Passionate Statement

[Uh, I haven’t written for a while. I’m exhausted somewhere between grad school applications and a full-time teaching job that often feels more like playing taskmaster than educator (how does this country function with such poor school discipline?). I’m probably going to need to slow down this site even more. Lately, I come home, eat dinner, and just sleep]

Oh, what to do when procrastinating a graduate school application essay… why, quote a dead French intellectual of course! After all, what better way to demonstrate your academic pretentions? Make it snappy though, I can’t slack off for too long. Nicolas Chamfort wrote in his Maxims:

 “All passions are exaggerated, otherwise they would not be passions” (trans. Hutchison)

Yeah, that sounds about right to me.

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I know this, but what good does it do me to know?

I realized that this post needed a picture so I took a picture of a book in protest

[assay!]

Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:

  • “Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now. 
  • “Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
  • “Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”

Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field

I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).

So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:

What good does knowledge do me?

Continue reading “I know this, but what good does it do me to know?”

When does Girls’ Last Tour take place? …and why it may not matter

No computer, no screenshots — I got a scan!

[computer still broken, so a short phone ramble]

When does Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou) take place? I googled the question and found no answer on the first few result pages. So, while re-reading the manga through a surprise digital detox sprung on me by a broken computer, I thought I could provide an answer:

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Details in Girls’ Last Tour: Kanazawa’s view of life and maturity

[content warning: attempted suicide in fiction]

‘like a puff ‘a smoke

[As a heads up, I am assuming some familiarity with the material. Also, I wrote this between a Japanese print edition of the manga, an English Kindle edition, and the relevant episode from the anime so I’ve mixed up the sourcing on the quotes — some come from the English manga, some from the anime subtitles, and some from my own translation of the Japanese. Sorry to any source sticklers, but they should be inter-changeable!]

In chapter 7 of the manga Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou, also episode 3 of the anime) the map-maker Kanazawa gives one of the series’ few outside, adult observations of the two lead girls. While Chii and Yuu work to fill up the gas tanks for their Kettenkrad vehicle, along with an extra barrel to take them farther through the ruined city, Kanazawa glances up from his maps and notices how unexpectedly clever the girls are at surviving the apocalypse:

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Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

Image via Amazon

[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

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After a week, whither WoW Classic?

Sunrise on the Green Belt. The game surprised me with how nice it still looks even on “Classic” graphics settings. Please don’t make fun of my action bars…

After 15 years, I thought that I would have more to say. But really, what’s left to say about a game so old? I scrapped half a dozen drafts of this post that did nothing but note little forgotten surprises in the gameplay — you have to eat food and drink water! — before tacking more towards personal philosophizing because really, who wants to read a list a changes, like patch notes?

Most people, maybe… I think a lot of players have taken an ironic joy in cataloging those nostalgic post-epiphanies with the sort of “we walked uphill both ways” style griping that mythologizes suffering as a source of glee. They describe Classic as something to endure (as one friend did), not something to enjoy. Instead, the enjoyment comes after, when they can boast about the extent of their suffering after conquering the game’s progression system.

I simply reject that premise. Suffering is bad (wow.) and I take no masochistic joy in it. Good thing then that Classic has a secret that the fans hailing it as a hard-core return-to-form don’t often admit: 

The game is easy.

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The Daicon IV anime short, but actually, Time

Do you remember Daicon IV? You shouldn’t, unless you were one of the few thousand convention-goers to attend Osaka’s Nihon SF Taikai event in 1983 — and if you are reading this blog in English in 2019, you almost certainly aren’t.

But somehow, that five-ish-minute promotional short has morphed into an imagined watershed moment for all of otaku culture. It has ranked as one of the top anime of all time — not a literary feature like Grave of the Fireflies or a pop-titan like Dragon Ball — but to repeat: a five-minute short first seen by fewer than 5000 people. It must be phenomenal, right? In the words of some nostalgic reviewers, it is of such quality that “it’s just about impossible for an anime fan to not like,” of such significance that its creators “repurposed the face of the anime industry,” of such depth that it captures “a sense of unity that anime fans have since lost” …it is the “otaku creation myth.”

The actual original laserdiscs can cost thousands of dollars!

Yughhh the last one makes me groan. I’m far too skeptical to believe in that (I protest because Daicon IV consists of a long string of references to manga, anime, science fiction, and fantasy. In other words, it is the gorgeous illuminated index to a culture that already existed, not the advent of a new one. But whatever, pop-history demands its moments that changed everything).

But you know what? Yeah! Daicon IV is pretty good, or at least as good as a promotional video can be, I suppose. I’m not going to be too cynical today. I like Daicon IV. It’s cool and cute and runs my favorite song off one of my favorite albums – “Twilight” from Electric Light Orchestra’s synth delight Time. And because Daicon IV is practically an unofficial music video for that song, this post is really about time.

Youtube plays wack-amole with fan-uploaded full albums. Luckily, you can find ELO’s official uploads separated into individual songs on this playlist.

