Fate/Zero has a completely different angle on the old quest for the Holy Grail. Every so often mages of talent are selected by the Holy Grail to battle for the right to use it. Each mage is granted a Servant: a hero from history. Each hero has a class much like in a video game. You have the archer, swordsman, berserker, caster, lancer, rider, and assassin. The classical idea of the Holy Grail felt odd with the video game-style ideas.
Fate/Zero has some cool things going for it, but it fails to focus on some of the more interesting storylines. It is an action anime at its core. So I guess that explains why it drops the ball here and there with story. Some of the heroes were strange as well. Alexander the Great has the most screen time of all the heroes. His happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t strike me as Alexandrian, but he has an insatiable desire to know about the modern world he found himself in. This is within the character of the actual historical figure. Alexander was taught by Aristotle, after all.
King Arthur is the most interesting and tormented hero. She (yes she) has a surprisingly low amount of screen time compared to Alexander. Her master, the tormented protagonist, doesn’t make much in the way of appearances until a flashback about his childhood. Well, I guess his lack of screen time makes sense because the guy is a mage assassin. Assassins are not exactly the type to be seen. The series makes a fuss about how Arturia is a poor match as a servant, but at their cores both her master and Arturia are similar. Arturia is tormented by her failure as a king. We all know the story: Camelot falls apart because of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair. Only King Arthur married Guinevere to keep her male disguise from being discovered. This makes the tragedy all the more tragic. Unfortunately, Fate/Zero does not develop Arthur as much as I would have liked. Alexander was likable, but Arthur’s history and conflict resonated with me more. It also fit the feel the anime established.
What I liked most about this series was the maturity. This is not a high school anime. It did feel uneven at times. One of the characters, Caster, is a nut that liked to crucify children. Yep, it got that dark. But whiplash that with Alexander wanting to play video games. The comedy feels a little over extended considering the dark themes the anime plays around with. It would be better if the comedy was dropped.
One irritation I had was the whole chivalry idea. It was overdone, to the point where the enemy heroes all sat down with each other and enjoyed wine together. They were civilized, which makes sense to a certain degree, but it become too much of a focus. Alexander, for example, was a military mind. He wasn’t one to fight duels or want to fight people at their full strength. He worked to take out the enemy at the least risk to his troops. In other words, attack when the enemy is weak and disadvantaged. Now, he did have a battle lust the anime captured well. Generally, the shonen style fights felt odd with the exception of Arturia and the knights like Lancer. In that regard, it made sense.
But it is an anime.
The animation stays consistent throughout. Battles are well done. There is some CG that stands out against the rest of the show, but that is pretty normal. I found the music forgettable.
Fate/Zero is not bad. It is also not great. It isn’t a high school anime, which is a plus in my book. High school is a tired trope. I enjoyed the show enough to watch all 25 episodes. If you enjoy interesting fights and dark themes gives this one a try. It is an different take on historical and legendary figures.
Space is precious and expensive in Japan’s dense cities. Enter the capsule hotel. These sleeping coffins maximize space. The idea came to Kurokaw Kisho back in the 1970s with a shipping container. Capsule hotels can stuff about 40 people into a single room. Each space tend to measure 2 meters long by 1 meter wide (about 6 feet long by 3 feet deep) (Uebergang, 2004).
Capsule Hotels look far too close to morgues.
Capsules are equipped with televisions, reading lights, radios, and space to crash on the cheap. The walls tend to be thin, so you can hear the other people stacked around you (Jones, 2012). Some hotels offer communal showers as Jones (2012) experienced, but sitting on plastic stools, lathering up next to grunting, naked men is far from appealing. Capsule hotels are gender segregated, after all.
Is this a morgue or a postmodern design capsule hotel? If you compare this photo of a morgue with the capsule hotel above, there are may similarities. If anything the morgue looks roomier!
The hotels provide a cheap, clean, and safe place to crash. That is the point. They are made for salarymen who missed the last train home, the jobless (who rent by the month), and the occasionally sloshed partier (Hornyak, 2011). Pajamas and slippers are also provided.
Some capsules offer gradual alarm-clock lights. These lights simulate the lighting of dawn to help keep sleep rhythms synced.
A Chinese capsule hotel (Getty Images)
Foreigners report discomfort. Sleep capsules are not designed for the tall or the claustrophobic (Jones, 2012; Uebergang, 2004; Faerber, 2012). The pods have a blind for privacy, but it doesn’t do much good if your feet stick out. What’s the price for all this luxury? About $30 a night a few years ago (Jones, 2012; Uebergang, 2004).
