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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

1h 27 min; Netflix.

It’s the beginning of summer. Yuki (or “Smile”) is a teenage social media influencer with buck teeth that she is getting corrected with braces—only she doesn’t like her braces and seeks to hide them behind face masks (in this anime world that COVID hasn’t touched). Yui, otherwise known as “Cherry” because of his last name (“Sakura”), is a shy and retiring teenage haiku writer who is filling in for his mother at the elder care community centre of the local shopping mall and who seems to have some sort of sensory processing disorder as he shuts out most of the world by wearing over ear headphones that don’t actually play music. By chance, they literally bump into each other at the aforementioned mall and accidentally swap phones.

Tangled up in all of this is one of the seniors who attends elder care, Mr Fujiyama, who constantly carries around a record sleeve emblazoned with the word Yamazakura across the front. He’s looking for the disc that used to be in that sleeve, and the mystery behind it serves to bring Smile and Cherry closer together. Meanwhile, the Daruma festival approaches.

There were a lot of things I liked about this: it’s a gentle and simple story, but I liked the nuances given to each of the characters that made them feel less two-dimensional. I liked how Cherry’s haikus popped up as graffiti all over the place (thanks to his friend Beaver, who was using them to practise writing in Japanese), and how the scenes and the story gave his poetry an added weight and meaning. “Haikus help me express things in words better”, he says a third of the way through the film, which means they open up additional insight into what his character is thinking and feeling. Smile could have just come across as a ditzy, too self-conscious and shallow bimbo, but there was also a shyness, a sadness and an anxiety to her that made her relatable. Even though Smile and Cherry are quite different, they shared a lot of similarities, and I liked how often they were portrayed in parallel, their bodies mimicking each other. The other thing that struck me was their relationship with their phones (perhaps because I’m old!): their devices were a near-constant part of their lives and, perhaps, their identities, and much of the movie was mediated through those small screens.

The other thing I liked was the layers of culture and history that the script wove on top of such a simple story—not just in Mr Fujiyama’s past, but also in the history of the shopping mall, Cherry’s haikus, the meanings bound up in the words he looks up in his saijiki (a dictionary or almanac of seasonal terms used in haiku), and even the Daruma festival and its related paraphernalia. (Daruma dolls abounded throughout this film: from what I can gather, they symbolise good luck, but they also encourage people to strive for their goals: they’re sold with blank eyes, and the idea is that you fill in one eye when you’ve landed on your objective, and you fill in the other eye when you’ve achieved it.)

The animation was quite different to what I’ve been used to seeing in other anime like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Your Name and even Studio Ghibli fare: the lines seemed sketchier and less defined; the colours were flatter, brighter and oversaturated; and the movement in some of the action scenes was more dynamic and crazier. I rather liked it and thought it suited the summer/candyland aesthetic the filmmakers were going for.

The ending was sweet and felt earned, though there were still some questions left up in the air that made it feel less resolved. But overall, I enjoyed this one as a light bit of fun and recommend it as a nice escape from lockdown.

3 stars.

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So I’m working on a novel …

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.

But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.

 But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.

Genesis

To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.

It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).

So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.

I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.

Mugen and Jin from “Samurai Champloo”.

Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)

The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.

Edo Japan

Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)

In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)

Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.

Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.

The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)

I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)

The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.

However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.

Boring Fantasy Novel

Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)

Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.

The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.

As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.

Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.

Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.

Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.

The Taika Novel

It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.

So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.

I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.

As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.

What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.

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Rest in the time of lockdown

Lockdown + holiday

I am writing this in the middle of the 2021 Sydney lockdown, which started at the beginning of the school holidays. This was bad timing for us as it meant we had to cancel our holiday to Port Macquarie. We were even on our way there when the Premier announced a press conference: we got as far as Gosford when we decided to turn around and come home again, because lockdown restrictions would have followed us there and we agreed it was better to suffer through lockdown in our house instead of our two bedroom flat AirBnb. So that was a long way to go just to eat McDonald’s in the carpark! When we returned home, my youngest complained, “This is the most boringest day of my life.” She did have a point.

For the next week, we stayed home, sleeping in, reading books and binge-watching things. My mother and her partner very kindly gave me my birthday present early, which was a subscription to Disney+, so we caught up on Pixar films, and Ben and I started watching The Mandalorian. I tried to deal my disappointment and subsequent depression but it was very hard: I haven’t had a leave-the-house-and-go-somewhere holiday in such a long time (which I know is such a first world problem)—in almost a year, really, though I’m not sure if I can really count the trip we took to Terrigal with a friend and her daughter during the September break last year as we were solo/tag-team parenting the entire time. I felt like I was on the verge of burnout. I also felt like I was being overly dramatic even saying that.