Others have written plenty about Daicon IV’s place in time and how its stellar animation became history. But I haven’t found much about what it says about time, which strikes me as odd because, well, the album that it stole unlicensed music from is literally called Time! Some come close by noting how Daicon IV presents an optimistic otaku culture worth celebrating in an era that largely scorned such obsessive fandoms; the short rides on a unifying upward energy: a girl in a Playboy-bunny costume (another unlicensed borrowing) raises a daikon (Japanese radish) plant that grows into the colossal vegetable-shaped spaceship that cruises across the short’s opening crawl like the Star Destroyer from A New Hope. The ending even reverses the aftermath of an atomic bomb to restore a desolate planet into a verdant oasis ~through the magic of anime~. Oh, what a bright future!

However, when I watch Daicon IV, I feel a contradiction between the message and the music (not between the animation and the music, it syncs perfectly). In opposition to Daicon IV’s good-cheer, Time hides deep pessimistic themes under the upbeat synth-pop sound coursing through many of its songs. At its most optimistic, the album shows that though progress into modernity may improve our material conditions, the future does not guarantee greater human happiness. And then at its most pessimistic, Time retreats into a nostalgic preference for the past, imagining the year 2095 as a tech-obsessed dystopia defined by empty artifice, vapid consumption, and most of all, modern loneliness. Yikes, so much for Daicon IV’s bright future!

I’ll wrap this argument back around to Daicon IV by the end, but first I want to look through the album that lends the short its distinct sound, and by translation into animation, even its motion. Because though the optimistic and pessimistic themes of Time and Daicon IV may have conflicted back in “the good old 1980s,” as that conflict has carried forward almost forty years into the future, they may have achieved an ironic alignment in yearning for a nostalgic past.

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Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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Escaping time with Girls’ Last Tour: a close look at the chapter “Bath”

Nice

[This is a direct continuation of my post from last week …and maybe just an excuse to practice translating Japanese. For the purposes of this essay, I want to maintain a narrow focus on a single, critical chapter early in the series, so I’ll assume some familiarity with Girls’ Last Tour. I love it though, so I might write more later.]

Huh, I really did just need to wait a few more days for warmth. After the freezing, drizzly graduation ceremonies last week, winter and spring seem to have settled their miserable transition just in time to enjoy the vernal equinox, a public holiday in Japan. Three days ago, I had to defrost my windshield for the last time during a sub-zero morning before work. But on my way home today, the thermometer on my car hit 26 degrees Celsius while soaking up sunlight in a low-albedo asphalt parking lot …not the real outside temperature, but the automatic AC turned on! I guess winter’s finally dead then. It’s warm!

In last week’s post, I commiserated with the despairing heroine Mio from Izumi Kyoka’s short story “One Day in Spring.” Mio suffers from time consciousness. She could tolerate the misery of winter as long as she felt that she could not escape it. But when spring fluttered along and invited her to take a hopeful glimpse at a warm paradise, she could no longer bear her suffering. She treats hope like a sickness which steals away her ability to enjoy the present pleasures of the spring day while she ruminates on an uncertain future. Will she reach her paradise, and if so, when? For those last few days of winter, I felt much the same way: spring had tempted me with a little warmth, but it was still too cold now. I just had to wait, but hope made me impatient…

But now that my mood’s improved with the weather this week, I thought that I should look at a more positive portrayal of a warm paradise from the “Bath” chapter in Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou; anime episode 2; manga volume 1, chapter 3). It’s a perfect encapsulation of the whole series’ style. As the manga’s author (pen name: Tsukumizu) describes it in this interview, “[Bath] condenses the appeal of Girls’ Last Tour into one story.” The sisters Chii and Yuu travel across a frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, find an abandoned power station still producing hot water, and enjoy a break from their aimless journey with a nice bath.

But beyond calming effect of the simple slice-of-life adventure, Girls’ Last Tour asks light philosophical questions about how to best enjoy life. It comes to a counter-intuitive answer: abandon hope. Like Mio, Girls’ Last Tour perhaps sees hope as something more harmful than good. Hope looks to a better future, but an excessive focus on that future can limit enjoyment of the present and the ability to cope with suffering. Mio cannot suppress her anxious fretting over time and dies for it. But Girls’ Last Tour has a much more positive solution: try to stop thinking and embrace “hopelessness” (in Yuu’s words), if only for a little while. It’s an appeal to escape time consciousness and focus on the present. As Tsukumizu puts in an address to her fans: “whilst going about your day, I would like you to notice the virtues in everyday life.”

[Some quick housekeeping notes: I’ll refer to the manga for quotes as a matter of convenience, since I have the book in front of me right now. Because the anime script lifts lines almost word-for-word from the manga for the “Bath” chapter, they should have identical interpretations anyway. With that said though, I sometimes don’t like manga’s official English translation from Yen Press (I think the anime subtitles have much more subtle translations of the same lines), so I’ve produced my own as some just-for-fun language practice. It resembles both the manga and anime official translations — with some of my own colloquialisms — so I hope it will suffice.]

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