Welcome!

This blog details the life and thoughts of James Simpson, an English language teacher living in Kawasaki, Japan. James has previously blogged at Abduction Politics and I, Shingen. Here you will find commentary on his travels, his thoughts about books, games or movies, as well as his commentary on political or social events. You can read more about James here and you can view his photoblog over at Camera in Japan.

Anime Review: Seto no Hanayome

Seto no HanayomeEveryone loves a good comedy. Sometimes the anime universe builds comedies upon some incredibly insane scenarios. This is certainly true of Seto no Hanayome (Bride of the Seto Inland Sea).

A Mermaid Yakuza Harem Comedy

The basic premise of the series is a long-standing anime tradition: the harem comedy. It’s the kind of story that preys upon the wildest dreams of teenage boys, virile young men, and lonely geeks of all colours: a boy with many girls to choose from.

The typical archetypes are there: the recently acquainted bride-to-be; her popular rival; the quiet one with glasses – who is unexpectedly beautiful; the childhood-friend tomboy; the rich male rival; and the mature, Mrs. Robinson-esque mother-in-law-to-be. None of these come as a surprise to anyone who has watched shows such as Love Hina or Ranma 1/2, but where SnH excels is in its added layer of bewilderingly craziness.

The fiancée, San, is a mermaid. Not just any mermaid; her father is the oyabun of the Setouchi-gumi - one of a number of yakuza families of mermen (and mermaids). He is also very protective of his daughter and cannot bear the thought of her marrying Nagasumi, a teenaged boy she rescued from drowning.

Nagasumi is pulled in many directions: by San’s devotion; her father’s constant attempts to have him killed; the need to protect San’s secret (she reverts to mermaid form if soaked); oh, and by that magical kiss-of-life he received from Masa, San’s father’s right-hand man.

Homage-a-go-go

SnH is a great anime for those who like anime, I might even say that it would be good entry drug for young adults who haven’t seen much or any anime in the past: it’s zany, distinctly Japanese in tone and style, and it is standalone – that is to say that you don’t need any understanding of prior series in order to get into.

What makes SnH exceptionally easy to recommend is its fantastic use of homage.

The most prominent motif comes from its yakuza references. Dramatic scenes are cut with a distinctly Fukasaku orchestral hit (most similar to that found in Battles without Honor or Humanity – Jingi naki Tatakai). San frequently draws from the strong female yakuza portrayed in the Roman Pinku movies of the 1970s, at times being accompanied by a blizzard of sakura and the doleful sound of enka, reminding me of Meiko Kaji, the vengeance flick goddess of the 1970s .

There is a distinctly Macross-like element to the series once we see the introduction of Runa (their names are transliterations of ‘Sun’ and ‘Lunar’). Runa, a rising talent in the pop world, bears a grudge against San and the two face off in a music spectacular. Like the buffing effects of the girls of Macross, the songs of these mermaids compel men into battle, a scene so gruesome it couldn’t even be displayed on screen.

There are other references for those that revel in joining the dots. If you’re interested in such things, take a look at SnH‘s TV Tropes entry, although I’d recommend watching the series first.  If you need a little more convincing, here is a clip depicting the Terminator homage centred on Runa’s father. Enjoy.

Todoroki Valley Park

Type:
Natural site

Location:
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo

How to get there:
Todoroki is 3 stops from Jiyuugaoka on the Tokyu Oimachi line.

Entry:
Free

Time needed:
Up to 2 hrs

Summary:
When people think of Tokyo, they undoubtedly conjure up images of a Blade Runner skyline and throngs of people hurrying across scramble crossing. Among this scenery, we can sometimes find areas of considerable greenery, thanks in no small part to Japan’s humid summer climate.

Todoroki Valley Park is such a place. Nestled in a cravas carved in the concrete of Tokyo’s residential Setagaya Ward, you descend down into surprising greenery. You can follow the path along the river for about a kilometre, making it a nice place for a stroll on a nice day.