Still, I made lemonade with the lemons life gave me. After chatting with another friend about what she does with her kids, I made a checklist for the girls that contained a bunch of things they had to do before they were allowed on screens. It includes:

  • Guitar practice;
  • Chores;
  • Exercise/outdoor play for at least 20 minutes;
  • Reading a book for at least 20 minutes;
  • Colour/writing/drawing something for at least 20 minutes;
  • Making/building something creative; and
  • Tidying up.

The girls took to it pretty enthusiastically and didn’t even complain. If they completed everything (which sometimes happened by 11:30am), we let them spend the rest of the day on screens. That helped give us all a bit of a break—even though for me, I was only really taking a break from work work; the normal routine of housework continued uninterrupted.

Lockdown + work

In the second week, the challenge was adding work to the load. The girls continued with their checklists and screen time quite happily, while I fit my hours around everything else that was happening.

Then the Premier extended the lockdown and announced that all school children would be starting home learning. And I fell into a bit of a depression about cancelling all the birthday plans I had so carefully laid—the two-night sleepover the girls were going to do with my in-laws; the night out on the town that Ben was going to take me on; the trip to the cinema with my Marvel movie buddy to see Black Widow—and I feel so hard, I had trouble recovering. The prospect of returning to home learning didn’t help; I still had fresh memories of how that went the last time around. The weekend before, I spent an entire afternoon googling “pandemic parental burnout”, and that revealed two things:

  1. I wasn’t really burned out. (Not yet, anyway.) But I was probably on my way there.
  2. The number one piece of advice people gave to parents in lockdown and to people suffering from burnout was to look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. That means carving out time for yourself and being intentional about doing self-care things.

“Well that makes sense,” I thought. But part of me also wanted to have a tantrum and scream and cry, “BUT WHEN WILL SOMEONE ELSE LOOK AFTER ME?” Being a parent means constant caretaking—giving, giving and giving some more. Furthermore, it’s not a reciprocal relationship: what you put in doesn’t necessarily come back. I love my kids, but I get tired of caretaking, and the thing with lockdowns is that the normal parental supports—school, after school care, grandparents, and so on—just aren’t there. You’re pretty much on your own.

(Except for screens. Thank God for screens. I mean it.)

Even though I bang on about mental health and have written and self-published an entire anthology about depression, I still find it hard sometimes to admit I have a problem. But I did share that with various people who prayed for me and who were very understanding—the sort of people who weren’t going to tell me to suck it up, that other people have it worse than me, and that I have nothing to whinge about it. They were sad for me and expressed their sympathy in helpful ways.

And in the end, my birthday was as nice as a birthday could be in lockdown: the girls and I livestreamed church; I caught up with various church people via Zoom afterwards (who wished me a happy birthday!); we ordered in sushi for lunch; we had a karaoke party in the afternoon in our karaoke basement (which my family weren’t too keen about, so I partied on my own for a bit and even tried doing a Facebook Live video that got pulled down for copyright infringement); we ate and enjoyed the Basque cheesecake I had made the day before; we ordered in pizza for dinner; and then in the evening, my Marvel movie buddy and I had a Teleparty and watched the live action Mulan on Disney+. And that helped me feel better about things heading into the new week.

Lockdown + work + home learning

This week, home learning began. But we had a day’s reprieve as the teachers returned to work and figured out what to do for lessons. I spent Monday getting ready: I made a new “before screen time” checklist for the girls that added the home learning and drop the making/building element (though I did tell them that if home learning tasks overlapped with checklist tasks, they could totally check them off). I got an extension cord and a six-plug powerboard, and set them up at the other end of the dining table to where we eat in the back room of the house where we get the most sun. I moved our laptops there and set them up with headphones. The laptop my youngest used last year for home learning finally died (it was about 11-12 years old—good innings for a MacBook), so I made a separate login for Saski on my home laptop as I figured I’d be on my work laptop during home learning anyway. And then the new term began.

Laptops for home learning.

