In this episode, Rob and Don journey back into the past of Japanese comic books to explore it from its roots 1300 years ago until the great experimental manga age of the 1970s. They explore the European roots of Manga, how the medium was shaped by the winds of Japan’s history, and the major figures who helped make manga what it is today. All this, and how Go Nagai brought sex and violence to Japanese children’s television, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by fellow gamer Jack Ward to discuss the granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying- Dungeons and Dragons. The intrepid trio throw on their adventuring gear and delve deep into the many editions of D&D while sharing their thoughts on how D&D became a cultural fixture in our society. All this, and why you need to roll for initiative right now!… are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
Earlier this week, I was having an email exchange with my DNA co-host Don and our frequent esteemed guest Jack Ward about anime and American animation. As part of that conversation, Don took it upon himself to write up a long blog post explaining to Jack how the two animation industries diverged from each other during the 1960’s with lots of examples thrown in. Since I thought that such effort was worth sharing, Don graciously edited it and sent it to me to share.
Holee Smokes, why can’t we have nice things like that? Japan isn’t afraid to get weird though:
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with guest Jack Ward to discuss what it means to be a nerd. The trio discuss exactly what nerds are, where they came from, and whether nerds as a concept is even still relevant in modern culture. All this, and why The Nutty Professor was the great nerd hero of the 20th century are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Michael Monahan, author and co-producer of the documentary American Scary, to talk about Horror Hosts. We delve into the origins of the Horror Host phenomena from its early days with Vampira to the megahit Ghoulardi and the modern incarnations which still stalk the airwaves. All this, and why Bob Wilkins is a name every scifi fan should know, is coming to you in this, the 27th episode of the Department Affairs!
Don’t know what Horror Hosts are? Watch the short video below for a quick primer of a few of the more famous ones in action.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
I’ve always had a fondness for oldschool horror, especially the Hammer Horror films from England of the 60’s and 70’s. They used to show them on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, and I found them annoying because they were displacing my favorite movies involving giant monsters. However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve also grown to appreciate the contributions Hammer made to horror and film in general. If for no other reason than bringing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into the popular culture!
Today my friend Richard pointed me in the direction of not one, but two documentaries on YouTube about the history of Hammer. The first is written and hosted by Sherlock writer/actor (and Hammer Horror fanboy) Mark Gatiss, and is from a BBC documentary series on horror he hosted.
The second is an older documentary on Hammer Horror called Hammer- The Studio that Dripped Blood!, which was done by the BBC in the late 80’s. The quality isn’t the best since it’s transferred off videotape, and it’s been chopped into parts, but if you’re interested in the subject it makes a nice companion piece to Gatiss’ show.
Tonight, I attended a lecture at my local community center by a local historian on the largely ignored Eastern half of the city of London, Ontario. My city, as I learned tonight, was originally two- London Proper (what I know as Downtown London) and East London (where the factories and working class people lived). These two halves, divided by Adelaide Street, would amalgamate at the dawn of the 20th century into a single city, but those lines still exist over a hundred years later in class and social divides.
In my city, we have the term East of Adelaide (EOA), which basically means “the bad side of town”, although it’s not technically completely accurate anymore. I grew up EOA, and although I never really felt the divide much at the time, now looking back I can see it in my own youthful experiences and how that shaped my attitudes towards class in some ways. I was one of the lucky ones, since my father was a doctor, as I still had a very middle class existence, but many I knew weren’t so lucky.
Regardless, what I found precious about tonight was the fact that for one of the first times in my life I actually learned about the history of the place where I grew up. It wasn’t that I avoided it, or that I didn’t want to know- it was that there simply wasn’t anyone available to teach it to me. My parents grew up in other cities, and moved here shortly after I was born, so they couldn’t teach me what they didn’t know. (A common situation in many highly mobile Canadian families.) So, how was I supposed to learn it?
The obvious answer should be school, but the sad truth is that school doesn’t teach local history either. They teach world history, national history and provincial history, but almost nothing about the history of the place where the school sits.
And that, is wrong.
Oh, I know why it happens. Here in Canada we’re a young country, and we have this odd Canadian provincial mentality that nothing Canadian really matters much in the greater scheme of things. We’re only three hundred years old, or so, and we haven’t had many wars, or political upheavals, and nothing really all that exciting happened, and Canadians history is boring, so why should we really bother teaching it? Especially local history, right? What good is that?
Except that’s all wrong- all of it. That’s the stupid mentality we’ve developed because of the way we’re taught history, and that creeping sense of inferiority we have to the UK and the United States who look so much cooler and bigger and cooler from where we sit. The truth is that Canadian history is filled with pirates, adventurers, explorers, entrepreneurs, political leaders, sports heroes, uprisings, cultural battles, wars, sex, violence, and everything else that makes history exciting.
We just don’t teach that stuff, because it’s somehow not proper. It’s like the stuff we’re embarrassed about, and we don’t want people having the wrong idea that we might be descended from THOSE people.
And that leaks down to the attitude about local history as well, which has this air of being nothing special or important. I mean, unless you live in Montreal or Quebec, that’s history, but the rest of Canada? Who cares, right?
Well, we should care.
It’s a little bit like not knowing your parents or your family history. The place we grow up shapes us and defines us in a thousand little ways, and unless we know and understand that place and where it came from, we will never truly understand ourselves. We need that knowledge as we go out into the world, because it lets us know who we are, and gives us a center to find our way.
Local history should be taught in schools, and it should be taught in a way which is no less important or detailed than the other “greater” types of history. If anything, it’s more important, exactly because it’s part of the lives of the students learning it.
Of course, I can already hear people sayings- “but local kids won’t want to learn that!”
To this, I reply with what the historian told me tonight. She told me about casually mentioning her area of study to a bunch of teenage boys she knew, and her being shocked when they actually wanted to sit there and learn everything she could tell them about where they grew up. They wanted to know where they came from, and were more than willing to pay attention if there was someone to teach it to them and answer their questions.
And why shouldn’t they? It was history that actually mattered to THEM.
It might not be important to anyone else, but it was their lives, their roots she was talking about, the place they lived in every day, and the questions that they’d always had but never thought to ask about their real world.
We talk all the time about disillusioned young people, voter turnout being down and people not being engaged in civic politics, but we need to ask the question- why should they be? If we don’t teach them to know and love the place where they grew up, how can they be anything but unattached and uncaring? Why should they care when they have no sense of connection to their homes, neighbourhoods and towns? A place is its people, but it’s also its history.
Even if the school boards just gave one semester of one year to local history, it could make a huge difference in the lives of many kids. Yes, not everyone will want to learn it or appreciate it, but don’t they deserve the chance to choose?