Once you reach the end, you can go back to the station and check out Kuhonbutsu (2 stops down), or even walk over there (30-45 minutes). An alternative would be to head to the river for some people-watching. The river comes alive with sports at the weeknd. After, why not walk to Futakotamagawa for a spot of shopping (45-60 minutes) or downriver to Tamagawa station (45-60 minutes) where you can sample some fish and chips, or continue along the Toyoko line one stop to the picturesque expensive neighbourhood of Denenchofu. An alternative, in all cases, is to simply catch the next bus that comes along.

Highlights:
Todoroki Fudo Temple lies at the end of the valley. You cannot miss the waterfall once used for misogi training, from that point, take the steps to the top of the valley’s side.

The temple has its roots in the Heian period but you would be hard-pressed to tell. It’s wooden structure looks as good as new, and visiting after the flower festival (9th April), the grounds were decorated with colourful flora. Spring is also a great time due to the views afforded from the temple’s platform. Like a mini-Kiyomizu-dera (in Kyoto), you can look out on the spring and autumnal colours and soak up the fresh local air.

Watch out for:
Across the stream from Todoroki Fudo Temple is a garden open to the public. There is a traditional Japanese residential-style gate on the side of the path. Inside are a range of traditional Japanese garden features including mikan trees, a dry pond, and stone lanterns. Once you have climbed to the top, you will find a grass green ideal for a picnic. In spring, you can even do a spot of hanami with the added convenience of on-hand public toilets. When sunny, bring a parasol for some shade.

Food and Drink:
At the foot of Todoroki Fudo Temple is a small rest area with a stall selling ramune (traditional Japanese soda) and a small range of other refreshments. Don’t miss their fish pond which is home to several kinds of koi carp and goldfish.

Alternatively, and perhaps more advisably, eat in the Todoroki station area before you leave. There is a McDonalds and a few other small establishments, including an excellent gelato/crepe shop beside the rail crossing.

Visited:
11th April 2010, 15:00 p.m.

Busy?:
Not particularly, however, on sunny holidays or weekends you might find the narrow sections of the course a little difficult to navigate.

Map:

Gallery:

Easter in Japan

So Easter crept up on me again. On Friday, Keiko told me that she’d heard on BBC radio that it was Good Friday. I knew it was almost that time of year, but in Japan there is nothing to tell you that Easter is ahead.

On Sunday, we headed out to The Tavern, a British pub in Yokohama. They serve an all-you-can-eat carvery, a rare treat in Japan. It’s a relatively quiet place to go for lunch, but you can get roast lamb, beef, potatoes, yorkshire puddings and gravy, all washed down with a cider. This Sunday, the meat was a bit burnt around the edges but still, for ¥1500 a head, it’s not too bad.

As we left, I tried to buy a can of baked beans, also a difficult buy in Japan. The owner went into the back and said he couldn’t find any. However, he had a huge 2.62 kg can under his arms and said that we could have it for free. The lid says 11/2009, but it’s a can, so it should all be fine – although I need a large Tupperware container to keep it all in. Regardless, it’s sitting on shelf and waiting for me to open it.

After lunch, we tried to find another rareity: an Easter egg. We went to the import shop in Yokohama station, but no dice. It doesn’t feel like Easter if you’re not overdosing on chocolate though, so we stocked up on goodies and went home to watch a few movies and relax. Not a terrible end to the day.

How was your Easter? Did you eat some chocolate for me?

Using XBMC as your Home Media Center

Since we moved to Kawasaki, I’ve been working hard to hook up my PC and TV in such a way that I can watch the videos on my hard drive without moving from the sofa. After a few months of sustained effort, I’ve finally settled on a solution.

Hardware

Hooking up a PC to a modern TV couldn’t be simpler. There are expensive wireless systems available, but I use two cables: one is a VGA-to-D-Sub cable which carries the video (D-Sub is apparently a predominantly Japanese TV alternative to VGA), and a male-male 3.5 jack cable to carry the audio signal. Both are 3-5 metres in length, passing through my sliding door and along the skirting board (held in place with some Heath Robinson adhesive pads and cable-ties). If I had a surround-sound system, my audio would need an alternative solution, but for half-decent stereo – I’m not too fussy – my way is simple and effective – one of the problems, however, is that I have to plug the cable in manually before watching TV as the only slot available is designed for headphones, thus shutting off the PC speakers when plugged in, however, this is a small nuisance.

