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Lost in Translations April 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Japan, Other, Science Fiction, speculative fiction.
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My lovely wife told me yesterday that she couldn’t find the post on Ultraman on my blog.  I had to tell her that that was because I hadn’t finished it yet.  My son and I have been watching old episodes of Ultraman, which we have been renting from Netflix.  And I intended to start a series of posts about this latest interest, but the fact is, I’m having some trouble with it.

For those who didn’t grow up with Ultraman, the show is basically a series of abbreviated Japanese monster movies (less than 30 min long) that were dubbed in English and imported to the U.S.  In a typical episode a monster appears and begins to wreak havoc, the elite Science Patrol attempts to dispatch the monster, then Ultraman steps in to save the day.  My brother and I watched the show for a while when we were the age my son is now (nine), back in the early 1970s. 

Here’s a picture:


I’m having trouble posting about the show, though, because I’m extremely confused about what to make of it all.  The first hurdle is the fact that the DVD lapses in and out of English at odd moments.  Since it is a DVD, I just turned on the subtitles (my son is a pretty fast reader).  This unearthed a new dimension to making sense out of the show, though.  The subtitles are radically different from the English dubs.  Take the theme song, for example, which has an early-1960s surf music feel to it.  The English dubbing goes like this:

Ultraman, Ultraman, here he comes from the sky,
Ultraman, Ultraman, watch our hero fly.
In a superjet he comes from a billion miles away.
From a distant planet-land,
comes our hero Ultraman.
[repeat first verse]

Incredibly insipid, yes, and there are problems with what little is reported: 

  1. Ultraman did not come in a “superjet.”  He was chasing a monster and crashed into Hayata’s VTOL jet crashed, and saved Hayata by absorbing him and becoming him.  I guess that one could argue that Hayata came in a superjet, but not from a billion miles away.  Hayata came from Science Patrol headquarters, which seems to be near Tokyo.  Ultraman came from the M-78 nebula, which can be seen in the constellation Orion (RA: 5:47, Dec: 0:03), which is 1.6 thousand light years away.  So, it is like 9.4 quadrillion (thousand trillion) miles away, which screws up the meter of the song.  But it is not as if it would be screwing up perfection.
  2. “distant planet-land.”  That’s just bad writing–word chosen to rhyme with “man.” 
  3. Our hero doesn’t “come from the sky.”  With a couple of notable exceptions, like the episode where Hayata has to jump off a building to reach his beta capsule, Ultraman appears standing firmly on the ground.  Then he sometimes flies around.  He exits by flying away, but only as a cover to keep Hayata’s dual identity secret. 

The subtitles to the theme music are very different, much more cryptic, and much more interesting: 

The emblem on the chest is a shooting star.
With the pride-worthy jet, shoot the enemy.
From the Land of Light, for our sakes,
he has come, our Ultraman.
The capsule in hand, Flashes Sparkling
It’s a shine of one million watts.
From the Land of Light, for justice’s sake,
he has come, our Ultraman.

The subtitled version is problematic, too.  Watts, for example, are not units of luminousity, they are units of power.  Light is measured in lumens, a common American confusion, because we purchase lightbulbs according to wattage.  (The reason we do that has more to do with heat generated by the things than their light output, but these are closely related with incandescent bulbs, of course.) 

But mostly we are left with more questions.  Why is the emblem a shooting star?  “Our sakes”?  Justice’s sake”?  Is that sake, with a long A sound and silent “e”, or sake, like the rice wine?  Why is “Flashes Sparkling” capitalized? 

The theme music is just the easiest thing to point to with regard to the dual translation problem.  The dubbing and the subtitles are constantly at odds in unexpected ways.  I could just examine these episodes based on the reactions of ill-informed American pre-teens.  But everytime I think about this show now I get caught up with the additional questions that the dual translations reveal. 

I’m paralyzed, but in a good way. 

Go, Speed! April 3, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Cartooning, Japan, Other.

Sandra Bullock was a guest on The Daily Show a couple of weeks ago.  She is amazingly funny, and held her own with Jon Stewart, cracking him up.  Maybe she seems even funnier than she actually is because she is so conventionally attractive.  I never expect somebody of either sex who is that attractive to be so witty.  Anyway, they were talking about her current movie, which is apparently all jumbled, temporally speaking (although some reviews assert that it is jumbled in many other ways, too).  Events don’t appear sequentially in the narrative, like Slaughterhouse Five, I guess, although I haven’t seen the film, and probably won’t until it comes out on DVD.  Ms. Bullock pointed out that, as an actress, all films were like this to her, because they don’t film scenes in the order in which they will eventually appear.

