Sunday, 30 September 2012

Rurouni Kenshin review

Signed by Satou!
 I'm a few weeks late to the party here, but with Rurouni Kenshin's pending international release, it really seems as timely as ever.

If you're familiar with the source material, you'll be pleased to find that the live-action adaptation strongly adheres to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original story. It basically covers the Toukyou Arc of the manga and anime, though some events are shifted around and a few characters are combined. The appearance of Saito Hajime, who previously didn't appear until the bridge between the first and second arcs, is particularly egregious; presumably he was thrust in there because of his unspeakable coolness and fan favouritism, and possibly with a view towards a sequel. But these changes are inherent and necessary in any media adaptation, so you really should go into it expecting them. What's important is that the style and message carry through, and the film does an excellent job of communicating them to the big screen.

On the other hand, if you haven't experienced either of its previous iterations, the plot may well be incomprehensible. The Japanese is generally simple, with the exception of a few speeches and such that are a little more technical, but the problem is the film's tendency to throw major players at you with little or no introduction. Tt would have done well to excise a few of them if only for economy of characters. It really gets down to time, as with only a few minutes to devote to each new face, we're left unable to really grasp the details that make them compelling. When Sannosuke gets into a fistfight with a bad guy, we know rationally that we want him to win, but without any emotional associations built up we don't actually really care whether or not he does. Motivations and logic are also poorly explained, so while it's never tough to figure out what's going on, without a little a priori knowledge it's going to be a challenge to understand why.

Casting is a little odd, with most characters being severely toned down. Satou Takeru does a serviceable job as Kenshin, particularly in his ability to mix the seriousness and slapstick that are in many ways the character's trademark, but somehow can't quite match up to Suzukaze Mayu's anime performance. Takei Emi as Kaoru is especially lacking; former Kaoru could fill a screen with her energy alone, but this one doesn't offer much more to pay attention to than a cute voice. That's not entirely her fault, since Kaoru is a pretty weak and boring character to begin with, but it would have been nice to see her bring a little more presence to the role. Although the role of Saitou doesn't require much more than for his actor to look angry and dress well, Eguchi Yousuke fits it well. Aoi Yuu is perfect as the deviously delicious Megumi, and Tanaka Taketo seems to actually be Yahiko ripped from the printed page.

Rurouni Kenshin is almost worth going to see for the visuals alone. The fight scenes are fluid and exciting, though since it basically amounts to a chanbara flick, I guess it'd better be. Focussing on technique over raw power, and style over realism, they're a little more restrained than those they were based on, but not by much. There's still plenty of the weird “swordsman's spirit” stuff and what basically amounts to hacking physics, which you'll either revel in, or have to look past, depending on your preference. It opens on what might be its most enjoyable scene, depicting one of the last battles between the Shinsengumi and the Ishinshishi, drawing the viewer into the fight with its immediacy and flow as shots are fired at close range, the mob seeths, and bodies are sliced open with a shocking degree of violence given the tone of the work.

But even the more mundane aspects like the doujo, Meiji-era streets and local hangout Akabeko are lavished with detail. The palette is vivid and deep, footpaths look well-travelled, buildings appear lived-in. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, which admittedly took place in a drastically different time period, Kenshin shows us a Toukyou on the cusp of modernization, and the juxtaposition of more traditional Japanese furnishings with contemporary conveniences is fascinating and beautiful. More than once I wished I could hop through the screen and walk around.

The film drags heavily when it spends the bridge to the third act trying to be profound. Kenshin definitely has an interesting history, and Megumi a tragic past, but we're fed way too much material intent on pointing this out. It really isn't a stretch to suggest that most of us came in to watch swordfights, not characters dicking around and emotionlessly narrating the worst things that have ever happened to them. The denouement has a similar problem, starting out all right with an overwrought but at least decent statement on the value of what's all gone on, but then somehow transitioning into a two-minute dialogue just in case we weren't sure how we were supposed to feel about it. The conclusion is also a little awkward as the plot does a clumsy job of fitting the final two battles together, a consequence of a film having two major villains, especially ones who come from completely different parts of the original story.

None of this kills the experience, though, because Rurouni Kenshin is still well worth watching. It's not life-changing, but it is potentially thought-provoking, (mostly) tightly paced, and all kinds of fun, and maybe that's all it needs to be. I'd love to see the rumours of a possible series come to fruition; the duel between Kenshin and Shishi-o could be amazing in live action, and it would be nice to see the manga's ending in moving form. If that ever happens, I'll be right on board.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

And the battle continues!


Since the day classes started, the university's main thoroughfare has been a moshpit of club recruiters attempting to lure any and all passersby into their nest. They deck themselves out in official sportswear regardless of whether or not their particular club is even tangentially sports-related, trying to convince you to take an informational pamphlet, similar to those that get handed out for restaurants and so forth, but if you accept, they own your soul, and most people don't find out about this until it's too late.

Also, showing even the mildest interest will cause a swarm of their counterparts to converge on your location like so many Zerglings on a lone Marine, so the correct response, by and large, is to ignore them. Do not allow a pause in your conversation, do not look up from your cell phone, or if neither of those options is available to you, you can even just straight-up blank them. Actually, it must be a fairly unnerving experience, to have everyone pass you by like that; at the very least it should give you a good idea of what it would be like to be a ghost.

Techniques vary in their degree of obnoxiousness, from the mousy bespectacled girl who hesitantly extends a pamphlet while meekly inquiring if you would be maybe interested in possibly considering their club if it's not too much trouble, to the strapping lad who actively impedes your progress with his outstretched arm. That said, they tend to remain rooted to the spot, lest the enemy slip through a gap in their defences. What they generally do not do is chase after you at top speed and hunt down you specifically.

“We're the University Neeewspapeeeeer!” the girl sings with entirely too much enthusiasm.

