murmurs, "Sugoi...." ("Cool" or "Interesting"). Meanwhile, the dubbed English version has her cry, "Cool!" and murmur, "Beautiful...."

Now, this may sound like a minor change. But it's not, is it? We've just met the character and we don't know much about her. The Japanese viewer learns that she responds strongly to the beauty of the doll and thinks the battle is neat. The American viewer learns that she thinks the doll is neat and the battle beautiful. Now, it may be that the damage done to characterization in the American version is repaired by the rest of the ep, in which the character goes to buy a battle doll from a department store and announces that she wants the one that's white and pretty. But it still loses something in the mistranslation.

One mercy is that most anime companies leave the songs and music in shows alone now. It's agonizing to hear a third-rate American singer and band doing a fourth-rate translation of a song that was a big hit in Japan (with a first-rate band and good lyrics).

Most anime distribution companies here in the States were founded by fans for fans, and still retain fannish sensibilities. However, some of the big movie companies who've entered the anime business persist in believing their own propaganda about what American audiences will "understand", even though anime is now so popular. The worst sin they commit? Disney's total re-recording of classic soundtracks (albeit with the composer's cooperation) to fit their ideas of how a movie soundtrack should be. Basically, the idea is to eliminate silences and scenes without dialogue. Japanese animation, like other Japanese dramatic forms, includes scenes of rest and thought as well as action and conversation. They're allowed to take a moment just to look at the sea, or watch a summer meadow while listening to the cicadas. Big-company translations routinely record dialogue over these scenes. As for moments when the soundtrack cuts out and the characters just listen to the wind? Well, that's what re-recording the soundtrack is for. Cover the wind up with music, or Americans' heads will explode! I find this stupid as well as sad. American children who have never seen anime respond very well to scenes of silence, after their first reaction of surprise. The pattern of action and rest hypnotizes them and gives them time to think and relax -- which isn't surprising, given that Sesame Street uses much the same formula. Anyone over the age of ten should be able to adapt to the formula without too much spontaneous cranial detonation.

One other trend that is much moaned about is "fanboy/fangirl Japanese". Young English-speaking anime fans love to sprinkle their speech and writing with words and phrases they may or may not understand. It drives some older fans up the wall. It makes me smile, since I remember older fans doing the same thing. They too called people "baka!" and signed their emails "Ja ne!" ("Later!"), called anime girls "kawaii" ("cute") or "kirei", and made fanatical statements about Pocky (chocolate candy sticks -- I prefer rice candy myself). The fannish generation before that was setting up Gamelon embassies in con hotels while pontificating in BBC English accents they picked up off Doctor Who, so they can hardly talk. New slang is one of the joys of shows from other cultures, and is sucked up by the English language like a Hoover with a warp drive. What's really useful will become English, just like "hari-kari" and "just a skosh" (from "sukoshi", small -- that 'u' is barely said, in a Tokyo accent) did. Besides, anything that gets Americans interested in foreign languages is a good thing.

The worst thing about anime today is the domination of the American market by tournament shows. I would be much more interested in Angelic Layer if it weren't clearly leading toward episodes in which one battle doll fights another. Booooooooring. At this point, we already have had the following shows on the air: Dragonball Z, Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Beyblade, Kinnikuman (or Muscle League, or whatever they call it), Fighting Foodons, and Yu Yu Hakusho. Shaman King is coming out this fall. Some of them were associated with card, electronic, or other games; others just used the tournament structure to justify a fight every ep (or sometimes a fight stretching over several episodes). I don't know how many more shows have been on video. Who cares? Enough already! Go back to justifying fights through being in a war, or on a quest, or having Earth seem ripe for the plucking by every interstellar race! Just spare us from any more tournaments!

New Anime Alert

Okay, so Angelic Layer's another tournament show. It's also by CLAMP, which means the art will be beautiful but the themes are likely to be odd and Gnostic and the characters will probably include some gay guys. (Although this is a kid's show, not aimed at older audiences like their other work.) But it seems like a good-hearted show this time, and there are hints that the main character's mother is a woman in a wheelchair, who is successful in controlling battle dolls but is too ashamed of her disability to see her daughter. This is big stuff for Japan. You never see disabled characters unless they got something cut off in a war. In a society where most of the disabled are hidden away, this could be a very important step towards understanding. The CLAMP crew are weirder 'n weasels, but they've found something to rebel against that needs a rebellion.

