Friday, December 13, 2013

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 1: Arriving in Osaka

Last January, during my winter break from Yonsei University in Korea, I went to Japan with my buddy Kyle and videotaped practically the whole thing! This was our first day there. 


The whole flight took under two hours. It felt as if, right after the flight attendant had finished giving her takeoff instructions, she started preparing for landing -- it was that fast! We used a discount airline called Peach, which is rather new and comfortable and specializes in short-distance flights between Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. I highly recommend it, as it was very cheap and pleasant.

There's the capsule area!
When we landed at Kansei Airport at around 11:30 pm, there was only one last shuttle bus, coming at 12:00 am, and the subways were closed. If we'd missed the last bus we would have had to sleep at the station or hire a very expensive taxi. (This is something to keep in mind if you're ever going to Osaka and don't have someone to pick you up.) Kansai Airport is enormous but the terminal we got out at was tiny, and so, embarrassingly, I thought the airport was really small. I found out when we left Japan at the same airport that it was huge. Oops!

There's me in my capsule in the clothes provided for us by the hotel. It was pretty comfortable.
The shuttle ride took almost an hour and a half and went through a whole bunch of industrial zones. I had never seen so many factories and refineries before. There was a group of Korean students on the bus who had been to Osaka previously, so we asked them for directions and advice. Eventually the bus dropped us off in the middle of downtown Osaka, but we were unsure where to go from there. Fortunately I had the address of the capsule hotel on my phone and a map of Osaka that was in Japanese, which I showed to a cab driver and he took us to it. This took a while though, because neither Kyle nor I can speak Japanese. Still, we eventually got there with much gesturing and indicating, and with not too much difficulty we found the capsule hotel at around 1:45 am.

There's Kyle standing in front of a shrine down the street from the capsule hotel.
The capsule hotel was on a corner surrounded by tiny little streets, and the entrance was hidden between two storefronts, which made it tricky to find. The hotel was essentially a bathhouse with capsule beds, and after checking in we went to the locker area to change into the clothes provided. There was a middle-aged man sleeping on the floor of the locker area; he had obviously drunk too much and hadn't made it to his bed. He seemed all right, though, so we didn't bother him. There was a sauna with a number of hot and cold baths, a TV-watching area, and a reading and eating area. We were both starving and we found an instant-noodle vending machine, which we immediately attacked. Once we figured out how to use it, I chose curry-flavoured because I hadn't previously tried that. After sitting around and eating, at around 3 am we decided to turn in. The capsules came in different types. You could get some with televisions and radios and whatnot for a higher price, but Kyle and I just stuck with the minimum. They all had reading lights and alarm clocks, though, which were helpful.

I think we got only about 5 hours of sleep, because a man in our capsule area started talking loudly on his phone to what sounded like his mother. He would call and then hang up and then call again, and it just went on and on like that until Kyle and I decided to give up trying to sleep any more and went out to get breakfast. The breakfast place we went to actually had free wi-fi (fairly hard to come by in Japan, oddly enough). We were able to get a reasonably priced breakfast at this charming café, served by a pretty and friendly waitress, for 600 yen (that's around $6). Good times! After breakfast we decided that we would head to Kyoto and save Osaka for later . . . Find out what happened in part 2!        

     

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Answers to the 10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors are Tired of Answering

Caught wind of this fun article from Buzzfeed called "10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors Are Tired of Answering," which features questions that I too have often been asked in regards to my major:


The fact that these questions are still being asked so often is indicative of there not being enough straight answers available for them. Hence, as an EAS specialist, I have taken it upon myself to provide answers to these apparently popular questions . . . I thought it would be a fun exercise. So, without further ado, here we go!

Alex's Legitimate Answers to the 10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors Are Tired of Answering

1. You study what? 

That's pretty much the gist of it.
East Asia. Northeast Asia, specifically -- that's China, Korea and Japan. We do touch on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.) from time to time but there is actually a separate major for that one. There are also separate majors for other areas of Asia as well, such as Central Asia, Western Asia (often referred to as the Middle East), South Asia (India, Nepal, etc.), and Eurasia (Russia, Turkey, etc.). The reason for these divisions is to provide a cohesive framework within which to examine the countries in question. Countries that tend to have a lot more to do with each other, historically and/or culturally, are grouped together. Though I admit that dividing up a continent in such a way may be problematic, the reality is that Asia is home to 51 countries, each with its own unique culture and history, and one major just isn't enough to cover all that material. But in short, I study the politics, society, history and culture (both traditional and contemporary) of China, Korea and Japan, with some variations.

