Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Read or Die (2001)

Opening to Read or Die OVA.

There are many examples of Scientific Romances which spend a degree of time in the present day, from the framing device of Ray Harryhausen's The First Men in the Moon where a 1960's lunar launch finds relics of a turn of the century expedition, to Time After Time which utilizes time travel to bounce between the Victorian era and the Swingin' Seventies, to the anime series Escaflowne which introduces a modern Japanese school girl to a world of steam-driven fantasy. These stories break the romance of the Victorian era and its adventuresome discoveries into the modern world.

The OVA Read or Die is just such a story. Taking place in a pre-9/11 world, Read or Die tells of a plot that young bookworm, substitute teacher and superpowered secret agent Yomiko Readman becomes incidentally involved in. It seems that someone has stolen a series of DNA samples from the World Bio Engineering Lab and are now on the hunt for a lost manuscript of Ludwig Van Beethoven's, which has fallen into Yomiko's possession. How badly do they want it? The 3-episode OVA begins with a mysterious samurai harnessing the powers of electricity to blow up the White House, asking the now homeless President where the Library of Congress happens to be.

As the story deepens, we find that a madman is bent on destroying humanity, replacing it with reincarnations of the greatest geniuses in history. But what truly gbone-chilling place does Beethoven and his music have in all this? Nevertheless, the British Library special forces is on the mission, and Yomiko is intent on getting her copy of Beethoven's manuscript back.

To get in their way is an army of genetically maladjusted and steam-tech enhanced historical luminaries. The mysterious samurai is Gen-nai Hiraga, who invented a static electricity producing device in 18th century Japan, now enhanced to near elemental-force proportions. The first to attack Yomiko is Jean Henri Fabre, 19th century French entymologist. But he is changed to be more insect than man now, and he rides a giant grasshopper sporting gilded piping. Next to come after the book is Otto Lilenthall, a Victorian era German glider pioneer, blasting through the sky in a fantastic jet glider built by steam-power pioneer Stephen Wilcox. Along the way they also encounter Mata Hari, 15th century Japanese rogue monk Ikkyu and Chinese folk legend Genjo Sanzo.

Then there is the British Library Force, led by Mr. Gentleman who looks suspiciously like Leonardo DaVinci, kept alive by more fantastic steam-tech. The Force seems to draw from some inexplicable linkage between libraries and the Victorian era, wearing vests and printer's sleeve guards as they walk amongst deep gilt and wood stacks. The division head, Joker, also owns the best cell phone ever, resembling the receiver of an antique wall-mounted phone.

The technology in this OVA is worth the price of admission alone. Lilenthall's glider and Fabre's steam-powered giant grasshopper are the highlights. But Read or Die can also back it up with an interesting story. Though only 3 episodes in length, it is chock full of material in an involved and well imagined story. How could something entitled "Read or Die" not be?

Based on a manga series, Read or Die has spun off into a TV series that sadly lacks amny of the Victorian flourishes of the OVA. For originality and interesting designs, the OVA is a welcome arrival nevertheless.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Oh! Edo Rocket (2007)

The Tenpo period of the Edo Era was marked by a series of natural and human disasters that destabilized the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns in the decades prior to the forced opening of Japan's borders by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. To compensate for these disasters and the unrest they caused, a series of reforms were enacted that severely curtailed the freedoms of what was already an effective military dictatorship. The majority of the reforms were instituted by a ranking official named Mizuno Tadakuni, who took particular interest in the ethical fibre of his people. He was particular about enforcing moral reforms and “the encouragement of frugality and retrenchment.” Against this backdrop of government restrictions on the entertainment and happiness of Edo's fair citizens is set the frenetic series Oh! Edo Rocket.

Originally developed as a stage play for Gekidan Shinkansen, Oh! Edo Rocket was developed into a novel and television drama in 2001 before a manga and anime series in 2007. The anime, directed by Seiji Mizushima of Slayers Next and Full Metal Alchemist fame, is a very loose adaptation of the prior material which plays even looser with the conventions of period drama. The fourth wall is repeatedly broken and anachronistic technologies constantly used, above and beyond the fantastic plotline.

