Archive for December, 2012


History in Film

I had the pleasure of catching two great films over the past week, both of which incorporate a slice of nineteenth century history. It’s uncanny too, that both films are big-screen adaptations of texts that have been in the popular consciousness for quite some time. The first was the film adaptation of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga/anime series Ruroni Kenshin:

A scene from the anime adaptation.

Ruroni Kenshin is set in the years following Japan’s transition from being governed primarily by a shogunate (millitary rule) to that of a government under an emperor. This post-1868 period, known as the Meiji period, also marked the beginning for modernisation in Japan as well as the opening up of Japan’s economy. Watsuki’s Kenshin is a wandering swordsman whose deadly prowess earns him the title of Manslayer (Hitokiri Battousai). After assisting with the downfall of the shogunate, and scarred (literally and mentally) from the experience of war, Kenshin “retires”, leading the life of a wanderer. The film/manga/anime chronicle his exploits in the years that follow, during the Meiji period.

The set-pieces used in the film are impressive.  From settings, to clothes, and even food, no expense is spared in the recreation of nineteenth-century Japan.  The juxtaposition between “antiquity” and “modernity” is one that is brought out nicely in the film – this is a period where swords begin to be traded for guns, and the question is – what place does a swordsman have in this age of presumed “modernity”? It’s been a good decade since I watched the anime, but I did not feel that I needed that background to enjoy the film. Those who are not familiar with the plot of Kenshin will be able to enjoy the film nonetheless. It is also a rather violent film, but apart from the occasional gratuitous display of violence, the action scenes are well crafted, and will be a treat for action movie buffs. The actor that plays Kenshin, Takeru Sato, nails Kenshin’s characterisation down to a T. From ruthless killer to goofball, Sato is perfect in his portrayal of Kenshin.

From nineteenth century Japan, I was transported to nineteenth century France in the screen adaptation of Les Miserables. Like the political turmoil depicted in Kenshin, Les Miserables is set in the years preceding, and during the French student revolution of 1832. An adaptation of the stage production, the film is in turn an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel:

Having seen the stage production nearly two decades ago, I was rather impressed by Hooper’s adaptation of the musical. Many of the songs are cut short for obvious time constraints, but like Kenshin, Hooper’s attention to detail in creating a compelling fictional world is remarkable. The film’s set pieces are remarkable, and it brings to the production a dimension that cannot be replicated on a theatre stage. Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean is spot on, and so is Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Fantine. I’ve always been a sucker for the grittier characters in Les Mis, so Daniel Huttlestone, who plays the street urchin Gavroche, gets a mention in my book too. What I was really looking forward to was Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s roles as the Thenardiers. This has always been my favourite song in the musical:

For me, Barry James’ portrayal of Thernardier hits the spot

The character of Thernadier has always struck me as more of a villain than a comic relief, thus in his casting of Baron-Cohen it is obvious that Hooper was aiming for a more comic angle.

Youtube comment: “Would you patronise an inn run by Borat and Bellatrix Lestrange?………”

Baron-Cohen’s Thernadier is more sloppy and comic than Barry James’ depiction of the character, and most of Thernadier’s menace is somewhat diminished in the film adaptation. Still, Baron-Cohen is in his element during the comic sequences, and Bonham-Carter adds just that needed touch of derangement to the character of Mrs Thernadier. I was however, disappointed by Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert. Because of the fact that this is a screen adaptation of a musical, almost all of the film is narrated in song, and Crowe’s singing pales alongside the talents of Hathaway and Jackman. This sequence is one of the most tense scenes in the entire production, and Crowe’s rendition of Javert in this part is somehow lacking in menace.

If anything, what struck me about both films was the attention to detail made by both directors in re-creating each text’s fictional historical environments. Adapting texts such as an anime series and a full length musical brings up the typical challenge of being able to compress each text’s narrative into the space of three hours or less, but I think that both have done this reasonably well.


Grimm, 200 years on

Today marks the 200th year that Grimm’s fairy tales have been in publication. Thanks to Disney, princesses, princes and happily ever afters are now the hallmarks of fairy tales. But Grimm’s tales are so much more. Looking through the collection, I can’t help but interpret the stories as a nineteenth century version of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits tv series; short stories with twists, morals, and all sorts of weird and fantastic phenomena.