2. Can you order for me? (anytime you go out for any kind of Asian food)

Here's a menu from a popular Korean chain in South Korea.
I've honestly never been asked this question. This is probably because I usually go out to eat with other EAS students, international students from Asia, or people who don't ask silly questions. Still, if someone did ask me this, I would say, "Yes, but only at a Korean restaurant in which the staff are actually Korean and speak the language and are not able to understand English and you yourself are unable to speak Korean . . . In that case I would order for you."

3. Do you want to go to the anime convention? 

This is a picture from an actual convention I went to. A friend informs me that these young women are dressed up as characters from Puella Magi Madoka Magica -- what a mouthful!
Again, I've never really been asked this in relation to my major, but a lot of people have asked me if I got interested in East Asia through anime. For me at least, this is not the case. I was interested in East Asia from a very young age, for a number of reasons I've talked about in previous posts, though I have met EAS students whose interest in East Asia did start with anime. If this is your story, that's fine; your studies are no less legitimate because anime was your starting point. Still, since this question apparently gets asked a lot, I have to stress that anime fandom and scholarly study of East Asia, while not mutually exclusive, are totally different. I've met people who are crazy about anime but woefully ignorant of the realities of contemporary Japanese society. Likewise, I've met EAS majors who aren't the least bit interested in anime. In short, being an EAS major is not indicative of anime fandom, nor is anime fandom indicative of academic interest in East Asia, though there are people who are very engaged in both.

4. Why don't you study something more legitimate?

I couldn't find an EAS meme, but I'm sure philosophy majors can relate to this question.
This answer is a bit longer. I imagine the question stems from the erroneous belief that people actually end up doing jobs that correspond to their majors. Ask yourself, do all management majors become managers? Do all human resources majors go on to work in HR? Do business majors end up working in large companies? How many politicians actually have degrees in political science? You see what I'm getting at? University is not the same as job training (unless you're in business school, har har). Arts and science majors are meant to teach students how to think critically, how to manage their time, how to be goal-oriented, how to engage the world around them in new and challenging ways, and how to understand the cultures and thought processes of others -- "soft" and "hard" skills that the majority of employers are reportedly looking for these days (and yes, that's also true for such majors as philosophy and English). This is not to say I haven't had my doubts. At one point I was considering switching my major or doing a double major in order to learn more "practical" skills, but once I got farther into EAS I figured that this was unnecessary. 

Throughout the course of my studies in East Asia, I've learned about . . .  

  • a second language (reading, writing and speaking)
  • the history and cultural nuances of countries that boast some of the largest currently emerging markets
  • how economies are supported and what affects them
  • how multinational conglomerates do business
  • North Korean history and politics
  • Marxism
  • communism
  • capitalism
  • the inner workings of political systems
  • literary analysis
  • film analysis
  • writing skills 
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Are you saying there's no job in which I can apply these skills?! Ha! Nonsense! What I'm trying to get at here is that anything that teaches you about the world you live in is legitimate. However, your future employment depends on how you apply the skills you've learned and the opportunities you've managed to create for yourself through networking and such. In other words, have a plan for after you graduate. Don't be caught flipping burgers with a master's degree. All right, next question.

5. Why don't you say something in Chinese/Korean/Japanese?

The look on this girl's face is exactly how I react when people ask me this question.
My grandmother asks me this one a lot, but she's 93 and lived through World War II in England, so she can ask me whatever the hell she wants. I never know what to say when people ask me this, and a lot of international students also have to put up with such questions. It's pretty hard to come up with a random sentence on the fly in any language. This is honestly a pretty silly question; if you're asking it, you probably won't understand the response. Still, if you absolutely can't resist asking this question, at least give us a sentence to translate or something! Imagine if someone just walked up to you and said, "Can you say something?" I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't know how to answer that. (And no, I don't think most people would think quickly enough to just say "Something!" and then snicker while prancing off.)

6. Sake bomb?

That's a cup of sake balancing on those chopsticks. You slam the table and the cup falls in; then you drink up!
Sure! But only if the beer and sake are cheap and run-of-the-mill. Good, expensive beer and sake are meant to be enjoyed exclusively on their own, and I'm currently not rich enough to squander either.