Clip from Oh! Edo Rocket.

Seikichi is a young fireworks specialist in 1842, right in the middle of the oppressive reforms that would crush his artform. Looking forward to the day when the reforms are lifted, he runs covert fireworks demonstrations, attempting to perfect his work. These demonstrations in turn capture the interest of Sora, an attractive young lady who commissions Seikichi to build a firework that can propel her to the moon. She also happens to be an alien creature in the guise of a human, who crashed on Earth while tracking down an escaped menace from her world. Seikichi, it seems, is her only ticket back to the mothership on the far side of our companion globe.

Now into this throw the usual array of zany characters occupying the same row housing in Edo's “Shitamachi” tenement district and the aforementioned deconstruction of film, and you get a mind-piercing experience in bubbly cartoonishness that anime has acquired a reputation for in the post-Pokemon period. Every so often characters will turn to the screen to assert that a certain fact is historically accurate and flashbacks are usually delivered by a 1950's style television. After hearing about the project to build a rocket, one city official whips open his laptop to blog about it. At one point, the characters apologize to the original author, Kazuki Nakashima, and to the Gekidan Shinkansen for desecrating their work. Nakashima himself appears in one of the later episodes, during a stage play adaptation of the anime adapting the stage play.

Though playing anachronisms for laughs, there is quite a bit to recommend about Oh! Edo Rocket's historical credentials. Amongst the references are Gennai Hiraga, who turns out to be a major supporting character, along with his various inventions. Even the visual style is notable. The backgrounds are drafted in sumi-e style, similar to that used by the recent Okami video game. These things add a nice depth to a madcap comedy and encourage the viewer to investigate Japanese history for themselves.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Ganbare Goemon

The Ganbare Goemon series of video games by Konami may be most recognizable to a non-Japanese audience by the title given to its first Super Nintendo chapter: Legend of the Mystical Ninja. In Legend of the Mystical Ninja, young SNES players were exposed to the utter insanity of "Kid Ying" and "Dr. Yang" as they tried to rescue a princess in a feudal Japan gone wild. Evidently it didn't take, as translation of the series were sporadic at best thereafter.

However, in Japan, it was only the tip of the iceberg. Four games had previously been released for the Famicom (or Nintendo Entertainment System) building on two arcade games. Legend of the Mystical Ninja's proper title was Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyuushutsu Emaki, and spawned three more sequels for Super Famicom. Ganbare Goemon had Goemon - based on legendary heroic thief Ishikawa Goemon - and his portly ninja pal Ebisumaru cross back and forth across Edo to rescue the princess. Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu featured Super Mario World-style game mechanics in a quest to stop a blonde, Hulk Hogan lookalike from invading Japan with his army of bunnymen. Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijūrokubē no Karakuri Manji Gatame has the unfortunate Wise Man of Iga from the first game kidnapped by a nun from the future, and our heroes must travel back and forth between the past and a cyberpunk future to rescue him. Finally, in Ganbare Goemon Kirakira Dōchū: Boku ga Dancer ni Natta Wake, we must travel between different, strange alien worlds to defeat the villainous Harakiri Seppukumaru. The series has continued across the Playstation 1 and 2, all GameBoy platforms and the Nintendo DS.

What probably made Legend of the Mystical Ninja so obtuse for Western players is ultimately the strength of the series. They are thick with references to Japanese history, mythology and folklore. So much so that a scorecard is needed. Below are screen captures pointing out a paltry few of the details.

Ganbare Goemon: Note the karakuri in the right.

Ganbare Goemon: Yokai, Japanese folkloric monsters,
occupy this spooky level. To the left is kasa-obake, an
umbrella come to life after 100 years, and to the right is a
traditinoally blue Japanese zombie.

Ganbare Goemon: The Wise Man, Goemon, a Maneki Neko
and the Tanuki statues that guard each boss level.

Ganbare Goemon 2: Sumo robots!

Ganbare Goemon 2: A boss out to terminate you.

