Benshi and Macross 7

Silent films were an international language. Taking advantage of the fact they had no natural soundtrack, they were designed and produced to be understood through purely visual storytelling. Even when dialog cards were later introduced to add key pieces of dialog, the core of the films were still visual. This allowed them to be watched and understood by audiences the world over, or world audiences which lived right next door, since this was the great age of immigration and your neighbour may not speak the same language you did.

When these silent films were exported to other countries, they were adapted to the local customs, and in the case of Japan they took on narrators who were there to help the audience with the points of the film that local audiences might not understand. These narrators, called Benshi, would introduce the film to set the story and context, and then narrate the story as needed for the audience to help them get over jumps or occasionally missing pieces of film. While in the Western tradition, organs were used to accompany silent films for music, the Benshi worked alongside traditional Japanese Kabuki orchestras to produce a very Japanese movie-going experience from 1910 until the mid-1930’s. It worked so well this system was also adopted into early Taiwanese cinema, with the narrators called Benzi.

water-magician-benshi-poster-

The Benshi also shaped Japanese cinema, as the producers of Japanese films of the time knew that a Benshi would be there to narrate their films and so they started to script their films with the expectation that the Benshi would not only narrate, but do all the voices for the characters (of both sexes) as well. This made the Benshi truly part of the drama, and different Benshi became major stars based on their styles of acting and narration. People would even go to see the same film again if narrated by a different Benshi because it was said that in the hands of a different Benshi the same film could become a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or take on different levels of drama as the Benshi would add their own improvisations and style to the film’s story. You might even say that the Benshi became the reason people went to see the performance, and that the films themselves become a backdrop for the Benshi!

According to Wikipedia, “in 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women.” This was likely their peak, as it was around this time that the first American “talkies” appeared and sound was introduced to movie-going audiences. So, while Benshi did continue on for a time as translators for foreign films, their services were less and less required, and they slowly became a rare cultural tradition. Today, there are still Benshi like Midori Sawato who do performances when silent films are played in art houses and on special occasions, but they are a rare experience.  Here is a series of short clips showing a Benshi in action from the above performance at the Sydney Opera House:

I personally find Benshi fascinating as a concept, and think it would be amazing to watch one perform, although technically I already have. Back when I was the president of Anime London in the 1990’s a group of us would meet on the second and fourth Monday of every month and watch anime from my fairly large (at that time) collection. One of the shows we watched was a series called Macross 7, and I had the whole series on videotape with only one problem- it was still in Japanese and wasn’t subtitled after the first two or three episodes. This was in the days before internet video was really big (or possible in any quality), but I did manage to find translation scripts for subtitlers to use online. However, I didn’t have the equipment or ability to subtitle all 49 episodes of Macross 7, so what to do?

My not-all-that-innovative solution was to become an audio subtitler, and read the scripts alongside the dialog while the rest of the group watched the show. (Holy Benshi, Batman!) However, after a few episodes one of my friends, a talented young man named Glenn Jupp offered to take over audio-titling for me for reasons I’ve forgotten. (I think I couldn’t do it one week for some reason.) Glenn was a natural Benshi, and would have done these Japanese masters proud. I never did it again because Glenn spent the next 44 episodes giving Macross 7 his own personal spin by doing his own inflections to all the voices, and showing incredible timing and dramatic flare. It worked perfectly, because Macross 7 is an over-the-top mecha anime musical, and having a wild dramatic reading of the lines just fit perfectly.The highlight of each meeting became watching Glenn perform, and while new members to the club took a bit to get used to our unusual way of doing things, they soon came to appreciate Glenn’s talents.

It made watching Macross 7 a unique experience that took the show to a whole other level, and even today I can’t watch it subtitled without hearing Glenn’s voice narrating the character lines. (“Listen to my song!!!”) The day we finished the series, I think we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, and when they released some direct-to-video episodes of Macross 7 we got scripts and asked him to narrate once more. Watching it without Glenn just wouldn’t have been the same, and I can appreciate how audiences in Japan felt about their Benshi, because Glenn was ours.

Arigatou, Jupp-san. You would have done the masters proud!

Rob

Movie Review: Detroit 9000

Detroit 9000 should have been called “70’s Detroit Action Flick- The Movie” or perhaps “Detroit Cops of the 70’s- The Movie”, either way it’s an odd and unique little time capsule of a film. At it’s core, it’s a simple cop drama about police detectives trying to find the culprits behind a major robbery and a black cop and a white cop trying to get along in a service where even the police force seems divided along racial lines. However, there is nothing simple about this film.

The only way I can describe this movie is this- imagine if a millionaire (it was 1973) with almost no film experience decided to hire a top-knotch production team to help him film his dream movie about the cops of his home town- Detroit. He wrote the film himself, and filled it with local actors of highly variable quality, and then had this professional crew help them make it into a movie. That may not be what happened, but my god, it sure feels like it’s what happened when you watch this film.