7. When is China taking over?


I've been asked this one a few times. My answer? It isn't, it hasn't and it won't. While China's economy is on a huge upswing and they do own a tonne of American capital, the idea that we're all going to be speaking Mandarin and living in a Chinese-centric version of Blade Runner's Los Angeles in 20 years is HIGHLY unlikely. Let us remember that in the eighties people viewed Japan in much the same light, thinking it was going to take over EVERYTHING and we'd all be speaking Japanese by now. Evidently, this did not happen. Still, there's nothing wrong with learning Mandarin to give yourself some extra opportunities in the near future. China and Chinese businesses are definitely expanding at an amazing rate, but China has enough to deal with domestically. I doubt it will engage in world domination anytime soon, so calm down. Oh, and while we're here, North Korea will most certainly NOT be attacking the United States anytime soon. So chill.

8. So, what do you think about PSY?

PSY standing in front of the YouTube servers right after his video went viral.
I've written about this here before, but to reiterate . . . 

PSY has been famous in Korea since the late nineties, and the fact that he became as internationally famous as he did came totally out of left field. "Gangnam Style" came along at the perfect time and had the perfect mix of elements to capture people's imaginations -- and it's fun. No one could have foreseen it and it can't be recreated. Foreign-language groups and songs have become popular like this in the past and it will happen again. While I don't think PSY has started an international K-pop invasion, his fame has definitely brought more awareness of South Korea, and that could raise my chances of getting a cool job in the future, either in Korea or elsewhere. Thanks, PSY!

9. Do you have a thing for Asians? 

I certainly have a thing for Shihomi Etsuko, of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club
Insomuch as I am a heterosexual male and therefore am attracted to women I find attractive, who may happen to be Asian. I get asked this so often that it makes me crazy! When people ask this question, they seem to be implying that I've racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans because I want to date Asian women -- which is insane. Even before I decided to major in EAS, I knew that women -- specifically East Asian women -- were individuals and not a submissive and docile collective for me to project my misguided misogynistic fantasies upon. Ya know, 'cause I actually met and talked to a number of them, as human beings. Did you know you could do that!? Talk to women as if they're actual adult people!? (I'm trying to be sarcastic here; I'm not sure if it's coming through.) In the plainest English -- like most people, I'm attracted to other people I think are cool and nice, and it so happens that some people are Asian.

10. What are you going to do for a career? 

Now, more than ever, it's a small world after all.
I get asked this a lot too, and I feel that it is probably the most legitimate of all the questions. What AM I going to do? Well, my current plan after graduation from University of Toronto is to join the TALK program, which sends people to rural Korea to teach English and study Korean for a year, which I'll do to brush up on my language skills. And then I'll enrol in post-grad at a South Korean university. After that I'm thinking about doing translation -- because South Korea is gunning for a Nobel Prize in literature these days -- working for the Canadian foreign service, going into international trade of some kind or tourism, or utilizing my media background (I took a few years of film school) in the cultural sector in either Canada -- which has a number of Korean communities and media outlets -- or South Korea itself. It's all a bit up in the air right now, but I have actually researched this stuff, and these are all things I could theoretically end up doing. There is a lot of time between now and then, so in all honesty I'm not too worried at the moment, because I've got a plan. Let's just hope it works. I have to say, though, that I would encourage any university student, regardless of major, to really take a look at what's out there. Remember, university ends eventually, and you'll want to have at least some idea of where you're going next, even if it's backpacking through Europe. Without a degree, I metaphorically flipped burgers for years, and it sucked -- that's why I went back to school. I can't imagine what it would be like flipping burgers while holding a degree that I'd spent a small fortune on.    
          
There you have it! I hope this clears up some things for those of you who may have had questions. And I hope this gives some of you students studying supposedly impractical majors some perspective. EAS is a wonderful major and I've loved every minute of it. I've had the privilege of being taught by some truly inspiring professors and working with some great teaching assistants. The best part? I still have one more year left! :D

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Templestay at Guin Temple

When I was studying in Korea, a buddy of mine, Kyle, and I decided to do a temple stay at Guin Temple, at the foot of Sobaek Mountain in Chungcheongbuk-do. It was a great experience, and before we actually started the temple stay we took some video of us surveying the temple grounds. Guin Temple -- or Goo-in-sah, as it would be pronounced in Korean -- is the headquarters of the Cheontae (Tientai, in Chinese) denomination of Buddhism in South Korea. Embarrassingly, I didn't do a lot of research into the place before I went. I thought it was located at Seorak Mountain in Kanghwa province, which is a famous mountain in South Korea (that's why I keep saying that in the video). Oops. Still, I hope this video can help convey what a beautiful place this is. Temple stay is a great way to get a taste of Buddhism without fully committing to anything. I'd say it's a must for anyone with a keen interest in East Asian culture.           