Software

After a long duel between Boxee and XBMC, XBMC became the most effective media centre application for me. However, the reason is apparently linked to my network or laptop hardware and it will be useful to discuss both here.

As a university student, I bought and chipped an Xbox which became my central means of watching movies on my TV – mainly because I needed a DVD player to replace my previous DIVX/DVD player. The key was the XBMC dashboard. Fast forward to today, and now XBMC is a multi-platform application and as a result is more versatile than its older Xbox-based incarnation.

The basic function of XBMC is creating an accessible media library in a package that can be controlled by remote. Newer features include media scraping, which allows you to browse through your shows more easily.

Boxee takes XBMC to the next level. With XBMC code at its foundation, Boxee incorporates internet based content to allow the user to watch streaming content, search for subtitles, and all other useful features. However, in my case, Boxee overloads my Internet connection with media scraping requests that essentially stops all net-based functions from working properly. This is the primary reason I am using XBMC now.

Both programmes have support for music, but anyone used to using iTunes, Winamp, or MediaMonkey will be disappointed with its lack of advanced playlist features.

In addition to XBMC/Boxee, you might want to get the iPhone remotes for whichever you choose. The Boxee remote is free but is rather limited. If you want a bit more functionality, the XBMC remote is a paid app ($2.99) but for the money you get more buttons, customisation and access to your library directly (making choosing the right film or song easier).

Setup

Hook up your TV and computer using the video and audio cables. You will want to set your TV as a secondary monitor and find a good resolution for it using Windows native Display Manager. Unlike simply switching display modes (standard function on laptops), using your TV as a secondary monitor allows you to use the laptop while your media is playing. This is essential if you are running this as part of a family.

Next you want to make sure that XBMC actually opens on the secondary screen. For this, you need XBMCLaunch.exe. Put XBMCLaunch.exe anywhere you wish, and then create a shortcut to it on your desktop. Right-click on the shortcut and launch Properties.  You need to edit the shortcut so that it looks like this:

[XBMCLaunch.exe location] [XMBC.exe location],[Screen Number]

For example:

C:\Users\JamesinJapan\Documents\xbmcLaunch.exe C:\Program Files\XBMC\XBMC.exe,2

Once you’ve done that and click on the shortcut, XBMC will load in the other window with a blank profile. This means that even if you have already configured it, you will need to do so again. It might be helpful to be able to see the screen from your PC as you set it up – I have a door between me and our tiny TV which made setting it up, at least to the point where I could use the iPhone, was a little difficult.

File Management

The next step, if you’re will to make the effort, is to make your media scrape-friendly.

I have separated my files into type of media. In the movies folder you will want to have each movie in a subfolder with consistent names including the year of release. My system works like this:

\Movies\Title (Year)\

Within each folder, name each file ‘Title (Year)’ plus ‘.cd1′ or other information where needed.

Likewise, with TV shows, proper file names are essential.

\TV Shows\Title (Year)\Season #\

Each episode is named ‘Title – S##E## – EpisodeName’.

To help with the scraping and renaming, I recommend Ember Media Manager (for your movies; it’s designed for XBMC specifically but generally applicable) and TV Rename (for your TV shows).

Final Comments

This system is not perfect, and there are many alternatives. I’m interested in hearing your suggestions in the comments below!

Review: 20th Century Boys Movie Trilogy

Japan’s wide-ranging stable of comics, known as manga, are often adapted into other mediums. Many will become anime, some will become TV shows, and a few will become movies. Given the long story arcs of some manga, some film adaptations span multiple releases. However, multiple releases, particularly trilogies, are hard to handle.

First, they are typically released over the span of a couple of years and thus must hold the audience’s interest for that period and re-immerse them into plot even though months have passed since they saw the last entry.

