Thursday, July 22, 2021

Conversations with a Translator: High School 2

I’ve been reading more manga with high school settings, specifically the series Hana-Kimi by Hisaya Nakajo. And it seems that the more I delve into the genre, the more certain issues swim to the surface, including issues specific to Japanese teen fiction.

It seems like every manga series has at least one volume where the bratty girls drag the heroine up to the roof (geez, where are the hall monitors?) and bully her—I mean, bully her, like beat her up. The hero inevitably shows up to save the day although there’s one very funny series (High School Debut) where the hero shows up only to find that his girlfriend has thrashed the third-year girls.

The reasons for the bullying are, quite bluntly, that the heroine doesn’t know her place. Nobody pretends that the bullying is being done for personal reasons. It’s just “You shouldn’t be dating a senior” or “You get better grades than us.”

How mean are Japanese girls?

Eugene: Good Morning Call has almost the exact same scene. It long ago entered trope territory. But it reflects an ugly reality.

Bullying remains a big problem in Japan’s secondary schools, just as the realities of social class and hierarchy remain omnipresent. In an episode of Cool Japan on NHK, hosts went around asking teenagers and young adults about the traditional class markers in school and business (senpai/kohai: senior/junior, etc.). Hardly anybody was in favor of doing away with them and embracing American-style “egalitarianism.” It’s the water the Japanese still swim in.

Back to School at 35 is a live-action series in which Ayako Baba (Ryoko Yonekura) returns to her alma mater to complete her senior year. It covers all the relevant social issues, especially the problems that arise out of the homeroom class being the same class for all the students in that class for all their subjects. The series similarly concludes with the message that, well, yeah, the system sucks (a root cause in the bullying problem), but we prefer it that way.

One of the best movies in this regard is A Silent Voice (Netflix). It is basically an Afterschool Special, but was produced by Kyoto Animation, so it’s a really good Afterschool Special.

The big difference between boys and girls, of course, is that boys really do beat the crap out of each other.

Loud, sweet-natured, dyed-blond Natsuku from Osaka
Kate: Apparently, being from Osaka is the equivalent of being from the Jersey Shore and carries with it all the class-consciousness, or at least jokes, associated with the “guido” lifestyle (see Bones, “The Maggots in the Meathead”).

Characters in the series are constantly making comments about Osaka and at one point, the mother of an Osaka student shows up. She’s got big hair, a loud mouth, and dangling jewelry. The narrator keeps adding comments like, “Not all people from Osaka are like this,” the implication being that the mother represents common assumptions about Osaka. (This is Osaka, the area, not Osaka, the name, which, according to the helpful narrator’s notes, uses different characters.)

Eugene: During the Edo Period 1603–1868), the Tokugawa shoguns imposed an authoritarian form of federalism on the provinces. This was to keep discontented governors from banding together and overthrowing the regime, which was exactly what happened in 1868. But they kept it at bay for 250 years.

Traveling from one province to another required an internal passport and getting caught without one would get you tossed in jail (though the draw of the big city was enough that many risked it). As a result, the provinces developed distinct identities and dialects.

The traditional Osaka greeting is “How’s business?” A common dubbing mistake is giving characters from Osaka a Southern accent. You’re right; they should sound like they’re from Jersey. “It ain’t personal, it’s business.” After all, the Osaka (Kansai) region is also home to Japan’s biggest and oldest yakuza gangs.

Kate: Speaking of regions, Hokkaido is the “hicks” but in a cool way.

At one point, a manga character who lives in Hokkaido decides to go to Tokyo University. Everyone acts like he’s moving to the moon—America would be closer. I was so puzzled, I looked it up. It appears to be the same distance as Portland, Maine to Washington DC which, granted, is quite a ways (and in Japan, there’s a sea to cross) but not THAT far.

 I've since gotten the impression that it’s the Portland part of the equation that makes Hokkaido the “hicks”—that is, Hokkaido is “hicks” like Maine is “hicks” (as opposed to Arkansas “hicks”). It’s remote and mysterious and kind of otherworldly. Which is pretty much how people in Washington State reacted when I told them I was moving to Maine.

Eugene: Hokkaido is like Maine married to Minnesota only with volcanoes and earthquakes. There’s a ton of open land, but given the choice, hot and crowded Tokyo wins out every time. For example, Nana (HIDIVE) begins with two girls fleeing the sticks for the big city. Enough people are doing it that many rural towns in Hokkaido and elsewhere are drying up and blowing away.

