May 8th, 2006

Chobits et al

Well, my copies of Chobits and the second half of Cardcaptor Sakura arrived Saturday afternoon. I didn't actually open the box until I got home from work on Sunday morning. That is what I call "will power".

Friday evening I awoke with some bad back pain, and a feeling in my other limbs which most closely resembled that feeling you get when you've got the flu and you've just decided that you're ready for death, even though you know that most of the time, people don't actually die of the flu. My arms and legs felt well-tenderized: besides the pain of having been used a lot the previous evening (double truck night! Whee!)

Power failure...more later.

* * *

Just as I finally got the computer shut down, the power came back on. Isn't that typical.

Anyway, as I was saying, my arms and legs felt well-tenderized: besides the typical muscle pain one gets from physical labor, my limbs also felt totally exhausted, as if I had only just finished working out. I hurt everywhere and didn't want to move, and after an hour and a half of self-argument I finally gave up and called in sick.

Self-argument:

This is about how the discussion went:

Spirit: You know you have to work. You have a responsibility to go and "live by the sweat of your brow", you know.
Flesh: But I hurt everywhere.
Spirit: People have survived worse. If you're like this after a hard night's work, how would you have survived a Nazi concentration camp? Or the gulag?
Flesh: We don't have those things here. And I hurt everywhere.
Spirit: This isn't even the worst we've had it. Remember the time you had to go to work when you had severe gut malf? You managed.
Flesh: But I don't have to go tonight. You could call off.
Spirit: You've already done that too much as it is. They're going to get mad.
Flesh: Let 'em get mad! I hurt everywhere.
Spirit: I understand you hurt everywhere. I feel your pain. (Literally.) But look: it's just not good for either of us if I call off. We need a promotion, and we need to have good work performance in order even to be considered for one. Calling off whenever you don't feel good won't help matters at all.
Flesh: But everything hurts.

...and it went on, more or less like that, for an hour and a half. Finally I just gave up, and ended up feeling guilty all night long.

So much for "will power", though.


I know why my back hurt; it hurt because I was being stupid and forgetting that I'm not 20 years old anymore. At work we have this mobile work platform called a "Wave". It's made by Crown Lift Trucks (http://www.crown.com/usa/news/html/8D3.html) and it's really useful for getting things down from the big steel shelves we have in the back room. Unfortunately, the "things" in question, in this case, were 50-lb bags of dog food, and I was stupidly bending almost double over the front of the thing to pick them up off the load platform in order to stack them on the shelves.

Bad lifting technique...and I felt it not 12 hours later. My back is still stiff and sore from that, so hopefully I have learned my lesson. I could have done that when I was 20, and probably when I was 30...but not now, when I am just 11 days away from being 39. As my boss said when I called in, "You're gettin' old, man!" I laughed ruefully and agreed with him....

Well, anyway, so Chobits:

Chobits is set in an alternate universe, present-day, where instead of being beige boxes, personal computers are androids called persocomms. The typical persocomm runs around $3000-$6000 depending on features and capabilities, and besides being able to do every task that a personal computer can do, they apparently can also be used as self-propelled sex toys and life partners. Their software is very sophisticated, to the point that an average persocomm seems to be able to pass the Turing Test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test ).

The main character, Hideki, is a farm boy from Hokkaido (the northernmost of Japan's three main islands). The nice thing about him being from there is that he doesn't speak in the Kansai dialect, which is more of a southwestern Japan thing. (I'm sure that Hokkaido has a different dialect of Japanese than that which is spoken in Tokyo, but I've never heard it remarked upon, so it must not be all that different--certainly not as different as Kansai is.) One reason it's nice is because I expect it'll keep the dub folks from giving him a hick accent. A Maine accent might be more appropriate, anyway.

In any event, he is 18 years old, and has moved to Tokyo in order to attend cram school, in order to pass college extrance exams and go to college. His family does not have a lot of money; a persocomm is far beyond his means--but on his way home from his first day of job-hunting, he spies a persocomm atop a pile of trash bags.