So this is how our days currently go:

  • I sleep in until 8am (which is truly the best thing about lockdown) and then read my Bible and pray before getting up and having breakfast. (I recently started using PrayerMate for the prayer part and it has been incredibly helpful.)
  • I look after the morning routine Monday to Friday and Sunday, which means getting the girls up (usually by 8:45am) and dressed, doing their hair, getting breakfast into them, reading the Bible with them and brushing their teeth.
  • We get stuck into home learning around 9:30am. Miss 10 is pretty self-directed and most of the time, all I need to do is make sure she stays on task instead of watching random things on YouTube or messaging her friends. Occasionally she needs a little help with maths, but that’s about it. I spend most of my time with Miss 7, who needs a lot more help—particularly with the tech side. I load up her Google Classroom and watch some of the videos on double speed on my work laptop just to stay ahead. Sometimes I’m able to do work around them (half an hour to an hour, though my measurements are imprecise), but it has to be more administrative things, like formatting Word documents or converting Word documents to HTML or updating websites—anything that can be interrupted, really, because I am interrupted every three to five minutes. Anything that requires more sustained focus—any sort of editing or writing—has to wait until the afternoon.
  • The girls are usually finished with home learning by lunchtime/1pm. I make them pack sandwiches for the entire week on Monday so that they’re ready for when they get hungry, and then I add some fresh veggies to round things out. For myself, sometimes I make myself something as I prefer a hot lunch in winter (e.g. I’ll do a large chicken soup, freeze half of it and then eat through the rest over the next three or four days). Or I’ll have leftovers or something.
  • Then after lunch, the girls will tackle the last items on their checklists and go on screens while I tackle my job, which I’ve spaced across the week so that it’s roughly 2-3 hours a day. (I also have some time in lieu up my sleeve that I use, plus my boss is super understanding. I don’t know how people who work full-time do it. One podcast I listen to suggested that one parent do the 6am-12pm shift with the kids while the other works, and then they swap for the 12-6pm shift, and I thought that sounded horrible.) In addition, I am trying to keep up the exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays now that we have the space for it: my gym has been making their Zoom classes available to all members, and they’re downloadable, which means I can do them whenever I want. I’ve found it’s worked best when I do them in the late afternoon, and then I can have a shower and tackle dinner, or vice versa. I shudder to think how much muscle strength I’ve lost these three weeks as going back to the gym and handling weights again is going to be painful. But it’s better than nothing.
  • Then comes dinner at 6pm. I stick to my current pattern of making a three-night meal on Monday, a two-night meal on Thursday, a one-night meal on Saturday, and then we order takeaway on Sunday.
  • After dinner, Ben handles the bed and bathtime routine while I finish off any housework I might have been doing throughout the day (e.g. laundry); I make calls to people in my Bible Study group to check on them and pray with them; I catch up with a friend over the phone; I tackle the never-ending admin; and I do other things that are on my checklist—e.g. at least one lesson of Duo Lingo (Japanese), reading at least one chapter of a book, writing at least 100 words on my novel, and staying on top of Twitter.
  • And then after the girls are in bed, I watch TV—sometimes with Ben and sometimes not. (I am currently binging the fourth season of Angel on Disney+.)

Lockdown rest?

All the while I am conscious of what people and those YouTube videos on burnout have been saying to me: look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. So I have been trying. I have been exercising, reading books, watching TV and keeping up with people.

Still, now that a lot of the rest-type things I normally do have been taken away, it begs the question, how exactly do people rest?

Good thing I read this book (very slowly!) a couple of years ago: Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I agree with his argument in theory (his argument’s in the book’s subtitle), but I also found the book infuriating because he focused primarily on the lives of male politicians, scientists and artists who were able to achieve and create great things in four hours a day while also resting a lot while ignoring the fact that other people were freeing them up to do that. Who was looking after their children, doing their laundry, cooking their meals and cleaning their houses? It certainly wasn’t them. The fact that Pang does not acknowledge the amount privilege involved in living lives filled with rest was so infuriating, I put the book down for a long while.

But I did find a helpful bit towards the end where he talks about things that actually help promote rest:

Sonnentag and her colleagues argue that there are four major factors that contribute to recovery: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work. Think of them as a bit like vitamins. Breaks that are high in all four are the equivalent of nutritious and nourishing meals; those that don’t are like empty calories. (p. 166)

Here’s a nice little summary of all four:

Detachment refers to mental disengagement from work-related thoughts. Relaxation implies low levels of mental or physical activation and little physical or intellectual effort. Control refers to being able to decide on one’s leisure schedule and activities. Mastery encompasses learning opportunities and challenges, resulting in feelings of achievement and competence. Of these four experiences, detachment seems to be most consistently associated with positive changes in well-being.