The director, the editor, the sound people, the costumers, and pretty much everyone else knew how to take what was likely a medium-ish budget and make something really solid out of it. The problem is, the film they were making was horribly written and had some of the worst and most awkward dialog you’ve ever heard. The core structure of the film is okay, which keeps it watchable, but the dialog needs to be heard to be believed. You literally never know what awkward racist line going to come out of people’s mouths next, and most of the minor parts seem to be played by people who have never acted in their lives, so that makes it even worse!

The trailer above plays it as a Blaxploitation flick, but that isn’t quite accurate. It’s not so much an exploitation flick about black culture as a police/crime film that happens to have mostly a black cast. Which is good, actually, because that’s one of the things that keeps it interesting- watching the interplay between the black and white characters and seeing how they interrelate to each other as people and professionals. If anything, the movie is mostly colorblind (it treats all races, genders, classes and even sexualities as just normal people, despite the racist dialog), which I think was what the guy who wrote it had in mind- a movie about the people of Detroit just trying to get along despite the things that divided them.

So would I say I liked the film? I’m not sure I’d go that far. As I said at the beginning, it’s an odd and unique film. It’s an action movie about the people (and especially the police) of Detroit, made by the people of Detroit for the people of the city of Detroit of that time. As someone who lived in Windsor for a few years, and has a bit of an interest in Detroit as a city and its history and culture, I found it a fascinating little time capsule of a period after the white people had mostly gone, but before the middle-class black community had completely disintegrated. However, as a film, it’s so wildly uneven I don’t know whether I would actually tell anyone else to watch it unless you really just enjoy this kind of thing and are willing to appreciate it in its own unique context.

 

Classic 12-Chapter Murder Mystery Formula

(Note: This has been floating around the internet for years, and I don’t know who first wrote it (if anyone does, let me know!) but it’s worth archiving and Camp Nanowrimo starts next week, so here it is.)

The classic mystery is popular fiction which follows a specific formula. Clever writers may try to change the formula, but the most clever will cling to it for a very good reason. They work within the bounds of the formula because it works!


The following outline serves the modern mystery novel, as defined by editors and publishers. A typical story will contain 60,000 to 65,000 words (205 manuscript pages) and will be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length.

The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula

Act I

Introduction of the crime (mystery) and the sleuth

Chapter 1

A. Disclose the crime and mystery to be solved. The crime must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way and either the victim the perpetuator, or both, should be unusual. Give the reader enough information about the victim to make them truly care that the perpetrator is found out and that justice is served.

B. Early in the story, clues should be revealed which suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the initial crime. Those clues should point to suspects and motive which will cary the sleuth to the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction, others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues unto later in the story.

C. Introduce the sleuth who will solve the crime early, and have him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected which will establish that person as unique. Create this character with care. His or her personality should be interesting enough to sustain the interest of the reader to the very last page. (or through an entire series of books). It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

D. Ground the reader in the time and place where the crime occurs. It is often useful to include some sort of symbol, an object or a person, in the opening scene which serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, possible from the point of view of the victim or perpetrators. The same information could also be revealed by a character, through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

Chapter 2

A. Set the sleuth on the path toward solving he mystery. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means and opportunity to to commit the crime. Select the most likely suspects, and have the sleuth question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

B. At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3

A. The sub-plot should be introduced. The plot will continue to maintain the progress of the story, but the sub-plot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept to which the reader can identify. Sub-plots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth to face a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

B. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will climatic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to the climax of the main plot. The sub-plot may be a vehicle for a romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons of the sleuth. The author can manipulate the pace of the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and sub-plot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous.

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects, through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspect.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5

A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence, should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6

A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the sub-plot is developed. Tell the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Act III

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvement’s, scores to be settled or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I., to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8

A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. The reader, as well as the protagonist and other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9

A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader, if a keep observer) becomes aware of the error which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV

Solution

Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11

A. Resolution of the sub-plot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12

A. The Climax – a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution – Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except, the villain).

Weekend Listening- The Piano Guys

Musical geeks are the most entertaining geeks, because they find ways to combine their musical talents with their geeky hobbies in fun ways. Case in point- The Piano Guys, who use a variety of instruments (but mostly pianos) to produce fun and creative music videos.

 

Wengu- Chinese Classics and Translations

Today, while searching for a collection of the poems of the Chinese master poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) I stumbled across a marvelous website called Wengu Zhixin, which is a site collecting translations of Chinese classic philosophy and thought into English and French. They have the usual documents like The Analects of Confucius, The Yi Ching, and Lao Tzu’s The Way and Its Power (the core book of Daoism), but they also have a great collection of Tang Dynasty Poems (with actual good quality translations), the Art of War, and the (largely unknown in the West) Thirty-Six Strategies. All of these have the original Chinese provided as well, with clickable Hanzi characters that show translations of their individual meanings.

