せっぺん と ゆき

/Asian American Literature

Book cover!

So here’s my book cover for My Year of Meats. Enjoy!

(The Japanese writing behind her is an assortment of chapter headings from the original text of The Pillow Book, something that both female protagonists are influenced by.)


Playing with dolls

I can’t believe that nobody has posted about this before now, but hey, more fun for me! Asian ball-jointed dolls are a fascinating phenomenon, and their popularity is now widespread in this country as well. Anime convention-goers, collectors, and young children alike have adopted this fad with astonishing enthusiasm and occasionally alarming obsession.

In case you don’t know what Asian ball-jointed dolls are, I’ll summarize. They are, in brief, dolls of varying sizes that are based more precisely on the human form than most western dolls. Usually made of vinyl or resin, these dolls often have lifelike facial structures and anatomy, complete with staring eyes and a realistic amount of poseability. (In fact, many artists now use these dolls in place of the traditional wooden mannequins as reference for accurate figure drawing.) These dolls are generally made in Korea, Japan, or China, and there are many different brands to choose from, each of which have unique styles and features. Wikipedia has a good–though basic–overview of ball-jointed dolls here.

The main brands are Volks/Dollfie (Japan), D.I.M (Korea), Elfdoll (Korea), Souldoll (Korea) and Obitsu (Japan). The dolls themselves are quite expensive (the average cost for a 60cm doll is around $600 dollars or more), but this doesn’t seem to deter most collectors. Such an addiction is understandable when you see just how beautiful some of these dolls can be:





Many reactions to these dolls, however, are negative. The most common observation is that these lifelike dolls are “creepy.” This ties right in with Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley theory, which posits that the more human-like an imitation becomes, the more  it provokes a corresponding feeling of unease in us. Originally, it was used to explain the public’s negative reaction to human-like robots, but can definitely be extended to encompass other imitations, like these.

“Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.”

(This has become a significant issue, not only in robotics and doll construction, but also in the areas of video game design, film, and advertising. You can read more about it here and here.)

Asian Cinema

Yes, I’m obsessed with film. So it was inevitable that eventually I’d give in and let that obsession merge with the content of this class. Lists of “best foreign films” are often dominated by European films, probably because these have received more attention over the years. This is unfortunate, because Asian cinema is not something to be overlooked.

So here they are, my 3 favorite Asian films:

Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (もののけ姫)

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I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Although I love each and every one of them, my favorite is Princess Mononoke. There seems to be a fairly common misconception that Miyazaki is to Japanese cinema what Disney is to American cinema. This is absolutely untrue. Miyazaki’s films, though animated, are more meaningful than most American blockbusters. Depth of characters, beautiful artwork, intricate plots, and important underlying themes all come together in each of his works. I like this one the best because he perfectly captures the complexity of relationships (of many kinds) between characters while tying everything into environmental and antiwar themes. If you haven’t seen it already, you should. Preferably right now.

Other especially great Miyazaki films are “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”

NOTE: The narrator mispronounces the title slightly. It should be Mononoke (pronounced like Mononokay, rather than Mononokee, as he says it)

Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi)

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This is the kind of movie you can’t really explain, at least not in any way that would make sense. Created by Chinese director Wong Kar Wai, it’s human, gritty, beautiful, breathtaking, tragic, and hopeful, all at once. The choppy style takes a while to get used to, but it’s an asset to the film rather than a distraction. Other good Wong Kar Wai films to check out are “Happy Together,” which is (roughly) about two gay Chinese men and their relationship, and “Chungking Express,” which was intended to be a companion film, of sorts, to “Fallen Angels.” He also directed “In the Mood for Love,” which won multiple awards at film festivals all over the world, including Cannes.

Rashomon (羅生門)

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By legendary director Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai), this is a brilliant film about a crime that treats its subject in an unusual way. Four different versions of the same story are offered, leaving the audience to sort reality from fabrication. Human nature captured on 35 mm film. “Yojimbo,” also a Kurosawa film, is another one you shouldn’t miss.