(Other folks you never see in anime: people from "untouchable" families, Japanese of Korean descent, mentally handicapped persons, and unemployed or homeless Japanese. Granted, our cartoons don't usually show our poor, either, but I have seen folks who were laid off in kids' cartoons, or Christmas eps where people collect food or toys for the poor and homeless. Fat Albert did the best ep on this topic. We usually reserve the retarded folks for live action, but physically disabled characters have become fairly common in US kids' cartoons.)

Gundam Seed is coming soon to the US. This is a no-brainer for fans of the many Gundam universes full of giant robot mecha. Thanks to my cousin and the fansubs, I can tell you that this is a charming show and much more interesting than the promotional materials make it appear. The basics are typical Gundam: the colony destroyed, the reluctant kid with advanced genes defending Humanity Classic against his "own kind" while protecting the girl he likes, the diplomat's daughter seeking peace, and the masked, honorable leader of the fighter squadron from the other side. But the series has a charm of its own, best represented by the hero's robotic bird pet and the human friends from back on the colony who insist on being the support crew for his Gundam mech. I enjoyed the eps I saw, and hope very much it will be picked up by Cartoon Network, your source for all things Gundam.

It's been out since May but I still haven't gotten
hold of Read or Die, the four-ep saga of a bookish girl who's also a secret agent with the power to make paper into magical objects. (Swords! Chains! Ropes! Birds! Throwing stars!) It's a fun power, and the animation is beautiful. There's a very angsty moment when she runs out of currency and scraps of paper and must rip up a rare old book for the paper to save lives. (At the sf convention where I saw this, everyone in the room shuddered and groaned in horror.) It's got way too much potential not to become a series.

They're finally releasing more anime for the manga series Spirit of Wonder. Set in Canada on the fictitious Prince of Wales Island at the turn of the century, Spirit of Wonder is the story of Miss China (a tough young immigrant girl with great kung fu), her restaurant, and her boardinghouse. Her boarders include an old mad scientist and a young obsessed engineer (whom she loves). The previous OVA, "Miss China's Ring", involved a trip to the Moon through quantum steampunk methods. (Too bad they wouldn't work in this world.) In the new release, Miss China's boarders recruit a bunch of other crazy folks and build themselves a steampunk spaceship to head out for Mars. There's also a story where Miss China gets shrunk! I'm dying to see it.

Haibane Renmei is out right now. It's set in a world where some children suddenly fall asleep, form cocoons around themselves, and emerge with small gray wings growing out of their back. They are then called haibane, and give themselves new names based on the dreams they had in their cocoon. They go to live in separate houses with the other haibane children, wear secondhand clothing or things given to them, and wonder where the fully-fledged adult haibane go. They are given floating haloes that have some mysterious electronic purpose. Sinning blackens their wings, so they use bleach to whiten them again. It all sounds like an interesting use of the current convention costuming craze for tiny wings (as seen on Megatokyo's character Seraphim) combined with dreamlike sf/fantasy. After learning a bit more about the show from Newtype USA, I'm sorry I didn't buy the show when I saw it on the shelf.

Vie Durant" is an 8-ep series about the last few vampires being hunted down by future humans for their immortality properties. I'd love to see it. You gotta love the role reversal!

Witch Hunter Robin" is coming out on DVD in time for Halloween. In a world where witches (people with magical or psychic powers) wreak havoc on humanity, an international organization of witches turned witch hunters does the Men in Black thing. Their newest recruit, Robin, is a pyrokinetic with vast power and very little control, who was raised in a convent. But as Robin learns more about her new job, she finds that the organization is not quite as benign as she believed, and there's more to her coworkers than she knew.... Good stuff, from the theme song right down to the final credits. Interesting use of Catholic themes, but mostly in a Goth way.