Capsule hotels fill a niche in overcrowded cities. They provide a cheap bath (if you don’t mind being nude in public) and a safe, clean place to crash. That is…if you are not claustrophobic.
Faerber, F. (2012) Squeezing into a capsule hotel room in Japan. AP English Worldstream.
Hornyak, T (2011). Capsule hotels go high style. The New York Times.
Jones, N. (2012). Japan: living with Tokyo’s pod people. The New Zealand Herald.
Uebergang, K. (2004). A no-room inn. Herald Sun (Melbourne),
What happens when you take American heavy metal and infuse it with the kawaii saccharine of j-pop? Kawaii metal.
At least, that is what the metal group Babymetal wants to create.
Babymetal is a j-pop idol schoolgirl trio set against the demonic riffs and imaginary that defines metal. The outlandish whiplash mix reminds me of hair metal from the 1980s. I feel guilty admitting it, but from the videos I have watched, I kinda like the whiplash.
Suzuka Nakamoto (17 years old), Moa Kikuchi (15 years old) and Yui Mizono (also 15) played at the largest heavy metal festival in North America: Heavy Montreal. Babymetal shared the same festival as Metallica, Anthrax, and other well known metal bands. Babymetal also is the youngest group to perform at two of Japan’s largest music festivals: Summer Sonic in 2012 and Loud Park Festival in 2013 (Moh, 2014).
Many metal heads complain that Babymetal is contrived, according to NPR (Begrand, 2014). Yes, National Public Radio, the radio station known as boring, covers metal and hard rock. However, Begrand makes a good point, metal has always been contrived. If anyone has seen Dio and Black Sabbath play against their outlandish fantasy stage sets, you know what Begrand means. Begrand (2014) comments that during one Babymetal riff, the mosh pit descended into a thrashing melee of smiles. Unlike Slipknot shows, the mob was joyful in the peppy upbeat demonic rhythms of Babymetal rather than the usual aggressive and angry mosh.
Alexis Stephens (2014) shows concern about the authenticity of Babymetal and doubts the novelty of the group will be sustainable. Stephens accounts interviews with band members that suggest they are forcing the image. Although I wonder: aren’t most metal images forced?
Babymetal provides an interesting mix of syrup J-pop and American metal. Will Babymetal provide an inlet for more Japanese artists to make it to the US? Possibly. It depends on the metal fans. It is too soon to tell. The girlish sweetness of kawaii will turn some metal fans off. That is certain. However, as Begrand (2014) writes, Babymetal injects a bit of fun into the contrived darkness that characterizes the world of metal today.
About a year ago, I was looking at Edo-period book illustrations and reading name cartuoches – until I stumbled upon two which did not actually contain a name!
I was working behind the scenes of an exhibition at my former university (Goethe-University Frankfurt Main, Germany), which owns a small but very well-preserved collection of mid- to late- Edo-period (mostly early 19th century) woodblock printed books. Many of those are illustrated (beautifully even though black-and-white). We planned to exhibit a few of these, related to the topic of travel in Edo-period Japan. In the process of preparing the information booklet for the exhibition, my supervisor, my co-worker and I usually transcribed and then translated the text on the pages which were to be shown. Since I couldn’t read premodern Japanese very well, I tended to focus on short texts such as name cartouches and one-line image titles. This is where I noticed that, in two pages from different volumes of Santô Kyôden’s (1761-1816) novel Mukashigatari Inazuma Byôshi (Tales of the Past: The Envelope with the Lightning Design, illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni), two old women are not actually named in their name cartouches.Instead they are identified as ‘the mother of Kamon’ ( 嘉門の母, Kamon no haha, right) or literally ‘an old woman’ (老女, rôjo, down left). Incidentally, both of them have to be rescued by male heroes: the old woman from a pack of dogs, Kamon’s mother from a bear.
By contrast, in another novel we exhibited, Shûshoku Shibori no Asagao (Autumnal Colours: Morning Glories Tie-Died, by Shôtei Kinsui, illustrated by Utagawa Yoshifuji), the female characters seemed to be travelling quite safely on their own or with a servant, and they have actual names, both in the text and in their cartouches.