OTHER GREAT ASIAN FILMS… look ’em up and see if any interest you 🙂

Train Man (Japanese, 2005)

Masala (Indian & Canadian, 1991)

Monsoon Wedding (Indian, 2001)

Water (Indian & Canadian, 2005)

Children of Heaven (Iranian, 1997)

Floating Weeds (Japanese, 1959)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwanese, 2000)

Ikiru (Japanese, 1952)

Raise the Red Lantern (Chinese, 1991)

Ran (Japanese, 1985)

Sansho Dayu (Japanese, 1954)

Throne of Blood (Japanese, 1957)

Tokyo Story (Japanese, 1953)

Ugetsu (Japanese, 1953)

The World of Apu (Indian, 1959)

Baraka (1992; Not strictly speaking an Asian film, but has scenes from around the world, including Asian countries. This is one of those films that you have to see at least once in your lifetime. It has no dialogue, narration, or even an identifiable plot structure. The cinematographers went all over the world–24 countries in 6 continents–and it took over a year to get all the footage. Essential.)

baraka-film-still-2.jpg baraka-home.jpg

As you can see, this list is dominated by Japanese films. All this means is that these are the more well-known ones. I don’t know a whole lot about Korean cinema, and couldn’t find many reliable recommendations online, so if you know of any great Korean movies (or any other Asian movies that should be on this list), just comment with them 🙂
And for the love of God, gods, politically correct euphemism, or entire lack thereof, do not watch Memoirs of a Geisha. Or if you must, definitely read up on all of the Japanese complaints of inaccuracy and cultural simplification in it.

Questioning Sexuality

After all the recurring class discussion about sexuality, I’d really like to see some individual reactions and perceptions. What does sexuality mean to you? Is it a conscious or unconscious decision? What was your impression of the sexuality of each of the characters in Makai? And do you think sexuality can be fluid over time in general, or only when affected by specific events?

I would love to hear your opinion on this. It is a topic worth exploring. (I’m certainly not looking for a specific answer, and won’t be offended by anything posted. Everyone has different views, and that’s exactly what I want to see.)

Pessimistic worldviews, and other similarly cheerful topics.

I’ve been thinking some more about our discussion in class yesterday. I wasn’t especially coherent at the time, but I think now I know what I was trying to say.

Simply remembering an event like the Holocaust is no guarantee that it won’t happen again. Memory is subjective, revisionist, and easily manipulated. Although saying so is a little cliché, history does tend to repeat itself.

But even so, I do believe in preserving details. Facts are cold, lifeless. They enable trivialization and give you everything except what is needed most to effect change: an emotional connection. Do I think preserving history, both statistical and emotional, is going to help the world become a better place? Of course not. But like Dr. Scanlon, I believe that while society is not likely to progress, individuals can. And providing these important details is the best way to impact individuals and persuade them to care.

One final note. At the risk of sounding callous, it appears to be very “in vogue” to be personally horrified and emotionally affected by the Holocaust, despite the fact hardly anyone alive now was actually there. I can understand shock and sadness about the loss of so many lives and the atrocities that were committed, but to take this reaction to such emotional extremes without even being directly affected by the events themselves… well that just seems artificial to me.

My dad’s side of the family–the Jewish side–moved here from eastern Europe in the early 1900’s. We know they came from Lithuania and Hungary, but not much else. My grandparents went on a trip to those countries several years ago, hoping to find family members descended from the ones who didn’t come over to America. But either they moved away or–and this is much more likely–were all shipped off and killed during World War II.

Discussing the Holocaust always leaves me feeling very conflicted. My immediate family weren’t involved, and I never had a chance to know the ones who were, if they were. But as an act against the Jewish people as a whole, the Holocaust leaves me fairly outraged. This is odd, because I don’t consider myself religious at all, and I’m not even part of any large Jewish community, here or at home. However, I guess I still see myself as a Jew not by religion but by culture. My mother is English, coupled with some branch of Christianity or other, and even as a weird cultural-religious hybrid, I still associate most strongly with the Jewish people.