So I’ve been trying to work out how to implement all four into my life:

  • Mental detachment is, in some ways, the easiest, because it happens once I get pulled into a novel, a TV show or a movie (and to a certain extent, my novel). The difficulty is being able to do that for a sustained uninterrupted period of time.
  • Relaxation is harder to achieve because it requires being organised enough to get the stuff that needs to be done—housework, paid work, etc—out of the way to clear the time to actually do it.
  • Control: well, I’m a control freak, plus I’m a structured control freak, so imposing my own timetable on our days has been helpful. Where I need to improve is being disciplined in my use of time, otherwise it all falls apart into time confetti.
  • Mastery: I guess this is where things like knitting and exercise fall. I do like learning new things and getting better at them, and even though I hate exercise, I do get some satisfaction from having improved at something.

It continues to be a work in progress.

I have been becoming more mindful after reading about/researching all this, though. For example, I feel less guilty about stopping and reading a chapter of a book before starting the next thing for work. There’s something freeing about intentionally adding a little padding into the day—discretionary time when I am allowed to do something I enjoy instead of something I have to do.

Towards the end of Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues for shorter breaks more often instead of longer breaks less often:

These results further undermine the idea that our mental energies refill with time, rather than through activities that promote recovery. They also suggest that we should reassess the role of breaks, and the rhythm of vacations, in our lives. Regularly and decisively breaking from our jobs, disconnecting from the office in the evenings and on weekends, and choosing to do things that are relaxing, mentally absorbing and physically challenging—in other words, engaging in a form of active rest—will promote recovery of our mental resources and make us more effective, productive, and focused. Rather than treating vacations as big, annual events that are completely separate from our working lives, taking shorter but more frequent vacations every few months provides greater levels of recovery. As Jessica De Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Tampere and vacation researcher, puts it, vacations are like sleep: you need to take them regularly to benefit. (p. 172)

I take his point. I’ve got holiday booked for mid-November—a housework-free, child-free one, even. God-willing, lockdown will be over, more people will have been vaccinated and borders will be by then, and I’ll actually be able to go. Until then, I’ll keep attempting this rest thing as best I can.

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Review: Mulan

Mulan (2020)
Screening on Disney+

Tonight’s movie was the live action remake of Mulan (streaming on Disney+), and I have THOUGHTS.

Thing is, I don’t know if my thoughts can be pounded out in the time I have before bedtime.

Thing is, I wonder if I don’t do it now, I won’t get another chance. So here goes.

Given the Twitter reaction, I expected this film to be more of a trainwreck of a movie than it was. I had heard various things about it and some of the reasons why people were unhappy with it, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. I think it’s mainly two camps: one, the people who loved the 1998 animated film and were sorely disappointed because they were expecting something like that, and two, people who love the story of Hua Mulan and who wanted to see it done well as a Hollywood blockbuster in partnership with China, and they ended up disappointed too.

The 2020 Mulan is neither and therefore it’s sort of hard to figure out where it fits. This was symbolised somewhat by the opening credits, which featured the familiar mouse castle in a not-so-familiar Asian landscape with the addition of a great wall.

Firstly, it has some of the trappings of the 1998 film in its characters, storylines and even the music: Hua Mulan is a simple girl who comes from a small village and who struggles to figure out her place in the world that sees her as different. She does not act the way society thinks girls should act, and furthermore, she’s in possession of a very strong qi (which, if I’ve understood this correctly, refers to one’s vital energy or life force—something which is essential to Chinese martial arts). She knows that her role in life is to marry well and better her family’s social standing. But her spirit rails against this, and she somehow can’t help being who she is. (Note that the cricket scene in the original is sort of still there, but now it involves a spider.) Unfortunately being who she is means public shaming.

Meanwhile in the north, Böri Khan is rallying the Rourans and attacking garrisons all along China’s northern border, plotting to avenge his father, who was killed by the current emperor. He is aided by a powerful witch who can shapeshift and disguise herself as anyone she chooses. She is aiding him because she has lived much of her life in exile, rejected by her own people for who she is, and under Böri, she hopes to be somewhere where she can be free.

The emperor, realising that war is unavoidable, sends out a decree that every family must send one male to join the army. As Mulan’s father only has daughters, he consents to go. And as Mulan loves her father and knows he won’t survive a second war, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place, bearing his sword, which has the characters etched on it “Loyal, brave and true”.

If you were hoping for singing, you will be sorely disappointed: although the music sometimes picks up some of the themes of the 1998 animated film soundtrack and Christina Aguilera belts out “Reflection” over the credits (and Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan also does so in Mandarin), no one in the cast sings about their hopes and dreams, or about how they’ll “make a man out of you” (truly the best song of the original). The soundtrack is mostly instrumental, and I liked that it used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments.