Why might this be? The principal difference between these two sets of female characters is their age. The women in Shûshoku are young and thus of interest to the male heroes (as potential wives or paramours); but the old women in Mukashigatari have either already served their function as wife/lover and mother, or are too old now to do so. In both cases, I thought to myself, they have nothing left to contribute to a patriarchal society… so why bother naming them?
There is more to it of course. In the Edo era, religious and social prejudice against women was prevalent; Buddhism as well as Shinto decried women as polluted and polluting beings for their ‘sexual allure’ and their bleeding in menstruation and childbirth. (These were colourfully evoked in the Buddhist concept of Blood Lake Hell and are probably responsible for the prohibition for women to ascend certain holy mountains.) Yet, Buddhist nunneries existed too, and traditionally, an imperial princess dwelled as a miko (shrine maiden) in the ancestral shrine of the Tennô family. Because of the approach of death, old age especially was seen as a time of religious devotion for both genders – that was how the elderly were supposed to spend their additional free time in ‘retirement’. Kamon’s mother follows this custom and in so doing, I would argue, demonstrates her agency when she travels the mountains, by herself, to worship at a temple. I would also assume that, similar to the nunneries of the Christian Middle Age, religious practice offered security and even a pathway to some degree of validation and authority for women.
However, Confucianism was more influential in the period than either Japanized Buddhism or Shintô, and it emphasized the moral virtue of caring for the aged, represented by ‘the image of the devoted son carrying his incapacitated [i.e. passive] parent around on his back’. This is referenced in Mukashigatari when the hero, having saved Kamon’s mother from the bear, carries her home.
On the other hand, the image also recalls the ‘custom’ of ubasute (‘throwing away the old woman’) attacked in Confucian moral tales. In old times, these stories claim, whenever food was scarce or sometimes just because they became too much work, old people were abandoned in the mountains (which are linked to the afterworld in the Japanese religious mindset) by their kin – that is, until a faithful son breaks with the custom (there are different variants but this is the general story). In both ways, as a symbol of devotion or as a reminder of past bad practices, the image was vastly familiar in the Edo period and would have been recognized by the readers. This stereotype could also be a reason why Kamon’s mother lacks a personal name – she is an intertextual reference.
Turning to the other old woman, the beggar, I found that, despite the Confucian demand for care and loving obedience toward one’s parents (and by extension all aged persons), old beggars are portrayed as a frequent occurrence in Edo-Period texts. Wandering from door to door begging for food, they would often be attacked by the village dogs, as the rôba is in Mukashigatari. Although probably not as common an image as the piggyback-riding parent, the beggar woman trying to keep the dogs at bay with a stick may thus also have been a well-known image. (My supervisor suggested this as well.) In Mukashigatari, the encounter might prove crucial for the hero: he is travelling incognito, wearing a straw-hat which covers his face, but he needs to lift it in order to assure the old woman of his intentions (see image above). This will most certainly come into play later in the story: thus, the old woman serves a narrative function, as Kamon’s mother does – no need for a name.
To conclude, it seems to me that, from whatever angle I approach them, these women end up being functions – either biologically, religiously/morally or narratively – rather than people. Limited in their options and confined by social expectations, which push them aside as dependents on filial piety, they don’t seem to matter enough to anyone – character, writer or reader – to deserve a personal name. Basically they cannot do anything interesting: if you are but an old woman with a stick, chances are you will not be able to beat back the dogs on your own.
In my next ‘musing’, I might be looking at very young women with sticks who perform magical feats, meaning Magical Girls, and try to disentangle a bit of the puzzling mixture of progressive and cringe-worthy stereotypical elements in the genre.
 For an interesting discussion of the position, rights and abilities of Edo-period women, see Yabuta Yutaka, “Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan”, a paper presented at the Japan Forum, Harvard University, 2000. http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/pdfs/yabuta.pdf
 Okano Haruko, “Die Stellung der Frau in der japanischen Religionsgeschichte“, in Elisabeth Gössmann, ed, Japan – Ein Land der Frauen? (München: Juridicum, 1991), pp. 34-55, pp. 50-53.
 I read this in the notes to an English translation of the Kôjiki which is unavailable to me at the moment.
 Susanne Formanek, “Traditional Concepts and Images of Old Age in Japan”, in Florian Coulmas, ed, The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook about Japan, pp. 323-43, pp. 332-4. See also her (German) study Denn dem Alter kann keiner entfliehen: Altern und Alter im Japan der Nara- und Heian-Zeit (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994), p. 505.