Sometimes things are like this watching shows in syndication, too.  Remember M*A*S*H?  They had a final episode that wrapped up the lives of various prominent roles.  I don’t remember what happend to any of them because I was pretty bored with the show by then, but I know that they did. 

As a kid, I watched Speed Racer, and I always wondered what happened in the final episode. Did he ever find out that Racer X was actually his brother Rex Racer, who had run away from home many years before?  Did he ever marry his girlfriend Trixie? 

You can’t really find out from the official Speed Racer site, because they only summarize episodes from the first two or three disks, before they got bored, I guess.  I rented three of the five Speed Racer disks from netflix, and I found that the final two were only available for purchase.  So I ordered them from somewhere and we watched the final episode last week.  Since you, gentle reader, are dying to know what happened, I’ll summarize Episodes 51 and 52, “The Race Around the World.”

The episode begins as Speed enters the Around the World Grand Prix.  The winner is to be awarded “a small mountain of purest gold.”  Just before the race started, the sponsor, Mr. Goldminter, announced that there would be an additional prize.  The winner would also marry his daughter, the beautiful Lovelace Goldminter.

Naturally, Lovelace is horrified, and with her faithful servant/mechanic Oscar, she decides to enter the race.

Some of the racers, Lovelace among them, disguised as a boy, notice that the rules did not prohibit interfering with other racers, so they decide that they will do everything they can to wreck each others’ chances of winning.  Speed, of course, wants no part of such talk.  Quoth he:

All the gold in the world isn’t worth a man’s honor.


I’ll win fair and square and no other way.

The race begins in California, with Formula 1 cars, and racers are soon pushing each other off the road and using dirty tricks to wreck the other cars.  They travel through Washington DC, for some reason, although their first destination is Miami.  Before they get to Miami, somebody working for Lovelace tampers with Speed’s jetboat.  So even though he is the first to arrive (naturally), his boat catches fire on the way to Brazil.  Speed and his assistant Sparky began to fix the boat just as Lovelace and Oscar comes by, dropping off Speed’s brother Spritle and his pet monkey, Chim Chim, who had sneaked aboard Lovelace’s boat, thinking that it was Speed’s. 

After repairing the boat, they get back in the race, only to find that Lovelace’s boat had crashed into some rocks.  Lovelace and Oscar are in imminent danger of being eaten by a shark, so Speed stops his boat and dives into the water with a knife in his teeth.  He kills the shark and tells them that they should row to a nearby island while that shark distracts the others in the area.  Then he gets back into the race.  Another assistant of Lovelace’s steals another jetboat and she gets back in the race, too.

When they reach Brazil, the racers transfer to fanboats to make their way up the Amazon.  Then they transfer to biplanes (!?!) for the rest of the journey through South America.  Racer number 4 (Reed Scrounge, if I caught it correctly, and his unnamed assistant) had thought ahead, installing a huge switchblade on one wing, with which he cut the wings off of most of the other planes, sending their pilots and crew to the ground.  Speed and Sparky crash in this manner and have to build a boat out of logs to make it the rest of the way to the next checkpoint.

Geography is abused in a number of ways, I think.  I’m relatively certain that there is no major river that flows from the headwaters of the Amazon to Tierra del Fuego.  At any rate, they get aboard submarines to travel to Antarctica, then snow trackers to the South Pole.  First Lovelace’s snow tracker is thrown into a crevasse. Speed pulls her out, and Spritle discovers, during the rescue, that she is actually a girl.  He tells Speed, but he doesn’t believe Spritle.  Speed calls her “the smart-aleck boy who travels with the old man.”

Then Speed’s snow tracker is destroyed by a land mine, placed by Scrounge.  He and Sparky rig a snow sailer out of the parts to continue.  In Antarctica, we see Scrounge’s true colors, the depths of his evil, when his assistant spots a flock of penguins and points them out to him.  Scrounge says:

Let’s have some fun with them.

And then he drives straight through.  It isn’t all that graphic, because the only type of gore that the cartoonists were comfortable with was explosions, but the point is well-made:  Scrounge is bad.  He’s a bad guy. 