In addition, if you were hoping for Mushu, you also be sorely disappointed: the red dragon has been replaced by a CGI phoenix who answers her father’s prayer and watches over her as the spirit of their ancestors (or some such thing). I rather liked that as Mushu was always a bit of a Jar Jar Binks character for me.

However, no singing, no cricket, no Mushu and even no grandma (who arguably had the best lines in the original) means that the movie is far less child-friendly, lacking much of the comedy and humour of the animated version. Mulan’s army buddies are still there as a bit of light relief (retaining some of the dialogue of their animated counterparts), and I kind of wish we had had a few more scenes with them as I liked the friendship that Mulan develops with them (and more particularly with Chen Honghui, who is the only one in the skinnydipping scene and who sort of slides in the Li Shang role, only he is not a commander). But otherwise, the movie takes itself very seriously (i.e. no cross-dressing in the other direction): the stakes are clear and the cost of Mulan’s choices weight heavily on her as she tries to live up to the creed on her father’s sword.

The last virtue—“true”—gives her trouble, however: how can she be “true” when she is lying to everyone around her? This moral quandary weighs heavily on her and, as the witch points out to her later, it is poisoning her qi and is preventing her from serving the emperor the way she should be. (Commander Tung recognises this in an earlier scene, though of course at that stage, he does not know her secret.) This is interesting as there are plenty of cross-dressing girls in other xanxia dramas I have watched and none of their qi was ever affected. This is also a big change: in the 1998 version, she was just an ordinary girl trying to spare her father and honour her family the only way she could; in this one, she is special.

When she is finally convinced of the value of being herself and is, in a sense, reborn like the phoenix, she suddenly has the power—or the qi—to save her country, her people and even her friends. But of course society is still a step behind, and her shaming and expulsion from the army seems overly harsh for western audiences, who would be more sympathetic towards acts of bravery than eastern audiences who, perhaps, would be more in agreement with values regarding law and virtue. (Something similar came up in the K-Drama Romance is a Bonus Book where one of the main characters is vilified for calling herself a high school graduate on her resumé when she was really a university graduate.)

The final act of the story is, in my humble opinion, where the whole thing gets a bit sloppy. While the action scenes, for the most part, are terrific and exciting, with backwards riding archery, spear fighting, somersaults on horeseback and Donnie Yen being awesome, the characters made some decisions that made no sense to me. Why does Mulan cast off her armour when some of it was clearly instrumental to saving her life? Why does she fight with her hair out? (Wouldn’t that be annoying?) Why do people act like Mulan is the only one who can save the emperor? (Surely she’s not!) And surely jumping onto a plank that’s revolving slowly in mid-air is a bad idea, no matter how awesome it makes you look when you’re doing martial arts on it??

The witch also plays a pivotal role in all of this—both as a foil to Mulan, but also as something of an antagonist in her decision-making. Unfortunately that story thread is given no room to breathe; I imagine that had this been a TV series, the clash of worldviews between her and Mulan would have been developed more over several episodes, not several minutes. As it is, things progress so fast, I had whiplash.

That said, I liked where the film ended—back in Mulan’s village where the opening scenes are book-ended with ones that close out themes of filial duty, honour, and ideas regarding what women can and can‘t do. Although it could be argued that Mulan is a feminist story of empowerment and male recognition of that power, I liked that the ending to this film emphasised honouring one’s family. Perhaps it was a compromise between east and west? For me, it worked. For others, it probably didn’t.

Along with the script, there are many things that could be criticised about this film. The cast was made up of Asian actors, but their delivery of the English dialogue left a lot to be desired and, to me, was jarring after spending so much time watching xanxia dramas in Mandarin. The costumes, props and overall production design was gorgeous and colourful, with nary a synthetic fibre in sight. (I only mention it because that is something that sometimes annoys me about xanxia dramas.) I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t historically accurate; this article notes:

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with “filial piety” engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with … it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

Also:

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

But as it had witches, magic and qi in it, I thought it was like other xanxia dramas I’ve watched that are set in some fantasy version of ancient China, so these things bothered me less.