Fifty years ago, the coal town of Yubari, made famous in the 1977 Yoji Yamada film, The Yellow Handkerchief, had a population of 120,000. Since the mines closed in the 1980s, the population has declined by over 90 percent.

A cute anime series that takes place in Hokkaido is Figure 17 (Tubi). An elementary school student moves to Hokkaido with her father (he’s apprenticing at a farm bakery) and runs into a bunch of aliens. It’s The X-Files meets Little House on the Prairie. The aliens aside, it puts the region in a romantic light (man-eating monsters aside), to the extent of making all that wilderness look downright exotic. 

Kate: Hey, I could go for The X-Files meets Little House on the Prairie. In fact, that may be Supernatural!

The deserted element definitely shows up in the manga I read! If a series has a ghost story, it takes place on Hokkaido. That is, Hokkaido is where spooky stuff happens—in the woods. Likewise, the two questions I was asked by folks in Washington State about my move to Maine were “Will you see a moose?” and “Will you see Stephen King?” (A third was, "Isn't Maine in Canada?") Bizarrely, I’ve seen the latter in-person but not the former.

Speaking of Americans, an assumption throughout many manga series is that Americans kiss more—all the time, constantly, and they kiss everyone and everything from pets to family members to significant others to people in the street. I think this perception may mostly be due to television.

Eugene: Actually, according to the people who measure such things, American do kiss more than Japanese (though not as much as Europeans). For what it’s worth, there’s more kissing in shojo manga than on Japanese TV. You can watch a bio pic series on NHK that covers the protagonist’s entire life, including marriage and children, and not see a single kiss.

You know what you see instead? Hugs. Like the nosebleed, it’s become symbolic shorthand for everything else.  

Kate: I’ve noticed the nosebleeds! In fact, the latest version of Emma hilariously uses it. At the climax, Mr. Knightly asks Emma to marry him and she is so stunned--because she once again misread the situation--she has a nosebleed. She crossly borrows his handkerchief and then declares that she is going to fix matters with her best friend who is in love with Mr. Knightly. I had to wonder if the director, Autumn de Wilde, was influenced by Japanese manga.

How symbolic is the nosebleed? Nineteenth-century women swooned. Not as much as literature depicts, but they did swoon (possibly due to corsets). Is the nosebleed a common occurrence, an uncommon occurrence that provides go-to emotional relief, or purely symbolic?  

Eugene: By this point, it’s entered the realm of the purely symbolic. For example, the aforementioned hugs. In Hanako and Anne (on NHK), there is a dramatic hug in the pouring rain between Hanako and Eiji, her future husband, but at the time married to somebody else. The plot developments and dialogue that follow only make sense if they slept (or almost slept) together, but that is left entirely to the imagination.

 As noted, the exception, and a fascinating example of cultural compartmentalization, is manga (and to a lesser extent, anime). Cheese! is an imprint of Flower Comics that targets a female audience starting in the late teens. It is often as explicit and gratuitous as Japanese law allows. A recent review of Yakuza Lover on ANN, published in Japan under the Cheese! imprint, reminded me of my Cheese! posts.

In one of those posts, I quote Tokyo-based writer Roland Kelts, who argues that

the strict codes of etiquette and behavior that govern daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary degree of creative and social permissiveness, the freedom to explore other identities, to test the limits of possibility.
It follows that, at least in terms of mainstream entertainment, the less abstract the artform (the live-action drama being not abstract at all), the more morally constrained it will necessarily become.
I wonder if there is something here that accounts for the huge success of manga and anime overseas, at the same time that Kdrama is orders of magnitude more popular than Jdrama. Unlike manga in the same genre, the characters in a Jdrama like Good Morning Call can at times feel they were transported out of a 1950s Golden Age sit-com.

To be continued as Kate discovers and inquires about more themes and tropes and motifs!

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Great Couple in Manga: Tatsu and Miku

Way of the Househusband starts with Tatsu and Miku already married. So far (I am on Volume 3), I haven't learned how they meet (not sure if I ever will). Tatsu has already met his in-laws, who seem to accept him as much as they would accept any son-in-law. The father worries about how to entertain Tatsu and resolves to play catch with him!

The great thing about the marriage is how utterly matter-of-fact everyone is. When Tatsu decides to take out a roach, he commands Miku to help him, even if it means hitting him. She does so with slapstick results. He doesn't mind. They move on. 

