Monday, January 30, 2023

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, History

Kate: The 12 Kingdoms series, including Hills of Silver Ruins, demonstrates a fascination with history. As good fantasy, Ono's world is true-to-life; the fantastical elements depend on consistent natural laws as do human advances and behaviors. 

I recently read a brief history of Japan for children. If anyone had asked me even three months ago, I would have assumed that Japan as a country stretched back as far as the Ancient Mediterranean Empires. I'm willing to bet that many people, who rely on general knowledge, would make the same assumption.

Is the perception of antiquity because the ancient and modern world are set side by side in Japan? Or is that Japan had those years of isolation; hence, "modern" for Japan is really recent (while for Westerners, "modern" is also kind of historical, starting with the end of Shakespeare's life)?

And do Japanese people share this perception—that Japan is really old—or are they busy exclaiming, "China is soooo much older!" and that accounts for the interest in China?

Eugene: I'd say that Japanese generally think of Japan as an old country that got new really fast. After all, compared to the United States, Japan is ancient. But several other factors play into this. First is that Japan can point to a cohesive polity that reaches further back than most of its European counterparts. As early as the Asuka period (538–710), there was an identifiable government, language, and culture of Japan.

Another key factor is the relationship with China, from which Japan borrowed its culture, orthography, and political organization. From the start, Buddhist institutions grafted themselves onto their Chinese (and Indian) counterparts and so could treat that ancientness as their own. In any case, there is plenty of hard evidence for home-grown ancientness, as the Jomon period dates from 6000–300 BCE.

For example, in the slice-of-life anime movie Laid Back Camp, the girls are restoring a run-down campground near Mt. Fuji when they discover shards of Jomon pottery. The project gets put on hold while archeologists excavate the site. This is considered a seamless part of Japanese history. The same applies to the thousands of "keyhole" burial mounds found across Japan that date to the Kofun period (300–538).

Where archeological evidence is lacking, myth will suffice, so the imperial line officially begins with Emperor Jimmu in 660 BCE, though there is little objective historical evidence for emperors that predate the Asuka period. Before that, we're in King Arthur territory. But like King Arthur, a really good myth almost qualifies as actual history.

Kate: Very interesting! On reflection, I decided that Japan offers a continuity that other places simply don't have. Anglo Saxon culture (500ish CE) became the determining culture of England with the Celts (1000 BCE) being the determining genetics. But in the meantime, there were the Romans and the Danes and the Normans, so that a later generation saw no connection between itself and, say, Stonehenge (there is no cultural or genetic connection) until nineteenth century nationalists began searching for a connection. Likewise, the cave paintings in France are older than just about anything but Werner Herzog's movie emphasizes a human connection rather than a French one.

Is Japan's uniqueness that it offers cultural memory--like the Middle East but without the grudges? 

Eugene: Japan as a coherent polity was in large part a product of the Genpei War (1180–1185) that ended the Heian period and the direct rule of the imperial household and moved the secular government far away from Kyoto to Kamakura. This separation of "church" and state not only preserved the imperial line but also the culture of the Heian period, which later shoguns could build upon to show how sophisticated they were. But for the most part, when it came to overthrowing the previous regime, "it's not personal, it's business." 
The link below is an example of how traditional culture in Japan (in this case, shrine visits and kimono) still permeates modern culture. It'd be sort of as if the majority of the population attended Midnight Mass, whether they were Catholic or not, and turned the experience into adorable pop art. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Notes from the Past: Getting Around

In April Lady, Georgette Heyer's narrator reflects, "In the fastness of her bedchamber, it was possible to weave agreeable romances in which she played a leading and often heroic role. 'Noblest of girls! We owe it all to you!' In these romances, Selina overcame all difficulties by ignoring them."

The "mechanics" of reality are often a stumbling block to writers and critics who want to ignore things like transportation and money. 

A common argument against Pamela's innocence in the book by Samuel Richardson is "If her master Mr. B's advances truly upset her as much as she claims, why doesn't she just leave?" (and granted, Pamela's protests and self-justifications do get a trifle unbelievable after awhile--she should have stuck to the explanation below).

In Mr. B Speaks! Mr. B defends Pamela's failure to act by explaining that Pamela didn't have access to transportation. How was she supposed to get home? 

This is another difference between us and the world of the pre/early-Industrial Revolution, one so blatant yet so easily bypassed, it rather staggers the mind. So many moderns are hung up on the idea that (1) life in the historical past was simpler; (2) the separation between rich and poor just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

While it is true that the rich now-a-days are richer than the rich of the past, simpler is not automatically better--or fairer. The level of poverty experienced by everyday, supposedly well-off people in the 1700s is incomprehensible to just about everybody in the modern, Westernized world (and yes, I am including people who depend on soup kitchens).