That article also had this interesting part in it that only further serves to underscore the difficulty of where Mulan sits:

… joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

It seems to me that both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell come from less of an Asian background and more of an Asian American or Western Asian background, which is not the same thing. (It is interesting, though, that Disney chose a director who isn’t Asian. Was Chloé Zhao unavailable?) In my opinion, Mulan (2020) occupies the same space: it comes from Chinese culture, but its story is more Western in flavour, concerned with ideas surrounding identity, authenticity and the expression of those things in one’s society. So I’m not surprised Chinese audiences didn’t like it. I’m also not surprised that western audiences didn’t like it either. I enjoyed it, but one day, I’d also like to see a couple of the 15 adaptations made in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan if only to understand how others view the story.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most comfortable place to leave a review. But I am out of time and this will have to do.

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Review: The King’s Avatar

(I’m reposting a review I put on my personal FB profile because this show deserves more eyes, and if you’re looking for something fun and engrossing to watch while you’re in lockdown, I highly recommend this one.)

The King’s Avatar (2019)
Screening on Netflix
40 episodes. 45 minutes each.

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for months. Once again, this was a Netflix recommendation: I don’t think I would have started watching it by myself. I mean, it’s about esports. I don’t even like sport sport; why would I want to watch something about esports?!!

Well, I was wrong about that!

The King’s Avatar (based on the web novel by Hu Dielan) is about esport athletes who play a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Glory. Think World of Warcraft but sort of more medieval, with lots of armour and swords, but also gatling guns, ninjas and magic. (Yeah, that combination doesn’t make sense to me either.) (Also, it’s not a real game. Yet.) Ye Qiu (Yang Yang who was also the male lead in Love O2O), who plays with the avatar One Autumn Leaf, is the number #1 player in the league and captain of the team Excellent Era. Despite a successful season in which Excellent Era placed first in the league, Ye Qiu is forcibly retired by the team’s manager who wants to bring on new blood. However, instead of staying on as a consultant (the manager’s preference), Ye Qiu chooses to break his contract and walk away, handing over One Autumn Leaf to the new captain (Sun Xiang) and starting again.

As no one other than his team members and a few others in the league actually know what Ye Qiu looks like, because he always wears a mask in public, Ye Qiu is able to go wherever he pleases. In need of a new job, Ye Qiu goes to the internet café across the street from Excellent Era’s headquarters where he meets the café’s owner, Chen Guo, another Glory player and massive One Autumn Leaf fan. She is in need of a network manager and hires Ye Qiu as soon as she discovers how good he is at playing Glory (but not realising that he is actually her idol). She also provides him with room and board, and computer/internet access that allows Ye Qiu to start again in Glory—this time, on a brand new server and using a new avatar who he names “Lord Grim” (and his relative anonymity does result in some very amusing scenes with those who don’t know any better). However, instead of choosing a particular role (in Glory, you can be a Launcher or a Battlemage or a Cleric or a Warlock, etc.), he plays as an unspecialised, which means that he can deploy a number of different skills across all the categories.

He is also developing a new weapon that was designed by a childhood friend and fellow Glory player Su Muqiu (who died, though we never really learn the circumstances behind his death). I’m not sure if the translation really does it justice: the weapo is called the “Myriad Manifestation Umbrella” and it can be wielded as a spear, a sword, a gun, a shield, and so on and so forth.

Lord Grim starts breaking records and making waves, drawing the attention of other players—both amateur and professional. And slowly over time, Ye Qiu starts to build himself a new team …

I liked this series far more than I was expecting to. The script really leaned into many of the tropes of sports movies (a genre that I sometimes enjoy despite the sports. I like Pitch Perfect, which is essentially a sports movie): there’s the rules of the game, training sessions, assembling the team, conflict between the members, different team members learning to work together, progress, advancing through levels, setbacks, stakes … I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Most significantly (for an Asian drama), there is NO ROMANCE. None. Zilch. You might expect there to be something going on between Ye Qiu and Chen Guo, or even Ye Qiu and Su Muqiu’s sister, Su Mucheng (Launcher for Excellent Era). But no: the script steers well clear of that. Everyone is just friends and that’s just so refreshing.

Act 1 mostly focuses on Ye Qiu re-establishing himself again, and one of the delights of the series is seeing how good he is at Glory compared to how hopeless he is in real life. I really liked seeing Yang Yang in this role, rather than as Xiao Nai in Love O2O: he gets to do a lot more and his character is a lot more likeable. His motives are never in doubt: he’s not playing Glory for fame or money or accolades; he’s just a mad gamer head who loves the game and loves playing with other people. Furthermore, he’s quite other-person-centred: because he loves playing with other people, he’s a natural at identifying and nurturing talent. As he draws out other potential team members—such as Chen Guo’s best friend Tang Rou, warehouse manager Bao Rongxing (who plays under the moniker “Steamed Bun Invasion” [“Bao” means “bread” in Chinese]) and even the insecure Qiao Yifan, rookie over at Team Tiny Herb, he acts as a mentor figure, encouraging and instilling his protegés with confidence even as he trains them to play better and play better with others. This is a big contrast to other characters—like Sun Xiang, Excellent Era’s new captain, who is young, arrogant and not much of a team player or mentor figure, and even Xiao Shiqin, captain of Team Thunderbolt, who demonstrates his considerable talent for strategy.