I'm so startled by this new plan of attack that I actually break stride for a second and turn to look at her. I have to laugh.

“You've got good energy,” is the best I can offer, because yeah, sorry, I'm still not interested, whatever it is.

“Take it!” she insists in English, playfully annoyed, and I notice for the first time that she's in one of my English-taught culture classes. A sexy, leggy 18-year-old, she got back from two years of US high school last semester. I turn around and walk back. She's trying to give me a copy of the semester's first edition. Perhaps using her womanly wiles to divine the quickest way to secure my attention, she switches back to Japanese. “You can read it, right?”

I don't know what would give her that impression (or even who told her that I'd understand if she spoke Japanese to me), because no, I really can't. A text message conversation or online chat is fine, and I can work my through a simple passage if armed with a kanji dictionary, but anything of a formal or academic nature is beyond me. This was especially ironic to me because I'd just gotten out of a class where this was made painfully clear.

*

One of the things I'd decided, roughly five minutes after deciding to study here, was that I wanted to take some classes in Japanese. Like, not language classes – regular classes. Taught in Japanese. I did it during my high school ryuugaku, although at that time I'd technically already graduated and nobody expected me to do any work in the first place, so it didn't matter that I couldn't follow the material.

But that was four years ago, and I've improved like 389,000% since then, and hey! Maybe I can just audit the class! That would be cool, right? Attend the lectures, listen for the experience and the Japanese practise, be as inobtrusive as possible, but don't do any of the work or take the exam. I started talking about this to people, thinking out loud really, and one of the Germans, upon learning that my major is Philosophy, suggested that I attend a course called 日本思想史, or basically “Japanese Way of Thinking Through the Ages.” Rock on.

I walked into the first lecture and spotted him sitting with a Japanese girl and foreign girl; all four of us live at the same dorm. I know that both he and the foreign girl are higher level than me, and I have to admit, it really irks me. For one thing, and I really hate to make sweeping generalizations about entire cultures, but the Germans I have met in the last couple of weeks all seem to acquire a slight edge of arrogance about their Japanese once it reaches a certain level. This is true even when their Japanese is actually demonstrably lower than mine, and is particularly irritating because it comes part and parcel with otherwise fun, kind people. I have no idea why this exact personality defect has congregated in this particular demographic, but that has been my personal experience. Weird.

The other girl I have a little less respect for. The story goes that she is more or less the highest level out of any foreigner in the dorm, and she achieved that level of success by very legitimate and admirable means: She spread her books out on her desk and she bore down and studied, hours and hours per day, for months (this on top of whatever ability she already had when she arrived). Accordingly, this was the first time I'd ever even seen her. I never, ever thought that I would find myself with anything but praise for somebody who sees a goal and sets out to accomplish it through guts, hard work and their own power, but I kind of can't help but think that if you want to lock yourself in your room and learn Japanese from books and CDs, you can do that in your home country. It's just such a waste. Also, and I confirmed this with my own two ears, thanks to her self-imposed exile, her speaking is absolute shit.

Probably a little too much of my sense of self-worth is invested in my Japanese ability relative to that of others', but then again, these types of encounters always make me doubly determined to improve and surpass, so I guess it works out.

As the verbiage and handouts started flowing, I quickly realised that I was definitely in a little over my head. I had no problem discerning the subject on which the instructor was speaking, but I had no idea what kind of point he was making about it. But that's ok, I realised. I'm not going to actually take the class, anyway.

As ryuugakusei, we spend our first week hauling around a map-sized sheet of paper depicting the schedule of all language and culture classes, with spaces for writing in anything else you might want to take, like badminton or something. We are then required to get written permission from each teacher whose class we intend to take; to use the language of my home university, it's as if we are waitlisted for every single class.

Such being the case, following the lecture the three of us approached the teacher to receive his signature. I had prepared a fairly lengthy explanation in my head of what I was hoping to do, i.e. attend the class without taking it, in the hopes that enough of it would be sensical that he would eventually interrupt and take care of it. Hikikomori Girl observed with a rather self-satisfied smirk.

“The thing is,” I began, “I really have no confidence in my Japanese ability for taking such a difficult course, and I--”
“Oh,” he said at once, “don't even worry about it. Did you get the basic idea of today's lecture?”
“Well, I think I understood it very generally--”
“Yeah, that's enough. You're an international student, I don't expect you to be able to grasp every detail even if you take the class. And if you need any help, you can ask me, or ask those two. Look, in this course, there's going to be a bunch of different levels of understanding, right? So there's the most basic stuff on the surface, the two kanji I mentioned today – and then there's deeper levels under that, of course, but I don't care too much, if today you were able to understand what I was saying about those two kanji, that's good enough for me. Don't even worry about it.”
“I understand, but--”
“Don't even worry about it.”

So, somewhat contrary to my intentions, I am now taking a native-level university class in a language in which I am sometimes not able to conduct my daily life. Yikes. Hopefully he's serious about the double standard. A Japanese ten-year-old would have a better chance of passing this class than I have.

Exiting the building, the foreign trio caught the eye of some preppy kid. “Harro!” he called. Asshole. I pretended not to notice him, but ten steps later he'd sidled up beside me. “Where are you from?” He seemed friendly enough. All right, fine, you want to practise your English. I humoured him for a bit, until he introduced his friends and I responded with a casual “Yoroshiku.”

“Ahh!! You can speak Japanese!!” he informed me, his face actually awash with relief. He didn't want to practise English at all – in fact he rather would have liked to have avoided the whole experience entirely, if only he'd known – he was just trying to be friendly. He asked if I was “together” with the other two, and in an effort to succinctly explain that we are not from the same country and don't even really know each other, I basically implied that I'd have him please not lump me in with those losers, so they maybe hate me now. We chatted until we part ways and he promised to come talk to me next time he saw me.

*

“So I'll see you at Science and Technology later today,” 18 tells me perkily.