Ganbare Goemon 2: The giant robot Impact,
an Ultraman/Super Sentai riff.

Ganbare Goemon 2: Riding the Carp

Ganbare Goemon 2: Impact raiding the blonde warlord's flying castle.

Ganbare Goemon 2: The Western villain himself.

Ganbare Goemon 3: The Wise Man with his time machine.
The box on top is an elekiter.

Ganbare Goemon 4: The desert world and its inhabitants.

This is, by necessity, only a sampling of the references and images through the four games. It would be impossible, without a blog dedicated just to it, to tease out every reference, because the games are literally full to the brim with them. Everything is a reference to something, from Edo Era children's games moonlighting as level bosses to castles made of sushi where flying tempura shrimp are the enemies to playable mini-games of Gradius. Ganbare Goemon is as rich, if not richer, a resource as Sakura Wars for an entertaining gaming experience steeped in Japanese culture, history and lunacy.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Technology of the Edo Period

When Japan entered the 19th century, it was in the waning stages of the Edo Period. That period is defined by the dominion of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Inaugurated in 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated power under the shogun, or military general, the Edo Period lasted for 250 years. Effectively a military dictatorship, the Tokugawas were able to bring unprecedented stability to a Japan that had, in the previous 100 years, suffered through the Warring States Period and Oda Nobunaga's rise to power.

This stability allowed the Tokugawas to reorganize Japanese society and patronize the arts. The result is the image of feudal Japan with which most Westerners are familiar. In terms of actual power, the pinnacle of authority was the shogun. The emperor still existed through the Edo Period, and given many lavish gifts and castles by the Tokugawas, but was reduced to a mere figurehead... A ceremonial position expected to validate the actions of the shogun. Next were the regional lords, or daimyo. Samurai, formerly the landed gentry, were forced to give up their land and become either peasants or paid vassals of the daimyo. Beneath the samurai were the peasants, and beneath them were the craftsmen. Finally, at the bottom, were the merchants. Two classes resided outside of this system, whose jobs broke the taboo laws of Buddhism and thus rendered them "unclean". These were the eta ("filthy"), who dealt with the corpses involved with butchering, tanning and undertaking, and the hinin ("non-human"), who did the dirty work of guarding the town, cleaning the streets and executing criminals.

This period began mass urbanization in Japan. At the insistence of the Tokugawas, the families of daimyo stayed in the city springing up around Edo Castle. Today this city is known as Tokyo. Edo was "modern" in some ways and "primitive" in others, those quotation marks indicating the subjectivity of the terms. While London was flushing its waste into the Thames, the citizens of Edo were collecting it as fertilizer for the fields. In large parts of Japan, this process continued well into the 1980's, yet the society rarely suffered the same massive outbreaks of disease pocking European cities.

With a stable, urbanized, affluent hereditary hierarchy in place, the arts were able to flourish. This was the age of ukiyo, the "Floating World" of perfection in beauty and leisure. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicted this world and reflected it in an idealization of nature and everyday life. The great 19th century stars of the medium were Hokusai, most renowned for his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji in 1831/1832, and Hiroshige, who produced The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido in 1833/34. Kabuki theatre developed to satisfy the growing middle class with more expressive drama on more familiar subjects than theatrical styles like noh and kagura could produce. Kabuki stars, characters and scenes became favorite subjects of ukiyo-e artists. Likewise, the sport of sumo developed and also became a subject for illustration.

Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Contrary to Western notions of the "bourgeoisie", the urban middle class of chonin developed high aesthetic ideals. Iki and tsu embodied sophisticated simplicity and an unrefined, uncomplicated, unpretentious ephemeral quality. These could be seen as a more contemporary version of the traditional value of wabi-sabi, a style reflecting the impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection of life and nature. Wabi-sabi is said to be able to inspire "a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing" and is seen most frequently in the pottery utilized in the famous tea ceremony. Perhaps the most unique and iconic expression of all these ideals coalescing during the Edo Period is the geisha. Embodying iki, these artist courtesans specialized in creating a sense of the Floating World within their sequestered districts. Theirs was a complex position not comprehensible in straightforward Western labels like "prostitute", and a sophisticated fantasy made possible through the hard reality of financial affluence.