Second, they must be complete films in themselves, i.e. they must have a complete three-act structure. The first film cannot be an introduction alone without any climax, nor can the middle simply connect the other two. Typically, while most trilogies nail the first film, they struggle in the follow-ups:

  • Star Wars – Classic first and second parts, but Return of the Jedi is clearly the weakest film of the three original movies (because of the Ewoks!).
  • The Matrix - The first film was an instant classic, but unable to recapture the right balance of action, plot and style, and with the story becoming over-complex, the sequels disappointed everyone.
  • Lord of the Rings – Unlike the others, this trilogy came from strong source material, but for me. Fellowship of the Ring was excellent, but The Two Towers and Return of the King seemed to lack the completeness as individual films that the first so successfully managed.
  • Back to the Future – A great series of films using cliff-hangers to keep the audience wanting more, but the third film felt much weaker, to me, than the rest (although I believe that this might be the best trilogy listed here).20th Century Boys is one such example.

Finally, they must deal with the accumulating plotlines in a manner that satisfy an audience forced to wait months for a conclusion. The Matrix, for example, ended up so complicated that it became simply preposterous.

20th Century Boys20th Century Boys grappled with these problems, but ultimately failed to rein them in. The first film was excellent. The plot escalated nicely and by the end, the viewer was itching for more. However, with each film, the focus changed. Set in the future, the second film’s lead character is the niece of the protagonist of the first film. The third film has no clear stand out characters, and ultimately lost my interest as a result.

The greatest thing about 20th Century Boys was its unravelling plot. Spanning 50 years or so, we are constantly looking back to the past for answers in the present. The plot twists are excellent and surprising right up until the end. Yet, even after the film’s big reveal, the identity of the evil masked mastermind, Tomodachi, remains unclear. A little research revealed that the manga and movies differ in their handling of the ending (which was supposedly very unexpected in the manga). The movie leaves unfulfilled questions as the credits roll; not unfulfilled in the Blade Runner sense, but rather unfulfilled in that they leave the viewer confused and frustrated.

Adding to my fury was the musical plot device. I cannot describe how jarring this terrible music is. In the film, it is the saviour of humanity, a rallying call to the masses to overthrow Tomodachi’s oppression. Yet the song, reminiscent of the Hindi chant (“Jai guru devra”) in Across the Universe by the Beatles, just does not live up to this billing. Especially in the absolutely idiotically handled ending in which this song plays a central role. As the credits roll and your blood boils, sit down and count to 60 (10 just won’t cut it) – the film isn’t over yet.

The epilogue of the film tries to reconcile the untied threads and bring completion to the main character, however, it doesn’t answer any questions that you want it to. Moreover, it is a fantasy setting and remains completely irrelevant as a result. While it was nice that it attempted to fill in the blanks, it should have occurred before you felt the urge to set fire to the screen.

I wanted to love this film, and I really enjoyed the first two parts, but ultimately the story asked too many questions and left them unanswered. The characters were well portrayed and the imagery was superb; I imagine fans of the manga would love it. However, having waited over a year for the resolution, I cannot help but feel disappointed that it ended so poorly. Rent it, try it, but don’t expect too much from Part III.

Never Again

Occasionally something happens when I interact with a British service that reminds me why I’m much happier living in Japan.

Tuesday, 3rd March was my father’s 60th birthday. In Japan, your sixtieth is called ‘kanreki’ and is celebrated by your children. It is the start of your second life (comparable to the English saying, ‘Life starts at 60′). Given the significance attached to this particular age, Keiko and I wanted to celebrate by sending something valuable and worthwhile – while I can’t say what it is, I can assure you it wasn’t particularly cheap and is quite nice.

With Keiko working crazily long days, we picked up the present in Yokohama’s Yodobashi and I planned to send it by to Britain by EMS – typically a 3-day and very reliable service. Japan Post’s best international delivery service comparable to Parcelforce back home. I sent it on Thursday, 25th February, which should have been enough time for it to arrive by the 2nd or, at worst, the 3rd. However, one week later: nothing had arrived.

Before I continue, I want to relate a story from my mother-in-law. Keiko’s sister, Ayaka is enjoying celebrity status in Uganda at the moment, volunteering with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). For the New Year, Keiko’s mother sent a parcel to Uganda, by EMS. The parcel arrived within 3 weeks.