The race resumes in Africa.  Although they are traveling from the South to the North, the race seems to take place entirely within the Sahara, in jeeps.  Scrounge lobs hand grenades from his jeep, dozens of them.  Speed thinks that it is Lovelace throwing the grenades, because Scrounge has painted her number on his jeep.  Um, they take motorcycles (with side cars) through Italy, then, finally, climb aboard the Mach 5, which takes them through Russia and Siberia.  At some point in Siberia, Lovelace runs out of gas.  Speed stops and loans her some.  They shake hands and he discovers that she is a girl, because of her soft hands.


Unfortunately, Speed soon runs out of gas himself.  Racer X happens by (He is not competing. Perhaps his yurt was nearby.) and chews Speed out.  Speed had no obligation to help the other racers, Rex tells him.  He shouldn’t have let Lovelace have that gas.


Speed realizes it was a stupid mistake for a professional racer to make, and he cries, eventually lying on his back and tearing grass out of the ground weeping and sobbing.  You can fight sharks for other drivers.  You can turn around and pull them out of a crevasse.  You can offer to give them a ride if their boat is smashed.  But do not, under any circumstances, give them your gasoline.  It is an odd code, but it is not ambiguous.


But Sparky watches Racer X drive away and notices that he had left a can of gas behind.   So they race towards Vlaidivostok, where they will catch a ship to take them to the final leg of the race, to Tokyo.  Scrounge attempts once again to run Speed off the road, and Speed hits his automatic jack, sending the Mach 5 into the air.  Scrounge flies off a cliff and his car blows up.  Although Scrounge’s car appears in the distance shots of the subsequent ticker-tape parade, he is not seen again.  Lovelace comes in second, and Speed wins.  He doesn’t claim Lovelace as his prize, but heads off to “more exciting adventures,” with Sparky in the car, saying

“Come on, Sparky. Let’s go!  There are more races to be won.”


So, none of the series’ loose ends are tied up.  Aside from a couple of episodes where people appear to have revelations of some sort (Episode 50, for example, where Speed tells Racer X that he thinks he is his brother Rex, and Rex punches him in the stomach and quits racing forever, in order to put more energy into his full-time secret-agent gig) the actual order of the episodes doesn’t really matter all that much. 

But now, after all these years of guessing, I know that for sure.  They left things open for the movie that is coming out next summer.  That’s thinking ahead.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter I, Section B January 31, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in history, Japan, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock.

So, what happened to Cheap Trick?

Well, Jimmy (if that is your real name), they put out another album in 1980 that was produced by George Martin, and then appeared on Saturday Night Live, and they did a concert that aired on PBS that rocked so hard I thought I would die.  I watched a videotape of that concert approximately 100 times, something like once every week for a couple of years.  If it hadn’t been on Betamax (ask your grandfather) I’d probably still be watching it. 

All Shook Up (1980) had a lot of really great music on it.  But better than that, the album captured the power and verisimilitude of the band’s stage presence (to the extent possible).  The album’s most famous track “Baby Loves to Rock” was almost punk, but without punk’s anger.  It was based on a firm power chord tripod that even novitiate rockers could play (without any moveable chord forms), Robin Zander’s inimitable howl, a bass sound like an oil tanker slowly running aground, interesting and sometimes cryptic lyrics.  And the album that came after that, One on One, was just as good.  

Unfortunately, it was too late for the band to achieve the kind of stardom they deserved.  They have since written and performed the theme music for dozens of movies, as well as for That 70s Show and The Colbert Report, but their bid for superstardom faltered.


By 1980, Cheap Trick’s three disappointing studio albums of the late 1970s had made some of their most promising fans wary of being burned again.  Worse still, the band was simply one of a kind, and thus difficult to understand.  For example, the band was solidly connected, in popular imagination, to Japan, which was already, during the rapidly growing energy crisis years, becoming problematic. 

What do you mean?

Their most famous album began with the words “All Right Tokyo!” They did not look American enough, which was a crime during this era, when Americans were talking about energy independence and bombing Iran (I mean the last time we did this, of course.  I told you this was going to be confusing.)   Since the band didn’t look like anyone else, they must be Japanese, right? 

It was confusing.  Look, “Elo Kiddies” was a song off their first album that the Japanese schoolgirls seemed to really take to.  How this tune transmuted into the Hello Kitty phenomenon is a dark and frightening story that is not appropriate to tell here in this public space.  (N.B.: I was not able to link to Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, because it makes me ill to even think about doing that.  And I couldn’t use a picture, because it is trademarked, so the link goes to Hello Cthulhu, a cartoon that gives you the general idea of Hello Kitty from the appropriate perspective of ironic mockery.)  All I can do is point out the clash of the two cultures, the huge gulf between interpretive frames of reference.