I am outraged, upset, pessimistic. But I’m not personally offended, or even especially emotionally involved, if it’s possible to make that distinction between vague, widespread emotion and more personal, individual feelings. Despite my family’s involvement, my heritage, and my culture, the Holocaust lacks close emotional impact for me because it’s something that I feel I can never fully grasp. I haven’t experienced it firsthand. How could I possibly know enough to be devastated by it? You can’t force emotions out of events that have not closely touched you. I almost feel that I have no right to be that closely and intimately affected by it because I have no idea what living through something like that means.

Such reactions are dishonest and an insult to the people who do know what it’s like.

A disappointing ending?

This reaction could be a by-product of my fluctuating inner cynic, but there was something about the ending of My Year of Meats that I found really disturbing.

In a book where nothing comes easily and each issue is multifaceted, conflicting motivations abound, and no character is infallible, it seemed a little too easy to conclude the narrative with such a simple resolution. The way everything works out so perfectly is deeply unsettling. Akiko  finally escapes her abusive relationship and enjoys the freedom of exploring America and new experiences. Jane, upon realizing and accepting the magnitude of her feelings for Sloan, overcomes her inner conflict and ends up happily reunited with him.

Losing the baby almost seems like a compromise inserted simply to make Jane’s happy ending seem less artificial by adding that bittersweet tinge to it. It’s like, “Hey, she was able to make the breakthrough documentary anyway, and finally found  lasting happiness in love. Oh, wait… that’s too simple! Let’s have her lose her baby just before all of this so that it doesn’t seem like a complete narrative cop-out.” Perhaps Ozeki simply wasn’t sure how to resolve this, and ended up taking the path of least resistance. Although that kind of compromise is definitely inconsistent with her previous plot choices, ending a book like this can be difficult. How do you conclude a story this powerful without leaving the audience unsatiated and longing for more?

Either way, as perfect and romantic as her final scenes with Sloan are, the situation just didn’t ring true for me. Shouldn’t it be enough that she creates this political, emotionally loaded work of art that astounds the public and finally inspires the widespread social and political awareness that she seeks all along? It is especially important to realize that her documentary has, in a way, replaced her child. Any artist will tell you that the process of creation is exactly like this. It becomes all-consuming, and the artist can be described as “giving birth” to his or her work. Good art (for its creator) is painful, obsessive, inspiring, exultant, draining, blinding, demanding of attention and love.

Why does Jane need Sloan when she finally has her art, just as she always wanted it to be, on her own terms? He is extra, superfluous. Obligatory conventional romantic fulfillment. And Jane already has exactly what she needs.

Vending machines galore!

So I was googling around for Japanese vending machines and came across this website. Vending machines for fresh eggs, hot ramen, water salad, “used” panties (ugh), pet beetles (not making this up!), toilet paper, alcoholic beverages… one machine even charges your cell phone while you shop! Seriously, go look.

Here‘s another fascinating site. And did you know that there’s one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan?

And here is further information on the used panties thing. Eeewwww. (But they also have an interesting commentary on cultural differences that contribute to these practices, as well as the popularity of vending machines in general.)

And last but not least, here’s a revolutionary concept:

Dancing prisoners

When I was doing research for our presentation, I came across the following YouTube video of Filipino prisoners dancing as part of their prison physical fitness program.

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Curious, I kept searching on YouTube and found a news broadcast about it.

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As strange as this seems, it may actually be a good idea. Music is an excellent way of creating connections between people. Now is this unique attitude towards methods of ‘getting to’ prisoners reflective of a significant cultural difference, or simply an anomaly?

Sudden husbands

I’d like to carry Michelle’s discussion of the female hero a little further. I’ve done quite a lot of writing about the problems with strong female characters, especially in fantasy novels and fairy tales, so I’m going to leave that angle alone for now and approach this from a more personal standpoint. I really love the story of Fa Mu Lan as told from the narrator’s point of view (rather than third-person as many of the other stories are presented), and as a folk tale, it seems to be fairly unique both in Chinese culture and globally. This is one of the strongest female characters ever created in folklore or mythology. Despite all this, there’s something that really bothers me about Fa Mu Lan. I agree that the preservation of her femininity is part of what makes this story so unique, but something about it rubs me the wrong way.