For those of you who don't know, a temple stay is when you go to a Buddhist temple and spend one or more nights there (it depends on the temple). During your stay you eat what the monks eat (tofu and veggies) and do what the monks do, including waking up at 3:30 am to do prayers and meditation-type stuff. It can be somewhat demanding, but it's a great experience. At our temple stay we were first treated to a tour of the temple and then participated in the evening rituals. After that we were given dinner, at which we were not allowed to leave even a grain of rice behind. After that we listened to a  lecture on Buddhism and meditation and we had to do 108 prostrations (it's exactly what it sounds like). The next day, at 3:30 am, we went through morning rituals and did a walking meditation up to the top of Sobaek Mountain (it was cold!) and back down. Than we had lunch and tea, where we talked about Buddhist stuff and got to ask the monks questions. The monks were really nice and we didn't feel as if they were trying to convert us or anything -- it was a good vibe. Here are some additional photos that were taken by one of the temple guides.
Kyle and I trying to make paper lotus lanterns. I suck at arts and crafts.
A morning walk around the temple. That's Kyle in front and I'm the dude two people back, behind the girl.
More walking meditation, through the main courtyard of the temple. All those pots are kimchi and dwaenjang (fermented bean paste, similar to Japanese miso).
This was one of the darma halls, in which a statue of the temple's founder is kept.
On the back of this elephant is a pagoda that is said to house a relic of the Buddha himself. I love this kind of stuff.
Here's our tea session. I'm the guy with the purple sleeves, looking quite chipper in spite of being woken up at 3:30 am for morning prayers.
These are the sorts of things you may experience on a temple stay, but each temple and denomination is a bit different, so it really depends on the temple. This one was pretty neat because it was huge and surrounded entirely by nature. I'd also like to point out that I'm not Buddhist or really religious at all, but this gave me an opportunity to take a look at Buddhism up close and personal. It's a religion that must be studied if you wish to engage with East Asia in any scholarly capacity.

Monday, December 9, 2013

JSF!

Hey, friends! This past semester I took a number of interesting courses, most of them related to Japan, which is why my blog has been so Japan-centric lately. One of the courses that I found particularly neat was Japanese Fiction and the Nation, in which we were forced, against our will, to read . . . oh no, it's too terrible to say . . . Japanese science fiction! Aarrgh!!! (I'm being silly. I love good sci-fi, and having to read it for marks is pretty much a perfect situation.) We were tasked with reading a number of novels written by prolific Japanese writers and relate them to theories about nationhood, history, politics, and all manner of interesting things relating to the Japanese experience/

I figured I'd take the time to highlight some of the books I read for that course, as many of them are fairly new translations and were all interesting reads! Let's dive in!

1. Virus: Day of Resurrection (Sakyo Komatsu)


The apocalypse cometh -- but this time it's not strictly because of nukes or angry deities. Written during the Cold War, Virus imagines a future in which an extraterrestrial microscopic organism has killed off the entire population of the world, save for 10,000-odd people living in Antarctica, where it is too cold for the virus to survive, apparently. The book jumps around from character to character, introducing bits of narrative through individual accounts, news reports, and conversations between characters. The novel focuses not so much on the destruction of the human race as on people's reactions to it and humanity's attempts to live on and survive through the crisis. It's a story of survival, though quite a depressing one.

Pros

  • interesting angle on the popular post-apocalyptic narrative, as it shows how the crisis happened step by step and cites a virus as being the cause, though it is still brought on by human folly
  • multimedia-style storytelling makes an interesting and varied narrative while adding a sense of cohesion to the overall setting
  • features some rather profound Cold War commentary
Cons

  • major info-dumping
  • occasionally dry writing (this is a translation, after all)
  • entire chapters dedicated to explaining microbiology sound like techno-babble and might turn off some readers
  • lack of discernible main character may take away from relatibility


2. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Yasutaka Tsutsui)


I assume many of you have seen the excellent anime of the same name, which was based on this book. This is one of those rare occasions in which the book actually has less content than the movie. The story follows a female high-school student who after a strange incident realizes she has the ability to travel more or less freely through time. Mostly she does fairly minor things like warn her friend of a future house fire or go back in time to study for a test. There is a sort of twist ending, though, which hints at something much more amazing -- which won't be a surprise to anyone who's watched the anime. Still, the anime and the book are quite different, so I'd recommend reading this one even if you've seen it. The book comes coupled with another story called The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of, which I'm embarrassed to say I haven't actually read yet, since I had limited time.