Gentleman with His Horse
There was no RTP. No buses. No bikes. Pamela couldn't climb on her moped. She couldn't call a taxi. She couldn't get a lift from a friend (not if that friend answered to someone who didn't want her to leave).

And she couldn't just go get herself a horse.

Because horses are unmechanized and bucolic and cute, many moderns (and unfortunately too many historical writers) assume that horses are also easy and cheap to care for.

Not at all.

Horses, then and now, are expensive. Remember poor Jane, sent on a soggy horse ride to visit Bingley's sisters? How her father wasn't sure if the horses were available to take her in the family carriage?

The horses wouldn't be available because letting even one horse sit around in a stable doing nothing was something only an exceptionally wealthy man could afford. Darcy can afford to keep extra horses in his stables at Pemberley, but even Darcy doesn't bring his carriage and horses to Netherfield. He brings his horse, nothing else. Gallivanting around in a carriage is something Darcy keeps for special occasions and emergencies, not for visiting a friend.

Mr. B and Pamela later go for a
ride in a carriage like this one.

Pamela's best hope is to get a ride with a servant--performing an errand for Mr. B on one of Mr. B's horses--or with a farmer. She would still need Mr. B's permission to take advantage of the first option. Regarding the second option, farmers are kind of busy guys. In fact, a truly stunning portion of the book is spent trying to figure out HOW to get hold of transportation (and then pay for it).

Compare that to the 21st century kid who works at McDonald's to pay for his car insurance--because he's got to have a car. Not that I have a problem with this, any more than Eugene: cheap, easy transportation that allows one to MOVE rather than tying one to a parcel of land is the true democracy.

Pamela could walk home, but the pastoral countryside--like horses--was not automatically safe just because it was (also) cute. Circa 1740, London may have been more dangerous; that didn't make the countryside safe. (Romantic imagery promoting the supposedly untouched, peaceful countryside was a few decades in the future.)

Pamela has principles, but she doesn't want to end up raped by a highwayman. Much better to hold off her master with her wits.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Learning from Fan Fiction: Minor Characters Work Best

In an earlier post, I mention that my Georgette Heyer fan-fiction only works if I pair the couple's problems to the world's expectations. 

I have also discovered that the most satisfying stories are usually about minor characters. That is, in Venetia (one of my favorite Heyers), I kept the main characters' story but expanded on a story of Venetia's younger acerbic brother, Aubrey, and Venetia's erstwhile suitor, Oswald, who keeps forgetting to maintain his pose of a brooding Byron. 

The satisfaction of the minor characters' story arises not just from creating an hitherto absent pairing but also from using the minor couple to mirror the larger action.

In Heyer's text, Oswald is amusing because he immediately realizes that Damerel, the true Beast of the tale and Venetia's soulmate, is the "real thing" when it comes to Heathcliffian angst. Oswald cannot possibly compete. Aubrey is interesting because his acerbity masks a deep irritation at people who condescendingly pity him for his limp. Venetia never does. Venetia's expectations regarding a relationship--a soulmate who will take her statements seriously--begins with Aubrey. 

Taking Aubrey and Oswald forward, so Aubrey admits that he still desires companionship after Venetia marries and Oswald grows out of his Gothic-phase and accepts himself as a non-disillusioned romantic, was an interesting process. Venetia and Damerel's resolution dovetailed with Aubrey and Oswald's forward momentum.

Many viewers' favorite couple from Joan of Arcadia
I think potential and mirroring is one reason minor couples work so well on television shows and sitcoms. Not only do viewers still get a romance, they also get to see why the main characters work or don't work. Bones was quite happy to marry off the people who surround Bones and Booth, before and after their marriage. Those other relationships highlight that Bones and Booth are one type of marriage, not the only type of marriage. They are quintessential Bones and Booth, not a generic couple. 

The important (and often missed) point is that the minor characters' romances cannot substitute for the main character's romance (though Chandler and Monica got awfully close, especially for those of us who think that Ross and Rachel are too awful separately and together to really work). The minor characters work because they occur in reflection; they operate as foils.

They do become many people's favorite couples!

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Live Action Changes Everything: Library Wars

First Movie

In volume 5 of Sasaki and Miyano by Shou Harusono, Sasaki and Miyano go to a live-action BL film. Afterwards, Miyano, who is a BL fan (alongside several of his straight friends, one of whom reads it because of his girlfriend), comments:

"It was sooo good...and it was live-action...I was honestly a little worried about how they were going to adapt it....The original story's told on paper after all, so I figured it wouldn't feel right as a live-action movie. I was kinda scared of it ruining the original. Like, I was scared that they wouldn't look how I imagined them...I think maybe there was even more subtle emotion in this version."