Compare the song’s refrain . . .

So you missed some school,
they say school’s for fools,
today money rules,
and everybody steals it.
You lead a life of crime,
you gotta go unwind,
you haven’t got much time,
because they’re out to get you.

. . . to the Hello Kitty icon that began to appear about the same time.  Extra credit for any of you who can make even a tiny bit of sense out of that. 

They seemed to delight in confounding all of the dominant stereotypes of the era.  This was especially so in the case of lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, running around on stage wearing checkered tights and a baseball cap (hey, those Japanese are playing baseball now, too).  He looked, quite intentionally, like a cartoon character.  In contrast, Robin Zander, the lead singer, was attractive and graceful, an ex-dance instructor, with long, golden hair.  Then there was Bun E. Carlos, the band’s hard-rockin,’ chain-smokin’ drummer, who looked and dressed like a despirited, pot-bellied, balding, accounts receivable clerk.  The bassist was probably even more attractive than Zander.  It was just too large an interpretive disjuncture for the average rock fan to navigate.  

Conversation overheard in record store (Tower Records, Sunrise Blvd., Sacramento, California) between typical rocker and store employee, circa 1980:

“What does it all mean, record dude?” 
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.  Um, you got any Journey?”
“S’under “J.” [Points]
“Jay?  No, Journey.  Are you making fun of me?”

It was too easy to come to the conclusion the band was making fun of its audience.  That was a dangerous game, far too dangerous for the Reagan era, and one most simply avoided taking part in.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter I January 30, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in history, Japan, Music, Other, Rock.

Part A
Isn’t it a Shame?

During the Scientific Revolution, so-called “Natural Philosophers” often collected anomolies to help them understand the truth.  What could a two-headed sheep tell them about the natural world?*  It could tell them more, they figured, than looking at a thousand “normal” sheep, because it explored the limits of “sheepness.”  Figuring out why nature has gone awry helped them to figure out how it goes right.  We study the abnormal to examine the boundaries of normalcy.  For these reasons, this chapter examines Cheap Trick.

In the late 1970s Cheap Trick rocketed to stardom on the success of a live album that also predicted their downfall.  That album, Cheap Trick: Live at Budokan, was recorded in Tokyo, Japan, and kept the band on rock radio through the mid-1980s.  A string of hits including “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and others should have tipped the band off to the secret of their success. 

What did the album’s success say about the band?  It said this: These guys know how to get an audience of Japanese schoolgirls cheering at a frequency about six octaves above middle “C.”  These guys know how to rock. 

How does one rock?

Well, there are lots of ways.  One is by working hard at being the best/loudest/fastest/strongest band you can be–being extreme.  Tom Petersson, the band’s bassist, had a twelve-string bass, the world’s first, specially constructed at around this time.  The company initially made him a ten-string bass because they didn’t think that the instrument’s neck would stand up to the strain of twelve bass strings.  Travelling to my cousin’s house one Thanksgiving I found that he had gotten a bass guitar, an Ibanez, and I spent much of the day sequestered in his room, trying to play the bass part to “Gonna Raise Hell,” by Cheap Trick.  But I eventually had to stop, because I didn’t want to get blood on his new guitar.  Bass strings are like round files, people.  You must have a grip of steel and a quarter-inch of callous to survive playing one for the length of a concert.  Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers often had to superglue parts of his thumb together to finish a set.  Yet here was Petersson, demanding three times the number of cheese-grating, garroting wires with which to flay his left hand.  And that was pretty much all he played, eight and twelve-string basses.  And the bassists who followed him in the band after he left, Pete Comita, Jon Brandt, and others, played these things, too.  That’s rock, friends, pain in the service of power and a unique sound.  Pushing your own limits, and upping the ante, too, forcing others to put up or shut up.

Additionally, in order to rock, you have to be real.**  You cannot depend upon re-recording take after take in a studio, only releasing the dolbyized, computer-smoothed, noise-reduced, effects-laden pap that the producer decides is best.  To rock you have to be able to play it live, and not with keyboardists and extra vocalists hidden behind the curtains to help you out.  This band rocked so hard in concert that they could turn an old Pat Boone song (“Ain’t That a Shame,” written by Fats Domino, but recorded by Boone, who wanted to change its title to “Isn’t that a Shame”) into a hit in 1978.  Pat freakin’ Boone. 