Pros

  • an easy and light read
  • amusing characters and situations
  • Tsutsui's writing style is delightfully in-your-face and quirky

Cons

  • not a whole lot going on until the end
  • fans of "hard" sci-fi will likely not find this all that enthralling



3. Death Sentences (Kawamata Chiaki)



I really liked this one. The concept is that a poem written by a mysterious writer who was closely tied to the surrealist movement in France (1920s to '40s) is killing people after they've read it. This has led to a future in which a special police force is dedicated to hunting down "poem traffickers" and executing them in order to stop the spread of the killer poem. The plot spans from the time when the poem was created in postwar France to the present, which shows how the poem was spread, and concludes in a future in which the poem is heavily monitored and controlled. The truth behind the poem is totally not what you'd expect; I won't ruin the ending here. Just know that it's pretty intense.

Pros

  • excellent translation that doesn't miss a beat (very readable)
  • immediately engaging
  • character-driven plot that twists and turns in directions one wouldn't expect
  • great use of magic realism

Cons

  • pacing is somewhat inconsistent
  • certain plot points get way more pages than other, potentially more interesting ones
  • genre switching may cause some readers to detach themselves from the story



4. Harmony (Project Itoh)


Imagine a future in which, following a near apocalypse referred to as "the maelstrom," the World Health Organization has taken over most of the world. The WHO has made it mandatory for people to inject themselves with nano-machines so that their health and personal information can be regulated and maintained. No one gets sick and everyone is content, or so it seems. Harmony imagines a world where humans need not worry about their health; however, alcohol, tobacco, and even most fatty foods have been outlawed, one is expected to share information with everyone, and everyone is forced to be excruciatingly nice to each other. This book depicts a utopian nightmare, a society so perfect that it almost ceases to be human. The story follows a female protagonist who has grown weary of this overbearing society but is forced to protect it when it becomes threatened by a most unexpected force.

Pros

  • very accessible and almost cinematic
  • features a badass heroine
  • lots of action and adventure
  • a great example of future cyberpunk, no-nonsense sci-fi
  • good translation, making it very accessible

Cons

  • conforms to the usual tropes
  • unique setting, but the story beats and characters may seem familiar if you've read any William Gibson or Philip K. Dick


There you have it. These four books are all worth reading; this was an attempt to bring them to light for anyone who's a fan of literary sci-fi like me. Just about all these translations have been released within the past five years or so, so they're fairly recent. I definitely recommend giving them a read if you have space on your "to read" pile. They should all be available at your local bookstore and online. (I'm not being paid by the publishers; I just thought these were pretty awesome.) Happy reading!      
   

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A few articles . . .

Recently discovered two articles that I thought were pretty neat . . .

Katy Perry as a geisha singing her track "Unconditional" at  the AMAs. While quite an aesthetically pleasing performance, it may perpetuate outdated stereotypes of ethnically East Asian women, among other things.  

This first one is about Katy Perry's geisha-inspired performance at the American Music Awards and what's wrong with it. I was going to take a stab at tackling this one, but this Jeff Yang fellow did a way better job than I ever could have and goes the same route I would have taken, so I decided to just link his article. Check it out!


The second is a wonderfully concise article by Chin Lu, who explains why having an Asian fetish is different from having a "type." I've both written and read extensively on this topic, but this article I thought was particularly well written and really hits the nail on the head. Check it!     







Captured on Film!

This blog has been getting awfully Japanese lately . . . 

And now a cry for attention --

Me, the hard-drinkin' Westerner.
Recently I was caught on two videos relating to Korea! This first one is from a hip-hop concert and seminar I went to in Seoul while I was studying there. I'm the only non-Korean guy in the video, so I'm pretty easy to spot. I also look like a somewhat awkward and tired alcoholic (I was there by myself because none of my friends wanted to go). Still, the show was a lot of fun and featured the underground Korean hip-hop duo Noise Mob as the headliner. It was pretty sweet! I didn't realize I was in the promotional material for this until a couple of weeks ago, but the event was last winter. Still, check out the video below!    



