Jul 25, 2008

In Which I Hang Out With Costumed Geek Types.

I could have gone through life without ever hearing the phrase "sexy ewok."

But, there she was, all done up in a fur bikini thing, topped off with an Ewok cowl. The typically skinny Japanese girl strutted across the stage and shook her fuzz-bedecked ass at the audience, much to my surprise and bewilderment. Regrettably (?) I wasn't able to get a good picture of her.

This was on Sunday in Chiba city's sizable convention center. Another teacher from my company had gotten some students to go to a Star Wars convention, and I came along, camera in hand, hoping to get a few photos of enthusiastic geeks done up in their finest. The sexy ewok was strutting about in a fan costume contest, milking the applause of the audience for all it was worth.

I had a great time. A really excellent time, actually, but not because of any of the official Lucasfilm stuff that was on display. To be honest, most of that stuff was fairly underwhelming. A majority of the fun I had was thanks to the fans. The fanatical and weird fans who took time out of their lives to dress up as sexy ewoks and other sundry characters.

Like this guy, Barbecue Vader.

There was the requisite Slave Leia. She got a lot of attention. And yes, that's a chick dressed up as Luke.

And of course, tons of Storm Troopers. A few of them carried around a boombox playing the Imperial March.

The fans were more than happy to be photographed. Swarms of camera wielders walked up to them and asked for pictures and poses, and they were happy to oblige. What made it all the better, was that a lot of the costumes were obvious labors of love. When I could see the saw marks on a plastic Stormtrooper costume, I really appreciated it. Here were a bunch of utterly weird, dedicated people doing something that they loved. And they were being appreciated for it. It was a giant room of very geeky people being instantly validated. That was really something.

On a slightly weirder note, I did mention to one of the students I was with that my favorite character was Han Solo. He replied with a "Who's that?" and I said "You know, the pilot of the Millennium Falcon." He explained that he'd only seen the new movies, but really liked them. I think there was some proselytization on my part after this. We were cool, though. We agreed that Christopher Lee is awesome.

Of the official exhibits, the only one I really liked was a collection of differently painted Darth Vader helmets. Different artists offered their spin on the iconic headpiece, and the results were fun to stroll through.

The project, though, really illustrated why I didn't care for the Lucasfilm stuff there. Darth Vader and the rest of the established Star Wars characters are icons, archetypes. They're not going to change or develop much. What they do offer, though, is something that can be constantly reinvented without ever losing it's quintessential qualities. That's something that's awesome about icons- their inner core is so well established that their exterior can be modified over and over again.

It was this kind of modification and play that showed up in the verve and love of the fans. They riffed on and played with something they loved, and the crowd cheered them on. Seeing that was far better than a movie.

More fun with mispronunciation!

A few days ago the word "ashore" showed up in a textbook. A student asked what it meant, but, oddly, did not combine the "s" and the "h" into a "sh" sound. Instead, he pronounced them separately, and it came out sounding like "ass whore." It was pretty awesome.

Jul 16, 2008

More Misadventures in Language Learning

So, I was teaching this lesson about complaining, and had the students naming common nuisances and one said-

"My apartment is full of cocktails."

What? "Cocktails?" I asked.

"Yes. Cocktails. Many. My apartment has many cocktails."

"You mean drinks?" I mimed sipping a martini.

"No, no. Cocktails." He drew something on the paper in front of him: A six-legged creature with two large wings and a set of antenna.

"Ah," I said, "you mean cockroaches."

"Yes," he said. "Sorry. My apartment is full of cockroaches. It's filthy."

I mentioned that cocktails were nattily-colored alcohol-laden drinks, and cockroaches were filthy vermin. The class got a good laugh out of it.

But I wish my apartment was full of cocktails...

Jul 12, 2008

Kabuki: Pretty Damn Awesome

I saw Kabuki for the first time last Monday. Went to the Kabukiza in Ginza and got the cheap seats for whatever random play was going on at five, and it was well worth the 1400 yen I ended up spending, and I ended up wondering whether "realism" matters.

The particular play that we ended up seeing was shin-kabuki, shin being a common prefix for "new" or "neo." "New" in this case meant "1913," and the particular production that we saw combined conventional Western drama with traditional kabuki stylings. When the play began, I was a bit disappointed by the "Western drama" bits. I was wondering if we ended up getting a play that would be all about normal, boring people with normal, boring problems.