It is a fantastic explanation of why--absent the kind of manga that is simply slideshow images from the movie, which medium I detest--a manga, an anime, and a live-action film of the same work can evoke such different reactions. 

The mediums don't have to be ranked. They simply do different things in different ways. 

The live-action Library Wars movie is a great example of how different different can get. 

I'm a fan of the Library Wars manga series, which I read first. I got the anime for a gift and very much enjoy it. It is similar enough to the manga to feel like a tribute but distinct enough to offer a new experience.

And then there is the live action film from 2013, which I was finally able to watch (thank you, Inter-library Loan!). 

And it's a totally different story.

Kasahara is in there. And Dojo, of course. One major difference: Dojo of the film, played by Junichi Okada (who is apparently as reserved in real life as he is in the film), looks considerably older than his co-star, Nana Eikura. There's an 8-year difference (in the manga, the difference is 4 years). 

The age difference matters because Dojo of the film comes across as quite mature already, not a guy in the process of maturing.

The film is also far more violent than the manga seems to be. Violence is an ongoing thread in the manga and in the anime. With the film, though I enjoyed it, I kept thinking, "Wow, okay, yeah, I guess that's part of the story: another shoot-out." 

Dojo is right in the middle of it. As in the manga, in one scene, he enters a bathroom where Kasahara has cornered a bad guy. The bad guy goes after her and Dojo takes him out. The movements are so quick, I jumped in my seat. 

To put it bluntly, Junichi Okada as Dojo is super hot. And a great action hero.

Consequently, almost by necessity (actors are "writers" in the sense that their auras and abilities transform a film), the film is more about, well, war and the seriousness that accompanies it than the mixture of ordinary life, learning curves, battle scenarios, and dating that appear in the manga.

I don't consider the manga "fake." Look at Londoners going about their shopping during the Blitz!

The point is, a live-action film will gain its own interpretation. It is, in fact, a different beast--so much so that reviewers have complained that the live-action sequel doesn't have much of the Kasahara-Dojo relationship (and note that Junichi Okada moves center stage on the poster).

I'd still like to see it.   

Second Movie

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fairy Tales: Lack of Romance in Aesop's Fables

I discuss Aesop's Fables on my main blog. 

I noted after a brief perusal of the fables that few of the tales have romantic content.

Some of the truths/lessons embedded in the tales crop up more than once; overall, the truths tackle many facets of the human condition--they apply to romance but don't tackle it specifically. 

The one tale that uses romance provides a lesson that applies to the general human condition. 

That one tale is "The Rose & the Butterfly."  The Butterfly falls in love with the Rose. However, then the Butterfly flits off to do its stuff. When the Butterfly returns, the Rose complains. The Butterfly replies:

I had no sooner left you than I saw Zephyr kissing you. You carried on scandalously with Mr. Bumble Bee and you made eyes at every single Bug you could see. You can't expect any constancy from me!

The larger truth is that one cannot expect constancy if one doesn't practice it.

The reality of Aesop is that Aesop used observations of the non-human world to craft the fables. Animals and plants behave in accordance with pre-determined natures. Butterflies don't stay in one place. Sheep are often eaten. Wolves are wholly dangerous. Foxes are sneaky and clever. As for amphibians and reptiles: watch out! 

The one creature that behaves contrary to a pattern is Man, as in the Man & the Satyr, in which the Man blows on his hands to warm them and on his soup to cool it. The attached moral is rather belabored (I think the story is supposed to be a joke, not a lesson). The point is: the man (unlike the animals) behaves unpredictably. 

It is out of unpredictability that romance arises.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, the Novel

Kate: Hills of Silver Ruins is the most recent novel in The Twelve Kingdoms Series by Ono Fuyumi. You have translated many of the others and are now working on the long-anticipated Hills of Silver Ruins

Does the book seem a culmination to the series? Does it include recurring themes?

Eugene: Hills of Silver Ruins is Fuyumi Ono's first Twelve Kingdoms novel since 2001, though she published a collection of short stories in 2013 that take place in the Twelve Kingdoms universe. Her previous novel, Zan'e in 2012, is in the contemporary horror genre (the other half of her oeuvre). Hills of Silver Ruins is a sequel to The Shore in Twilight.

Although Youko is the featured character that springs to mind, Taiki has actually commanded as much or more of her attention over the series. The epic Hills of Silver Ruins does feel like her swan song, though along with Hayao Miyazaki (whose absolutely, positively last film, How Do You Live? opens next summer), I wouldn't count out another installment down the road.

Kate: Does the book include recurring themes?
Eugene: I see two themes playing out throughout the series. The first is how the divine interferes in human affairs. Though the cause and effect are more explicit than in our world, there are still those who see around them a mechanical universe that, once set in motion, does not need a god to continue operating.