The second one is from Arirang Korea TV and documents a Korean cultural fair, in part managed by my Korean language professor at the University of Toronto. I'm the doofy-looking guy with the bicycle helmet sitting at the table (I swear I'm the least photogenic person I know). Still, it was also a lot of fun. The festival featured traditional Korean music and a quiz in which I got pretty far but got kicked out because I didn't know enough about K-drama and K-pop. Darn Hallyu kids!   

 

The True Path of the Ninja

I've finally received some ninja training! 

Well, my friends, last night I finished reading True Path of the Ninja, by ninja enthusiast Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami, published by Tuttle Books. This book claims to be "the definitive translation of the Shoninki," which is a sort of ninja "training manual," as described on the cover. I originally saw this small book in the martial arts section of a bookstore I frequent and took a look at it because, while the title had "ninja" in it, I didn't see any black-clad figures on the cover. I had heard somewhere that ninjas didn't dress up in those black costumes all that much back in the Sengoku and early Edo periods, when they were actually being used (late 1500s, early 1600s). It somehow seemed a little more authentic to me and was also published by Tuttle, a publisher of primarily scholarly martial-arts-related material. I had read a number of Tuttle's publications in the past and they'd always seemed like the real deal, so a few months later I found it again in a used bookstore and snatched it up. 


Let me say right off the bat that I am very skeptical about the validity of any sort of publication relating to ninjas, mostly because ninjas are so often sensationalized and the line between fact and fiction has been considerably blurred over the years. This is not helped by the fact that there have been a number of publications of supposedly authentic ninja material in the past that were later found out to be straight-up fabrications. So when I picked this up, I immediately started looking for reasons to doubt its authenticity; no offence meant to Cummins and Minami -- it was simply a knee-jerk reaction. 

 
This ukiyo-e painting by artist Utagawa Toyonobu depicts a ninja attacking one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's retainers. It was, however, painted more than 200 years after Hideyoshi's death, at a time in which ninjas were no longer used.
So, what did I think? Well, according to the foreword, the book is translated from a document said to be written by a real-life ninja, Natori Sanjuro, in 1681, which was translated into modern Japanese by Dr. Nakashima Atsumi and later into English by Cummins and Minami. It is not stated where the document was found but only that it exists, and that's pretty much the only reason I'd have to doubt the authenticity of this book, as everything else seems to be quite plausible.

The book is divided into a number of short chapters and reads like a philosophical guide to manipulation and espionage (think Book of Five Rings for ninjas). Popular ninja elements one might expect, such as camouflage, hiding, and eavesdropping techniques, are discussed, but what I found most interesting were the sections that dealt with social manipulation. These mostly outlined methods of extracting info from people by using disguises, the art of conversation, and in other cases, gift giving and/or feigning illness, etc. These sections paint a very different image of the ninja than we are used to in pop culture: dealing with people directly rather than rushing around in the night. 

A guide to kuji-in. I'm sure someone has made an English version of this.
The other part of considerable interest to me was the section on kuji-in -- those hand signs that ninjas are often seen making in movies and anime and the like. According to this book they actually did this, though it wasn't for gaining magical fire-breathing powers or what-have-you. Apparently the kuji-in were derived from Buddhist mantras and were done before missions in order to provide supernatural or divine protection; they were also used for meditation, apparently. There's a considerable amount of information on this in the book, but a lot of it is fairly esoteric. Still, before reading this I had no idea why ninjas were always portrayed as using the signs, and this shed some light (there is an extensive wiki page on kuji-in here for those who are interested).

A ninja and his gear (click to enlarge).
The commentary in the book compares it to Sun Tzu's Art of War or Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, and it certainly reads like those -- a bunch of apparently transferable-to-modern-day methods of manipulation and information gathering that were supposedly used by actual ninja at one point. The book is presented as a martial arts text and the commentary seems to suggest that martial artists are its intended audience. The latter seems fairly biased at certain points; it's obvious that Cummins and Minami are really excited about ninjas and hold them in high regard. Some of the terminology is kind of odd as well, especially the use of the term "shinobi soldiers," which they use to describe advanced ninjas. I'm aware that the term might be the result of translation, but in all honesty it sounds like the title of an old NeoGeo game. The book also contains a summary of the oral tradition of the Katori Shinto-Ryu (the oldest recorded fencing school in Japan) on how to deal with ninjas. This was also pretty neat.