The second act could have been the soggy middle where the momentum lags. Instead, the episodes focus on arcs for the minor characters—not just the above team members, but new ones that Ye Qiu brings on board to round things out. I enjoyed these a lot, along with the themes their stories brought to the fore—like ageing players who still love the game, but who can’t quite perform at the level of the pros anymore; young players who are over-eager to prove themselves; hot-headed players who can talk smack and yet who can’t quite deliver.

Indeed, the recurring ideas of perfectionism, how to deal with failure and loss of face was a powerful one: this drama takes place in an Asian culture, after all, and I wondered in particular how these ideas would have been received. I found it refreshing to see characters fail, and then recover and build resilience. I also found it heart-warming watching team members band together and support one another, instead of tearing each other down. Sure, there was an element of cliché in all these sports movie tropes, but the writers certainly executed them well, in my opinion; I loved them all.

Act 3 see Ye Qiu and his motley crew enter the Glory Challengers League. They’re the underdogs (and who doesn’t like to root for an underdog?!), and in some ways, you’d expect the ending to be a foregone conclusion. But (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler) The King’s Avatar leaves you hanging right up until the very end. Indeed, its ending was one of the things I admired about it, because it felt earned. But I won’t say much more about it.

Final thing: the game play for Glory is not like Love O2O, where characters played themselves in a live action bad CGI version of the game; instead, it’s all computer animated with the quality of something like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within—i.e. not great, but also, perhaps, what you’d expect of a MMORPG. (I wouldn’t know, though; I don’t play them.) That said, the character design of the avatars matches their real-life counterparts rather well, in my humble opinion. And thankfully, the game scenes aren’t shot like a MMORPG: they’re shot like movies, with camera angles and shots that take in the game’s gorgeous landscape and production design as much as they capture the frenzy and excitement of the battle scenes. (This being an Asian drama, martial arts is still a big thing, even in computer game form.) I normally watch Asian dramas at 1.5x speed, but for The King’s Avatar, I slowed it down to normal just so I could take in every move of the fight choreography. Furthermore, the action was never gratuitous: each in-game scene was there for a reason, furthering the story or our understanding of a particular character.

Right. I think I’ve raved enough. If you enjoy esports, sports movies, MMORPGs or even fun character writing, give this one a try.

(Also, according to this Wikipedia entry, there’s a second series of this live action drama in the works. Yay!)

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Review: El Deafo (Cece Bell)

Next on the To Read list: El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet Books, 2014).

Despite it winning a Newbery Honor and an Eisner Award in 2015, I hadn’t heard of this book. I saw it in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue and decided to get it because it sounded interesting (and Scholastic do a good job of selling books through Book Club at a nice discount).

I was glad I did.

El Deafo is the semi-autobiographical story of Cece Bell who, at age four, contracts meningitis and loses most of her hearing. The story follows Cece through the next five years as she tries to learn to live in a world of hearing-abled people who don’t necessarily understand her disability, and how it affects her life and her relationships.

The impact of deafness on Cece’s relationships is a major theme throughout the story—particularly with regards to her friendships. Cece’s longing for true companions is highlighted by her extreme loneliness: in certain panels, she’s visually depicted within bubbles. Friendship, which is always a rich subject for middle grade fiction, takes on other interesting shades when the children who try to befriend Cece also find themselves contending with Cece’s deafness. There are those for whom it is an issue, there are those for whom it is not an issue, and there are those who try to over-compensate for it. Mix that with friends who are overbearing, bossy and boundary transgressors; friends who are well-meaning but irritating; and friends who are terrific but human and flawed, and you get a sense of the rocky landscape that Cece must traverse in order to connect with her peers. The fruit of these vignettes is a very helpful guide to what helps and what doesn’t when relating to others who are hearing impaired.