Trash Collection in Japan

In the spirit of Japanese culture, which emphasizes the group over the individual, trash collection is done from specified locations in residential neighborhoods rather than from individual houses or buildings. So, at the trash collection site in Hideki's new neighborhood, there is a pile of trash bags with a discarded persocomm atop it.


He picks the discarded unit up and takes it home, not noticing the magneto-optical disk which falls to the ground; the persocomm--which is in the shape of a very cute girl, wrapped in cloth strips--is very heavy, and it takes all his attention just to pick it up and carry it.

He gets the thing home, and literally gropes his way to the thing's "on" switch. When it starts, all it can say is "chii" and it mimics every move he makes.

It develops that this persocomm--which Hideki names "Chi"--has no operating system installed, and no software; but with the help of some friends he learns that the machine has a chunk of "protected memory". Any persocomm which tries to access this memory suffers a hard crash and must be restored from a backup.

This is the basic setup for a really interesting and entertaining series. So far I have seen eight of its 27 episodes, and I am forcing myself to watch only one DVD per day. (See above, "will power". Although it's not easy, it's easier than forcing myself to go to work when I feel as if I've been beaten with a stick all night.)

The opening theme song, "Let Me Be With You", is running through my head right now, driving me crazy. But, what the heck, at least it's a better song than Creamy Mami's song.

Anime anime anime

Nana

I've watched up to episode five--that's all that's out there at the moment--and now I'm hooked. It's good stuff. It's a soap opera, but it's a good one; and since I enjoyed Marmalade Boy and Hana Yori Dango I'm thinking this one ought to be entertaining as well.

The first episode deals with how Nana and Nana meet and end up living together; and then the next four show us their backstory. It's common in anime for the first episode to set the hook, while the next several explain how the first episode actually ended up happening. Flashback is a time-honored technique; and to be honest I don't think starting the story at the actual beginning would have made us care at all about the eponymous characters.

Creamy Mami

I haven't watched more of this yet. I have episodes 15 and 17 in their entirety; but when I try to download episode 16 I get errors and an incomplete AVI file which--as some of you may know--won't play. AVI files are like that.

Video File Annoyances
I guess that the DiVX format is a form of AVI. It's a shame that there's not an MPG format which is as useful (or pervasive, anyway) as the DiVX format; the nice thing about MPEG files is that they're robust: drop a frame (or a few thousand) and you get a video glitch, some blocking, and then after a bit it picks right back up and plays normally again. You need not necessarily have the beginning, or end, of an MPEG, in order for it to play, as long as you have one of them...and sometimes you don't even need that.

AVI? Forget it. If the whole file is not there, you might as well delete it, because it won't play. There are programs which can repair them, of course, but I've had only mixed success with them.

I did have an issue with a massive AVI file. The CD it was on got scratched, and this 350 MB AVI file could not be read from the CD. After using plastic polish and a CD repairer, repeatedly and in alternation, I managed to get the CD to the point where the AVI could be copied to the hard drive. Then I used an AVI recovery program to fix the AVI, so that it plays. I lost the first minute or so, which is not all that critical--and which is certainly preferable to not having the file at all.

From this I learned that whenever I remove something from my hard drive, I must first copy it to two disks, not one. Two backups, not one. Two copies, not one. TWO.

TWO
NOT
ONE

...because with digital media, if you don't have it in at least two places, you don't have it. And blank disks--CD-Rs in particular, but it's also true of DVD+/-Rs--are a lot cheaper than the hour plus I had to spend rubbing tiny circles of plastic polish on a CD in order to get MOST of the data back....


So I'm trying again to download the next several episodes of Creamy Mami.

Chobits

I just remembered something else about this series. One of the characters is a senior in high school named Yumi. She tells Hideki, point blank, that her breasts are an "E-cup".

...of course that makes her a D-cup here in America...but those are just huge breasts for any high school girl, particularly one who is Japanese. Now I find myself hoping for some fan service.

The thinpack box set I got for $65 includes a CD of "character songs". Character songs are similar to insert songs, except that they are not (normally) used in the actual anime. They may be used on drama CDs.