Ultimately I found this to be worth my time, as it was an interesting read and I'm always happy to uncover accurate information about something as sensationalized as the ninja. There are apparently other translations of the Shoninki around, but this one appears to be the authoritative, no-nonsense version. Much of the information is a little ambiguous because theoretically it was aimed at ninjas, who would have the points of reference. Still, I'd recommend it for any ninja enthusiast and anyone interested in Edo-period Japan specifically, as it offers quite a bit of insight into social structure and the everyday life of Edo people. It's an easy read, something you're meant to go back to. I can see myself rereading it in the future, so into my library it goes!      

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Lara Croft Raids Yamatai

In the last post I mentioned that I had played a number of games recently. Well, actually it was just two and I've already talked about the first one. The second was the latest Tomb Raider game! . . . Okay, so that's old hat, I guess, but I spent the past year in Korea without a console, so I got pretty behind on my gaming. Regardless . . .


What can I say about this game that hasn't already been said? It's good, really good! I really enjoyed it! . . . Okay, review over. That's not really what I want to talk about anyway. One of the coolest things about this game in my opinion is the location in which it's set. That would be, of course, Yamatai! 

This is a model of where Himiko, the priestess/queen of Yamatai, supposedly lived.   
As soon as I figured out this game took place on Yamatai, I was pretty excited, since I remembered learning about it in first-year university. The way I remember it is that some records from Han China indicate the existence of an island off the coast of what is now Japan where a female ruler named Himiko was said to have authority over the land. The strange thing is that the area indicated by the texts seems to be devoid of any islands in the present day. Of course, that was 200 BCE and cartography wasn't all that developed, so who knows where Yamatai was supposed to be? Some people suspect that Yamatai is simply the name of the unified lands and tribes under Himiko -- either Kyushu or some other part of the Japanese mainland. 

This is what Himiko was thought to look like. Of course, this would have been painted several centuries after Yayoi. 
There is some debate over where Yamatai was and what it was exactly. However, from the popular Japanese point of view, Yamatai is where the early Japanese Yayoi people had their . . . er . . . headquarters? It certainly wasn't a castle and likely not a city, but it seemed that, according to these ancient documents, there was a large community of people in Yamatai ruled over by a female ruler named Himiko who had considerable military strength. The details are obviously somewhat sketchy, considering the age and language of the information, but I thought it was pretty neat that the brains behind Tomb Raider thought to make this their setting.

Lara approaches a temple on Yamatai. 
The video game goes the "Yamatai as long-lost island" route and imagines Himiko as being a sort of sorceress who managed to perpetuate her reign by switching bodies with young virgins whenever she got too old. So in the Tomb Raider version, Yamatai is a totally separate society from the rest of Japan that has lasted way beyond the Yayoi period. This is fairly clever because it manages to get past pretty much all the historical inaccuracies you might find if you look for them, such as the samurai armour of the storm guards (which was used from the time of the Onin War, more than a millennium after Himiko was thought to have ruled) and the architectural style of the temples and castles, also non-existent in the time of Himiko. In any case, Eidos and Square did a good job on this game; I've never found Tomb Raider more engaging! 

If you want to read more detailed info on Yamatai and Himiko, go here

         

Ascension of the Metatron

Hey, everyone! Exams are finally over, and so I return to blogging! Two weeks of essay writing, test taking, and language learning was pretty intense. It was hard to find the time and energy to blog in depth about fun and interesting things, but now I return! And so, here's a change of pace:

I've been playing a few video games lately and one that I happened to pick up recently was the PS3 version of Ignition Tokyo's El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (this is also the Japanese title). And what a game it was . . . 

This game came out back in 2011, so it's fairly old by video game standards. I'd had my eye on it for quite some time, and when I saw it for a rather cheap price, I decided to snatch it up. After finally beating it a few days ago, I'd just like to say that I really enjoyed this game. Is it the best game I've ever played? No, it's not, but it is pretty neat, if mostly for the visuals and the whimsical nature of the narrative. 