Nope! About fifteen minutes into the play, the puny humans exited and the goblins showed up in all their weirdness and finery. The play was pretty much gold from there, and weird shit was in no short supply. It was great! There were goblins! A talking hat! A horny, evil, underwater princess! Sacrificing of naked woman tied to the back of a cow! Suicide! Fog machines! A sumo wrestler! People getting turned into fish! Singing! Dancing! A watery apocalyplse!

It was great. I definitely wouldn't mind going again, and it remotivated me to learn about Japanese culuture, history, etc. I was also really charmed by the low-techness of it all. The fact that you could see the stage hands dressed in black and manipulating thing behind the actors wasn't really a distraction, but sort of a satisfying in a way. Oddly, seeing them didn't break my sense of disbelief. Nor did the fact that some of the actors playing chicks were in fact dudes. The whole thing was obvioulsy artificial, but I bought it and enjoyed it for what it was.

Which begs the question of whether "realism" really matters in art and media or not. A movie can have great CGI and still not draw you in. Likewise, Street Fighter II still holds up as a game even though it uses of dated, stilted 16 bit graphics. In either case the presence or lack of something that's "realistic" doesn't effect the viewers emotional investment in the finished product. Whether or not art or media "works" in the sense that it draws in the audience and gets them to care about its invented world has nothing to do with "realism." It's something else, something amorphous and undefined, and something that was very much there in Kabukiza on monday.

Jul 9, 2008

The Noise and Lights of Summer

I was woken up by fireworks on the fourth of July. This was sort of weird, as I was not in America.

The fireworks were the start of Narita's annual summer festival- three days of pulling around wooden floats, eating street food, drinking, and general revelry centered around Naritasan, the town's famous and massive temple. I had quite a good view of it, what with my classroom overlooking central Narita's main street. On Sunday I and a few friends went out into the madness, and I managed to snap of few pictures of it all.

This is the view from my school's balcony on the second day of the festival. It's about 12:30 in this picture, and already the dashi, the big, wooden floats, were being pulled around by teams of people.

Several groups of kids were in the festival, especially during the day. They held these jingling metal instruments that clanged lightly as they walked.

A dashi. They roll through the streets accompanied by shouting and music. The blended noise seeped into my classroom. While this was not a problem with adult students, my kids kept rushing to the window whenever one would pass below us.

From behind a dashi on the last night of the festival. The energy of the crowd in the narrow and lowlit street was amazing.

Jul 3, 2008

Take That, Terrorism!

Kori and I got stopped by the cops this weekend.

The cop was actually pretty nice about it, and obviously didn't like what he was doing. But nevertheless, outside a train station, we had our information taken down and collected by Japanese law enforcement. I found this a little funny, since all of my information is already registered with the Japanese government anyway. If they want my address and phone number, they just have to go to immigration and look them up.

The cop explained to us that the police were stopping all foreigners and getting their information because of the G8 summit in Hokkaido. It was an anti-terrorism measure. Now, I can understand why the Japanese government would want to do something, security wise, to prepare for the summit. I'm also utterly unsurprised that it's something pretty illiberal and ludicrous. (Another brilliant idea: removing garbage cans from train platforms because, you know, you could put bombs in one of those things.)

I also can't help but imagine how such a policy would be received in the U.S. Actually, I don't have to imagine it. Racial profiling doesn't really have any defenders in the U.S., and if a directive was issued to the cops that they should question anyone who either looked foreign or was speaking a foreign language, there would be a complete political uproar: Obama and McCain would be falling over each to denounce it. Politicians would evoke MLK left and right. Al Sharpton would get so angry, he would actually explode. The political policy that caused me to get stopped this weekend in Japan would find no quarter even in the right-to-center politics of the U.S.

It was a cold little reminder that Japan still has a bit of insular nationalism going on. And oh, how I can't stand either insularity or nationalism. But, that's another rant. On the other hand, governments and countries do some phenomenally stupid shit in response to terrorism. The color-coded terror alert system? Probably useless. And remember when tons of people in the U.S. were buying duct tape? Useless. As useless as taking down foreigners' info, and the U.S. is no stranger to racist assholery, either.

Sigh... At least the cop was a nice guy.