Coming across this terrible upcoming screen adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, I can’t help but feel disappointed at the blatant Hollywoodisation of these classic tales. This spin on Hansel and Gretel is right up there with the recent travesty that involved the participation of a certain actress from the Twilight franchise. I’m also ambivalent about the recent TV series Grimm, which combines the genre of police procedural drama with the fantastic elements inspired by Grimm’s tales. Wonder if it is any good…..

But sometimes, Hollywood does get it right. Exhibit A:

How do you like them apples?” Sigourney Weaver in Snow White: A Tale Of Terror (1997), dir Michael Cohn.

The title of this adaptation tells it all; it is an adaptation that seeks to go back to the essence of terror that characterises Grimm’s tales. Of course, my favourite has to be the story of The Youth Who Set Out To Learn What Fear Was; the brothers’ anti-Gothic tale.


The eponymous  boy of Grimm’s tale  is unfazed by spirits, demonic animals, the undead and monstrous fiends.

I think it is time to Occupy Grimm! Bring back the terror of Grimm’s tales! How about:

The Singing Bone (brother killing brother)

The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs (protagonist goes into Hell a la Dante’s Inferno)

The Girl Without Hands (milder variation of Shakespeare’s Lavinia…..)

Godfather Death (meeting Death)

The Two Brothers (lots of people cutting other people’s heads off)

The Stolen Farthings (ghost story)

It would be interesting to look at these stories and their place within the Gothic tradition. As Heidi Strengell observes in her monograph on Stephen King:

The Gothic atmosphere prevails in the majority of classic fairy tales (2006, p.111)

Published during the earlier half of the nineteenth century, Grimm’s tales are well poised to have exerted an influence on Victorian, as well as late nineteenth century fin-de-siecle Gothic narratives.

Now isn’t this more interesting than Disney!



I’ve been back in Singapore for the past two weeks for a wedding, an upcoming birthday, and for a little bit of downtime. Rummaging through my old books, i’ve managed to re-read Watchmen and Clive Barker’s Mister B Gone. In their wake, i’ve moved on to Gaiman’s American Gods (which apparently is being adapted for TV!) .

Great American Gods impression by Maryanna Hoggatt


I can’t even remember finishing the book off. It must have been in my early 20’s. It seems that with time, re-reading books brings something new to the table each time. Rather, Time alters our perspective on things so much so that while books remain static, our views, opinions and beliefs are always in a state of flux. It’s also thanks to the process of time that I picked out this humorous reference to Poe in Gaiman’s novel that I would never have gotten the first time round.

Without giving away too much, the scenario in the novel goes a little like this. The protagonist of the novel encounters a talking raven, whose role is to show him the way:

The bird cawed again, impatiently. Shadow started walking towards it. It waited until he was close then flapped heavily into another tree, heading somewhat to the left of the way Shadow had originally been going.

“Hey”, said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.” 

The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes. 

“Say ‘Nevermore'”, said Shadow.

“Fuck you,” said the raven…….


This is, of course, a reference to Poe’s Gothic poem The Raven:


Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”


Poe and ravens aside, having gone through half of Gaiman’s novel, its diverse cast of bizzare secondary characters reminds me somewhat of a carnival populated by scores of unheimlich-looking creatures. It would make for a great TV series!


Mechademia in Seoul Day 4

For the last day of the conference, the first panel that I attended was Affect Structures/Affective Epistemologies. Heard from Miri Nakamura about Death Note and copycat murders. She raised an interesting point about how Japanese horror exhibits a fascination with screens, and the connections between visuality and violence.

I then snuck out to Andrea Horbinski’s paper on Ooku and counterfactual history. She drew out the similarities between Ooku and Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, and addressed issues of power and balance in the text’s gender relations. She also talked briefly about speculative reality ; what if historical figures were female?

(This paper reminded me of a conversation with a friend on the gender dynamics of Othello. What if Othello were female? What if a gender-reversed version of Othello were staged? How would this affect our readings of characters? What about Richard II?…..)

Bryan Hartzheim’s paper on Toei Animation looked at the developmental process behind Pretty Cure, an interesting look at the intersection between product placement, advertising and anime. For example, some ads that are broadcast during the anime’s run prime viewers to certain products even before they are introduced into the text itself.

But the highlight of the day has got to be an interview with Watanabe Hideo, who was a key animator in numerous texts such as Gundam, NGE, Fist of the North Star, and even certain American cartoon series such as Transformers and GI Joe.