No, there is no filter on this screen shot. This is actually what the game looks like. 
So the story of this game is actually based on religious stuff, in this case the book of Enoch from that best-selling timeless classic the Torah or, if you prefer, the Old Testament (though the book of Enoch is apparently not canonical in almost all Christian traditions). You play as Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah -- you know, the guy who built the ark -- and you are tasked with "purifying" (i.e., beating the snot out of) and returning to heaven a small group of mischievous fallen angels who decided it would be fun to descend to Earth and get mixed up with mankind. It turns out that when fallen angels and humans "get busy," their babies end up being these weird, sausage-shaped minimalist creatures that eat each other and turn into giant hideous monsters . . . not good!    
There's Enoch jumping into the mouth of a 'nephalim,' the offspring of a human and a fallen angel. 
 You are accompanied by three swans who are physical manifestations of non-fallen angels (Gabriel is among them) and a svelte-looking guy with a cellphone who is constantly talking to someone from "upper management" -- gee, I wonder who that could be? (I think the dude himself is supposed to be Death, but the game never says!)

This guy handles all your game saves and updates the Big Man about all your progress.
So the game itself is pretty straightforward. Run on a predetermined path with little deviation from point A to point B, fighting baddies and attempting not to die. There are three modes of fighting baddies, that is, three weapons one can choose from: a quick, scythe-like melee weapon; a heavy, uh,  glove-like(?) melee weapon; and a long-range weapon that doesn't do all that much damage but keeps enemies at a distance. Each weapon has a nifty secondary feature. The scythe thing lets you do a twirly dodgy action, and if you jump you can sort of hover for a bit; the glove-like weapon generates a shield that will protect you from most attacks; and the long-range weapon gives you this dash move that is great for dodging and the like. The combat is pretty basic and works like a simplified Devil May Cry system, but with enough complexity that a certain degree of strategy is required. Still, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about it. The health system is dependent on your armour, which gets chipped away if you take damage à la Ghouls and Ghosts; however, in the event that you die you can mash buttons to revive yourself with full armour. This can be done only a limited number of times, mind you.

One of the side-scrolling levels.
Where the game really sets itself apart is in the art style, narrative, and perspective shifts. The art style is . . . well, just look at the screen shots. I'd describe it as a kind of minimalist, surrealist dreamscape full of interesting shapes and textures not often seen in games of this console generation. The art style and colour palette change with each level. At one point you may be wandering through rippling green clouds and trees, the next running through a bright red Cubist landscape with spires jutting up in the distance. One of the reasons I felt compelled to play on was to see what the next level would look like; advancing through the game was like walking through an art gallery -- it was wonderful!

The sinister tower where the angels reside.
The narrative is equally minimal, though at certain times perhaps too ambiguous for its own good. The player is told that Enoch's got to find some angels, and there's a giant tower in which they all reside. As you advance through the levels you get higher and higher up the tower, and occasionally the fallen angels, who show up as bosses in their respective levels, will attack you in other levels and you're apparently supposed to lose to them. However, the game doesn't indicate that you're meant to lose and the angels seem to attack at random, so it can get rather frustrating: you feel like you're doing something wrong. There's also a sudden story shift in which Enoch gets trapped in ice for ten years and this little girl Ishtar takes up his quest (though you don't play as her; it's explained through cutscenes); this is also documented in the whimsical and ambiguous fashion of the rest of the game. Finally, the perspective shifts are quite interesting, as some levels are in standard 3-D perspective while others work like a 2-D platformer, which I enjoyed because it added some variety. There's even a motorcycle stage that takes place in a sort of cyberpunk future city, which seems totally out of step with the rest of the game as it is such an obviously rendered space. It catches you off guard but it's pretty awesome.

Concept art for Ishtar.
In the beginning I put down the game for a while because I wasn't sure if I was playing it properly, so I suppose the ambiguity hurt the experience a bit in the beginning. However, once I got into the headspace of the game and just started accepting what was happening, I found it really compelling. Things just sort of happen and some of them are pretty bizarre. To enjoy this game I think you really have to try to absorb what's going on as it's happening, without thinking too much about it. The nature of the art and narrative reminded me a lot of the Paradiso portion of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which it is assumed that Heaven is beyond human understanding and thus is portrayed as a kind of surrealist wonderland in which time and space aren't clearly defined and so don't really matter all that much. I thought it was pretty cool, although I can imagine this minimalist storytelling getting on the nerves of those who prefer more clearcut narratives. Still, I love games that challenge convention and leave themselves open to interpretation. We have films, books, and television series that do this often enough. I definitely think that games like this could give credence to the idea that video game narratives and design will one day be studied in universities from a theoretical standpoint (if they're not already). In any case, by now you should know if this is your thing or not; if you're not sure, try it out! The game retails for around $20 to $30 these days and is available for both XBox 360 and PS3.