“I was actually thinking of doing Theatre and Film instead,” I tell her.

“No! You should do Science and Technology. It's really easy and it's fun, and the teacher is cool. And also there's no tests! It's all discussion. Yeah, it's definitely my recommendation.”

As it happens, just minutes earlier I spoke with another girl, an adorable 23-year-old I met at Sanjoubashi. She's dating a polarbear-like Korean guy who's studying law at the campus's grad school. She warned me about the Film teacher, saying she was a bit of an old bag and heavy on the homework. So now I was having one hot jgirl pushing me away from Film, and another one pushing me towards Science. I wonder how many times in my life I've made a decision on this basis. I tell her I'll think about it. It's pointless pride. She knows I'll be there.

The class is as simple as it's been billed, not to mention quite small, which is good for me since I kind of want to avoid being overly chummy with my fellow foreigners. That's a good way to trap yourself in a gaijin bubble. I then follow this up with a Japanese Literature class. You know how some foreigners have lived in Japan for 20 years, speak no Japanese, wish they could be anywhere else and know nothing about the country? This teacher was basically the exact opposite of that. His Japanese is better than mine, he majored in 12th and 13th Century Japanese poetry, and he's here by choice. He also assured me that, as the only native English speaker (among a cast of Japanese and Europeans), I'll have a pretty easy time with the course. Deal.

That evening I visit the Conversation branch of the English Club. At first I was hoping for something a little more Japanese, like kendou or ouendan (my secret calling), but on the other hand, what could possibly be more Japanese than English Club? More importantly, rumour has it that most participants' English is extremely poor and thus going to English Club is a great way to improve your Japanese. This turns out to be almost painfully true. I'm sold. I start to walk home with a different German guy and we go for late-night Chinese...ish...Japaneseish type food. We sit at the bar.

I've researched and located another class, 京都文化論 (Kyouto Culture, uh, Argument), and I've done it independently of the aforementioned twats, so when I walk in the next day I'm the only foreigner in the joint. This is somehow more gratifying and enjoyable.

Having lived in Kyouto twice now, a class on Kyouto culture seems to make sense. The teacher spends the entire lesson talking about the different resources available to students. At least a third of the students in my field of view are openly sleeping, as you do, and if Japanese were my native language I'd be just as bored, but I'm rapt. Yes, teacher, I absolutely understand how to access and make use of this website that I will definitely never use! Tell me more! Following the class, of course, I have to go through the same prostration as before, and amusingly, this time I get basically the opposite reaction.

“Ah, yes,” he nods, “if you're just going to come and listen, then that should be fine.”

I resolve that I will absolutely not be late to or absent from this class, ever. It's different for those I have an actual stake in, but when I've specially received permission, as a guest, it's a privilege I am not going to take lightly.

Finishing the day with some kanji review, I realise that a more serious portion of my studies has begun. Reading class is kicking my ass and 日本思想史 feels like I'm watching a gunfight and may be hit by a stray bullet at any moment. If there ever was a time for fucking around, it's over now.

On the other hand, I swell with pride a little too. Everyday tasks are becoming simpler. I've encountered some cuties. My life for the next six months is now cemented. A few random encounters and suddenly I've got some friends.

In the words of Toukyou Drift's Sean Boswell, I think I'm getting to like this country already.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Gaijin Tales: The brush-pass and accidental vandalism

Some of the stuff that happens to me is worth mentioning but not particularly meritorious of any drawn-out analysis or play-by-play. So, lifting the concept directly from Stupid Ugly Foreigner's Weekly Waygook, I present Gaijin Tales, a collection of vignettes from my life since I've arrived.


*

Coming down into the main part of Kansai Airport after having been detained at Immigration, my white face immediately identified me to an airport employee as the rightful owner of a heretofore seemingly masterless suitcase. Minutes later, I was all but tackled by the driver of a shuttle I was about to ride, who tracked me down by the same method. When I arrived at the hotel, the clerk behind the desk took one look at me and at once handed me my room key, without asking for my name or even what I was there to do.

*

The day of our arrival at the dorm, my German roommate and I decided to take a walking tour of the surrounding area. After a while, we started to notice that people seemed to be breaking right whenever they saw us, rather than left as they really should have been. You can kind of see the logic: White people are American, Americans break right, and there you have it.

I've since decided that the only solution was to aggressively position myself as far left as physically possible at all times, staring down anyone who breaks right as if daring them not to assimilate me into their culture. Later I asked about this, and it turns out that people actually more often pass each other on the right when they're walking, and then if one of you is on a bicycle and one is ambulating all bets are off. I don't even know any more.

*

Though this is my fourth time in Japan, until now I had yet to encounter one of those mythical creatures who refuse to be vanquished even when decapitated, the very possibility of whose presence can strike horror into the hearts of even the most stalwart. Yes, I opened my bathroom door and discovered a cockroach, who quickly dived under the cover of the sink cabinet and vanished into the darkness. The front desk supplied me with an appropriate weapon to combat the beast, so it may well be that it is now no more than a corpse. Then again, the room is supposed to have been fumigated prior to my arrival, implying that there is in fact an alternate entrance deep within. Perhaps it lies in wait even now, preparing to mount a counterattack.

*

In perhaps my unluckiest judgment call so far, I was walking behind a group of some other international students and watched them turn right; know what, I thought, screw that noise, and I went left. I ended up discovering what seemed to be a mild forest path, but it took only two facefulls of spider silk before I was hefting a stick, hacking at the air anytime I passed between two trees. The spiders in this area are massive, yellow, and terrifying, though they wisely flee from humans. I figured that surely I was now closer to the exit than the entrance, but my decision to continue forth merely delivered me into denser and denser foliage. Desperate to escape, I emerged onto a sprawling 18-hole golf course, and I think I experienced every single one of them by the time I was able to return to the road. I leaped onto the footpath, startling an old granny waiting for the bus, who listened to my story and was so amused she took my picture with her cell phone.