It is heavily implied that Miku not only is terrible at housework (she's a working wife), she finds household chores tedious (Tatsu revels in them). When Tatsu tries to get her to relax with incense and an eye mask and kitty cat, she feels completely confined and goes to take a bath instead. 

Tatsu, on the other hand, blisses out. 

Yet Miku loves cutesy things (very specific cutesy things), which her husband will go out of his way to make sure she enjoys. And she has a sweet lovingness that leads her to give her husband a day at a carnival.

Their complete acceptance of each other's oddities--even if they both think the other IS a little odd (and other people think they are both quite odd)--makes them a great couple. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Functional Breakup in Crime Shows: Andy & Sharon

Okay, Andy Griffith isn't actually a crime show. But it has a sheriff and his deputy and occasional criminals (as well as Otis, the town drunk).

In the episode, "Class Reunion," Andy reconnects with a previous girlfriend, Sharon. They broke up in high school. They were so good together, nobody--including Andy and Sharon--can remember at this date why they broke up.

But then they start talking. Andy is a small-town guy. He sees no need to move to a big city. He likes knowing his neighbors. He likes being part of a community. He doesn't want to be a detective or captain in something like the NYPD. (Barney is the same--but doesn't know it. Although Don Knotts left the show for contract reasons, his character's decision to move to the "big city" to work as a detective is entirely believable. However, I do think Barney would move back within a year.)

Sharon, on the other hand, loves the cosmopolitan lifestyle. She sees the small-town lifestyle as stagnant. She doesn't comprehend Andy's lack of ambition--she is ambitious herself. She wants to see more, do more. They reflect two solid viewpoints that can't connect. (Andy's later move away from Mayberry seems to be more about necessity than choice.)

Since they are no longer in high school, they are able to acknowledge their differences and relax. But it's a great indicator that compatibility of temperament may not cross over into compatibility of goals and interests and mindsets.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Good Writing & Romance: Deanna Raybourn

I've been writing more romances lately. Despite the fact that I read erotica (I honestly see nothing immoral about reading about bodily functions or bodily parts), I don't attempt to write it. 

Writing good erotica is rather like writing good religious discussions. No matter how profoundly writers may feel, either can come across as clinical or cloying or both. 

I focus instead on indirect statements which leave as much as possible to the reader's imagination. And a great writer who uses a similar approach is Deanna Raybourn.

In the Lady Julia Grey series, Lady Julia Grey and investigator Nicholas Brisbane form a relationship that from Day One involves a certain amount of animal magnetism. At one point during the investigation, during a confrontation in the park, Lady Julia, the narrator, is interrupted in the middle of an apology:

"Brisbane, say something. If you wish to strike me, do it and get it over with. I know you are frightfully angry, and you have every right."

I stopped then because he made me. He did not strike me; instead he did something I had never expected. He reached for me. It was some time before he let me go. 

Yup, it's exactly what you imagine. 

And well-rendered as well.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Classic Couples: the Quibells

My recent reading about Egyptology in the nineteenth century brings home an important truth: however much grand critical theories like to force individuals  into patterns, people are still people.

A number of male archeologists in nineteenth century Egypt married women who were passionately devoted to archaeology--and quite often writers and artists and funders in their own right. Detractors will wish to point out that they weren't archaeologists, and this is true. 

But this blog is about romance and relationships and marriage, and what stands out is how many of these women were equal partners with their husbands in the field. They were just as committed to the work. Annie Abernathy Pirie Quibell, the wife of James Edward Quibell, an early administrator and pupil of Flinders Petrie (who also married a woman who worked alongside him) was a published author. In fact, she published more than her husband.  

This appears not to have bothered him a whit--in fact, she thanks him by his full title in her opening words to Egyptian History and Art, an acknowledgment that is quite modern in its approach.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Conversations with a Translator: Manga & High School

Literature can provide insights into the culture and historical time period in which that literature was produced. 

Years ago, my mother told me that during an exam on the nineteenth century, she realized, rather to her surprise, how much she already knew due to reading Jane Austen, one of her favorite authors. She didn’t set out to learn the information. It arrived unconsciously as part of her preferred form of entertainment. 

These kinds of insights can be taken too far, of course, mostly when theorists insist on reading backwards into a piece of literature their personal pet ideologies. 

For those readers who, as C.S. Lewis would say, prefer to “receive” rather than “use,” diving into a genre can expose readers and viewers to an entire lifestyle and way of thinking that seems entirely familiar while offering the rewards of new and different experiences.