 Women were allowed in temples if they were past the age of forty: Susanne Formanek, Die“böse Alte” in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit: Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005), p. 384. There was a danger, of cause, for old women living alone in the mountains to become suspect, as the tales of the yôkai ‘yamauba’ reveal (Yamauba are also connected to the obasute-custom I mention later; see http://yokai.com/yamauba, for example). All the more reason, then, for Kamon’s mother to emphasize her piety.
August 6, 1945 marked a turning point in human history. August 9, 1945 left no doubt.
Humanity had entered the Atomic Age.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaska burned itself into the memories of the Japanese and the Americans. In many regards, the rise of the atomic bomb, and later the hydrogen bomb, gave rise to the anime and manga we have today.
After the bombings, American authors and comic artists sketched a rosy view of the future of atomic power. The publications laced fact with super heroes. Even Superman discovered the Bomb was more powerful than him. In one comic, Superman had to swallow a drug that made him insane in order to save Lois Lane. In his state, he flew into the Bikini atomic test, which was powerful enough to clear his mind. He took a photograph of the mushroom cloud from above as “a warning to men who talk against peace.” He even confronted a villain called Atom Man (Szasz & Takechi, 2007).
After the US lifted censorship of Japanese media, a medical doctor turned cartoonist began to publish his work. To give you an idea of how much the US censored: there were over 8,000 censors silencing the voices of those who suffered from the Bombs. A cartoonist was even punished for depicting Americans with red noses (Szasz & Takechi, 2007). Anyway, the medical doctor’s name? Tezuka Osamu.
Tezuka’s most famous work, Mighty Atom (or Astro Boy as we in the States know it) was a result of Japan signing a peace treaty and military alliance with the United States in 1951. Astro Boy reflects an interesting cultural paradigm. In the stories, the villains will sincerely apologize to Astro Boy. Imagine the Joker genuinely apologizing to Batman! Some researchers suggest this habit of apology may point to a desire for the United States to apologize for the use of nukes. Astro Boy tries to find a way to reconcile with the villains. This theme found in Tezuka and other artist’s work is thought to be a result of the suffering caused by the bombs (Szasz & Takechi, 2007).
Tezuka’s work influenced mangaka ever since. One work, influenced by Tezuka, stuck it to the Americans for dropping the bombs. It was also one of the first manga to do so.
Struck by Black Rain and Barefoot Gen
Keiiji Nakazawa was spared by a concrete wall when Hiroshima ignited. He lost his entire family to the effects of the bomb. Later in life, he seemed to have been discontented with hibakusha cinema – movies about the victims of the bombs. Hibakusha cinema avoided blame while still portraying the Japanese as victims (Szasz & Takechi, 2007; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2014). He set out to make his own version of these movies.
In Struck by Black Rain, Nakazawa boldly accuses the Americans and even calls American barbarians. The main character in one scene shouts at a littering American tourist:
You murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians just to test the atomic bombs. You are more brutal than the Nazis.
Nakazawa began to take atomic themes more serious after his mother’s death from radiation sickness. He set out to “pin the blame where it belonged.” The result was Barefoot Gen. The manga follows how Gen and his family lived in Hiroshima before the blast and how they survived the aftermath of the nuclear age. The manga addresses American censorship, the discrimination of hibakusha, the conditions endured by war orphans, and more. Despite the dark themes, it is a story of life and hope.
All of these stories appeared when Japanese society was craving entertainment and methods of coping what what happened. Where American cartoons and comics were centered childhood, manga took up the results of the nuclear age and war. These themes directed manga and, later, anime to be acceptable for all ages. American cartoons, on the other hand, are generally expected to be left behind in childhood. The themes of the atomic age continue to echo like aftershocks through the many post-apocalyptic stories found in manga and anime. The mecha genre often features climatic battles that lay waste to vast swaths of land or armies. This can be traced directly to the impact of the bombs on Japanese society.
Giant Monsters – Kaiju Eiga
March 1954 marked the third nuclear attack on Japan. At least, that is how some viewed the event. A Japanese tuna trawler named The Lucky Dragon No. 5 was not so lucky that day. It fell victim to the first underwater nuclear explosion from the series of Operation Crossroads nuclear tests. Japan was not only the first victim of atomic bombs. Japan was also victim of the first hydrogen bomb. The event resulted in a panic about irradiated tuna with over 450 fish being buried (Szasz & Takechi, 2007; Brothers, 2011).
Hmmm. Small wonder that the best know giant radioactive monster movie begins with a monster attack on a fishing boat?