IMHO, character song CDs are just about worthless. I have never heard a character song I liked. There have been pleny of insert songs I liked ("Summer Jewel", from Wedding Peach, for example) but not character songs. I would have been a lot happier if they had included a soundtrack CD (OST CD), as was done with the Vampire Princess Miyu TV (VPM TV)box set, for example.

Kenji Kawai
The soundtrack music for VPM TV was done by Kenji Kawai, who is--bar none!--my favorite Japanese composer. When it comes to anime soundtracks there is none better. He has an impressive list of credits to his name (Internet Movie Database entry: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0442766/ ) going back to 1986, when he did music for Maison Ikkoku.

If you listen to it in the context of the anime, it is simply perfect. For example, in Mermaid Forest the music has a wonderful sense of melancholy that perfectly matches the mood of the story. In VPM TV, the third track on the OST disk, "Karma", nicely captures the feeling of hopelessness that pervades the entire series. Yet if you listen to the OST for Hime-chan's Ribbon, the music he wrote for that series is cheerful, optimistic, and fun--which matches that magical girl series perfectly.

The Patlabor movies are serious stories set in an alternate universe where large anthropomorphic machines (called "Labors") are used for things like construction. Kawai did the music for all three of them, although I have only seen the first two--and the music, again, fits pefectly, giving a sense of purpose, a modern energy with optimism, but with the assumption that not all will be well all the time. In particular, the opening music to the first Patlabor movie is a track named "Heavy Armor" which shows a bunch of military labors taking out a prototype which is apparently being stolen...only once it is disabled and forced open, there is no pilot inside....


Rumiko Takahashi

I have to talk about Takahashi a bit here, too.

Takahashi is a woman, about 10 years older than me, and she makes as much per year as a good NFL quarterback. All that money has come from the tip of her pencil.

Her first big series was Urusei Yatsura (UY). Every comic artist on the planet would mow down entire primary schools for that kind of success; it's a pivotal series in anime for a variety of reasons, and it's found a second life among American anime fans.

Right on the heels of UY came Maison Ikkoku. Maison was totally different from UY. UY was a science fiction slapstick comedy with a love story at its core; Maison was a present-day love story with a core of slapstick comedy, and the manga has some very well-tuned dramatic moments in it. While Maison was not the powerhouse that UY was, it was successful enough to run from beginning to end and spawn a 72-episode anime series.

Then, after Maison, came Ranma 1/2. Again, it was a completely different type of story: this time it was a fighting series, centering on martial arts, but with a twist: the main character, when splashed with cold water, turns into an attractive girl, due to an ancient Chinese curse...and other characters in the series are similarly afflicted. And of course, at the core of the series is a love story.

Ranma is the series which sold Americans on anime, too. Shogakkokan, the company which Takahashi works for, established Viz Communications here in North America and proceeded to distribute the series here, both in sub and dub formats. The dub was "just right" for the first three seasons' worth of the series, with voices, pronunciation, and translation all dead-on. Commercial distribution started in 1993, as I recall. Or perhaps it was 1994; I didn't start collecting Ranma until 1995, myself, and wasn't even aware of its existence before around June of 1994. A lot of people I know who are into anime are there because they saw Ranma 1/2, and it didn't suck.

Ranma turned in seven seasons' worth of anime, six OVAs, and two feature-length movies. (One movie, 30 minutes long, was released here as an OVA.) The merchandising was pretty spectacular, too.

And after the end of Ranma, Takahashi started with Inu Yasha (IY). IY went to animation at the same time the manga was being published. IY is shown on Cartoon Network. The dub is not what I would call "very good" (see earlier entries). But IY is, to any and all inspection, just as popular as Ranma was, and possibly a good deal more...and of course if you buy the DVDs you don't have to put up with the dub.

There are few comic artists in the world who have ever seen this kind of popular success. Takahashi knows what she's about, that's for sure.

El Hazard and a look at translation

I am full of anime commentary today.

El Hazard is one of my favorite series. In fact, it's somewhere in my top five all-time favorites. In fact, I'm no longer sure which series are in there, but I know that El Hazard is one of them.

I probably ought to figure that out.

El Hazard is subtitled "The World of Endless Adventure", a phrase which seldom fails to send chills down my spine.