To paraphrase Lewis, we “become a thousand men and yet remain [ourselves].” The following Conversations with a Translator began several years ago when I began my first major exploration of manga series.

The posts range from 2013 to 2021 (they are not strictly chronological, so a single post may reference manga and anime selections from 2013 and 2021). The posts will delve into various aspects of Japanese culture, starting with Japanese high schools. Surviving high school is a popular motif in all literature. Are these high schools a distillation of concepts/experiences? How universal are they? How individual?

Kate: I’m reading the manga series Mars, a 15-volume set written by Fuyumi Soryo. The series is your basic high school romance set in Japan. The houses/businesses/etc. are all Japanese in style as are the names.

Yet I’ve started to ponder the series’ realism. For one, the teen characters have an amazing amount of freedom. American novels would present this circumstance as utterly unrealistic. Teens must be monitored! How realistic is this lack of supervision?

Eugene: One plot device that is plausible in Japan but not common in the U.S. has the father getting transferred, the mother going with him, and the teenager staying behind. Parents who have gotten their child into a decent school dare not risk pulling him out. High schools often take borders for this reason.

That’s why the transfer student who shows up halfway through the school year is such a big deal. It suggests a complex chain of unfortunate circumstances. High schools in Japan operate under an open enrollment system. A student can matriculate at any school in the country if there’s an open spot and they can pass the entrance exam. Good Morning Call (Netflix) begins when Nao moves to Tokyo to attend high school and “accidentally” ends up sharing an apartment with Hisashi, the most popular guy in school.

Many of the teen characters in Durarara!! (Netflix Funimation) are transplants from outside Tokyo who live on their own while attending high school. That does make it easier for them to get caught up in the crazy goings-on in Ikebukuro.

In Super Cub (Funimation), Beyond the Boundary (HIDIVE), and March Comes in like a Lion (Netflix Crunchyroll), the main characters live alone in their own apartments. In their cases, they would probably be classified as emancipated minors.

There is also more self-government and more student-directed activities in Japanese high schools.

On the other hand, the lack of an omnipresent testing regime and fewer constraints outside of high school can make the American teenage experience seem like a wonderland of freedom. Most Japanese won’t get a driver’s license until their twenties (if at all).

Kate: Rei has his own apartment in Mars! It is due to unfortunate circumstances, but not considered unusual by others.

Plots vary a great deal in high school manga. The plot of Mars is relatively realistic in that it involves neither a conspiracy (Denegeki Daisy) nor a girl-in-disguise in a school full of boys (Hana-Kimi). It also doesn’t have a supernatural component, as in Black Bird. And it is lacking the dog-eat-dog underlying tone of Caste Heaven.

Yet for a contemporary plot, Mars contains little talk of drugs though lots of talk about dating. At one point, Kira is pressured to sleep with Rei. (She eventually decides to.) So, on the one hand, Mars is not much like American plots. On the other hand, it is very much like them! What are “typical” plots for high school manga?

Eugene: In story terms, there’s always the need for conflict. In the typical Japanese high school, drug use isn’t widespread. The teenage pregnancy rate is close to zero. In O Maidens in Your Savage Season (HIDIVE), exactly one girl in the school gets pregnant and it is a huge deal (she drops out, gets married, and appears happy with her life).

Bullying is a chronic problem. Incompetent teachers just putting in the time aren’t unheard of either. Which is why most students who want to get into a “good” university spend hours every day at cram schools, no matter how smart they are.

A popular genre of teen romantic comedy has a poor student winning a scholarship to an exclusive high school populated by rich snobs, and winning the heart of BMOC. The live-action television series The Story of Yamada Taro cleverly turns this formula upside down: the poor girl falls for the young prince, who turns out to be poorer than she is.

Another plot complication that crops up is English, the bane of every student in Japan. Given the demands of the test-dependent “escalator” system, doing true study abroad is a near impossibility. Being able to spend enough time abroad in order to master English and not fall off that escalator is a sure sign of privilege (or indifference).

A funny twist on this in Strawberry Marshmallow (HIDIVE) has a girl from England desperately trying to hide the fact that she grew up in Japan and can’t speak English any better than her classmates.

Kate: Stumbles over language are always potentially humorous! I encountered a scene in Hana-Kimi (above) where the Japanese-American student who gets herself accepted to a Japanese boys’ school (without her parents finding out!) does poorly on English exams. All that grammar!