Watanabe Hideo










Storyboards from GI Joe. Not that Channing Tatum nonsense but the 80’s animated series.

He talked about is work with Toei – beginning as a cameraman, then working with animation. Watanabe talked about his experiences with robo-anime in the early days, before moving to Taiwan. He moved back to Japan shortly after. The co-production of animation with Marvel Comics in the 80’s led to a boom, resulting in a need to outsource labour to Korea. Collaborating with Marvel also brought challenges, such as workflow issues and differences in cultural interpretations.









A timesheet denoting the exchanges between US and Japanese animators.

An interesting comment made was the significance of still images in NGE. We might interpret the use of stills in NGE along the lines of an artistic premise, but Watanabe revealed that this arose more out of a need to save money! Intricate characters and character movement necessitated more cells to animate, resulting in higher costs.

Watanabe also addressed the depiction of movement in his approach to animation; he uses timesheets, zooms, tracking camera movements, and storyboards. These techniques suggest a greater affinity with the medium of film than is outwardly discernible.

All in all, it was a great conference. It was possibly the best conference that I have ever been to. Other than travel costs, the conference was free, and I have learnt so much from it, particularly since I do not have a background in Japanese cultural studies. Bottom line is, pick your conferences carefully! The organisers as well as the conference administrators at the Korean Film Archive and Dongguk University deserve to be commended for their efforts in overcoming the logistical nightmare of organising a conference in a country that does not have English as a first language.

All I can say is…..


Mechademia in Seoul Day 3

I began the day shifting between panels. The first panel I attended was Revolution, Before and After.

The first speaker in this panel, Kinnia Yau, addressed the social and political implications of Japanese Science fictions in the 21st century. Kinnia talked about the distrust of authorities by Generation Y, and masculinity in modern Japan. An interesting comparison she brought up was placing the protagonists of Death Note alongside traditional, masculinised hero-figures.

An interesting observation. At the moment I am thinking of Shinji from NGE, who has always struck me as a wuss (for lack of a better term). 

The next speaker in the panel, Sayumi Takahashi Harb’s paper touched on circular narratives in texts, and themes of hyper-realism and hyper-reality.

I then skipped over to the other panel: Fandom Between Strategy and Desire.

Got in in time for Sandra Annett’s paper on vocaloids and the negotiation of desire through the vocaloid phenomenon. She drew out a reading of vocaloids as bodies without organs, with reference to Deleuze and Guattari.

After this I got to hear from cultural critic Otsuka Eiji, who delivered a keynote address on grand narratives, postmodernity, and the creation of “Japan” within the framework of digital technologies and the internet.

The next panel I attended was Rediscovering Manga’s Critical Potential after 3-11. Jacqueline Berndt gave an opening address on the political effects of “using” manga in Japan. She suggested a means of locating the political potential of manga through going beyond the framework of genres.

The first speaker for the panel. Takeuchi Miho, looked at manga’s potential for addressing social issues, through the lens of sennen manga.

Olga Antononoka then suggested that the sociocritical potential of graphic narratives can be read in twofold ways; for example, she proposed that shojo manga conventions provide a possibility for the subversive reading of the motif of hope.

From sennen and shojo, Ronald Stewart analysed a different form of graphic representation; post 3-11 political cartoons. He looked at the impact and political implications of newspaper cartoons, specifically post-Fukushima cartooning.

For the day’s final session, we were treated to an interview with director Ahn Jae Hoon. He directed the anime film Green Days (2010).










Ahn Jae Hoon answering questions.

The film reminded me of a Ghibli production I caught recently, From Up On Poppy Hill (2011). Both films have a dated feel; with Green Days this was deliberate; in Ahn Jae Hoon’s words, historical basis was a means for him to allow the audience to identify with its historical setting. His talk focused a lot on personal experience and the creative side of things. Ahn’s experiences as a person growing up shaped much of the film, and he utilised bits from his own personal diary as inspiration for bits of the film. In Ahn’s words:
Men who keep diaries can be more sensitive than women

Which is interesting considering that blogs are pretty much like diaries. But what I really liked was a sequence at the end of Green Days that has a fantasy sequence with what looks like a psychedelic dinosaur:










More on the final day of the conference tomorrow!


Conference Reports

I’ve taken enough notes to generate a set of conference reports so I might do that instead of making semi-casual, quasi-academic posts.

I must say though, Seoul is awesome.