Yes, I want my heroines to be multi-dimensional, but not through contrived plot development. In spite of all the attention paid to detail in this story, Fa Mu Lan doesn’t seem real to me. I can’t connect with her, even though I desperately want to. More specifically, I find myself skeptical of the joy she feels in finding her husband at last. Perhaps this is because she wasn’t described as being particularly lonely prior to this occasion, but suddenly the long-lost husband becomes a huge staple of her happiness. She is never said to “need” him, necessarily, but seems to come very close to it. There are any number of ways that this relationship could have developed that would have satisfied me. She could have been described as being a little lonely before he shows up, for one thing. Then her rejoicing would have been a bit more understandable. But is there an exchange? If she were lonely and the husband appeared to fill this gap, would that undermine the feminist readings of this folktale? So perhaps such an alteration is not feasible. I think the course of events that would have worked best for me, in terms of understanding and empathizing with this character, would be if her long-lost husband had reappeared but she initially pushed him away. After all, she has a pretty single-minded mission and she hasn’t seen this man in years. She doesn’t know him, not really, so why should he immediately be let into her life? Perhaps she is jealous of her solitude at this point. That would be more natural. There would have to be time for the relationship to grow, and then perhaps he could begin to play an important role in her life and thoughts.

I realize that the folktale is a simple one, but on this occasion many aspects of it are told with added complexity and meaning. So why skim over the surface in this particular part? I don’t think the added character and relationship development would weaken the feminism written into this story; rather, it would strengthen it by giving a realistic explanation for her seeming emotional dependence.


Seppon and Yuki.

Maybe I was just feeling overly sentimental when I finished it on Sunday night, but I’m sorry to admit that I actually cried at the end of this story. And I’m not even quite sure why.

There are so many things about A Japanese Nightingale that really bother (and occasionally offend) me. The fact that Yuki has blue eyes and Western hair may at first be appealing to us, until we realize that the author has set it up like that to attract a Western audience. She’s not unique; she’s engineered to allow us to rationalize. Why doesn’t Jack pick any of the other Japanese women who are more traditional in appearance? Whether consciously or subconsciously, he has to have made this decision partly as a result of his social conditioning in an environment that discourages such inter-racial involvement. And the conscious part? She’s unusual in appearance. She’s different from all the other Japanese women. Jack embraces Yuki’s Japanese-ness, but it’s sort of a false acceptance because he’s only seeing his own idea of what it means to be Japanese. (Especially considering Yuki’s half-caste status. To him, she’s fully Japanese and serves as further evidence of his integration into the culture, but in actuality he’s just doing the same thing he did with his house… it’s traditionally styled, full of Japanese things, but still not Japanese at all.)

And what about all of the descriptions in class of Jack as ‘boyish’? In class it was suggested that the purpose of this was perhaps to endear him to a Western audience. However, I think the author calls Jack ‘boyish’ to absolve him of adult responsibility. His actions towards Yuki are excused by painting him as a child who doesn’t know any better. We’re supposed to forgive him for all of his offenses on the grounds that he’s just a boy, really. But when he does something admirable, all of a sudden he’s presented as a hero, a role model. This inconsistency is clearly fabricated, and completely ridiculous.

On a final note, the word “yuki” in Japanese does not mean ‘snowflake’. It just means snow. The real word for snowflake is ‘seppon’. “Yuki” is occasionally used as a name, but *usually* not by itself. (For example, the male name “Yukito”.) So even Yuki’s name is not really what it’s presented as. I’m a little annoyed, because even though the author was Chinese and Canadian, you’d think that she’d have at least done a little research on a name she was giving to a primary character. Or maybe she did know that she’d incorrectly translated it but was banking on the fact that her ignorant Western audience wouldn’t know the difference. After all, ‘snowflake’ does sound more feminine and soft, and perhaps much closer to the common outside perception of Japanese names.