*

I always attach my housekeys to my wallet, which lately I've been keeping in my back pocket.

Since new foreigners have to get registered with the local Ward Office, we went down in a group of ten or so. We walked in, reveling in the air conditioning, trying to be quiet, and took our seats on the plush, couch-like benches.

“I just punched two holes in the seat with my keys,” I announced.

*

And that's it.  If enough stupid things happen to me quickly enough, I may turn this into a running series. Here's hoping my dumbassery continues to draw me into ever more facepalm-worthy adventures.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Back to school



Classes formally began on Thursday, and I was stoked to get my studyin' on. It might be a little odd that I've never thought of myself as a self-learner, since 90% of my Japanese-learning adventures have taken place outside the classroom. In fact, it's been roughly four years since I last dealt with the language in any kind of formal capacity, so I was a little nervous to be heading back in. Not only is shooting the shit a totally different skillset, but it usually lacks the vacuum that results when you make a mistake, the teacher and your classmates allowing their silent judgment to hang in the air like a cloud of static electricity.

My initial impression of the head teacher had been of a kind woman in her thirties who would nonetheless be stiff and strict once the books were cracked, but this turned out to be totally wrong. Since it is, after all, a conversation class, she speaks to some topic and then question us on our opinions of an issue or how such and such is done in our own country, a technique I've seen in action in any number of ESL classrooms. Excepting pauses for instructions and vocabulary-building, it's really more of a roundtable than anything. Grammar is similar, but more focussed, and, as you'd expect, significantly more technical. There's a lot of overlap, but you could say that Grammar gives us the tools, and Conversation has us put them to use.

Of course, one cock had to ruin it by figuring that, by God, he'd been here six months already, and he'd be damned if this class would not be his personal stage for reminding everybody of how experienced and proficient he is. But there's one of those in every group. Maybe it's you.

The difficulty so far has been just about right. The head teacher's speech is a little bit slow and deliberate for my tastes, but the other one speaks with a more natural speed and cadence. Unfortunately, my reading is going to require a lot more work and likely some preparation before each class, as became clear when I was asked to read a paragraph aloud. My real concern is with what's going to happen when the actual Reading class starts next week, as I fear being booted out of the room in shame amidst gales of laughter, but what do you want.

In addition to our Japanese language classes, we also take a number of courses in Japan-related topics intended for Japanese students who desire the experience of being instructed in English. At first I was less than thrilled by the prospect, because I didn't come to Japan to practise my English, but after attending a few lectures I'm now a little more excited. This is still, after all, an opportunity that would never be available outside the country, and should afford a depth that would be unreachable in Japanese, at least until I reach an academic level.

We're only required to take a handful, but I'll probably end up doing more, because when will I ever have an opportunity to study these topics from a Japanese perspective again? Being a longtime political animal, I was quite eager to join the classes on Japanese politics and government, as well as the one on its foreign policy. I was delighted to find both devoid of the obnoxiously socialist types who tend to populate similar offerings in Canada, where a casual comment about the cost of a large hot chocolate is liable to embroil you in an inescapable hour-long lesson on skim milk protests in Chile, Warren Buffet's Syrian ancestry, and the American government's secret plan to manipulate global weather patterns by controlling the distribution of hemp.

Since I've recently acquired a strong interest in Japanese history, in stark contrast to having previously not given a shit about anything that happened there more than a day ago, I'm particularly stoked for that one, and was doubly delighted to find that nearly all classes are going to have some kind of historical component. Japanese culture? We look at Japanese culture through the ages! Japanese foreign policy? We look at how America was treated differently between now and 1868! All of this is going to be great review for me, since I've always had problems remembering stuff like what year the Nara Jidai began, and how was Heian society different from Edo society, and did Nobunaga have a Zekrom or a Reshiram.

Zekrom. It was Zekrom.


It is a bit of an adjustment from what I'm used to, like the fact that there are so many classes, each with only one 90-minute meeting per week. Even when I came here in high school the more examinable courses, like Kokugo, were given a little more chronological lovin'. Tardiness and absenteeism is also taken much more seriously than in Canada, where as long as you shut up and sit down when you do arrive, it's your business whether you'd been confined to bed by illness or leather straps. Mid-session meals are also frowned upon, quite a shock to a guy who'd watched people consume entire three-course meals over the course of a class. Most shockingly of all, not a single classroom contains a clock, probably to encourage pupils to pay attention to the lecture rather than envisioning the moment when they spring from their seats and flee the scene. In a way it kind of works, since cell phones are similarly banned, and sneaking a furtive glance when there's only five students in the class takes some practise.

Wait, I guess that mean it doesn't work at all, doesn't it? Or possibly that I'm a terrible student. Likely both.

Should be good.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Careful placement


Saturday saw us taking a written accuplacer that would help to determine which level of Japanese classes we will be taking this semester. It came in at six pages of graduating difficulty, ranging from “I am aware that Japanese is a thing” to “I am capable of reading an essay literally written by a kindergartner.” Almost everybody then spent the next couple of days stressing out over how “badly” they had done, which of course is a completely wrong-headed way to think about it. The test, after all, is intended to measure one's ability; it's not a pass/fail proposition by any means.

But uh, maybe that's easy for me to say, since I scored the highest.

The night before was solemn and quiet as most people huddled over the textbook of their choice, reviewing grammar points. The night after everyone got extremely wasted.

The second component of the placement process was a face-to-face interview with several of the Japanese teachers, broken up into groups based on what happened with your written test. If anything, this proved even more nerve-wracking for most – the fact that we were made to gather in a waiting room before facing the firing squad can't have helped – but I can happily say that I was in my element. I'm like an atom when I get to talking, able to effortlessly maintain the same speed almost indefinitely, yet requiring a tremendous amount of energy to bring to a halt.