Unfortunately, the band missed an important warning signal from the success of Budokan:  “Surrender” had already been released on a previous album, In Color and Black and White.  But radio stations never played that version.  Why?  Because the overproduced tune had no freakin’ teeth, no edge.  The band later blamed the dullness of that album on their producer, saying that it sounded like it was recorded in a cardboard box.

People, rock fans, want to believe that the people they see are actually producing the music they hear on the radio.  With Budokan there was no doubt.  This band made noise, interacted with the audience.  The audience loved them, worshipped them.  You could hear that.  Three of their crucial studio albums, In Color and Black and White, Heaven Tonight, and Dream Police, though sweet, carefully written, masterfully played, with brilliant harmony, could have been played by paid studio musicians. 

Hundreds of rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s would use technological fixes and careful editing to make themselves sound like they could really rock, only to disappoint any relatively sober rock fans that happened to show up for their live performances.  MTV amplified this problem ten-fold by adding visual elements to the fakery, which culminated, eventually, in a backlash known as “Grunge.”  But Cheap Trick was that most tragic of anomolies–a true rock band that sounded fake on many of their albums.

To be continued . . .

*Textbook for the School of Rock originated in conversations with my son on the morning school commute.  Thus, it seems to be unfolding in a Socratic presentation style. 

**Not real, in the sense of being essential, of course, but real in the sense of performing your own music, or adding a whole new dimension to somebody else’s.  In the sense of doing your own stunts, not taking orders from The Man.

Books–Sixth Column, by Robert H. Heinlein January 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, China, Constructivism, Japan, libertarians, Other, Science Fiction.

I had been reading Hyperpat’s reaction to a recent article that mentioned Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers in an unflattering and baseless screedlet (Um, not Hyperpat, he was right about Heinlein’s book.  The New York Times, not so much), and corresponding with Hyperpat about said screedling.  And while I was doing that I realized that I might never have read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, or at least I couldn’t recall much of it.  This was a little important to me because although this is an embarassing thing to admit (Heinlein’s treatment of sexual relationships has been a repeated embarassment to me over the years) I have read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published, which is a considerable amount, and had even visited the Heinlein archives at UCSC to peruse what few scraps the Trustees of the Heinlein Estate would allow.  I considered myself an expert of sorts but could not have outlined the plot of this thing to save my life. 

So I got a copy through paperbackswap.com and tackled it last weekend.  And I was pretty surprised.  I knew that Heinlein didn’t care for this book, because he had noted his opinion publicly several times.  But I seem to recall that his objection to it was founded on the fact that the outline of the plot and main speculative elements (the idea that the other forces, the weak nuclear force, gravity, the strong nuclear force, could be harnessed and projected in various ways) were given to him by John Campbell, and that he had no real interest, just did it for the money, etc. 

But boy oh boy there are so many reasons to hate this book.  Perhaps the most offensive aspect to the book, aside from the lackadaisical, disinterested writing, is racial, I’m afraid.  The forces I mentioned above are used by the protagonists to drive the Asiatics (conquering hoards of those with “yellow” skin whose culture originated in Japan, um, apparently during the Tokugawa Era, if I had to guess) and spread as they conquered first Mainland China, then the Soviets, then, finally, in the opening page of the book, the US.  The attacks came as a complete surprise to the US, of course, (this post has nothing to do with the space weapons tested yesterday by China, by the way).  But new technologies allow the scientists to focus these different forces to distinguish people by race, so that they can aim their weapons at a mixed crowd and kill only the Asiatics, sometimes explosively disrupting the cells of their bodies, turning them into a big, messy cloud, sometimes just making them dead.  But the protagonists, hopelessly outgunned and disorganized, since they have become the slaves of the Asiatics, turn the tables by using the power of the new technology, under the cover of a new religion, to demoralize the Asiatics, forcing critical military commanders to commit honorable seppuku, ritual hara kiri.  Oi!

Yeah, so it’s pretty icky, and obviously conflicts with current understanding of race (postulating very solid and discrete biological differences), which seems to be that it is mostly socially constructed, of course. 

I don’t think of Heinlein as a racist.  He was probably as unracist as possible for a white libertarian guy born in Missouri near the turn of the century to be.  No wonder he hated this book.  It was written in the late 1940s and copyrighted in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, if I’m not mistaken, but still. . . .