El Hazard is the name of an alternate world made up of several countries. The one we hear the most about is the country of Roshtaria, for several reasons, not the least of which being that the main characters end up there when they find themselves in El Hazard.

In the first episode, the main character--Makoto Mizuhara--finds a mysterious woman in the ancient ruins under his high school (which had themselves only just been discovered) and she sends him--and other people within a certain radius of her location--to El Hazard.

The main characters of the series are divided into two major groups, one from Earth and one from El Hazard.

Earth:
Makoto Mizuhara: a smart but naive high school senior
Katsuhiko Jinnai: Makoto's self-styled arch-enemy
Nanami Jinnai: Katsuhiko's younger sister
Masamichi Fujisawa: Their alcoholic geography teacher, who is also an avid moutain climber

El Hazard:
Shayla Shayla, Priestess of Fire
Mizu Mishtal, Priestess of Water
Afura Mann, Priestess of Air
Ifurita, "Demon God"

There are other characters who are important to the plot but who don't drive it. I'm not going to give a full summary of the series here (just buy it and watch it!).

Everyone who goes to El Hazard from Earth ends up with a super power. Makoto can interface with ancient El Hazard technology; Nanami can see through illusions; and Mr. Fujisawa--when sober--becomes super-strong.

Jinnai (Katsuhiko is always called, simply, Jinnai, except by his sister) gets the ability to understand the language of the Bugrom, the giant bugs who have been trying to overrun El Hazard since time immemorial. Jinnai ends up leading the Bugrom in a war against the Allied Nations of El Hazard, and doing very, very well. (I would not care to face Jinnai across a game of Axis and Allies. He could take Japan, and I could take everyone else, and I suspect he would still win. But then, I'm a lousy strategist.)

Roshtaria is first among the allied nations because the two princesses of Roshtaria--Rune Venus and Fatora--control the Eye of God, a potent superweapon left over from the ancient El Hazard civilization. Fear of the Eye of God is what keeps the Bugrom at bay; but Fatora has been kidnapped. The Eye of God requires two princesses to control it; since Roshtaria is shy one princess when Fatora is kidnapped, they effectively have no Eye of God.

Makoto just happens to look exactly like Fatora, but for the hair; so he ends up impersonating her (a la Prisoner of Zenda). Since the allied nations have no Eye of God, they have no defense from the Bugrom; and when Jinnai arrives, the Bugrom get the strategic talent they need to mount a major offensive against the allied nations.

(I am skipping past the back story around Fatora's kidnap.)

To combat the Eye of God, Jinnai--when he learns of it--activates Ifurita, the most dreaded "Demon God". Ifurita turns out to be the mysterious woman in the ruins below their high school, but she does not know Makoto, and since Jinnai is the one who activates her, he controls her.

And so here we have a love polygon: Makoto is in love with Ifurita, but Shayla-Shayla and Nanami are in love with Makoto. Meanwhile, Mizu Mishtal (her first name is pronounced MEEZ, by the way) latches onto Mr. Fujisawa as "perfect husband material". At age 29 she is desperate for matrimony....

So now that I've discussed the story a bit, I'm going to delve a bit deeper.

The world of El Hazard is fantastic. The writers and artists did a wonderful job of creating a whole new world, from the smallest to the largest things.

El Hazard is obviously a world which was once devastated by an apocalyptic war. We are shown glimpses of Ifurita's memories showing what that final war was like; and the enormous amounts of energy which are slung around by the Eye of God when it is activated shows what kind of utter destruction must have occurred in that war.

So the society which exists has come up from the ashes of the old; and it has obviously been some time (on the order of centuries, at least; more probably millennia) since the ancients of El Hazard bombed themselves back to the stone age. Ancient technology is often found scattered around, and one of the characters (Dr. Schtalubaugh) makes a study of these artifacts. Ifurita is, herself, just such an ancient artifact.


I just can't get away from these sidebars, can I?