Godzilla, or known to the Japanese as Gojira, was Ishiro Honda’s metaphor for the fears of a nation living on the brink of doomsday. Honda had certain sensibilities. He worried about upsetting the public so he made efforts to implicitly reference the Lucky Dragon incident. Honda also down played the scars on the scientist Serizawa’s face so the audience can focus on the suffering of the characters and not be sickened by their physical deformities (Brothers, 2011). Honda was a POW and was said to have walked the rubble of Hiroshima.
Godzilla was a film meant to reinforce the idea that nothing can be settled through armed conflict. Honda wanted the film to be entertaining and dramatic but not preachy or traumatic. The film was influenced the 1933’s King Kong. Godzilla has subtle anti-American tones that point to the guilt Americans felt (and some still feel) about dropping the bombs. America views the bombs as a necessary evil needed to spare lives; the Japanese view the bomb as evil (Brothers, 2011). The American version of the film tones down the role atomic and hydrogen bombs play and removes dialog about the dangers of atomic experiments. All references to radiation is also struck from the American version. Finally, all references to the American A-bomb was changed to the Russion A-bomb. Godzilla still stands as a sound metaphorical warning about the dangers of nuclear power.
Godzilla‘s success ushered in many other radioactive monster movies. However, many fell into the realm of camp and cheese. They lost the humanity, emotion, and terror at the face of an unstoppable destructive force. Over time, even Godzilla became domesticated, a hero. Even in the most recent remake, the monster has hero elements. As a metaphor for war and nuclear annihilation, Godzilla now seems to suggest both can be harnessed for good in certain circumstances. This goes against Honda’s original idea that armed conflict cannot bring about true resolution. Honda’s idea hold truer than the modern twist and domestication. The advent of nuclear weapons may have reduced armed conflicts between nations, but it also raised the stakes. This can be seen in modern manga and anime. Mecha battles often involve world wide conflict and war that devastates humanity.
Shadows of the Nukes
The shadows of people and objects were burned forever into stone when the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ignited. It also burned shadows into Japanese culture. Manga and anime was solidified as literature for all ages because of how mangaka reacted to and tried to understand the destruction. Kaiju Eiga’s best known monster was a metaphor for war and nuclear destruction. Kaiju Eiga eventually bled into the mecha genre. Early entries of the genre has a monster-of-the-week theme where the heroes essentially battled kaiju like Godzilla. Power Rangers is another example of bleed from kaiju eiga.
Astro Boy remains one of the largest influences on anime and manga. It was directly influenced and a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of the environment that the American Occupation created. Barefoot Gen also influenced many artists and showed that manga was a form of literature in its own right.
Would manga and anime have existed without nukes? Certainly. The literature was already firmly established before World War II. However, it may look very different without the advent of Astro Boy or other manga from the time. Godzilla would not have existed in his current form as well. It is possible that the mecha genre and others would have less focus on nuclear-like destruction and armaments. Of course, this is all speculation. It is interesting how the most important event in modern history – the advent of the nuclear age – is best enshrined in manga. No other art form addressed the issues from the time as well as manga and Godzilla did. Where America tried to avoid feeling guilt, the Japanese focused on healing rather than holding grudges. Anger in Barefoot Gen and other manga is understandable. However, the messages of reconciliation and achievement despite adversity rather than vengeance and hatred is a testament to the authors and resilience of Japanese culture.
Anisfield, N. (1995). Godzilla/Gojiro: Evolution of the Nuclear Metaphor. Journal Of Popular Culture, 29(3), 53-62.
Brothers, P. H. (2011). Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla. Cineaste, 36(3), 36-40.
One of the keys to learning Japanese is stroke order and drilling until each stroke is second nature. Jim Gleeson put together a wonderful workbook that lets you do just that.
In a short introduction, Gleeson outlines the different strokes needed to form each letter, and he briefly provides a history lesson about how kana developed.
Each page provides a stroke-by-stroke breakdown of a katakana character, including how the character looks in four different variations. Then he includes an area for you to practice, complete with trace-over guides. I recommend making copies of each page and practicing on these copies instead of in the workbook itself. Repetition is important!
After each katakana group, Gleeson provides practice loanwords. He also includes sections with Western names, city names (complete with maps), sports, instruments, food, electronics, and even Internet slang.
Writing Japanese Katakana is a practical workbook for anyone beginning to learn Japanese. It is available from Tuttle Publishing and Amazon.