Certainly one of the things I loved about Cece was her resilience: early on with the help of her phonic ear, which she has to use for school, she reframes her deafness, imagining herself as a superhero with super hearing and calling herself “El Deafo”. Whole scenes play out in Cece’s imagination, where she pictures herself saying things and dealing with others in a way she doesn’t quite feel confident enough to do in real life. The climax of the story is a wonderful culmination of Cece’s growth to self-acceptance, as well as the acceptance of the kids around her, and I came away from the story wanting everyone in the world to read it.

Final thing: there were a number of things about the artwork of this graphic novel that I really loved. The characters are all depicted as rabbits, which is quite clever considering how rabbits are known for having big ears. (I also wondered if it was a nod to Art Spiegelman’s Maus.) I loved how the effects of Cece’s deafness was depicted in empty speech balloons, faint lettering, and text that looked like a foreign language until you did the hard work of trying sound out the words phonetically and guessed what the speaker was trying to say. I also loved the diagrams showing how certain words look the same in lip-reading. All of these things helped put the reader in Cece’s shoes and so that you really feel what it’s like to be her and live her experience. As Harvey Pekar once said, “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures”, and yet I never expected that a comic—which is, essentially, a silent medium—could do that in a story about deafness and hearing. 

Obviously I still have a lot to learn.

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Review: Allergic (Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter)

Next on the To Read list: Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix Scholastic, 2021).

Maggie is excited: she’s turning 10 and her parents have promised that she can get a puppy. With young twin brothers and a new baby on the way, Maggie often feels like she gets lost in the noise and tussle of family. She just wants something of her own: she loves animals and dreams of becoming a vet. But when she goes to choose her new pet, she discovers to her horror that she is allergic to animal hair—all animal hair. In addition, because the zoning has changed, she has to start going to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone.

The story of Maggie’s journey towards acceptance of her condition and connection with others is told with gentleness and humour. I really felt for Maggie and understood her sadness and disappointment. (We have something similar at our place, with children who really love cats, but are allergic to them. In fact, everyone in our family is allergic to cats …) I liked the way her first day at the new school is depicted and the circumstances that lead Maggie to becoming something of a social pariah. I also really really liked the unlikely friendships she forms—first with her new next-door neighbour and then later with a boy who has a different set of allergies to her. I kind of guessed the ending ahead of time, but still found it satisfying, and I appreciated how Megan Wagner Lloyd took care to tidy up a couple of the more minor plot threads.

Other things I loved about it: the diverse cast, Michelle Mee Nutter’s wonderful facial expressions, the muted warm colours, and the splash page in the pet store where you can see Maggie and her friend Claire moving around the aisles.

My only piece of criticism is one that I have a lot with middle grade graphic novels that are being released at the moment: I really really wish the lettering was better. Perhaps I have been brainwashed by Nate Piekos of Blambot, but the main issues I noticed were crossbar Is, text stacking in balloons that could have been more diamond-shaped, accidental tangents, and the occasional panel where I would read the balloons in the wrong order. They threw me right out of the story, but I do acknowledge that my brain has been trained to notice these things, so perhaps they wouldn’t annoy anyone else as much.

Overall, Allergic is a great addition to the middle grade comic canon. Give it to anyone who loves the works of Raina Telgemeier.

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Review: Seekers of the Aweto (Vol 1): The Hunt is On (Nie Jun)

I finally sat down to read Seekers of the Aweto Vol 1: The Hunt is On by Nie Jun (translated from the Chinese by Edward Gauvin). Xinyue, his brother Qiliu and their mother travel the land near the Silk Road, looking for aweto, a plant-like treasure that only sprouts from the top of majestic earth deities. (My father tells me that this is a real thing—not the earth deities, but the plankt: it’s called a fungus that grows out of a dead caterpillar called “cordyceps sinensis”, it grows in the Himayalas and it is highly sought after because of its medicinal properties.) The trio make a living from selling the aweto and are able to do what they do because of Xinyue’s drum, which commands the insects, and Qiliu’s flying prowess—along with his obsession with finding the celestial aweto, which is supposed to have the power to bestow eternal life.

The trio come across a village built around an earth deity and seek to rob them of their aweto, even though the inhabitants put up quite a fight. But in the tussle, Xinyue ends up becoming a carer for the deity’s little offspring, with warriors from the village in hot pursuit.

Nie Jun’s art is GORGEOUS (particularly the colours and his use of colour), the action scenes are dynamic and wonderful, and my goodness, will you just look at the crowd scenes! Volume 1 ends on quite a cliffhanger, and I’ve read that there are supposed to be four in total. With the first volume just released, however, I suspect it will be a while before we get the others!