As much as my reading and writing may be lagging lately, conversation is one area where I can really show off my ability. One girl noted that much of the stuff she'd learned in class was completely inapplicable to actual communication. Though vocabulary in the vein of “agriculture” and “rescue squad” has its place, its not quite as utilitarian as the Japanese I've learned from watching TV and talking to people, which put me at a strong advantage. Even so, I felt a lurch in my gut as I sat down before the panel, painfully conscious of every twitch of my body and lapse in my keigo, their awkward stares making my eyebrows itch.

The last question the head teacher had for me was whether a particular textbook seemed difficult. Thinking carefully, I said honestly, “It does look difficult, but I think I could do it.”

The nervousness that everyone else seemed to have been feeling finally hit me in the lingering moments before our placements were announced. What if I'd messed up? What if I hadn't been put in the highest group? What if I was...average? But if my placement had hinged on my answer to the textbook question, clearly I'd managed to take the right action under pressure, because I found myself in the highest level. And now I'm having the opposite problem, worrying that I'm grasping beyond my reach, that I will quickly be forced to flee in shame and take refuge in a less demanding class.

Actually, there is a level above, but it's populated by Chinese students, who can read anything that's put in front of them but tend to have weak grammar and next to no speaking skills, which is actually why they're separated into their own level. So whatever.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Political Realities in Smalltown Kyouto


Today was a day of small personal triumphs as I achieved mastery in such tasks as eating at a restaurant, riding public transit and not murdering myself.

Around lunch my roommate, Cologne, announced that he wanted to check out a restaurant in the shopping district and asked if I wanted to come with, and I jumped at the opportunity to get out of the dorm. I really need to make clear how tiny this place is, and how little there is to do; the old guard, the students, and even the teachers have been moved to comment on it. Yesterday I took a walk to see if I could find anything interesting and went for two hours before I found anything resembling a city centre. Imagine if you lived in Medicine Hat, but Medicine Hat was right next to Manhattan, but it was still too far to walk, and the train there cost 550 yen.

So we went down to Nakau, which I've never heard of until now but is apparently quite a famous chain. Cologne described it as “kind of a Japanese McDonald's,” which is apt, except that this place is nicer, tastier, and cheaper. It was also my first-ever encounter with making a vending machine-style purchase from a storefront. Even if you've never visited Japan you've almost certainly heard this described so I won't belabour the point, but basically you put money in, locate the button for the item you want to eat (it may or may not be accompanied by a picture; if not you'll just have to compare kanji with the nearby menu), and take the ticket it dispenses, which you then present to the waitress. This can be quite handy if you don't speak Japanese, or are feeling shy, or recently bet that your tongue wouldn't stick to a frozen metal pole.

I was a little hesitant in my actions, but did manage to procure the prize. We sat at the bar, because when given the opportunity I always sit at the bar, and were startled by how quickly the food arrived. It was accompanied by bottomless, cold, delicious green tea. I was favourably impressed with the quality of my donburi, as well, until I realised that I had basically just eaten a bowl of bacon.

Satisfied and vowing to come back often, we left the shopping district (a grocery store and a 100-yen shop) and headed back in the direction of the school, where we ran into some German girls going to the “Open,” which I guess the students' union puts on to welcome shinnyuusei and dispense information. Since I'm used to being the sole translator, it was a bit of an effort to be as inobtrusive as possible and only help the lower-level ryuugakusei when they were truly stuck, though I couldn't help but showboat a little. Cologne correctly pointed out that if I wanted attention from the girls we were chatting up, I was revealing too much of my hand: It would be better if I spoke only a little Japanese, rather than trying to have actual conversations. As unbelievably sad as that is, he is of course absolutely right.

I eventually left them there because I had an appointment to keep. The fact is, living where I am has started to wear on me. Obviously I wanted to go to Japan, but at the same I very much wanted to leave my shitty little town, so it was with great disappointment that I discovered I'd be living in another shitty little town. With nowhere to go but the international dormitories, I've become trapped in a Gaijin Bubble, spending time with only other foreigners and speaking only English, a situation I specifically wanted to avoid. I literally spent more time with Japanese people in Canada than I have been since I arrived here.

So I called up a friend I have in Kyouto and stopped just short of begging him to hang out with me. He was all too enthusiastic to meet up, having not even realised that I was in Japan, and with us not having seen each other in over a year. I met my first challenge as I boarded the local train station platform and found no clear place to buy a ticket. I'm going to write this out for the benefit of anyone who ever visits smalltown Japan and ends up as baffled by this as I was.

I asked a couple of young guys what was up and they told me that you “buy the ticket on the train” – actually, you just collect it, as you would on the bus. My confusion was not alleviated by the fact that the first machine I located transpired to be broken. Upon arriving at my destination, I physically handed the ticket and accompanying money to a station employee, briefly wondering if the train had passed through a time portal to 1934. Going back you give it to the train operator when you get off, and he can take money and even make change if you've underpaid. Since I last lived here I'd forgotten some of the finer points of riding the train (such as how to read the board and figure out whether it's going to be faster to disembark and wait for a faster train or just stay with the one you're on), but after asking what amounted to a small army of employees where the hell to go I reached my destination, feeling inordinately pleased by my success.

Brains and I agreed to meet in Sanjou, a place that incidentally holds a lot of sentimentality for me from when I studied here in high school. I emerged from Keihan Sanjou and it looked just as it did in my memories. We passed the convenience store where I bought alcohol for the first time in my life, and the riverbank where I drank it; we traversed the intersection where I once saw another high school ryuugakusei, a girl, with her Japanese friends; we ambled by what had once been an umbrella shop, where Soccer bought a defective umbrella. And we also passed masses and masses of cute girls, which was a relief, because although everybody has been telling me that my new school is loaded with them, cruising for bitches has so far proven unsuccessful.