In all honesty, I expected more such plot points in Mars. I was a little taken aback by how recognizable I found many classroom scenes. The teachers behaved exactly the same way as American teachers (one of them throws chalk!).

And I had to wonder, are high schools in manga “true” Japanese high schools? Or are they a crystallization of everyone’s idea of high school? Is Japanese culture not exactly the way it is portrayed in articles (students bowing when the teacher enters the room)?

The custom of kiritsu and rei (stand and bow) at the beginning of class is still very much a thing through high school (though not college). The class president usually barks out the commands like a drill sergeant.

Rich kids in manga invariably live in gigantic mansions (with butlers and maids) that don’t exist anywhere in Japan. Okay, I’m sure there are mansions in Japan, and perhaps some of them have butlers and maids. But I’d expect most mansions, like the most exclusive, private schools, to be managed quite conservatively.

The flip side of this genre has a rich kid (or teacher) ending up at a reform school at the bottom end of the scale, no more realistically depicted (i.e., in dystopian terms) than the exclusive schools at the top of the scale. A good example is Gokusen, that has Kumiko, the granddaughter of a yakuza kingpin, becoming a teacher at such a school.

She has to keep the school board from finding out she’s a yakuza princess while not letting on she can be tougher and meaner than any of her students. She also has a bad habit of cussing like a yakuza when she’s stressed out.

Or the reality-unreality of Buffy.
So high schools in manga are like high schools in most American television shows—a fictionalized “other world” similar to Shakespeare’s approach: set an Ancient Roman story in the middle of Renaissance Europe or plant a bunch of Italian characters (who have English habits) in the middle of a Danish court because, hey, what did he care?

Eugene: I think the high school setting can be compared to the cop show setting. Imagine a Japanese audience trying to deconstruct the American legal system by watching American TV shows.

CSI: Las Vegas, for example, sorta, kinda tried to stay pinned to reality, though it still takes great dramatic license; CSI: Miami was pure, eye-rolling fantasy. NCIS somewhat approximates the real world; NCIS: Los Angeles is literally and figuratively in La La Land.

This pretty much has nothing to do with the entertainment value (though as with CSI: Miami, the lack of verisimilitude can stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point).

Kate: The comparison of crime shows to high school dramas makes a lot of sense. I think my “huh?” response is rooted in my perception of Japanese high schools as more “other” and interesting than American high schools—why not take advantage of that?! But of course, that perception is easily reversed!
More to follow as Kate comes to realize that a lot more differences are embedded in Japanese manga than she realized…

Monday, June 28, 2021

(Dys)Functional Relationships in Manga: Investment in Blue Morning

Tomoyuki Katsuragi of Blue Morning is the guardian--and butler--of the Kuze house. His immediate charge is the next viscount, Akihito. 

For at least two years after his arrival in the Kuze house as a boy, Katsuragi believed that he would be adopted directly into the Kuze line and inherit the title--until Akihito's birth. Eleven years separate the two men. Katsuragi--intelligent, composed, deliberate--saw Akihito as an obstacle to overcome. When Akihito's mother, then father died and he arrived at the house to become Katsuragi's charge, Katsuragi began to plan a usurpation.

Seven years later, Katsuaragi is pushing for the viscount's promotion when a previous ally returns. Katsuragi is stern, critical, and demanding with Akihito. His behavior could easily be interpreted as a continuation of his original plan. 

Except it isn't. The return of his ally brings him face-to-face with plans that he put in motion years earlier--and which are now causing problems. But the truth is, as Katsuragi thinks before he castigates himself: "A plan like that--I'm not thinking about that anymore. I had even forgotten about it." 

So what changed? Even the ally is uncertain. In romantic terms, Katsuragi's goals might have changed when the two men, at Akihito's insistence, become lovers. But actually, the change happened years earlier. "I had even forgotten about it" implies that at some point in his guardianship, Katsuragi's focus shifted. 

Although the reader is given hints of how Katsuragi--demanding, critical, cool, and remote--raised Akihito--the effect was likely cumulative and points to an important aspect of functional and dysfunctional relationships: investment

Humans get invested. They care about what they spend their time on. They make decisions and THEN excuse/justify those decisions. 

Whatever Katsuragi planned originally, the moment he applied himself personally to preparing Akihito for his position, his brain and his emotions and his desires combined to collectively defend his sacrifices. 

There's a reason people remain in relationships, even when said relationships don't appear to be working. 

Of course, with Blue Morning, a happier--if complicated--future awaits.