By contrast, I sent my parcel to Britain, an industrialised country, and by the time it is delivered today (Wednesday, 9th March), it will have taken about 2 weeks.

Here is a screenshot from Japan Post’s tracking page:

The parcel arrived in Britain within 42 hours (accounting for the difference in time-zones). The Japanese end of the delivery was fast and efficient, as you might expect. Then 4 minutes after it arrived in Britain, probably due to the cost of the item, it was sent to customs where it remained for 4 further days (2 of which were the weekend, fair enough). It was then sent to Parcelforce’s local office where it was ‘retained’ – which sounds like Room 101 to me.

Yesterday, 8th March, my mother emailed me to tell me what was what: she had a invoice from Parcelforce for £38.24: £24.74 for VAT, and £13.50 labelled ‘Parcelforce Clearance Fee’ – whatever that is. Considering that this is a gift, wrapped and packaged with a card. I am quite annoyed that I have to pay tax on it, but I am absolutely livid that I have to pay Parcelforce for having sat on it for 3 days! Cheekily, at the bottom of the slip, they wrote that if they need to re-deliver, they will charge a further £12.00-odd for handling! I feel like I’m paying some arbitrary bribe for Parcelforce to do the job that I’m sure Japan Post already paid them for. I’m sure things would have been cheaper in Uganda.

Like the regularly late/cancelled trains working to impossible timetables for ridiculous prices (considering the service), the Post Office comes away looking like the post office of some developing country rather than the caring and diligent service that employed such luminaries as Postman Pat and the Singing Postman. They destroyed a well-considered and well-timed present with their antithesis of customer service. Bravo!

Never again.

Tsunamis, Typhoons and Earthquakes

I remember one night in 2002, my mother knocked on my door and woke me up: “Did you feel that earthquake?” I rolled over and peered over to my door and groaned, “It was just a truck going by, go back to bed!” That was my first earthquake, a magnitude 4.8, and I dismissed it as a articulated lorry.

Since coming to Japan, my experience of the Earth’s fight against humanity has increased thousandfold. We feel at least one earthquake every three months, at least one typhoon in the summer, and, much more rarely, tsunamis. In summer last year, after a string of earthquakes, I became worried about the anticipated 20XX Tokai earthquake. Luckily, nothing has really come of it yet as I’ve still not stocked any survival gear, not even a torch. I should get my act together.

Yesterday morning I woke up to a Facebook message asking if we were okay. There had been a magnitude 6.9 quake in Okinawa, Japan’s southern island province. Keiko’s colleague is in Okinawa at the moment, so I rolled over and told her to check on him. It was the biggest quake in Okinawa since 1909, and only 2 people were injured. In the capital, Naha, it was only M4, which is enough to rattle the pans and cupboards, but being an earthquake-prone country, the houses and building throughout Japan can handle much worse.

Across the other side of the world, Chile was struck by a M8.8, a mindblowingly strong quake, the 5th strongest on record. Luckily, my friend in Chile is fine, but just watching the news, as I’m sure you all have seen by now, I was struck by the violent pattern of the shaking, as caught on the CCTV cameras across the capital. Commonly earthquakes shake from side to side, but the dangerous ones jolt vertically. Again, a severely earthquake prone country, Chile has the infrastructure and building codes to withstand the kind of forces that would level British homes.

As I write, tsunami warnings have been issued across the Pacific coast of Japan and people are being evacuated. Most areas are going to be fine, but trains are stopping along coastal routes. The hardest thing to believe is that this all comes from an earthquake in Chile – 17,200 km, or 10,700 miles away. I have been wrestling with in my mind since I watched CNN’s coverage of the Hawai’i evacuations last night. Nothing much came of them, but in 1960, a M9.5 in Chile killed 138 people in Japan. The governments of the Pacific Rim, the so-called Ring of Fire, are right to react as they have.

My heart goes out to the people of Chile. If you are worried about anyone you know, or want to help, please look at Google’s Support Disaster Relief in Chile page. If you are a British citizen living or travelling abroad, please register with LOCATE, as provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the event of a natural disaster, it will help embassies with locating and contacting you and your relatives: LOCATE.

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