Mechademia In Seoul Day 1

I kick started the Mechademia conference with a tour of the Korean Film Archive. We got to see the first Korean black and white film. Its industrial focus reminded me of the Lumiere Bros’ “Factory” clip. We were then treated to a screening of the first feature-length Korean animation Hong Gil Dong (1967). Unfortunately there were no English subtitles, but it was an interesting film nonetheless. With a Shonen protagonist and his axe wielding sidekick, the film reminded me a lot of Disney’s style of early animation – particularly the film’s depiction of movement in certain scenes. I was also struck by its relative complexity.










Conference Venue at the Korean Film Archive

The first panel I attended was titled Archaeologies of the Future in Japanese Popular Culture. Takeshi Kadobayashi talked about posthuman ontology in Ghost In The Shell. He outlined the several levels of the definition of “Ghost” in GITS; ghost as a designation for the soul, ghost as a technical term, and reading the Tachikomas as ghosts. An interesting point raised at the end of his talk was a possible consideration of a prosthetic utopia as a heterotopia, via Foucault.

Yosaku Matsutani addresses the impact of post-war Japan on world-visions, through a reading of Japan’s 1970 Expo, and everyone’s favourite robot cat, Doraemon. He outlined the concept of “Metabolisme” as a form of integrating biology in architecture. Kind of reminds me if this concept could be applied to Gothic criticism of spaces. The first thing that leaps into my mind is the Cathedral of Flesh in White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade. He also raised a point about “nomadic utopia” and referenced Guattari and Rene Scherer – something worth a look at.

Nobuhiro Masuda’s presentation looked at the animetic representation of the prosthetic body, with a reading of Tetsuo from Akira, and Patalabor. The concept of “plasmaticness” was raised – a term used to describe depictions of “elasticity” in animation. His quote by Eisenstein in “On Disney” got my attention – something that needs to be looked at as Eisenstein talks about the concept of “protoplasm”.

Finally, the most interesting paper in this panel, Akihisa Iwaki talked about Necomimi and Neuroculture. In simple terms, Necomimi is a device that you strap to your head. It is primed to read certain brainwave patterns, much like an EEG. Based on this readings, it then alters the appearance of the device. So for example, the device might be shaped like a cat’s ears (hence the word “neko”). If it reads a set of brainwave patterns that suggest a person is sad, the ears will fold downward. If it reads a set of positive, happy emotions, the ears might flutter repeatedly. In a simple sense, it reads emotions and translates them into physical reactions that are visible. The implications of utilising the technology this device is predicated on are manifold. Emotions, once thought to be “private”, (of course, Paul Ekman would argue otherwise…) is now a dimension that is visible and tangible. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Who can say? All I had in my head was Bentham’s Panopticon…….

The next panel I attended had Karl Chua (with an impressive Prezi presentation that makes mine look archaic) addressing the topic of speculative post-war manga. He talked about notions of censorship and the speculative Other in post WWII Japanese animation. Gan Sheuo Hui then brought up Tetsuwan Atomu as an icon; as an icon enmeshed in particular discourses. She addressed the contemporary use of Atomu as distancing between initial leanings of the character.

The last speaker of the day, Kam Thiam Huat, talked about the relationship between active consumption of manga/anime and contemporary capitalism. His paper looked at fan cultures in SEA, in countries such as Singapore and Hanoi. I raised a point in discussion about my observations with scanlations and the latching of memes onto them as a means of “transformative” active consumption.

I had some interesting observations about certain papers, particularly with the academics from Japan and Singapore. All in all, it was an excellent round(s) of papers. I am surprised at how much I do not know, and it is turning out to be a very stimulating session, despite the fact that I know just about next to nothing about Japanese cultural studies. More tomorrow!

The academic stuff stops here.

Bumped into Frenchy Lunning the night before in the lobby of the hotel and I was introduced to a small group of academics from the States/Canada. Frenchy edits Mechademia, and is one of the people responsible for making it the resounding success it is today.  Frenchy is also an absolute riot.

We met up with a friend of hers and hit up some Korean BBQ:










This stuff is GOOD. BBQ’s always great when you have lots of people. Oh and apparently Koreans are really picky about carbon residue from burnt food, so they change the metal BBQ plates on a regular basis.

More later!

'horror': Middle English: via Old French from Latin horror, from horrere ‘tremble, shudder’.

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