Rousan appears to be carrying out an experiment that Shouryuu (the Imperial En) once mused about when he contemplated what he would do if he got bored with being emperor (since to abdicate is to die). What would happen if he threw a wrench into the gears of that mechanical universe? Would it self-correct and how? The conclusion (so far) is that the universe of the Twelve Kingdoms does indeed self-correct while making the maximum allowances for human agency.

In fact, Ono often inveighs against legalism as a basis for both life and political governance, which brings up the other theme: the difference between reigning and ruling.

Asen was so hellbent on reigning that he gave little thought to actually ruling (and he was a nihilist going in). I wonder if Ono was thinking of Ying Zheng, the brutal king of Qin, when she created Asen. I'm pretty sure Ying Zheng was an inspiration for Shoukei's father (the assassinated emperor of Hou) at the beginning of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

Another historical reference that springs to mind is Oda Nobunaga's assault on Mt. Hiei in 1571. It roughly parallels Asen's attack on Zui'un Temple. The real Nobunaga and the fictional Asen are two Nietzschean peas in a pod.

The most successful kingdoms are those where the emperor or empress reigns but doesn't try to run everything themselves or try to fix everything all at once. This was a major problem at the onset of the Meiji era. There's no disputing the need for reform but the ruling oligarchy moved so fast they triggered numerous revolts, culminating in the Satsuma Rebellion, that could easily have been avoided.

Gyousou fell into the same trap and even sent Taiki abroad so he could act with fewer checks and balances.

By contrast, Shouryuu once appointed a man to be province lord who was "so busily engaged in pilfering the public treasury he had no interest in plotting political conspiracies or leading insurrections." Because a greedy rich man worries him less than a Machiavellian interested in power for its own sake. Such lowly passions are easier to control with carrots and sticks.

On the other hand, especially in chapter 21 of book 4, Asen comes across as a funhouse mirror image of Saitama from One Punch Man. Asen defines himself in terms of his rivals. The breaking point came when he realized that his rivalry with Gyousou was entirely one sided. He awoke from his prolonged funk when Taiki showed up because Taiki became another player to compete with.

Kate: After multiple translated books and manga, do you find the translation process harder? Easier? 

Eugene: I'm considerably better as a translator than I was when I started out but Fuyumi Ono doesn't make it easy with her extensive use of Chinese and references to medieval Chinese culture. Vocabulary aside, she has a clear and comprehensible style. I usually read about half a dozen chapters ahead. I make so many notes along the way that I have to start writing while it's fresh in my mind.


Friday, January 6, 2023

Notes from the Past: Austen's Bath

Consider any popular resort right after it has been so thoroughly commercialized and force-fed on people that everyone starts going somewhere new (which will then be commercialized and force-fed on people in turn)...

Bath was still popular in Austen's day; it just didn't have the cache it used to.

Austen was well-aware of Bath's reputation and uses it cleverly in her writing. The Bath of Persuasion is a playground for elderly gentry, including gentlemen like Sir Walter who can't quite afford London (Mr. Shepherd is correctly appalled at the idea of sending Sir Walter off to live in London, where the baronet would bury himself in more and more debt just to keep up with the "Joneses").

From a literary standpoint, Bath is an excellent setting to show-case Elizabeth and Sir Walter's personalities. First, in Bath, father and daughter are big fish or, at least, bigger fish than they would be in London. Also, in Bath, father and daughter are able to exercise their pointless snobbery to the nth degree.

Prior to Austen's time period, private parties were considered a big no-no in Bath. People like Beau Nash went out of their way to create a society that was surprisingly egalitarian (for the time period) while also less surprisingly rigid in terms of social expectations. Going to Bath was rather like going to a really assertive summer camp where you would be expected to attend dances and concerts while  getting along just swimmingly with your neighbors.

But during Austen's time period, this rigid, community spirit was waning (for one thing, Beau Nash was dead). Consequently, visitors like Elizabeth and Sir Walter are able to do whatever they please.

And what they please is exactly what you would expect from people like them:

Cocktail parties.

What Elizabeth and Sir Walter enjoy is walking around the equivalent of a ritzy hotel lobby (the Pump Room), then holding private parties where conversation is the kind of stuff you find on Twitter.

It is no surprise that Anne (and Austen) prefer the theater to this type of "entertainment." But for egoists like Elizabeth and Sir Walter nothing could be better than seeing, being seen, and showing off.

Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot, the heroes of my tribute Persuadable through Peaks Island Press, demonstrate no particular preference, entertainment-wise, in Austen's text. This is entirely in keeping with their goals; in both cases, they are trying to satisfy their marks--Elizabeth and Sir Walter--by telling their marks what they want to hear.