The Floating World

The common misconception of Japan during the Edo Period is that it was isolationist. That is not entirely correct. Trade was actively conducted between the country and China, Korea and Ryukyu. Commerce was held both in material goods and in ideas. The first knowledge of modern science to disseminate through Japan came from the Chinese. Neo-Confucian ideas of order and reason dominated Japan's political philosophy. During the Meiji Restoration, Japan's relationship with the rest of Asia came under criticism. In 1885, Yukichi Fukuzawa, in his editorial Leaving Asia, wrote:
The Japanese learned about the Industrial Revolution of the West when Perry’s Black Ships appeared in Edo Bay. Since then the Japanese have gradually begun to recognize the need to accept modern civilization. However, the Tokugawa shogunate was the obstacle. As long as the Tokugawa shogunate existed, we could not accept modern civilization. We had only two choices: modern civilization or sticking to the old regime. If we had chosen the the old regime, the independence of Japan would have been in danger. It's because Westerners, who went out to the world while taking advantage of technologies and competing with each other, would have had no mercy and left this Oriental island country asleep. Hereby, the faithful retainers, faithful to the country and the Emperor, destroyed the Tokugawa Shogunate and built a new government. This way, Japan as a country and the whole nation decided to accept technologies and modern civilization born in the West. This was the first amongst the all Asian countries and, for Japan, this meant leaving Asia.

What the Tokugawas were concerned about was regulating Japan's interaction with Europeans and eliminating it altogether with peoples deemed "incompatible". A series of prohibitions on and executions of Christians culminated in a 1635 edict outlawing the faith altogether. This cut-off more evangelistic nations like the Portugese while permitting more commercially-minded traders like the Dutch and English to remain on Nagasaki's artificial island enclave of Dejima. Technically, this island was not considered Japanese soil, and any European found on the mainland could be executed on the spot. Likewise could any Japanese person engaged in unauthorized travel who was foolish enough to return.

Curious Japanese watching Dutchmen on Dejima.

Nevertheless, Europeans remained an object of curiousity for Japanese scholars. A whole school of thought developed, called rangaku, that studied the Dutch and their technology. For the duration of the Edo Period, there was little distinction between "science" and "technology"; the only value of science was the practical effect, the technologies and articles that scientific research produced. As a result, the first field of study to migrate from the Chinese and Dutch traders in Nagasaki was medicine.

The emphasis on practicality also helped to develop mathematics and astronomy. The former developed a limited type of calculus to determine area and volume of complex shapes. The latter was primarily used for calculating increasingly accurate calendars. Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, and most significantly, Copernican worldviews were imported through Jesuit astronomical texts prior to and immediately following the 1635 edict, to little negative effect. The syncretism of Japanese belief systems and natural philosophy of Confucianism enabled the easy absorption of ideas like heliocentrism.

Diagram of a telescope.

Samurai were well-represented amongst Edo-Era Japanese scientists and inventors. The dignity of medicine and astronomy lent itself to improving the state of these former gentry. One such samurai-scientist was Gennai Hiraga. Born of a relatively low-ranking samurai family, Hiraga became a polymath, studying medicine, art and rangaku. He wove a flameproof fabric out of asbestos (kakanpu) and wrote a satirical essay on the virtues of passing gas. The accomplishment for which he is most known is his version of the elekiter.

Elekiter were Dutch devices for creating and storing static electricity. Hiraga purchased such a device during a 1770 visit to Nagasaki and developed his own version of it in 1776. An elekiter was essentially a well-decorated box with wires extending from the top, through which a current would pass when a crank was turned. Unfortunately, as no practical application could be discovered, elekiters were essentially demoted to novelties in curio shops.

Elekiter in demonstration (top) and on display (bottom, right panel).

Hiraga, born in 1728, was also known for studying different ores and for mining. During one circumstance he was so frustrated by an assistant that he killed the man. The samuari subsequently died in prison in 1779.