I have a theory that El Hazard is not, in fact, an alternate reality, but this reality, thousands of years in the future. The "ancients of El Hazard" are us; our society evolved until we could build the types of weapons we see in El Hazard, and then something happened to cause an enormous war. I don't think there is any serious indication of this anywhere in the series, but it's a theory which I enjoy thinking about once in a while. But I'll save it for another time.


What about the translation? I mention it in the heading of this entry, so let's discuss it a bit. In particular I'm talking about how profanity is used in anime.


Fujisawa, upon hearing a scream: "Oh shit! Someone else is out of alcohol!"

Jinnai: "Your ass is finally mine, Makoto Mizuhara!" and
"Makoto, you bastard! This is your handiwork! Ow, shit, why is this swelling?" and
"God damn it! Withdraw! Bitch."

Princess Fatora: "I'll do anything to make those blue bastards suffer!"


The swearing is perfect.

I have seen examples where it was not. In a fan-subtitled episode of Sentimental Graffiti, for example. In the episode, which echoes "Pygmalion" rather nicely, a high school girl is asked how she is. She replies with a highly informal reply--one definitely not warranted by the situation--and it is translated as "Fucking great!"

Now, I know what effect the translators were trying for, but there is simply no way to say "fucking great" in Japanese. The words do not exist in that language, and even using the rudest possible words don't rise to the connotation that "fuck" has in English. "Fucking great" is right out, in other words.

The Japanese word "kuso", basically, means "crap". It's a not-polite word for "feces". But too often it is translated as "shit", incorrectly.

If some character screams KUSOOOooo and is obviously really pissed off or upset, then yes, "shit" is a reasonable way to translate it. But the problem is, "kuso" crops up in situations where the character is saying it lightly; and in those situations it's more appropriately translated as "damn".

The Japanese have another word that I have never seen spelled (it sounds like "chi-k'sho") which is frequently translated as "damn it" but, again, in extremity it can be amplified to "shit" fairly reasonably. "Che" is most frequently translated as "damn", too, which is reasonable. "Shimatta" usually has the visceral slug of "darn" or "nuts" but it, too, can be amplified depending on the tone of voice used.

"Shimatta" does not translate to "shit"...but I've seen that done, too.

My favorite over-the-top example of swearing in anime is the dub of Violence Jack. I never saw it, but a friend of mine played it for me. A character says:

"God damn it! Where the hell is Jack? Fucking chicken shit! Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Fuck! Shit!"

I have also seen it minimized; Ranma 1/2 tends this way. Ranma himself is a rather coarse character; yet I have heard him say "hell" exactly one time: "Do you mind telling me what the HELL you're doing here?" Other than that, "heck" and "darn" are it...and I think he'd say "damn" and "hell" a lot more than they have him do in the dub. His nickname for his father is "kuso-yaji", which could be translated as "old fart", but isn't....

El Hazard makes none of these mistakes. All of the swearing is perfectly executed and fits the situation exactly. When the characters swear, it is always in character. Fujisawa is upset that he has run out of booze; and when he hears a woman scream, his first reaction is, "Oh shit! Someone else...."

The translator must walk a fine line, and in dubs it's a line made even finer by the fact that the words spoken must match the "flaps", the opening and closing of the character's mouth. That's why we get some strange lines once in a while, like the breathless lines from the Speed Racer dub from the '60s which is often parodied.

In El Hazard, the characters never break characterization, even allowing for matching flaps--not even during the horrible first five minutes of the dub. Ultimately that's the real test of a good translation: does it match the character? Do the things said by the characters match their personalities? In the case I mentioned from Sentimental Graffiti I don't think it did; in the case of Ranma 1/2 I think it errs on the side of caution.

The dub of El Hazard is so good that I never watch the sub version. Most of the first series I have on hybrid laserdisk, so the sub is an option, but I never avail myself of it.

There is one other series in which the dub is actually more enjoyable than the sub: Golden Boy. In that series, Doug Smith does a fantastic job giving Kintaro Oe his voice--so well that when Kintaro says, "Awww, shit!" in the first episode it is so utterly perfect that you have to stop the playback while you laugh your ass off. The sub, strangely, is not as entertaining as the dub, because Doug Smith did such a fantastic job. That is a rarity in translated anime.