However, for me, the gem of it is the Thirty-Six Strategies (of war and conflict) each have a story to go along with them to illustrate their point, pulled from Chinese and Japanese history. I have another book with the Strategies that has stories as well, but these are actually different stories from the ones in the book translation I have, since whoever translates these tends to pull their own favourite examples from history and fiction. For example, here is the entry for Strategy One:

Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea

Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.

Japanese Folk Tale

There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.

And the amusing entry for Strategy Six::

Clamor in the East, Attack in the West

In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.

Song Dynasty China

Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”

“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”

The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone.

Go and read them. Whenever I need to get a character out of a tricky situation, the 36 Strategies is my go-to book for answers!

Rob

P.S. I’ve had it pointed out that this translation and examples are excerpts from a published text about the 36 Strategies, which you can find here. The full text uses 118 stories to illustrate the points, and has other material, so if you enjoy these you might consider picking it up!

Everybody was Star Wars Fighting! Moves for Jedi Combat.

Comic artist Pere Pérez took it upon himself to design actual combat moves for jedi, and the results are awesome. Below is two of the eight very logical fighting moves he came up with to make use of both the special qualities of The Force and the Lightsabre’s ability to turn on and off at will.

pere-perez-force-moves-1

You can find the rest here.

Rob

The Vengeance Factor

If you asked me what my favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was while it was on the air, the answer was simple: Tin Man. It had everything that made Star Trek great, and a lot of starship action that I loved when I was a bit younger. However, if you ask me what episode has stuck with me the most from ST:TNG’s seven seasons, that answer is actually episode 3X09- The Vengeance Factor.

I’m not sure why this episode is the one that’s stuck with me, maybe it’s the bittersweet romantic nature of the whole thing, or the questions of duty it raises. In either case, for some reason when I want to watch ST:TNG it’s pretty much my go-to episode, even though I can practically recite the dialog from it line for line. I find this episode also wears better with time, not worse, which is something you can’t say about quite a few of ST:TNG’s early episodes. For me, this was a crown jewel in the show’s best season (Season 3) and one of the reasons I will always be a fan of this series. (I have to say, the episode after it, The Defector, is also a classic of the show.)

Do any of you have an episode of Star Trek or another TV show that’s always stuck with you? If so, let me know in the comments below!

Rob

The Stories of Ken Liu

One of the hottest names in Science Fiction today is Ken Liu, a Chinese-American programmer, lawyer and writer who seems to jump into everything he does with heart and amazing dedication. He has won the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards more than once for his short fiction, and recently announced he’s going into Epic Fantasy with his debut novel The Grace of Kings due out next year from Simon and Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint Saga Press. He’s a rising star who blends both Asian and Western sensibilities into his work, taking advantage of both to produce unique works.

I first encountered Ken’s work when the sci-fi and fantasy blog Io9 shared one of his stories, The Perfect Match, that was published in Lightspeed in 2012. While not a perfect story, it extrapolated the idea behind Apple’s Siri to its logical and disturbing conclusion with the personal assistant Tilly in a way that really caught my attention. I have since recommended his work to many of my media students to read as a glimpse into the future, because I think he’s captured it all too well.

Today, after hearing about Ken’s new novel, I wandered to his personal website for more information and was delighted to discover that he has placed 14 of his published and award-winning short stories (and more!) up for anyone to read for free on his website. So check them out, and learn why the name Ken Liu is on lips of both many a fan and publisher alike.

Rob

Helping Writers Become Authors

There are a few writers out there for whom the act of structuring and planning a novel is as much joy and fun as the writing of the story itself- K.M. Weiland is one of those writers. She has turned her love of structure and the writer’s craft into not only a blog, but also a video series on YouTube, a podcast and several books, all of them deeply focused on how to make writers produce better work by discussing the many components of a story in great detail. It’s actually quite impressive how she turned her former Wordplay podcast into an actual writer self-help industry unto itself called Helping Writers Become Authors.

I’ve been listening to her Podcast, and I have been quite impressed by the level of thought she puts into each episode (and there are 247 episodes to date!), which have even made me rethink some of my own perspectives on writing. Ms. Weiland has a real passion for the writer’s craft, and seems to be working hard to not only find the best ways to write, but share them with the world. The only criticism I have is that sometimes the podcasts can get a little too abstract, or have a few too many examples for my taste (which can slow the show down), but those are both the result of her depth of study in whatever she’s researching and sharing with her audience.

In any case, if you’re looking for a very focused and practical writing podcast or blog, this might be one worth checking out. She has a lot of useful resources on the blog as well, and even a tutorial for getting the most out of yWriter, the free writing software and structure templates for use with Scrivener.

Epic Rap Battles- Sir Isaac Newton (Weird Al) vs Bill Nye

Probably the best one they’ve done in a while! They might be getting their stride back!