The introduction of clocks innovated Japanese technology and opened the proverbial gates for any number of applications. Clocks themselves became very elaborate, as a function of the Japanese lunar calendar. Time was not measured in discrete, equal components, as in the West. Japanese clocks were able to distinguish a non-fixed duration of day and night, which were each in turn divided into six components. except for the equinoxes, day and night segments were unequal. As the hours of daylight and nighttime changed throughout the seasons, these clocks compensated.

Japanese clock, or wadoshi.

An innovative use of clockwork technology was the karakuri. These devices embodied what was termed "Wakon Yosai" or "Japanese spirit, Western learning". The effect was a diminutive robot, running on an elaborate system of springs and gears, in the shape of human beings. Three types of karakuri existed: butai karakuri used in theatre, zashiki karakuri used in homes and dashi karakuri used in religious parades.

Zashiki karakuri best articulate the capacities of these automata. Most often their use was in serving tea, if a wealthy or eccentric enough host wished to provide an extra novelty for admiration during an informal tea ceremony. A full cup of tea would be placed on a serving tray in the hands of the karakuri. This would depress a lever that would cause the karakuri to turn and "walk" in a straight line (actually run on wheels that also moved a small set of feet poking out from underneath the karakuri's kimono) to the recipient of the tea. When it reached its guest, the tea would be picked up, releasing the lever and causing the karakuri to bow its head. When the tea was finished, the cup was placed back on the tray, the karakuri would turn and walk back to the host.

Schematic of a karakuri.

Through careful engineering, karakuri could be devised to enact any number of tasks or roles. In religious parades, dashi karakuri would be set on floats to dramatize stories from Japanese mythology. Some karakuri could be "programmed" to not only paint calligraphic figures, but even alternate between different figures. Others could be programmed to load a bow from a quiver on its back, pull the bowstring and shoot the arrow, and repeat the process for as many arrows as it held. The highly stylized and ritualized motions of noh and kabuki theatre seemed tailor-made to the capabilities of karakuri.

Some cultural observers have suggested that karakuri may be a focal point in understanding the differences in the Japanese and Western attitudes towards robots and artificial life. The dominant Western paradigm is that of Frankenstein, the creation of humanity's ingenuity that supplants its creator. This is not, it should be noted, an irrational fear. The Industrial Revolution in the West conducted itself in exactly this manner, eliminating traditional crafts, displacing skilled craftspeople and effectively enslaving the new urban population to industrial machinery.

Japan did not share this experience, retaining a significant degree of control over the introduction and application of industrial technology, from the edicts of the Edo Period clear through to the American occupation. Therefore, the dominant Japanese paradigm is that of the karakuri, the creation of humanity's ingenuity that becomes a fully-integrated helpmate to the creator. Nearly a straight conceptual line can be drawn from karakuri to Asimo, Aibo, Pokemon and Vocaloids.

Karakuri on display.

Not so straight a technological line can be drawn between the Edo Period and the subsequent Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisi eras. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his Black Ships in 1852-54, threatening the Japanese with destruction if they refuse commpliance (a running trend in Japanese-American relations). Literally at gunpoint, the old edicts of the Tokugawas were overturned and the country was forced to deal with the world outside. Modernization was forced upon it and Japan could not adapt quickly enough to satisfy those who keenly felt the need to confront the West on its terms or die. A military arms race began between the shogunate and the revolutionary forces dedicated to the restoration of the Emperor, in whom they saw the freedom and opportunity to advance Japanese science and technology. This cold war erupted in a violent and bloody civil war through 1868-69, which saw the irrevocable defeat of the Tokugawas and the onset of the Meiji Era.

Arrival of the Black Ships. The term "black ship" became
synonymous with the application of oppressive Western technology.

From the Meiji Era on, the Edo Period was seen as a backwards time to be relegated to the past. The scientific and technological advances of the period were largely forgotten even as they set the stage for the ready adoption of Western ideas and lifestyles. Given time to continue development, who knows where the Renaissance-style technologies of the Edo Period might have ended up. Many existing plans and sketches prove quite provocative.