“You know,” I told him, voicing the thought aloud for the first time, “this is the first time since I've arrived that I felt like I was actually in Japan.”

We didn't do anything particularly special – browsed some shops, searched unsuccessfully for a Murakami novel with furigana, ate some food – but I was overjoyed to finally have something happening. After five days, I've finally rediscovered the reason I wanted to come in the first place. I've found the excitement. And although I think it was partially luck I'm now confident I can navigate my way downtown again should I ever suddenly feel the need to escape smalltown suffocation for a few hours. If I have to die, at least me experience stuff like Sanjou a little bit more first. On the way back, I grinned like a moron.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Thermae Romae mini-review



I watched Thermae Romae on the plane, and I certainly wouldn't spend money on it.

The reasonably ridiculous premise is that an ancient Roman architect (and bath connoisseur) finds himself periodically transported to modern-day Japan, via a time-space vortex that seemingly appears anytime he touches the bottom of a body of water. There, he find a culture that takes bathing just as seriously as does his own, and soon starts to develop a friendship with a young girl he meets over several chance encounters.

To its credit, the film takes the well-trodden gag routine of “man from the past enthralled/confounded by modern technology” and puts a fresh spin on it with the bath focus, a place you wouldn't generally think to go. It's at its best during the mildly amusing comedy moments of protagonist Lucius getting to grips with the many conveniences the Japanese have contrived, ideas which he then takes back with him and introduces to his home. This catches the attention of Emperor Hadrian and he quickly finds himself a well-respected celebrity.

Sadly, despite the absurd premise Thermae Romae somehow can't manage to create anything truly interesting. Some of the little things are genuinely comedic, like Lucius taking a bathrobe and trying to use it as a toga, his frequent nudity, and his tendency to refer to Japanese as “the Flat-Face People” and continually remark on their supposed status as slaves. However, these bits of charm are only found piecemeal throughout, a handful of bright spots accenting a general feeling of going through the motions.

More tragic still, its two stars, both of whom I actually quite like, are completely wasted. Abe Hiroshi spends a lot of time wandering around and being surprised, but is never quite given a chance to showcase all the quirks and details that make him such an entertaining character actor. He's also so aggressively Japanese it's difficult to believe him as a Roman. For her part, Ueto Aya could easily have been replaced by basically anyone at all without much difference.

In the third act Thermae Romae seems to realise that it needs to develop a plot in order to actually be a movie, so it goes on a jarring extended sequence where Ueto's character travels back to Ancient Rome in order to help Lucius do...something that involves fighting, I think, and whose neglect will change the course of history. Actually, what? She's worried that if one character, who dislikes Hadrian, becomes emperor instead of another one, who does, Hadrian will not be exalted in later times. How does that change history? We would have ended up with Nero's Wall or what? It kind of doesn't matter, as the whole thing really falls apart at this point.

Thermae Romae has a lot of potential but quietly fails to live up to it. It's not even bad, it's just kind of dull. It's kind of a bummer that it was the only Japanese film available on the plane, and if I'd been able to pick something else I'd have gone with that one instead.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Ride on Time



Hit play and start reading.

Kthxbai

“This is just as stressful for me as it is for you, you know,” my father tells me.

“No,” I laugh, “I think it's way more stressful for you.”

As if to continue the trend of Japan willing to let me in, but not without a fight, I managed to declare that I had none of the banned materials in my luggage and then realise just a second too late that I actually did. Jugs had given me a Zippo lighter as an early Christmas present since “like everyone in Japan smokes,” but since I do not, I had forgotten all about it. All that happened was that I wasn't allowed to bring it, but I think they suspected that I was, not so much a terrorist, but a bit of an idiot. I decided I'm ok with that. At least they let suspected idiots on the plane.

I was then thrilled to learn that there had been an error in my baggage; rather than being checked straight through to Kansai as requested, I was to pick it up at Incheon and re-check it, and since I was starting with Air Canada and transferring to Korean Air it looked like I'd be without much recourse. Finally the guy suggested I pick it up at Vancouver and then check it straight through with Korean Air, which was good, but had the side-effect of trapping me outside the security barrier, rather than transferring straight from Domestic to International per the original plan. The early-morning miracle of Air Canada Jazz put me in YVR fully seven hours prior to my next flight, and now I had to spend all of it in the open (i.e. pickpocket-laden) part of the place, with my gigantic suitcase making everything that much more difficult.

The airport, however, is not nearly as complex or intimidating as I remember it being when I was 17, and I was delighted by my own newfound navigation abilities. At some point I fell in with a Korean-Canadian kid, about 16 years old and going off to see relatives for a few weeks, and his full-Korean and extremely fretful mother. I'm pretty sure she was trying to get him to latch onto me – the older , more experienced traveller, I guess – even sacrificing a spot almost at the beginning of the line to come and stand behind me, but I think he wanted to enjoy his independence, and we lost each other in security. In no mood for a hanger-on, I was actually a little relieved.

Hands up for Kgirls

I was particularly pleased to be flying Korean Air because if Japan sunk into the ocean tomorrow, I'd move on to Korea. I'm dying to visit one day (Incheon International Airport doesn't count), and, although I might just be exoticizing, the language has a certain musical quality to it that is only compounded when uttered by a bevy of prim, pleasing young women whose job is to be accommodating.

I'm gonna get in shit for this, but can we all just take a moment to appreciate Korean women? Cause I'm pretty sure they're my favourite out of any country, and the stewardesses Cabin Attendants on this flight made me want to take back all the things I used to think about their super-oversexed commercial that played a few years back.

Because nope, that's pretty much legit how it is. With those sexy hair detailings and everything. A couple of times while waiting for the flight a group of ten or so walked past me, and I mean, like, is it possible to get high off pheromones? Cause I think I just about OD'd. Then for 11 hours I got to enjoy watching them place baggage in the overhead compartments, lean over to speak with passengers, and so forth.

Except at one point I misheard a girl's question and accidentally ordered something Western instead of bibimbap like I was thinking and I was like noooo please Noona please please don't think I'm some whitebread loser please pleeeease you're SO PRETTY.

Jugs dared me to try to ask one to take a picture with me, but I lost my nerve.

Making Connections

Incidentally, I watched Thermae Romae on the plane. I don't recommend it.

After experiencing four airports in less than 24 hours, I've grown quite confident in making my way through them. The only part I got held up in was Immigration, where I proved myself completely ignorant of the required paperwork. I was also unrested, unshaven, and unaware that the picture had already been taken while I was waiting for it to be set up, so now my foreign resident card will forever immortalize me as being haggard as shit.

Then it was off to my hotel, which I would never have been able to afford had I not scored a deal of Kgirl-level smoking hotness, and which transpired to be the type of place where you could probably occupy a full week without leaving the grounds. Then I realised: A girl on the plane (who, incidentally, was a French major returning from Paris), two Immigration guys, a Customs guy, and two shuttle drivers had all addressed me in Japanese without even batting an eye at my ability to respond. I never get that treatment in the old country.

Now I'm at the dorm.

So I guess I live in Japan now.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Last Canada

Yesterday was chiefly dedicated to getting in a few last-minute visits with all the people I won't be seeing for a while. I checked out old haunts. Yelled goodbyes across intersections. Got in one more hangout session with all my most important people, who were unfailingly supportive. A group of my Japanese friends even presented me with a card (followed by a group hug) filled with a personal message from each, as is customary. It was very sweet.

I was so touched that I started to briefly have serious doubts about what I'm doing. My life here is safe, warm, happy, and useful, and I'm about to abandon it to chase a cloud at the top of a hill.

Then my friend Jugs told me that I'm doing exactly what I should be doing, and I snapped out of it.

Now it's the opposite, and I can't wrap my head around how totally level I feel. I'm not nervous, I'm not even excited. Aren't I going on a grand adventure? So how can I feel so calm?

The evening was my father's retirement party, which was a cocktail of strange emotions in and of itself, where news of my departure was rapidly slung around the room and I shortly found myself bombarded with well-wishes from what seemed like everyone I'd ever met, including those who hadn't seen me for two decades. Predictably, most people opened with the same few questions (which, to be fair, are all things you'd naturally want to know), but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't chuffed, and they led to all kinds of interesting conversations ranging from literary history to employee management.

It was a powerful reminder of everybody who's making this happen for me. At the same time as this is a titanic solo endeavour, I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who's offered their love, money, and assistance, because I only climbed this high by standing on their shoulders.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Process


So far, I'd twice taken the early steps of doing a university-level study abroad but never actually gone through with it. First financial, and then personal reasons kept me in Canada, but then out of nowhere I was offered a chance to go to Korea for a year, with nearly all my expenses paid for. About time, I thought! It came right at a point in my life where seemingly nothing was going my way, so I couldn't help but feel like it was almost a karmic apology. After filling out the necessary reams of paperwork – to which I have become accustomed over the years, having grown up amongst bureaucracy, so I really can't complain – I was swiftly accepted by the Busan university extending the offer and shuttled onto the next stage of the process. After an excruciating wait of more than a month, in which time I was forced to forgo some other academic opportunities because I had no way of knowing if I'd be there to capitalize on them, I was informed that the Korean government had rejected me on the grounds of my low GPA. The university had even issued an appeal on my behalf, but this too was rejected.

It was a very short episode, but an emotionally jarring one. I'd gone from thinking I would be in Canada for several years longer, to thinking I'd be on a plane in less than six weeks, to finding out that it was to be business as usual. It certainly messed with my plans for the immediate future, but at least it did one thing: It reminded me that I really, really want to get out of here as soon as possible. As someone who doesn't intend to stick around forever, I feel like every year spent in the motherland borders on being a complete waste of time. This near-miss provided me with the last push I needed to walk up to the Study Abroad office and finally set things in motion.

So I filled out all the paperwork again, much of it almost or completely identical to the Korea application. Part of it required me to write a letter of self-introduction, which I drafted in Japanese before having a team of my friends huddle over it, correcting and revising. I got photographs taken and requisitioned the necessary documentation from the Canadian government and my home university. I was subjected to a mild interview. Finally, I put the package together and faxed it off. Several days later, I received a reply from the coordinator in Japan.

“Thanks you very much for your application,” it read. “Unfortunately, we will require you to re-submit some of the material. We have since revised our application process, and Immigration no longer accepts the forms you submitted. Here are the updated documents. As the 30th is our application deadline, please make all efforts to submit them as soon as possible.”

Attached was all the stuff I needed to re-do. It was basically everything. I got this on the 28th. My first attempt had taken over a week. Uh-oh.

I spent almost one entire day going over the new forms and ensuring that everything was correct and in order. I was now required to write a statement of intent on top of the self-introduction, so I transferred the more formal sections into the latter and expanded on some of the details of both. Again, I had people I know look it over, pinching and prodding, discussing amongst themselves, sometimes at great length. Somehow I managed to get it all done in time. I knew that the head of the Study Abroad office at my Canadian university would be out, so I called its only other worker first thing in the morning.

It went to voice mail. She would be out of the office, just this one day.

No, I thought. Surely, surely I'm not going to go down on something this stupid.

My only idea was to go to the general International people and see if they could help me, but then by chance I encountered my coordinator. She was leaving in slightly under an hour and was just checking in on things before taking off for a month. If there was any providence to be had, this was it. In what I hoped was a confident tone, I asked her what I should do, being that today was the deadline and nobody was around to submit the forms.

“Oh, don't worry about that,” she told me, cool as can be. “We're buddy-buddy with those guys. They won't care if we submit it a bit late.”

Great.

At least it was done, though. Owing to the unavoidable delays of the highly necessary and dignified medical tests I was required to undergo, I completed my full submission almost three weeks after the deadline. It went through with no problems.

Funding my adventure proved similarly painful. I knew I was going to have to borrow large amounts of money from the government in order to make this happen, so I pulled an elegantly clever little trick. For the first time ever, I signed up for summer semester, arranging my application so I'd receive as much loan money as possible, then registering for the minimum required number of courses to count as a full-time student. I then lived frugally throughout the summer, and naturally I was left with a nice little chunk of bonus when I was done. Actually getting it required a variety of corrective faxes and letters, plumbing the depths of a telephone labyrinth and a physical trip to the bank, but I finally managed it.

The fall semester money was equally stupid. Since I wouldn't be registering for any courses in Canada, I needed the Office of the Registrar to record me as a full-time student. To do that, the Study Abroad office would have to assure them that I would, indeed, be studying abroad full-time in the fall. And for that to happen, I needed the Japanese government to ratify my Certificate of Eligibility, which states that a given person will be entering the country for a legitimate reason and that the government doesn't feel that the harm they will cause while there is worth expending the effort of trying to stop them. Then a bureaucratic hiccough delayed the issue of all Certificates of Eligibility. I ended up spending the entirety of July waiting for the bureaucratic waterfall to start up so I could start the next round of begging for money, all the while not even knowing for sure whether I was going or not.

Despite my mounting anxiety it did eventually arrive, and shortly after it was time to move out of my apartment, my home for the last two years. Packing all my things ended up being a very slow, sombre affair, as practically each and every item I touched saw me reflecting on the masses of memories I'd formed there, pacing around and sighing sadly. I had no desire to leave, and I had even less desire to move back in with my parents for a month, but I looked upon it as a necessary sacrifice to accomplish my goals.

It's incredible how much sheer stuff I had managed to accumulate since moving out three years earlier, and merely integrating it all into the morass already occupying my old room could have been a yearlong project in and of itself. But there was Visa application to put in, which necessitated yet another goddamn headshot, but proved to be surprisingly streamlined, since the school was now sponsoring me. I thrust a prepaid envelope into another prepaid envelope, added the necessary documents, and then watched with growing discomfort as the projected cost of my plane ticket steadily rose. It's easy to say now that - since there was never really any chance of there being a problem - I should have just gone ahead with it as soon as I was accepted into the programme, but I just couldn't reconcile the risk.

University policy requires every international student to have absolutely gratuitous amounts of insurance, so in the meantime I started looking into various policies. I'll still have MSP (BC's provincial socialized medicine), and I'll be required to opt in to Japan's national health insurance plan, which is irksome, but fine. My mother's employer also covers her dependants if they leave the country for the purposes of study for a period of not greater than two years, covering me for up to $5,000,000 if I'm injured or otherwise hospitalized, though only $10,000 if I die. Somehow believing that five times the recommended coverage was insufficient, my parents then purchased some kind of private insurance as well, so forget about looking both ways, I'm not even bothering to keep my eyes open when I cross the street.

My Visa finally arrived last weekend, and by no means too early. Japanese Visas are actually quite stylish and attractive now, and feature an actual picture or the bearer rather than appearing to be a dot matrix from 1981. I saved a few hundred dollars by booking an epic journey that's going to make the Amazon River look like a milk run. I have my first-night accommodations nailed down, my cell phone worked out, converters purchased, maps printed off, approximately 1500 pounds of brand-new clothing ready to go.

Damn it...clothing. I still need to pack.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Long Goodbye

After being away for four years, I'm finally going back to Japan. There's only a few days left and I can hardly even grasp the concept. It seems almost absurd that I'm simply going to be gone, and my life here will continue on without me, as if my skull has been jerked to a stop but my brain is going to keep hurtling forward for a while.

I have doubts. This is what I've been working towards since - well, since I left, really. But I can't help but question my own choice of timing. The latest influx of Japanese students into my university are all really cool, and I'd love to spend more time with them. I have to leave behind a university club I helped build from the ground up as Vice President. Worst of all, what about the money?

But there'll always be reasons not to go, even if they're not the same ones from year to year. This is something I have to do. For myself.

Last night was both a welcome party for new Japanese students, and also my goodbye party, the culmination of months. Since a big part of the job I've been doing up until now has been to make others look good and feel special (not that I don't get in a good amount of attention-whoring in the course of a day anyway), it was fun, even strange, to be the main event for once. I was surrounded by some of my favourite people in the world and they all kept feeding me beer. It was great.

At the afterparty, a handful of those same people, all Japanese, tricked me into going to "check on" my car, just to see if it was still there or something. I was goaded into clambering inside, had my wallet and phone thrown in with me, and just as I finally clued in that something was off, I leaped back out just in time to see the other vehicle peeling away. Very, very classy.

They'd left me alone, drunk, in the middle of the night, with nowhere to go and no way to get there if I had.

Did they think I was just going to drive home? What the hell would they have done if I ended up in jail or the hospital?

I'm still livid. Luckily, the club President, a dear friend of mine, lives near where I was parked, so I was able to conduct an expedition to her apartment and bang on her patio door until her boyfriend came to let me in. Not only that, but he and everyone else at the house was sympathetic and compassionate upon hearing the story, not even caring about the interruption and inconvenience I was incurring upon them. You really get to know who your friends are when you're in trouble.

I feel deeply betrayed, and to be entirely honest, this has temporarily soured my view of Japanese people as a whole. Because no matter if I was being loud and annoying, or problematic, or whatever it was that made them decide to get me out of there, absolutely nothing excuses that behaviour.

Not the note I was hoping to launch this blog on, but real life writes the headlines.

The fun part is, if on Monday I confront them as a group, somehow it will all be my fault.